I kick myself every time I let a particular person in my life draw me into a petty and pointless discussion. On the plus side, I am kicking myself less these days. So there is that.
People aren’t taught how to disagree well or how to effectively raise an objection (with the least collateral damage). Not from the evidence. So everyone just flounders around trying to come up with their own style. Trouble is, most aren’t any good.
“Old School” sorts who prefer directness and are not overly concerned with causing offense, get straight to it:
“You’re a dumbass.”
“Fuck you, asshole!”
“Watch where you’re going, Shithead.”
I am not in ANY way condoning this particular mode of communication, but it leaves no doubt where people stand. There is no, “Hmmm, I wonder what he meant by that?”
On the other end is a trend toward vague, indirect, couched-to-the-point-of-incomprensibility speech. “You can disagree without being disagreeable,” which sounds like a politically correct koan, hails from that philosophy. People end up saying things so roundabout and passive-aggressively pissy, the listener has no idea what’s really intended. Sometimes it just makes you think, “What on earth is this person trying to say to me??” And a round of 20 Questions ensues in an attempt at clarification.
I knew a woman who said her way of non-aggressively confronting someone was to say, “Have I done something to offend you or are you just having a bad day?” As things go, the statement was pretty evolved, although someone on the receiving end might take issue with the “or are you just having a bad day” part. Not so sure how I’d like it if someone said this to me; I might wonder if the first half was genuinely a question. Doesn’t matter I guess, because I don’t think anyone has ever asked me if they’ve done “something to offend” me.
Occasionally I object by using the phrase, “I’m not happy about…(X).” I often find myself saying, both to intimates and others, “You’re not listening to me” (because they ain’t!). When somebody is truly trying to railroad or otherwise cow me with unreasonable requests or behavior, I’ll respond with a pointed, “Ohhh, no, no, no.” (Less formally in the right company/context, “Have you lost your mind?!” or less charitably, “Have you taken a blow to the head recently?”)
I’ve heard people say in situations in which they weren’t happy, “This is unacceptable.” I have never used that line as I fear it almost begs the response, “Well, la-di-fucking-DA!” Do people really hop-to when told something is unacceptable? If they do, maybe I should start saying it. Although, “This is not okay,” probably has a less stodgy ring to it – and is a sentence most of us could pull off without inciting smirks and mockery.
I’ve noticed more than a few children have made the words, “EXCUSE ME!” their go-to when doing anything that infringes on other people. They toss it off like a Get out of jail free card. They clearly don’t understand the meaning and use it as a means of getting away with stuff. Such as crashing into your shins with their bicycle. Or when running around, careening into your personal space, dinner plate, or sanity. It reminds me of Steve Martin’s old routine, “Well, EXCUUUSE me!” I’m not sure how well this bodes for the future…
I don’t know how to relate to people who have no affect. I only got to thinking about this later in life, but I’ve realized how much I depend on facial and other expressions in interactions. I feel a bit “stripped” of my powers when someone gives a flat expression pretty much no matter what’s happening. I find myself fruitlessly searching their face for cues and clues, anything, a twitch.
Secretly inside, I’m imagining myself taking these people by the shoulders, burning into their eyes with mine and hollering, “Why don’t you ever have any expression?!?”
In one case, there was an expressionless person who left me not quite cold, but indifferent, detached. Then I saw photos online of the individual smiling and laughing, in fact, appearing quite charming. Now I figure there’s at least two (maybe more) ways to interpret the discrepancy. One, the person doesn’t like me. Or two, they only show the more outgoing side of themselves with people they know well. Oh, I got a third thought. Maybe I only run into them when they are tired or otherwise preoccupied (I don’t know about you, but being that I generally follow certain routines – like, I’m not a night owl for one – I may be coming across the same people under the same circumstances regularly.)
I realize specific conditions might be at work in some cases and lack of expression is symptomatic of those. However, there’s typically other “tells” when that’s the case. Also, there are those people who are very discriminating with their use of expressions; they crack the slightest here-and-gone semblance of a smile, say, when reacting to something they find outrageously funny. But again, that could be observed over time.
I’ve watched particular people to see if they become more animated when interacting with other people (i.e., not me) and still saw no expression. I wonder if these other people notice and if not, why don’t they? I’ve never taken anyone aside and asked, “Why doesn’t so-and-so ever have any facial expressions?” It’s just a private thing I think about – I don’t want to be mean or rude about it as it seems so personal – and besides, I can almost hear the answer: “They don’t? Oh, I never noticed.”
