Dipra Debnath: Improving our situational awareness and respect

Wednesday, September 18, 2019 - 9:25am

On the Friday preceding the University of Michigan football team’s home game against Army, the Michigan Marching Band released a social media statement urging fans to refrain from booing during the home band’s pregame performance of Army’s fight song. It was a call for fans to not only respect the service that cadets at the U.S. Military Academy provide to the people of the United States following graduation, but also to respect all U.S. military personnel they represent.

I believe such personal and contextual awareness is foundational to our decision-making. Such thoughtfulness leads to more positive interpersonal interactions and larger-scale societal trends. But habitually building this awareness is particularly challenging for undergraduates. With the advent of a new semester, college students are whisked into a frenzy of career fairs, applications, meetings, housing searches and social mazes, all while attempting to keep academics at the forefront. The volume of commitment involved in these activities leaves students with little time and energy to actively consider personal state of mind and behavior in seemingly insignificant situations. However, it is to our advantage – and to that of the greater community – for us to reflect on what we are doing, how we are feeling and how our words and actions contribute to the experiences of others.

Even the most minor behaviors can have significant positive effects on the experiences of others and oneself. Take, for instance, the action of smiling at a passerby. It seems, perhaps, quite insignificant — many of us would much rather keep staring ahead, focusing on the music plugged into our ears. However, even a simple smile can have significant consequences. Consider the final written words of a man who committed suicide by leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge: “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I won’t jump.” Not every interaction is going to save somebody’s life, but the power of small acts of kindness should not be underestimated. We feel good when smiled at by others, when someone holds the door for us, and when we are provided respect and acknowledgement by others. 

We can expand this thinking and consider the cumulative effects the collective behaviors of a group can exert. The example of the Army game provides a powerful opportunity to examine this. The decisions of individual fans to suppress their boos during the performance of Army’s fight song resulted in an overall display of respect for U.S. military trainees and personnel. So the sight of over 100,000 people acting in a respectful way lent a gravity to the moment — an indication that there was a reason to take the moment seriously. The theory behind why the Michigan Marching Band asked fans to refrain from booing can be applied by individuals to similar contexts in the future. When large numbers of individuals act on this kind of learning, greater social trends in behavior can shift toward the positive.

Behavioral decisions require situational awareness on an individual level. A primary roadblock to improving these decisions is the effort needed to instigate habitual behavioral change, which poses a significant problem for college students. This is not an indication that college students are lazy — it is, in fact, quite the opposite. With the inundation of coursework and commitments, students are often focused so directly on what needs to get done now that thinking about the way in which we behave is a process often left on the back burner indefinitely. When there are opportunities to seek momentary refuge from our commitments, we naturally try to expend less mental energy. In those moments, it may not matter to us if someone is coming up behind us after we open a door for ourselves, for instance, and applying an understanding of why we were requested to act respectfully before a football game may not be tempting in the moment.

This is where habit development in these behaviors can play a beneficial role, and thankfully, these behaviors become less effortful as we continue to do them. Benjamin Garner, a health psychologist at Kings College in the United Kingdom and others explain in a 2012 study that once a habit is formed, it persists “with minimal effort or deliberation.” As such, creating habits of respect and situational awareness makes improving our interactions with others a task that does not demand our concentration.

The ultimate goal is to promote the idea of a society that is happier individually and collectively due to our willingness to acknowledge and respect one another while recognizing that certain groups deserve selective positive attention for what they do or what they face, like people from the military. This does not mean that we all have to agree on the right way to act in certain situations; what is important is that we are conscious of why we are making certain decisions. A commitment to these behaviors is a step toward ensuring that there will be a time when football fans do not need to be reminded to show respect to those who risk their lives for our welfare.

Dipra Debnath can be reached at dipra@umich.edu.