Cynicism versus hope in a small business
The Canadian side of our family owns and runs a wonderful deli/prepared foods store at the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver. As one can imagine, there are no shortage of colorful stories that come from being the owner of such an establishment for the last several decades.
One such story, which we have heard many times but have only just begun to really understand, is the time it was uncovered that a trusted employee was stealing from the cash register. The immediate reaction was, understandably, anger, and after the employee was terminated, attention turned to prevention. Fancy monitoring systems were researched, quotes were received, and the deli was all set to turn into the Fort Knox of chicken pot pie.
That was, of course, until my (wise) aunt brought up the fundamental question: Generally speaking, do we think people are good and should be trusted? Or do we think people are untrustworthy, and should always be viewed with suspicion?
After a long discussion, it was decided that they just didn’t want to go through life being cynical, thinking that every employee was out to get them. Yes, they would put some better processes in place, but they would start from a position of trust. If that trust was violated, they would act, but they would not allow it to become the underlying premise of their belief system.
We were reminded of this old deli story when reading through some old Brain Pickings articles, one of which highlighted the writing of best-selling author Caitlin Moran:
“When cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas. Cynicism means your automatic answer becomes ‘No.’ Cynicism means you presume everything will end in disappointment….
… Cynicism is, ultimately, fear. Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a thick black carapace begins to grow — like insect armor. This armor will protect your heart, from disappointment — but it leaves you almost unable to walk. You cannot dance in this armor. Cynicism keeps you pinned to the spot, in the same posture, forever.”
Interestingly, apart from general demeanor, there is also an economic reason to avoid cynicism. A 2015 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled Cynical Beliefs About Human Nature and Income, found that high levels of cynicism are associated with lower income, likely because of an “unwillingness to trust others may lead to a refusal to cooperate. Additionally, [cynical people’s] constant suspicion of other people’s motives may make them less likely to collaborate and less likely to ask for help, both of which can harm their careers.”
That said, there are caveats to the Pollyanna perspective. The same research found that in areas where there was “widespread anti-social behavior” (i.e., high homicide rates), the relationship between earnings and cynicism didn’t hold, because in such areas, “a suspicious outlook is likely to serve as a safety measure…[in such cases] a cynical attitude didn’t interfere with economic achievement.”
Life is not sunshine and rainbows all the time. Since becoming involved in small business operations, we admit there have been many instances in which our immediate reaction has been a strong veer toward a cynical life view. Despite the temptation, we also know we cannot succumb to the intellectual laziness of a widespread cynical perspective. It’s about choosing our starting point — and we choose optimism — and then spending the time to contemplate the nuance in every situation. As Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova puts it, “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.”
To end on a positive note, if you find yourself on Granville Island, and want a dose of an old-fashioned family business built on trust and hard-work, head to Laurelle’s Fine Foods, where they will fill not only your stomach with home-style cooking, but your heart with optimism.