Many ways have been offered up for figuring out human beings. Are you type A or type B? (And everyone understands the question). There are studies and tests to determine what Enneagram you are, what personality type you have in the Myers-Briggs profiles, which of the Big Five Personality Traits you have (a new one to me). According to a completely unscientific Google search, there are 5 or 4 or 8 or 3 or 16 or…. different personality types. Most of them claim scientific basis and studies done by psychologists and behaviorists.
I claim none of that. Most of those systems claim that “no personality is any better than any of the others.” I don’t. Nope. I think the test I have reflects not just personality but character.
I propose there are two types of personalities and you can easily identify them when dinner is served. The first kind looks at the platters and thinks, “There might not be enough to go around. I better get what I want right now.” I call these the ME-FIRST personality type.
The other type looks at the same platters and thinks, “I’m not sure there is enough for everyone so I’ll just take a little to make it go further.” I’ll call the other group the BUT-WHAT-ABOUT personality type.
I didn’t come up with this observation on how people approach a meal on my own — others have seen it and commented on it. But I have been watching it happen for many years so I’m sure of its veracity. These thoughts reflect how people see themselves in the world and how they approach life.
In 2006 the actress Teri Hatcher published a memoir called Burnt Toast. I remember hearing her talk about the book shortly after its publication and explain the title. I remember it because she described so many moms I knew. She said that as she was growing up she saw that her mother was the one who made sure everyone else was taken care of and sometimes sacrificed what she wanted in the effort — she ate the burnt toast that nobody else wanted. Burnt toast was her metaphor for what she saw many women doing. They gave and provided for everyone else and too often took the leftovers for themselves. She had vowed not to do that. I won’t comment about her decision. I’ll just leave it here for you to think about.
Of course, this isn’t about food. Food is just a daily way in which we see these attitudes manifested. In many daily events we can see how they play out.
Those ME-FIRST personalities make sure they are first in line no matter who got there first. They are the people who saw the sign that says the left lane is ending, but they just keep on going and then cut someone off at the last minute. Or they drive up the shoulder of the road to pass a long line of stopped traffic and then cut in at the last minute. Taking turns to merge is for the “suckers.” They aren’t waiting in traffic. They have places to go, things to do, and people to see.
They are the ones at the party who heap all of the shrimp on their plates knowing that it means that many others won’t get any. Their the ones who fill up their plates at the all-you-can-eat buffet with far too much food for them to ever eat in one day using the excuse that “it’s all-you-can-eat” to justify their greed and the amount of food that they will end up throwing away. They are the reason the tables who are called to the buffet last at the banquet groan — they know they will face empty trays. Someone at dinner recently told me that she had taken extra when she filled her plate to make sure she got her share but that she couldn’t finish it. She was now offering it to me. As it happened there was enough food for everyone to have their fill and wrap up leftovers for the next day. I had taken a serving and gone back for seconds later. I didn’t need her offering at that point.
In public places this kind of attitude really can really get ugly. When some people don’t have anyone they know around to pass judgement or temper their behavior, they get nasty. People will push others aside because it’s always ME-FIRST! Returning home from Mexico last November, I encountered a man in the airport in Dallas who exemplified the ME-FIRSTs. He acted as if he was the only one traveling and trying to make a flight. I was positioned to hear as he asked security to allow him to go ahead of everyone in line because he needed to make a connection. They told him that they couldn’t allow that. He would have to get in line just like everyone else. He continued to plead his case to their immovable presence and stony expressions. When he finally walked away their eyes rolled and they shook their heads.
Pretty soon he was making his way up through the line by pushing and telling everyone that he had a connection to make. When he got to me, I let him through. I usually do — I also pull over when someone is tailgating me on the road, I get out of their way because I don’t want the hassle of dealing with their aggression. He got about three people in front of me when he ran into two women who were his match. They looked at him and said, “No.” He was stunned. They paused and allowed his shock to register and then continued, “Back off. Everyone in this line is here for the same reason as you. We’re all trying to get through security and customs. Most of us have connecting flights or people waiting for us. You are not that special. You can wait like the rest of us.” (Okay, so that wasn’t a direct quote because their response was more aggressive and contained a lot of profanity – but that’s basically what they said.) Part of me cheered, not just because he was thwarted but because he was thwarted after being so rude, physically aggressive, and self-serving.
On the other side of this are those folks who want to make sure others have something too — the BUT-WHAT-ABOUT folks. They will delay or forgo their own desires, they will at least be kind in an effort to allow others to participate or to make someone else’s experience better. These are the people at the grocery store who look at the person in line behind them and, seeing that they only have a couple items, offer to let them go ahead. They are the ones at the zoo who notice children trying to see and make room for the kid to get in front.
It isn’t always that these people are settling for second best If adults allow a five-year-old to get in front of them at the zoo, both get to enjoy it. They just try to be conscious of the people around them so that they don’t block someone else’s view, so that they don’t take more than their share of time, so that they don’t take all of anything if there are others behind them.
