Friends & Family

I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship lately: what a blessing it is to have true friends, and what a long journey it is sometimes to find out who they are.

My current definition of a real friend: Continue reading “Friends & Family”

Never a Good Time

The book club I’m part of has one very convenient feature: two of our members are Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library librarians. They label and check out our books for us, and when book club is over, they gather them up and return them. So last month, when it happened that neither librarian could attend, we all looked at each other blankly and asked ourselves, “How will the books get back?” Lisa volunteered to take them.

There was no particular reason that Lisa should have been the one to do it. Continue reading “Never a Good Time”

Letter to No One

Dear Friend,

It has been far too long since we’ve talked – or rather written. I miss our old exchange of ideas, the conversation, the flow of words, the surprising revelations that only written thoughts make possible.

Oh, Facebook can be very charming. I appreciate the news of babies I would not have heard of, job successes and health problems and hilarious videos and pictures. I enjoy all of this. The trouble is, Continue reading “Letter to No One”

You Are = You Do = Love (or not)

In January I read an article titled “6 Harsh Truths to Make You a Better Person”. It’s written in a style that is deliberately confrontational and provocative, but that’s because it’s meant to jolt readers off their butts and get them to do something. If you can’t get past the tone to the underlying truth of the article, go sit in your room for a couple of years and then try it again when you’re ready. I’ve read it about four times since I discovered it. Continue reading “You Are = You Do = Love (or not)”

Book Review: The Corner Office

corner office

Adam Bryant was curious about CEOs. Specifically, are there certain traits they have in common that set them apart from others? And are those traits necessarily what we would expect?

To find out, he interviewed more than 70 CEOs and executives, then grouped the nuggets he gleaned into chapters under three broad headings: “Succeeding,” “Managing,” and “Leading.” Continue reading “Book Review: The Corner Office”

Going to Your Brother, Again

My husband and I both have a particular small failing, and not so long ago we received a complaint about it. We could see that the relationship with this person had suffered because of this failing, and we felt bad. “Why didn’t you tell us before?” we wailed.

“I did,” was the devastating response. Continue reading “Going to Your Brother, Again”

A Portrait of The Poster

lettuce

I worked with a guy who had this as his desktop image. This was in the days before Facebook was such a big deal; certainly, long before it became so meme-heavy. The image had novelty, and in fact I was so tickled by it that I ran to the internet, found it, and saved it for my own future amusement. (To be honest, I still can’t see lettuce without giggling a little inside.)

In a discussion about Facebook today someone posited that the things people post – even silly memes – “reveal much about those who post. It could be a way to revealing a bit of the emotional struggles that they are going through (under stress, need to laugh, or a need to share with others).” And as ridiculous as it sounds, that honestly had not occurred to me in that specific way. At least not in the context of silly pictures of cats (to pick just one scapegoat).

The use of such an image – and the ones that succeeded it from the same site – was completely in character for my coworker. He was famously random, off-beat, even eccentric, but his randomness had a predictable hilarity to it that was regarded with indulgent fondness. I have no doubt that if he is active on Facebook, his page continues to make his friends tilt their heads to the side and say, “That’s really odd.” And then laugh.

I have several intelligent, well-educated friends who frequently post intriguing articles it is impossible not to read – even when they’re on subjects I wouldn’t have said I was interested in. I have a number of witty or “punny” friends, and friends who are always having small adventures, whose statuses are not only enjoyable but immensely repeatable. I have friends with definite interests (writing, gardening, travel and photography, off the top of my head) and friends with unique voices. I have Facebook-friends who are honest about their lives in large and deep ways that make me determined to have them as real-life friends. There is even one person who shows up in my feed whose statuses are confined to such cheering things as “I’m tired” or “bad day” or “so bored”.

And I would say that all of these things are true to who these people are in person.

Yes: what we say and do says a lot about who we are, and that’s true whether we’re in person or online. Whether we are kind or dismissive, joyful or negative, goofy or serious, that comes out in what we share. No, nobody does this perfectly. I certainly don’t. Nor is there anything wrong with presenting different facets of ourselves at different times. There is not even anything wrong with posting silly memes (after all, many of them are clever and most are funny enough to elicit an involuntary smile, even from me!).

