A former colleague was in town for a couple weeks doing some caucus-related work. She crashed on my couch.
I’ve lived alone most of my adult life, since 25 or so, anyway. I had roommates in college. I had one for a couple years about 12 years back.
Other than that, I’ve never lived with another human for very long. She proved a fine guest. Except for a proclivity for wanting the apartment warmer than 66 degrees, I barely noticed she was there.
The truth is I surprised myself by how well I handled it given how poor I can be in social situations. Home is my safe space from a society far gone on compulsive outrage and confirmation bias.
The sad truth we live in a social dialogue that lacks any middle space and strips all statements of context and meaning. So every word I type or word I say can be the thing that ends my career in a volley of hashtags.
I don’t have a persecution complex. I recognize that I have a volatile streak and a capacity for savagery with words. I do my best to keep them in check at all times. But it is exhausting.
So the thought of another person being around where I might need to keep my guard up at home is more than I thought I could handle.
I was wrong. My guest and I had some decent conversations. She’s more of a big picture person than I am. I don’t always follow her train of thought. I admire her enthusiasm even if I couldn’t catch every volley.
So it’s odd to spend parts of two weeks with a colleague I’d not seen in 20 years and get along delightfully, but find myself struggling to get on with people I see on a regular basis.
During a moment of what I thought to be the usual friendly banter, another friend informed me I had deeply offended her. We tried to hash it out by text. Apologies were offered and accepted, but I find myself pensive.
I often feel as if everyone else learned some secret codebook of social cues that I completely miss in interpersonal communication.
It’s odd. I’m a good interviewer. I can pull stories out of people that they don’t discuss. But that has a subtext of power dynamic. I’m guiding the conversation. I’m trying to get information or a story.
Conversations with friends don’t work that way, of course. You’re supposed to be equals in the exchange. It fails often for me.
I want to believe I’ve either outgrown or trained myself to stop worrying about whether I’m the funniest person in the conversation or the smartest person in the conversation or the person who survived the most childhood trauma.
This was a tick that dogged me for years and usually resulted in me saying harsh or confusing things. I learned to see how bizarre this conversational competitiveness was and let it go.
For the most part. Sometimes I let go of a joke or statement I should have held onto. Or sometimes I say something that lands in a way that I never intended and causes hardship.
I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. I don’t. But sometimes I do. I think this is part of being human. It’s impossible, at least for me, to gauge where everyone is at any given moment. Sometimes I misjudge. Sometimes I err.
Now before some worshipper at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Victimhood starts putting words where they aren’t: I’m not talking about excusing racism, sexism or “Star Wars” prequels and sequels.
I’m talking about the fairly standard back-and-fourth between people who know each other.
For example, my friend Paul the accountant jabs me from time to time about a class I took while we were at Drake called Math 009. It was the lowest math course the university taught and it satisfied a graduation requirement.
Sometimes when we’re talking economics he will bring up a concept that “may be hard to understand if you only took Math 009.” Conversely, I will irritate him by constantly getting the economic maxim “guns or butter” wrong saying all manner of malapropisms from “guns and bullets” to “bread and butter.”
These jokes are really only funny between the two of us. That’s fine. That’s the undiluted joy of having a friend for 27 years.
The point is illustrative. In a conversation, Paul might call me all manner of names and I would return volley. No harm would come if it because we understand each other on a level that requires no explanation.
The biggest struggles I have in social interaction is judging how much of myself to allow to be vulnerable to those around me.
At work, it’s generally very little. I find it best to focus on my paragraphs. I avoid social gatherings with coworkers. They are fine people and many of them work very hard. I think it’s best to keep work at work and home at home.
In other social settings, I am wary but looser. I have a good time with people I know pretty well at the comic store. Sometimes I will stop by on a Friday or Saturday just to chat up the staff. They’re fun people and shared interest makes for terrific conversation.
The limits there are clear. It’s a family store. No profanity. No politics. No religion. That’s OK. There are better places to discuss such things. I think. I haven’t found many where it doesn’t result in raised voices and hurt feelings.
With Parents 2.0, I am largely unguarded. I think tending to a kid with mood disorders who has become less social over the years they have known me is a challenge enough. So unless I’m really distressed by anxiety, depression or both, I typically let Mom 2.0 guide me through the family goings on and maybe talk a little politics or news with my dad.
My old friend Don Adams, the retired Drake University veep, says we have only one face to present to the world. I agree insofar as we should always be grounded by our faith and values. His are love, dignity and respect. That’s pretty solid.
But every face has many sides. My therapist uses a cubed tissue box to say people’s personalities are not one dimensional. We have many moods, many modes. I may be timid and confused in romantic situations, but confident and bold in a journalism situation. I’m both people.
A few years ago, I gave my therapist a 20-sided gaming die common in role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. I felt like it was a better metaphor because it showed more dimensions. A while back I bought a 100-sided die for myself as a gag, but also as a talisman to remind me of the many sides of me.
So that’s the trick, isn’t it? All social interactions are a roll of the dice. Sometimes you’re going to come up favorable. Sometimes not. Most of the time it’s somewhere in the great, wide middle.
I suppose the most important thing is to allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to keep tossing even when you had a bad roll and smart enough to know when it’s time to pick up your dice and go home.
With love and hope, dpf