In order to feel that they matter, people need meaningful recognition and a sense of making meaningful impact. Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky of the University of Miami defines mattering as feeling valued by others and knowing that we add value to ourselves and others.I became interested in this concept of mattering as it relates to citizenship specifically around the time that Black Lives Matter became a part of the American social narrative. I kept thinking about the question, “What does it mean if part of our population does not feel that they belong?” Researcher and author Brené Brown said that a group of middle schoolers can pinpoint perfectly the difference between belonging and fitting in. “Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something. Belonging is when others want you.” As much as we need to feel that we belong and that others want us, it is even more critical to know that we matter, that we have something to offer, and that our contribution is seen and appreciated.
There is power in reciprocity, in the way we relate and contribute to others. I realized that the question I really had to ask was, “What does it mean if part of our population doesn’t feel that they matter?” The next question I had was, “What can I do about it?”
Why does mattering matter now?
Mattering is about how we relate to each other in a way that contributes to our shared humanity. Creating a culture of mattering can help dismantle the power imbalance in our society. Contributing to a culture of mattering can involve small acts of resistance, unlearning behaviors we learned just by existing in our culture. Even though these acts might seem mundane, they require intentionality, bravery, and vulnerability. When we create a space where someone else feels that they matter, we have to give up a little bit of our own power by admitting that there are things we might not know, such as how to say someone’s name. Dare I say that we might actually be wrong (and saying names wrong for a long time too)! Facilitating mattering calls upon our curiosity and kindness.
How do we facilitate mattering?
Here are 5 simple actions that can contribute to a culture of mattering.
- What’s your name?
I still remember my first day in Becky Thompson’s class. She was my undergraduate Sociology professor. As I came to learn that day, Becky started each of her initial classes of the semester dedicated to learning each other’s names. She told us that often people didn’t learn the names of their classmates of color and that it was critical, especially for white people, to know and refer to people by their names. That piece of information has stuck with me for the past 14 years. Since then I have always aced icebreaker name games and made it a point to learn people’s names.
- Speaking of names… ummmm, how do you say your name?
Oh, my name? It’s L.E.O.R.A. It sounds like Lee-O-Rah. Nope, no “n”. It’s not Leonora.
As somebody with a unique name, I know that it can be difficult to pronounce. Sometimes people forget how to say it so they just stop saying it or they say it wrong. As awkward as it is to correct someone, it can sometimes be even more awkward to ask for the correct pronunciation even after you’ve known someone for awhile! I have been on that side too. It’s really critical to pronounce people’s names correctly or at least keep trying.My favorite technique is saying, “Hey, I think I am pronouncing your name incorrectly. How do I say it, and how do you spell it?”
The perfect example of this is my professor, James Pawelski. In preparation for saying names correctly on graduation day while handing out diplomas, he spends over an hour in class having students pronounce their names to him. He repeats a name back until he has it right. Just in case he still doesn’t get it, he has his recorder handy so he can record you saying it and go home and practice. Sound extreme? Not to the mother in the audience who hears the given name of her child as he or she walks across the stage.
- Acknowledge those around you.
I know we’re all busy. We’re running from this thing to the next. Half the time our heads are glued to our phones. This is still no excuse for completely ignoring those around you. Someone say hi to you? Say hi back. Better yet, be the first to initiate it. It can be as simple as smiling at a stranger, holding a door open or just making eye contact with someone on the train.
- Pay attention to your thoughts, your body language and your actions.
Implicit bias is illustrated by the whole Starbucks incident. Two black men were waiting at Starbucks for someone to join their meeting. The manager probably had a subconscious thought that those two men did not belong there because they were black, so he called the police. Other instances of people assuming others do not belong have been resulting in calls to the police lately. This can be hazardous. When police are called about black people, there is the potential that lives will be in danger.
Recent incidents might be the extreme cases, but subtle actions can still have a deep impact on those around you. These include crossing the street when someone is walking towards you or holding tightly to your purse. To create a culture of mattering we must think about how others perceive our actions.
I will give a personal example that doesn’t have to do with race. One time I was teaching a class. My boss sat in for the first few minutes. A colleague of ours, whose space we were using to host the class, came in with a coffee for himself and my boss, but not for me. To me, that signaled that he thought less of me.
- “I never thought of that. Can you tell me more?”
Unless you’ve sworn off all news, you’ve probably heard the United States is divided by differences of opinion. Many of us grow up around people that look like us and come from the same socioeconomic background. We may only socialize with people who have the same political beliefs.
There’s something though that I think influences us even more than our isolation from people who are different from us: inadequate knowledge about the cultures, histories, and perspectives of all the people who call our country home. Much of American history is not glamorous or anything to be proud of, for example, the way European ancestors took over the land in the first place. But it is still our story. Yet we have learned from our educational system to ignore the voices of people of color, Black Americans, immigrants, Native Americans, and women.
This is a systemic problem, but our awareness of it means that we can be even more intentional when listening to others telling us their truths and their own experiences. Even if it can be hard to relate to, we have the choice and the power to listen. Instead of immediately starting to debate or express our own feelings, we could say, “Tell me more.” We have the power to make space for people to be seen and heard.
A simple way to check to see if we are getting exposed to voices that are different than our own is to ask ourselves, “Do the people I interact with the most, whether it be friends, neighbors, or colleagues, look like me or come from similar experiences and backgrounds?” If the answer is yes, that you are mostly surrounded by others that are just like you, it can be a good practice to begin by picking up a book or article by someone who is of a different race, ethnicity, gender, or background from yourself. Ask, “How can I begin to amplify the voices and stories of those that I might not even realize I am missing?”
We all have the ability to create a society where people feel that they matter. We can be the facilitators of mattering by asking ourselves, “Am I allowing those I am with to feel that they add value and feel recognized for what they add?” We can do this in an interaction with a coworker or when organizing a panel discussion or making a next book club pick.
If you want to understand the theory behind mattering please follow Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky’s blog series on the topic.
Prilleltensky, I. (Ongoing). Mattering. Blog.
Prilleltensky, I. (2010). Community Well Being: Socialize or Social-Lies. TEDx Talk.
From Unsplash with Unsplash licenses
Arc de Triomphe Photo by Willian West on Unsplash
Black Lives Matter Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash
Classroom Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
Hands Photo by Mikaala Shackelford on Unsplash