Seven Things to Avoid When Talking to Strangers about Humanism

By Hancock, Jennifer | The Humanist, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview

Seven Things to Avoid When Talking to Strangers about Humanism


Hancock, Jennifer, The Humanist


Imagine you've just met someone new and it comes up that you're a humanist. It happens. Perhaps you're at the playground with your child or waiting in line at the grocery store and you let it slip that you're on your way to a humanist meeting. Regardless of how it happens, the stereotypical response is, "What's humanism?"

The good news is that you've now been provided a perfect opportunity to share your philosophy. The bad news is that most of us aren't sure what to say when asked about humanism. We know we should focus on the positive, but it's so much easier to talk about the things we are not or the ideas we reject. To help overcome these natural tendencies, I've compiled a list of seven things you probably shouldn't do (with suggestions for what you should) when talking to strangers about humanism.

1) Don't expect a negative reaction. Most people have a positive initial reaction to the word "humanism" or "humanist." They likely want to hear what you're going to say, and chances are they're going to agree with a fair amount, except the rejection of the supernatural. So don't ruin someone's initially good impression of the word humanism by assuming he or she is going to react negatively to the philosophy; a positive response allows you to lead with a positive introduction. Of course, there's also a chance that the person you're talking to is a humanist and just doesn't know it.

2) Don't begin a debate. Don't bait someone into an argument just to show off your critical thinking skills. It's rude. If you're asked to explain humanism, that's what you should do, nicely and without suggesting the person is stupid or inferior.

3) Keep your definition of humanism simple. When asked to explain his or her philosophy, a humanist can get wordy, even launching into a history of the ancient Greeks and the humanists of the Renaissance. The problem is that these things really don't help people understand what humanism is in that moment.

The very first thing out of your mouth should be a short and quick definition. Do your best to keep it simple and sincere (even reciting a short prepared statement can seem obtuse). The American Humanist Association defines humanism as "a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity" This works in written form, but for a personal interaction try something like, "humanism is about being a good person for the sake of being a good person. …

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Seven Things to Avoid When Talking to Strangers about Humanism
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