How To Be A Unicorn: A Review Of "Gracious" By Kelly Williams Brown

Photo courtesy of the author.

For two years, I shared an office with a unicorn.

Not really, but my officemate may as well have been. She would leave little bags of M&M’s on my desk with Post-it notes saying things like, “You got this!” or “Hope you have a great class!” She left a sweater on the back of her chair and told me I could borrow it if I was cold, and when I was always cold (and okay, maybe when she was tired of me borrowing it?), she brought me an extra sweater from home. When I helped her negotiate getting her security deposit back from her landlord, she mixed up some homemade tomato sauce and gave it to me along with all the fixings to prepare lasagna. 

“What makes you this way?” I asked her.

That kind of automatic generosity and graciousness has never come easily to me.

I’m polite — I say please and thank you when I should — but I don’t go above and beyond. It was actually something I wanted to specifically work on in 2017 as a self-improvement resolution.

Enter Kelly Williams Brown’s new book, Gracious: A Practical Primer on Charm, Tact, and Unsinkable Strength. It’s the perfect follow-up to Brown’s first book, the New York Times bestseller Adulting: How to Become a Grown Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps. In the introduction alone, she differentiates between manners and graciousness, saying that the former is more about the way you act while the latter is about the outlook that helps you act that way. In a world where we’re yelling at each other — or not connecting at all, more focused on our phones than on the people in front of us — graciousness is more in demand than ever.

Brown starts with tips for keeping your compassion — and your sanity — when dealing with the churning cesspool known as the Internet. What prompts the dudebro who hates pop music to post derisive comments on Selena Gomez videos? We may never know, but Brown points out that the rude behavior is probably rooted in the need to be heard, the masking of powerlessness with anger, or other personal issues affecting that person’s life. From now on, you can respond to that dudebro with “You fear death” and leave it at that. Or not. 

We’ve been conditioned to believe we have to reply to every e-mail and comment, but we don’t. 

Brown suggests that graciousness on the Internet comes from being very deliberate in how you use it, from how much time it takes up in your day to thinking about your purpose in posting a particular status update on Facebook. She reminds herself of this with a card on her desk that reads “STOP: Is this useful? Funny? Smart? True?”

Whether on the Internet or in real life, Brown also has tips for maintaining your cool in stressful situations. 

We all have those colleagues or family members we fundamentally disagree with, but who are impervious to hearing any viewpoint other than their own. Brown provides scripts for those occasions, like saying “I know we have very different views on this” and repeating a variation of that line without getting embroiled in the debate. 

This was the part of the book that I struggled with the most. I’m a middle child and a Pisces, so I’m hardwired to avoid confrontation, but I still believe that some situations warrant a stronger response. It’s perhaps beyond the scope of the book, but I thought there could be an interesting addendum on respectability politics and the way marginalized groups — women, people of color, the mentally ill, etc. — are often required to perform graciousness just to avoid being misconstrued as hysterical or aggressive or antisocial. 

On the other hand, I appreciated the chapter that Brown included on being gracious with yourself, since actual outward generosity of spirit has to start with that same inward attitude. Judging others, she points out, often comes from our own impossible standards for ourselves or a cataloging of our flaws. 

The book is filled with practical tips, as well, ranging from topics like how to keep a welcoming home (fill it with fresh flowers and personal touches and comfy seating areas), how to host a fabulous party (don’t let great be the enemy of good, and enjoy your guests more than the show you’re putting on for your guests), how to navigate a party you’re invited to (sleuth out the unspoken norms of where the bathroom is or when it’s okay to leave), how to travel on a plane (leggings are fine, so take that, United!), etc. 

It also features Beyoncé quotes and pug references, hilarious footnotes marked with little pineapple icons, and profiles of amazingly gracious people ranging from a Rabbi to an Episcopal priest to an international sorority president. Throughout, Brown gives examples of what she calls “The Seven Saboteurs of Graciousness,” which include the behaviors to recognize in others and ourselves that foster rudeness or narcissism or jealousy. 

I don’t know that I’ll ever be the kind of person immediately thought of as “gracious."

I probably need a recipe and any desire to cook before I can be the type who brings her officemate homemade tomato sauce as a thank you. But my officemate, Brown would point out, wasn’t born a magic gracious unicorn. Instead, she practices that unicorn-ness, by striving to think of ways to make others’ days a bit better.

I can do that. We all can.

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