What Does Mean Mean?

Grinch_santa-703762 People have been asking what I mean by mean, meaning what does mean mean.

I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist writing that sentence. OK, it's out of my system. So, really… what does mean mean? What does it mean to say Don't Be Mean? 

I’ve been telling people for nearly four years that the only rule in life they need to follow is don’t be mean. It's not even a rule. “Don’t be mean” is a value, meaning it's something you can apply to every choice you’ll ever make for the rest of your life. If one rule can cover that much ground, I think that the rule deserves to be called a value. 

So, we’ve got a value of don’t be mean. 

So what, because what does mean mean? 

And what did I mean when I wrote the damned thing in the book?

And why didn't I simply write, be kind. I almost did.

But people have ruined that word by calling for a kinder, gentler nation and then effecting a nation that's very close to the opposite. Another example: someone could consider truthfully that they're being kind to you when they stop you from being a homosexual… because then you won’t go to hell. It's become too easy for people to convince themselves that they’re not being mean when they simply call themselves kind. Nope, the word kind can be stretched way out of shape. So, be kind couldn’t be the rule.

But… don’t be mean? Aw man, I thought I’d nailed it. I thought everyone knows what mean is, right? Mean old man, mean girls, and hey… you’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch. But those are all pop culture constructs, not real meanings. And that brings us to the dictionary. You’d think the dictionary would provide some definitive clarity. Nonsense. Go ahead, look up mean in the dictionary. Mean can mean so many mean things, it’ll make you mean dizzy.

Failing to come up with a simple, satisfactory answer to the question, what does mean mean, I did what I always do when I don't know something… I asked my twibe on Twitter.

RT @katebornstein: Twibe: re "Don't b mean," peeps hv bn asking what mean means. Thoughts? Must it include intent to harm/steal/enslave? Hashtag #mean pse.

Here, click to read through this sampling of responses from my twibe. See what you come up with.

Pondering many points of view on the word mean helped me realize that mean is undeniably subjective. Nonetheless, we know what it feels like when someone is mean to us. Mean is a word we all learned as kids. It’s a word that holds a great deal of emotional power and history.

So, I don’t think it matters what mean really means in order to embrace the value, don’t be mean. I’m thinking now that it's enough that we care enough to ask the question, what does mean mean. I don't know for sure, but I'm willing to bet that mean is something we spend our entire life learning what it is… if for no other reason than to stop ourselves from being mean.So, until it runs out of juice, I’m going to stick with using the word mean. And I'll say it once again:

Please… do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living. Anything. Anything, my darling. Only one rule to follow—only one value you need to embrace—to make that blanket permission work: Don’t be mean. 

Yep that works just fine for me. And it'll work for you. I promise. There's no need to fry your brains, trying to figure out mean. It's enough if we all just try not to be mean. Eventually we’ll all get a better handle on it. And I think that’s about as much as anyone can ask for. 

Now… go, play nice with your friends.

Kiss Kiss

Auntie Kate



  1. As a shaman(say what you will), I have no “rules”, per se.
    Instead we advocate being unconditionally understanding and having interpersonal boundaries, rather than hurt-for-you sympathetic. Otherwise you jump into other people’s quicksand to help: not effective.

  2. A bigoted person is not hateful towards you because of you, they are hateful towards you because of them. They are ‘being mean’ based on some equation that lives inside their head. They are cruel because they feel a need to be, not because you deserve it.
    This is how ‘don’t be mean’ turns into the most basic spiritual advice: Be mindful. Don’t leave a path of devastated people behind you, even if you think they deserve it, because really they might not. It might be all in your head.
    Think it through, and don’t be mean. Please. 🙂

  3. Maggie Darwin (@MaggieL)

    It’s like the opposite of “nice”, as in “play nice with your friends”. Or like “evil” when GOOG says “Don’t be evil.”
    In fact, it’s so vague that it really doesn’t “mean” much, but does give you a rationale later to spank somebody when you decide they have failed to “play nice”, “not be evil” or been “mean”, by your lights.
    And I don’t “mean” spank in a “nice” way.
    It’s verging on baby talk…perhaps OK for a parent, maybe even an aunt, but condescending and question-begging otherwise. It carries the implicit assumption of a shared set of values; a tricky business indeed if you can’t enumerate them more formally than “not mean”.
    Surely if someone is failing to be “mindful”, admonishing them to “not be mean” won’t help. You might as well tell Sparky the dog “don’t be gay” (c.f. South Park). 🙂

  4. Perhaps the “be” in “Don’t be mean!”, can be examined. Or perhaps the “be” in “be nice”, can be examined. When are we AUTHENTICALLY being? We “are” all in society, culture, etc. We “are” (to the extent that we “are” in society, and in culture)constructed, insead of being authentic. Can society and culture, etc.,(ie law and any and all constructs: race, gender, ethnicity, etc.) be deconstructed, or reconstructed or pre or post constructed, to free our spontaneous limitless humanity? Can there even be communication that is limitless? Caan there be communication that is possibility? Can there be communication that is free from PC, etc? Can there be communication that is free from meanness, ie symbolic violence, etc, because then there would be limits placed on communication. Limitless communication might be authentic, spontaneous communication that was communication in the present, free from time and space constructs. Imgine communication free from all drama and all ego, ie free from any and all agendas. Would such communication be authentic communication? Are we all practicing to communicate, because instead of doing the communication, does the communication “DO” us?

  5. Mean means you have something in your mind that has a purpose or motive. You get mean if you dislike someone. Being mean all the time is also disgusting. So, just be it in a right way and if its needed.

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