I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about the lessons my daddy instilled in me from the time I could talk. One was, “to keep your mouth shut
when you ought to be listening, when the folks you work with are gossiping, or when other people are complaining about the boss.”
The ability able to connect with people is critical to success in almost any career, and knowing when to keep quiet is key to connecting with people. Humor is another important quality, and I learned that too by listening to Daddy.
I was about to write about humor as key to success when the events of the past weekend brought to mind another lesson. I grew up in south Alabama with parents who had also grown up in the Deep South. They taught me a lesson that comes first and is far more important to success in business and in life than any of the others: Have respect for other people. I looked up the word respect.
Respect: due regard for the feelings, wishes, or rights of others.
But that definition didn’t take me close enough to what I learned from Mama and Daddy about how to treat people. So I looked up the word acceptance.
Acceptance: the action or process of being received as adequate or suitable, typically to be admitted into a group.
Before you can treat a person with respect, you have to accept that the person in inherently adequate and suitable, just as he or she is. Mama and Daddy showed me what it meant to receive people as adequate and suitable.
A few years ago, I got what I think was the best compliment of my life. I was at lunch with my boss who was in a terrible mood. She started by railing about some piece of business we had lost, but she got on a roll and expanded her rant to include mistakes I’d made going back a year. I finally said, “Enough. Say something nice to me or I’m going back to the office.”
She looked at me thoughtfully for a second and I expected she would say something acknowledging that I was the company’s top revenue producer. But she didn’t. She said, “You are the least judgmental person I’ve ever met. You accept every person you meet, just as they are.”I don’t know if my boss knew what a compliment it was or that it wasn’t actually my compliment. It belonged to Mama and Daddy. I was just living what they taught me. It’s not that they ever preached about it. They didn’t, and I don’t remember them ever saying the word acceptance. Their lessons snuck in when I wasn’t looking for them.
We lived in a segregated society where black people and white people were separated and acceptance wasn’t universally applied. Segregation was just the way we lived and I, a nine-year-old, didn’t think about black people much, until I got several unexpected messages from my parents.
On Saturdays, Mama worked at the grocery store and I went with Daddy on his errands. One Saturday, our first stop was to visit a man in the hospital who worked with Daddy. The man was black. Daddy didn’t act like us being there was a big deal. He talked with the man just as he talked to anybody else. He talked about the goings on at work, asked about his health, and made a joke at which they both laughed. Then we left. I asked why we went to see the man. Daddy said, “Because he’s sick.”
Daddy’s lesson stuck. People who are different and couldn’t even go to school with me were worthy of acceptance and respect. Over the years of my childhood, I learned a score more little lessons that Mama and Daddy didn’t even know they were teaching. Sometimes when we were riding in the car, I overheard snippets of conversation. Once I heard Daddy telling Mama something about a black man who owned successful businesses in Mobile, and was, “one good businessman!”
Mama added fairness as another component of respect when I heard her ranting about the DAR not allowing Marian Anderson to appear on their stage. “They should let the woman sing. It’s not fair! It’s not right.”
One afternoon, I was with Mama when we left the home of a seamstress who was taking in some hand-me-down clothes for me. The two women had hit it off and talked for an hour, and Mama left that house angry because she knew they wouldn’t be in places where she could talk to the woman any time she wanted to.
I realized, when I was grown, that the littlest actions my parents took without sermon or fanfare were so powerful in making me who I am. The values they expressed when that said seemingly inconsequential things I wasn’t even intended to hear became entrenched in me.
I made my career in a people business. Whatever success I’ve had has depended on my ability to attract, relate to, and work with all kinds of people. I’ve been able to do that because I learned about acceptance and respect from working-class people on Petain Street in Prichard, Alabama.