As much as I’m known for anything (which is, admittedly, not much), I’m known for giving pep talks on Twitter. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Occasionally, usually late at night, I’ll tweet something like: Hey, if anyone needs to hear a kind word, I’m here for five minutes. Let me know, and I’ll send you a pep talk. I give a time limit so people feel like there’s a boundary, but ultimately I respond to every request. It seems to me that if someone is reaching out to a stranger for a kind word, they probably really need to hear one. The number of requests I get varies each time, but it’s always at least several dozen.
I started doing the pep talks in late 2013, during one of those career doldrums when every professional interaction I had felt like the equivalent of a small round man with a cigar telling me I’d never work in this town again. One night, alone and scrolling a social-media feed as vast and indifferent as the tide, I thought about how nice it would be to hear a kind word. But, self-consciously, I decided asking everyone on my timeline to say something nice would feel pathetic, and the replies would be potentially overwhelming. Instead, I decided to offer a kind word in need. I figured that while reassuring strangers that things are going to be okay, I’d absorb the message myself as well.
It’s not a substitute for therapy or antidepressants. I never meant it to be and I’m woefully unqualified to offer either. But that’s not what most people are looking for when they ask for a pep talk. They don’t want to be told that their financial woes will soon be over because they’re secretly the heir to the vast fortune of the inventor of bookbinding glue. People aren’t looking for empty compliments or falsehoods. They don’t want you to tell them that you’ve heard, secondhand, from a former personal assistant, that their hair’s luster is the object of Harry Styles’s unceasing jealousy.
They want to hear things they’d be too timid to ask a friend to say, but they’re open to publicly requesting from a stranger: That what they do matters to people. There’s love and support for them nearby. With time and effort and assistance they might eventually feel better than they feel now.
Not all of this applies to all people, of course. Some situations can’t improve. Some people’s families and support networks are patchy or far away.
Occasionally I will get a request from a person whom I don’t particularly like, or someone whose “vibe” I don’t trust, but even then it’s not wrong to tell them “things don’t have to be this bad, and you can help them be better.” There’s no great benefit in means-testing gentleness. And I assume (although I could be wrong) that most real monsters are not up in the middle of the night seeking out small words of encouragement. People usually ask for help because they need help.
I’ve offered these pep talks pretty regularly over the last six and half years, usually when I’m traveling for work, but often just when I’m at home and my wife has gone to bed early. But lately it’s felt strange to do. What does a gentle encouragement mean in the face of a global pandemic? It feels like cheerleading for a football team that has fallen into a sinkhole at the 50-yard line. As the crisis worsened, I held off for a week or two in an effort not to seem glib or tone-deaf, Little Orphan Annie singing “The sun will come out … tomorrow!” on the prow of the Titanic as it filled with ice water.
One day last week when the news felt just regular bad as opposed to I-can’t-believe-things-are-still-getting-worse bad, I gave it a shot, couching my offer a little more carefully than usual:
Hi, it’s a weird time and this may not be much, but if you need a pep talk, let me know. I’m here for five minutes. And if you’re trying to raise money, let me know that, too, and I’ll share your fundraising effort!
My tweet received 171 responses, more than I’d ever gotten before. Several came from people who wanted a fundraising effort shared (which I did!), but the vast majority of them just wanted a gentle word of encouragement. I offered the next night, too, and got over a hundred responses again. More frequently than usual, I was asked a familiar question: Are we going to be okay?
It’s a simple question that raises several more complicated questions, right? Like, who is we? And what does okay mean? And regardless of how you define those parameters, it’s not something anyone can promise to any other person.
The strongest positive statement I felt honest replying with was this: It’s really hard and really bad right now. And it might get worse. (Not a lot of pep so far, I understand.) But the best chance the broadest we have of being the most okay is if we stay safe at home if possible (or at work if necessary), and donate money where we can, and reach out to friends and loved ones as often as we need. And people seemed comforted by that.
Even under these dire conditions, people wanted to hear the same messages as at any other time: You’re not alone. There’s help around for you, and you can help other people, even if it’s just with a kind word.
We’re in this together, but in this case, at least six feet apart.