When I was young, preadolescent, I took an interest in the paranormal and parapsychology. I liked books or shows on poltergeists, ghosts, unexplained phenomena, crop circles (I still love me some crop circles), and especially anything to do with mental or psychological capacities.
The guy who could bend spoons with his mind was a celebrity, but I wasn’t too keen on that. What was I going to do with a bunch of bent spoons? Besides, we had no trouble getting plenty of our own misshapen cutlery courtesy of the kitchen sink garbage disposal. No, what I really wanted to have was ESP.
I’m not entirely sure how much of my ideas about the 6th sense came from fiction vs nonfiction, but it definitely seemed desirable. People with ESP – none of whom I actually knew – struck me as the human equivalent of unicorns, mystical and mysterious. As a kid, I just wanted to “magically” know things.
Today, I think of it a bit differently. I gather actually having ESP is not necessarily such a delight. Its possessors, from what I’ve heard, report getting lots of chaotic messages in their heads and being unable to shut off things they’d rather not know. That’s a different kettle of neurons and not what I imagined as a child.
Some advocates claim we ALL have degrees of ESP and it’s a matter of tapping into and honing it. I am sorry but no way. I meet people on a regular basis who appear to be operating at a level barely above that of a domestic dog or cat; people who frighten me in that they possess driver’s licenses, have children, or own firearms, none of which I’d trust them with. The idea they’d have extra sensory perception lurking somewhere in their gray matter is whoppingly doubtful.
I don’t think I have ESP. However, what I do have is perception. I did not always know this, or rather, I did not know what to call it, or that the trait was in any way unusual or a type of skill. I couldn’t say whether there’s a bit of irony in that I do have a semblance of the thing I wished for as a child. Maybe it’s just that I was already on to something back then, if only unconsciously. Don’t know. I can tell you I very much like knowing things which was my desire. (Even when, at my own level, I know things I’d rather not, or more to the point, I know things I wish weren’t so.)
Mostly, I am able to laser in on situations and people and read them. I often know how people are feeling, even when they haven’t said. I don’t see “auras” but I certainly pick up on energy, whatever that nameless thing is that people exude, for better and worse. I don’t have “visions” but sometimes specific information or insights appear fully formed in my mind. I never doubt them when that happens. That said, I’m not a savant and I miss the mark sometimes with my “take” on things but I’m right more than I’m wrong. And — as I’ve said once before, I’ve never been wrong when I had a “bad feeling” about somebody.
Not everybody enjoys my perception. People with things to hide don’t like someone popping along and reading them. I get that. Or I do now. I keep my mouth shut more often. As opposed to when I was younger, when I think I sometimes showed off, like a party trick, telling people things about themselves. A very close friend once observed, somewhat accusingly (I thought), “You see too much.” I guess what I’m trying to say is that these days I don’t force it on anybody, and further, a lot of what I perceive, I keep to myself, unless someone wants to know. Even then, I’ve learned to be a bit more judicious about it.
I mentioned in a recent post that I have a tendency to become distracted. I was referring before to being overly attentive to other people’s agendas, issues, concerns, problems, etcetera. For example, historically, when asked for help, particularly by intimates but others too, I responded immediately, whether it was in my best interest or not. I have been the drop-everything person and at times there’s been a price for that. But I’m not blaming other people, I don’t mean that. At the worst, I may have been – okay, likely was – vulnerable to people who were pushy or needy or aggressive, but then again, I let it happen.
I think that I lean toward distraction generally, maybe more as I’ve aged. I’ve got a lot on my mind, always (not all meritorious, but still). It’s not that I can’t pay attention to one thing at a time or don’t follow through on tasks and commitments. I can and I do. In fact, I like to get things done ahead of deadline whenever possible (yes, I was the little girl who always turned in her book report first and that trait is still there). And yet, I sit down in my screen tent to relax and next thing you know I’ve hopped up to trim a shrub or dig up a plant. I’ll start a project in one room, leave the room and not come back till later after I’ve forgotten about it. I will read a book, get distracted by something, possibly in the book but maybe in the room, and hop up (I hop a lot) to pay attention to something else. I’ve also allowed other people to cause me, not major detriment – I don’t hand out money or otherwise get in over my head – but both aggravations and inconveniences because I sometimes get distracted by them and put their apparent needs ahead of my own. I didn’t always think about in that light. But it is a kind of distraction.
