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It’s personal to me

March 6, 2012

In the 1998 movie “You’ve Got Mail” Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan play two individuals who “meet” online and are attracted to each other sight unseen.  But, alas, he is the head of the all-powerful mega-bookstore Fox books, modeled on Barnes & Noble, that has driven Meg Ryan’s little children’s book store out of business.  (It is interesting that in 14 short years B&N has gone from corporate giant terrorizing small retailers to fighting desperately for survival in a new business world.) 

The Hanks’ character, finding out Ryan’s is the object of his affection, tries to woo her in person without revealing he is the online guy.  But he needs to overcome the fact that he drove her dear store out of business after two generations of loving service.  In an attempt to do this he tells her “It’s just business, it wasn’t personal.”  Ryan’s character reacts badly, saying in a memorable line, “It’s personal to me.”

The exchange presents a classic truth of communication.  No matter what we are trying to communicate, the listener needs to receive and understand it.  Hanks’ guy truly meant what he said but it did not take away the fact that Ryan’s girl was truly hurt.  Communications experts always place the burden on the communicator to get across actual meaning and never the listener.    All communication goes through personal filters and biases and it is truly an art form to get across your intended meaning and always your fault if you don’t. 

So why is this relevant to us?  Well, here in NC we are soon to vote on the “Marriage Protection Amendment” to the state constitution.  I can think of no subject that is going to go through stronger filters than this controversial one.  Both sides are prepping their troops to articulate their positions and fend off the efforts of “the other guys” to define the argument. 

One key talking point of the amendment supporters is that the proposed measure is not anti-gay but rather focused on defining and defending traditional marriage.  However, I was talking to a gay friend the other day and she said, in an unintentional paraphrase of the Ryan quote, “You are denying me the same benefits that you have; it sure feels anti-gay to me!”  Although I hadn’t actually made any statements about my feelings her sensitivity had jumped, merely because I was a Christian, to assume that I had.  And it hit me that the fault was entirely mine. 

In the end, because we were friends, we got past that misunderstanding on a personal level and remain friends.  But the exchange taught me a valuable lesson.  This argument in favor of the amendment is not only ineffective, but explosively so.  Unless…

Unless you can establish that you have a caring and loving concern for the listener and that your friendship does not hang in the balance on their agreeing with you.  In other words, unless you have demonstrated, and are prepared to continue demonstrating, that your relationship is grace-based.  Personally, unless I have a grace history with the listener, that talking point will never again pass my lips.

This upcoming battle is being framed in the media as “gay activists” vs. “religious conservatives” and in one sense it is.  But in reality the eventual deciders fall into neither camp.  The deciders will be the mostly heterosexual ordinary people around us; ordinary families living ordinary lives.  On which side will they come down?  My guess is that it will be the side that shows the most grace.  My happily married heterosexual neighbors just put up a sign on their lawn that they are “another family against” the amendment.  When I asked them why, the answer was chilling, if not unexpected.  It was, in essence, because they perceive us as lacking in grace.  Let’s not let that perception grow.


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