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Miss Conduct

Miss Conduct’s guide for ‘prickly cusses’ looking to do good in 2017

As we crabby New Englanders venture into a new year, here’s how we can help each other.

Isn’t this the perfect time for new beginnings?

Maybe you’ve resolved to be a better person this year. Maybe you even want to save the world a little bit. New Year’s resolutions often revolve around fitness or finance, but this year I’ve been hearing from a lot of people who want to get more involved in their communities.

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There’s just one problem: We’re New Englanders. And we are prickly cusses. Science says so: A major survey of regional personality types in the United States showed that we have a “particular configuration of traits [that] depicts the type of person who is reserved, aloof, impulsive, irritable, and inquisitive.” The researchers called us the “Temperamental and Uninhibited” region.

Like I said, prickly cusses. And yet we are idealistic, broadly accepting of humanity as a whole while profoundly irritated by specific examples thereof, especially when driving.

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Can prickly cusses help other people? Can we save the world? Yes, we can. I have firm faith in New Englanders’ essential good nature. Look how friendly we all are on the first day of a bad storm. (Before the parking-space wars begin, anyway.) In that spirit, I offer you Miss Conduct’s Guide for the Misanthropic Philanthropist:

Don’t be a perfectionist. Perfectionism is the parent of procrastination, in social life as well as school and work. Don’t put off writing that thank you note until you have crafted phrases worthy of Browning. Don’t put off that dinner party until you’ve mastered the souffle and renovated the living room. Drop the heartfelt scrawled cliche in the mail today. That dinner party? Eat takeout off the secondhand IKEA sofa. Aim for connection, not perfection.

Remember that you don’t have to help people to help people. People need so many things in order to survive and thrive. We need clean water and fresh vegetables and science and music and health care and buildings and open, natural spaces. This means you don’t have to work directly with people in order to help them — instead, you can focus on providing or protecting the things people need and do just as much good.

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Find your squad. If you want to get more involved in community activities — artistic or social or political or religious — budget your energy. Look for organizations that offer well-defined tasks and roles. Squishy mission statements and loopy lines of responsibility will only fuel endless in-group bickering and arguments. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to change a group that’s already spiraled into dysfunction. Find one that works — or start your own. At the same time, keep your expectations reasonable. Don’t let Marvel and Star Trek set your bar for what teamwork looks like.

Build in recovery time. If you’re a New England hermit crab, know that “introvert hangover” is real. Some introverts feel ill or exhausted after extensive time with others. Be serious about scheduling alone time after major people time. And feed your soul the weird food it needs — gardening, fan fiction, theremin music, whatever. Solitary physical or imaginative pursuits restore you.

Play to your strengths. Your average Temperamental and Uninhibited cuss will have certain useful social skills that lifelong people-pleasers lack. Fear of awkward moments or social disapproval doesn’t stop us from doing the right thing, because we have had plenty of experience with both. We aren’t offended or hurt if people don’t like or trust us right away; we realize it’s not a referendum on us personally, and we are willing to work hard to earn trust.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

DO YOU KNOW A “PRICKLY CUSS” WHO COULD USE A FEW POINTERS FROM MISS CONDUCT? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at missconduct@globe.com.
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