The same person who made the comment about posts revealing the poster added something very wise:

Social Media can be a lot like attending a party. It is not always easy to control what the others are bringing to the party. You can only choose to respond to those conversations that appeal to you.

My husband is fond of saying that Facebook’s problem is that it does what nobody would ever dream of doing in person, because it is an obvious recipe for disaster: collecting everybody you know in one place and having an open conversation that any and all of those people can participate in. In such a situation, there is absolutely a need for people to take the above advice, to tune in or out as they desire.

And yet… in face-to-face conversation, most of us recognize certain responsibilities. You have the responsibility not to be deliberately offensive. To avoid (at least in certain contexts) controversial subjects. Not to monopolize the conversation with a topic your hearer has no interest in.

Do we have these same responsibilities online? I believe that we do. With hundreds of potential hearers, no, it is not possible that everything you say will be interesting to everyone. But most of what you say should have value or meaning – preferably a variety of types of value. You should post at intervals that allow others’ newsfeed not to be dominated by you.

Of course people can block you if they don’t like what you have to say. Just as someone you’re talking to at a cocktail party can zone out or ignore you. But it’s not a pleasant position to be in – and why would you force someone to block you if you could possibly help it?

And yet… even if you think that online all the responsibility rests on the hearer, there is no getting around the fact that whether they react or not, people will evaluate you based on what you share.

I don’t think I know too many people who are accurately represented by pictures with silly captions. So the question is: are you risking being known as the person whose main contribution to the conversation is silly pictures and ecard wine jokes? And is that the impression you want to give?

Bravery & Honesty

I recently wrote and submitted an essay to a popular wedding-and-marriage themed website. It was the sort of post that gets praised as “honest” and “brave” and I was almost certain it would get published.

After a week of suspense, it did. I even received a kind note that the editorial staff “all really loved what you had to say.” Naturally, I was tickled pink. I was thinking to myself, “If what I have to say helps even one person, I will be so happy.”

On the appointed day the post was posted, I (naturally!) eagerly read the comments, and promptly realized why honesty is so often labeled as “brave.”

It was, surprisingly, something I had never thought about before. My approach to life is very much: let’s all be open with each other, without taking offense, so that we can all learn together. There are certainly people who think there are better ways of interacting and I have, in certain situations, given in to that advice… probably for the best. But in general I haven’t noticed any overtly negative reactions that would make me change my view. My honesty has almost never called for bravery; and it had never called for bravery after the courage to confess was mustered.

I wrote the post because I had felt alone, realized belatedly that I was not, and hoped to spare others the same shamed loneliness. And then all the comments up until lunchtime were about how others had exactly the opposite experience I did. They were perfectly happy. They had never had this problem. Though I have never seen a truly trollish comment on this site, one person did go so far as to say that perhaps her experience was different because her parents had provided a good example. (I didn’t mention my parents in the post, and as it happens, they were also a good example. But thanks for the implication, sweetie.)

I spent my lunch hour near tears.

In the afternoon, however, the tone changed. Several people thanked me for the post and said it was exactly what they needed to read.

So I stopped reading comments. I’m sure the post has acquired more, and perhaps the not-so-kind commenter, who was gently rebuked by others, has even backtracked. A part of me is curious. The bigger part of me knows that I don’t need to know. Whatever the sum of the reactions, what I said helped one person – more than one person – and that is enough.

It was a small experience but an important one. I can now be brave when I am honest. But it changes nothing else. The world needs more honesty. And perhaps more bravery too.

Road to Nowhere

I can’t remember now what set me off, but I was in one of my annoyed, impatient moods, and so we were having a disagreement about something I would usually accept as the status quo.

‘Being a jerk is a shortcut.’

‘No it’s not.’

‘Yes it is.’

‘No, it’s not.’

‘Well, it would be for me.’

It was an effective final word, but I’ve been nagged by it ever since. I meant it at the time and I’m sure I was making a very specific point, but – a shortcut to what? What benefit does one get from being a jerk that isn’t obtainable by, say, not being a jerk?

It’s possible that being a jerk could be a misguided attempt at success and mass respect. We tend to think that if we’re just adamant enough about what (we think) we know, others will come to see us as the geniuses we are. Or we think that slowing down enough to get others’ input or make our colleagues feel appreciated will cost us our chance at winning the rat race. But I don’t think that applied in this case.