Being easily distracted or pulled off course when it comes to my own business, is something in me. I observe other people, many of them anyway, and I see that they don’t do this. Or rather I’m intentionally looking at people who stay focused and on track for their concerns and priorities, in order to see how it’s done. They do what they need to for themselves, their priorities are first. When they need to go, they don’t mince words, they just go. They offer minimal or fleeting attention to other people’s business or problems. They don’t go out of their way in any sense of the phrase. While not necessarily cold or antisocial, they don’t appear to worry a lot about other people’s feelings and wants. They simply aren’t distracted by these things.
To tell you the truth, I’m not so certain I’d want to be like those people, but I could sure stand to borrow a page from their repertoire. For awhile now, I’ve been in the process of doing that. I’m reflecting to you ground already covered and the direction I’m heading. As with other things in this blog, I doubt I’d write about it if I hadn’t made progress. I use phrases with people I rarely or never used to:
- I can’t do that now.
- That will have to wait till next week.
- This isn’t the right time (and “X” is).
- I’m not interested.
- That’s not right for me/that’s not something I do.
- I need to go.
These may sound like simple phrases that you, or everybody, uses. They did not for me. In the past, instead of using them when I meant them, I may have namby-pambyed around, insinuating them and/or hoping the other person would (politely) get the message. But that’s not how it works, not much of the time. I’ve learned that these are magic phrases. Because other people don’t take you seriously until you can say them (and mean them). It’s still open season. If you say “No, I can’t” and proceed to let the other person goad or otherwise talk you into something, then the phrases are useless. For me, I couldn’t say them till I meant them. It doesn’t always come easy; sometimes for example, I’ll give myself a little talking-to in advance: Don’t let such-and-so hold you up and make you late. Or, if Person X asks for Thing Y, say “No” and let it go at that. I’ll even talk myself through things (in my head I mean, although doing it aloud might have interesting consequences) in the moment when necessary.
If your goal is never to disappoint people, from intimates to strangers; if it is to be liked; if it is to gain approval: if it is not to rock the boat; if it is to pay attention to anyone who wants it; if it is to uphold the highest levels of kindly virtue; if it is to be everybody’s friend; if it is to not make people mad — then you take comes with that. That is, better understand that your interests take a back seat. Hell, sometimes they ride in the trunk! Because nobody hands out prizes, not that I’ve noticed, to people who, in one form or another, have the aforementioned as their goals. And if I’m not being obvious enough, these are some of the reasons (I believe) you might permit yourself to be so easily distracted by other people, even to your disadvantage.
There’s one last part to this. As I suggested, it can be pushy, needy or aggressive people who are the most distracting. I reckon they get a lot of what they want that way too, not just from me, but from LOTS of people. They are the ones making noise and grabbing attention. And here’s what I think. I don’t want to reward that, not anymore. Not with my time, attention, and efforts. I’m not saying I won’t do squat for them, because knowing myself I probably will. But I want to be AWARE when I’m doing it, to say to myself: “Yes, this person is pushing and distracting me from my own affairs, but I don’t mind to do this one thing they want. I have no obligation beyond that no matter WHAT they think.” (Or how put out or indignant they act.) Also, and this is important, I want to make sure I’m giving my attention and efforts to people who aren’t demanding it or cajoling me for one thing or another. It’s easy to overlook the quieter people, the unassuming people, the ones not leaping up in your face, or maybe not knock yourself out so much on their behalf. After all, THEY won’t say anything. But they are the ones who will likely really appreciate it. And in any case, I don’t want to give them short-shrift because I’m so distracted by more aggressive types. Seems like a worthier goal.
I never pretend to be happier than I am.
Doing so, as anybody who does it knows, is exhausting. Nonetheless, there is a lot of pressure to turn it on, crank it up, and act as if you’re having the time of your life. We cut people a little slack if they’re sick, or just lost their job, maybe were recently divorced or widowed, or otherwise are dealing with a major event. Short of that, the prevailing cultural message is often to whoop it up by god, git yourself a beer, watch the big game, and smile damnit. Because we’re having fun! (If the available “fun” really isn’t to your liking or quite your style, well too bad.)