Most of the time, I am in the BUT-WHAT-ABOUT camp. I let the person at the deli who forgot to take a ticket and was there when I arrived go before me. That’s only right. If the cashier gives me too much change, I give the excess back. It isn’t found money, it is stealing from someone else. If I see there isn’t enough, I take a taste or maybe just say, “I’m not in the mood for…” Having said that, there is a limit to it. I wait in the traffic and allow others to get in front of me. Right up until the end when those drivers who shot past me want in. Good luck with that! When I run into the ME-FIRSTs who are really pushy and rude to children, someone elderly, or just really takes advantage of anyone else, I can be as ugly as they are. I once HAD to actually body block a ME-FIRST woman at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. It was required because she asked for it. She had physically shoved the children with me aside several times so that she could get in front of them and closer to the display — thus preventing any children from enjoying it. I was stunned the first time, steaming the second time, and eventually I was just down right pissed off. It wasn’t happening again because I can be just as tough. I finally stepped in front of her, looked at her, and told her she wasn’t touching those children again.
I’ve had my times when I became part of the ME-FIRST crowd. Sometimes because I wasn’t paying attention. Sometimes because I was angry about being pushed to the back one too many times. And sometimes because I was just as greedy as anyone else. The difference between me and the card-carrying ME-FIRSTer is that I feel guilty afterward no matter how it happened or why. It eats me up and I will try to make up for it somehow. I’m thinking but-what-about how they feel.
I have known many moms who raised their children to believe that those children mattered most, that they were the best, most talented, most wonderful in the world. (I’m guilty.) They did it out of the idea that they were taking care of and loving their family. We all know the person in our family who made sure everyone else got what they wanted and settled for the “burnt toast.” The mom, the sibling, the aunt, the grandmother. (I am focused on women because that is the role many of us were taught by society – just look at old sitcoms for examples.) Some who had mothers like that learned that this is what moms do, what people do. Others don’t. These others learned that they were first, best, and deserving. Many moms showed examples of empathic behavior that they hoped their children would learn. Others inadvertently taught their children lessons I don’t think they meant to teach them.
Lesson 1: The serving and the served — The family is sitting at the table scarfing down the meal that mom just cooked, and she hasn’t even gotten to sit down yet. She’s been fetching the ketchup, another spoon, another drink… And pretty soon she’s eating alone. Lesson learned: they are number one and mom’s needs (and anyone else’s needs) don’t matter. Mom is supposed to be waiting on them not enjoying dinner with them.
Lesson 2: The celebrated and the taken-for-granted — Mom makes a huge celebration of everyone’s birthday. But when it comes to hers, they aren’t even sure when it is. A woman I know was doing dishes one night while her husband and two children argued about when her birthday was. None of them knew but they were sure it was in October. During a lull in the discussion, one of them asked her where the flowers on the table came from. She told them a friend had sent them three days before for her birthday. By not reminding the children when they were young that her birthday was coming up, she taught them to ignore her. Lesson learned: how special they were and that they needed to be thought of first. They never got the message that all birthdays are to be celebrated.
Lesson 3: The givers and the takers — Mom is getting ready for Christmas. She shops, she bakes, she makes costumes for the church pageant, she hosts a party, she drives the kids to parties and skating outings, she wraps the presents, she puts a holiday feast on the table. Come Christmas morning the family is tearing into the wrapping, Dad is asking what the kids got from him, and finally mom opens a gift signed from all of them. She’s taught them that she is there for their pleasure and to fulfill their every wish. Lesson learned: they deserve more and better than her, than any other person.
Graduation comes when these ME-FIRSTS go out into the world. Their needs matter. What they want is most important. They aren’t going to go out of their way for anyone. They may not be around to celebrate their parents’ birthdays or Christmas. They were never taught that was important to Mom and Dad, and it isn’t likely to jump into their heads until some day when they can’t celebrate with them. (Think Scrooge before the visits, basically.)
The ME-FIRSTS may get ahead, be successful and rich. They are certainly self-confident, aggressive, and narrowly focused on what they want. But how are these people treating their spouses? Their children? Their neighbors? Their employees? Why are they so convinced that they don’t need to worry about the suckers waiting in traffic? Why are manners and courtesy meant for everyone else?
As I said before, the line between the two types is easily stepped over. ME-FIRSTs may put their own children first but no one else. They may be pulled in by a heartfelt, tear-jerker plea. The BUT-WHAT-ABOUTs may get angry, they may be yanked over the line. They may be kind, generous, and loving until you hurt someone they love, and then they will take you by surprise at how vicious they can be (but that isn’t really going to the other side, it’s actually just becoming UBER BUT-WHAT-ABOUTs).
My own reasons for how I approach the dinner table come from some examples in my own life, examples from my reading (see Barbara Kingsolver’s story within a story from chapter 7 of The Bean Trees by clicking on the title), and from the ultimate teacher. Jesus taught us how to treat others and, as far as I am concerned, if you follow these words, you are following him in every way you need to. The first passage is in Matthew 22:34-40 (vs 40 is the one that lets me know that my assessment above is right. Another passage is in Matthew 25:31-46. There is also an important teaching on this in Luke 6:27-36. In the center of that passage is a verse that contains an idea that is shared by all of the major religions of the world. It says to do others as you would have them do to you. Great words to live by.