No, more likely what I meant was that being a jerk is a coward’s way of communicating. Manage it with enough panache and you can skate, apparently unaffected, out of so many distressing situations. Say something tactless and cause offense? Announce, “But everybody knows I’m a jerk,” and walk away, as if it’s their fault for being too sensitive. Flirt a little too much, give someone the wrong impression and raise hopes you didn’t mean to raise? Instead of the embarrassing but considerate “I’m so sorry; that isn’t what I intended” conversation, just ignore them pointedly! After the initial confusion and hurt, they’ll realize how wrong they were. Clearly, you can’t be held responsible. And while you’re at it, be sure to imply that people who do care about their effect on other people are weak and lacking an individual personality.

What we want is happy, peaceful, drama-free relationships. If you can’t be bothered with other people’s problems, then you can pretend that’s what you have. And it is doubtless easier to “resolve” certain difficult situations by being a jerk. When other people frustrate you, there’s a certain appeal to being so annoying to them that they give up on you. It saves you the hard work of strengthening the relationship and – added bonus! – you get to blame them for leaving you and play the victim.

Yes, I can see how being a jerk could be mistaken for a shortcut. But I suspect if you followed the shortcut long enough, you’d find it was a dead end.

One Stranger at a Time

Traveling often makes me think about the images we project. In a new city, nobody knows you, so you can be anybody you want. Blank slates mostly terrify us, but in small doses, they can be liberating. Blank slates, like new beginnings, often create growth. Because, when you can be anybody, why be a shy mouse?

Yes, I’m here to tell you that strangers are the secret to overcoming shyness.

What’s harder to overcome than shyness? Inertia. What’s more difficult to change than that bad habit you’ve been resolving about each of the past three New Years? Other people’s pre-conceived notions and dearly-held opinions about how things are and what box you fit in.

Say you go to the same coffee-shop every day and buy the same cup of coffee from the same 2 or 3 baristas. You’re shy, so you keep it all business – maybe a please and thank you, but no other words that aren’t absolutely neccessary. Over time, you come to envy the light banter some of the other patrons have with the barista, but how do you start? You’re so entrenched in the pattern of not speaking that you don’t even know what you would say. And what if, in your nervousness, you make a mess of it and now the barista thinks you’re weird?

What’s scarier than the monster under the bed? The fear of doing something wrong or messing up in front of the people you have to see every day.

But say you go to another city on a business trip and stop into a new coffee-shop in the morning. This barista doesn’t know that you never say “good morning” to your barista at home. For all this new barista knows about you, you might be the friendliest, happiest, most confident person she’s ever met. It’d be a shame to disappoint her, don’t you think?

So you smile, say good morning. Maybe even comment on the weather. Odds are, this interaction goes perfectly. But even if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter, because she doesn’t know who you are, and she’ll never see you again. No risk, lots of reward. Nice. So you do the same thing with the waiter at lunch and the cab driver on the way back to the airport.

And when you get home you realize there are plenty of people in your own city you’ll only see once. The man with his dog you passed three streets over on your evening walk. The woman waiting next to you at jury duty. You’re the nicest, friendliest person they’ve ever met, right? So it’s no big deal to make a little light small talk about what a beautiful dog he has or to say you’ve heard good things about that book.

And it gets easier and easier the more you do it and before you know it, it’s not such a big deal to approach people you should have known all along or wish you knew better.

Because you don’t have to start off with a deep conversation that makes up for all those years of shyness and distance. You can start with a few small moments over time that make the other person want to talk to you, so that they share the work of building the bond.

Because, now that you don’t need to hide in the crowd, you can join the table where just one or two other people are sitting alone. Their gratitude allows you to have a much more rewarding conversation than if you joined a discussion already in full swing, with no room for you, and more and more people will be drawn to the group you started. (Seriously, this is the single greatest trick I’ve learned about dealing with those situations where you don’t know anybody in the room.)

Most shy people – and I say this as a formerly-painfully-and-still-occasionally-slightly shy person – go about dealing with their shyness in exactly the wrong way. They hide in the familiar, among the people who only know them as a shy person, and it reinforces their fear.

The worst thing that can happen to a shy person is to have a confident companion to hide behind. The real way to get over shyness is to go find a stranger to talk to, because really, a stranger is a shy person’s best friend.