When I was younger, I thought “happy” was the goal, a place a person could reach, should strive to reach, and once achieved, just stay. As I grew older, I of course absorbed that happiness is one state of many; none of them are meant to be permanent. I came to see contentment as a better goal. Further: people who think a lot can pretty much scrap Happy Land as a destination. Thinking and happy are at cross-purposes. Which is not to say thinking isn’t enjoyable or worthwhile or valuable in and of itself. I happen to be a big advocate of it! And for those so dispositionally inclined, thinking is a place to live.
“Don’t worry, be happy”? Well, naturally! I hadn’t realized it was that easy, silly me. Can you tell I can’t stand this sort of soft-headed pablum? Who has a delightful and stressfree life that calls for no worries? That kind of mantra suggests but for our negative (pointless) thinking, happiness could be ours! The message – and others of its ilk – strips worrying of any legitimacy. How realistic is that, for anyone?
I’m pretty sure most of us recognize that money in and if itself doesn’t buy a happy, worry-free existence, and if we don’t we should from the rampant examples. Frankly, what it seems to buy is better drugs. (I mean, what does THAT say?!) Yeah, I can already hear it: better to have the worries of the rich guy, yes? To a point it’s true but only to a point; studies in recent history suggest that once a certain level of financial equilibrium is achieved, i.e., basic needs and reasonable comfort, additional income does not provide more happiness. (People, and maybe Americans in particular, really don’t want to believe that.)
Still, the pressure to be, to act, happy persists. And many oblige. Personally, as I said at the outset, the more conscious I’ve become of this, the less I feel obliged. When I’m comfortable around other people, I have an energetic, social personality. I’m quick to smile or laugh, and dare I say, be funny. It’s not forced, it’s my natural inclination. Few would call me reticent or shy. All that being said, when I don’t feel as I’ve just described, I don’t pressure myself to keep it up. With intimates, if I’m tired or sad or somehow less-than-cheery, I say so. The curious thing is that I find that people don’t really accept that from me. They don’t like it when I’m not jolly. To this I now think: tough (okay, maybe not quite that bad). It’s limiting and unfair to expect me or any human being to maintain a constant state of being “up” or “on.” Who is that one-dimensional? Who is not subject to the continual ebb and flow of human emotions?
The word “mask” comes up a lot in this context; what people show to the world to hide their true selves, the ones they think others will find unacceptable. Wearing a mask though, boxes their owners in, and makes it that much more difficult to reveal other dimensions when necessary or desired. Naturally, people are fearful of rejection should they remove the mask. And it’s true when you’re used to seeing another person behave pretty much one way or show only one “face,” it can be quite a surprise or even shock when out comes a different, sometimes less palatable side. Initial reaction aside, I think in the end, within the right context, most of us prefer the “real thing” and have more to gain from it. When someone takes their mask off and stops working so hard at acting happy, it touches other people and gives them permission to remove theirs as well.
Some people don’t relate, they perform. You are but an audience member to them. What you might have to say or add is of little or no interest, unless it’s a springboard they can use.
Who are they? They’re the ones who aren’t really looking at you – searching your eyes and face the way someone does when they are engaged and engaging – except perhaps to make sure you’re being a good audience member. Their eyes look past you and through you. Should you open your mouth other than to make appreciative noises, they cut you off mid-sentence. If other people are around or enter into their sphere of vision, you, the good audience member, can be disregarded and tossed aside pronto, forgotten in favor of fresh
But it’s not always so obvious. A couple years ago I was having a conversation with a man I didn’t know too well but who I believed was genuinely interested in talking with me. Conversation was going along okay, when he launched into a story with dramatic and funny bits, or bits I knew he intended as funny and dramatic. As I listened a thought appeared clearly in my mind: [He’s told this story before. Probably exactly this way. Many times.] My opinion of the conversation we were having dropped a few notches while my insincerity radar heightened.
It isn’t that I think everyone is obligated to offer only original commentary or stories at all times. The older someone gets, the harder it is to not repeat things said before. It takes concerted effort not to rely on shtick or what’s been favorably received in the past. And I know a degree of self-conciousness, insecurity, or social anxiety might make a person want to rely on the tried and true (and not take any risks). My issue is with someone who chooses performing over relating when it isn’t necessary, cutting short – if they even let start – a genuine interaction where two people play and build off, one another’s words and ideas. Where nobody is assigned the role of audience member.