Monday, March 21, 2011

Social cues

There is a sickly sweet way that women have of talking to each other when they strongly dislike each other but, for instance, pass each other in the grocery store and a greeting is unavoidable. This is exceedingly odd to me, but I find that I even do it myself. You smile hard with your smile muscles, gritting your teeth gently, and look a little past the other person. "Hi-ee," you say with a long saccharine drawl. This is to prevent further conversation from developing.

She sings, "Hi-ee," back at you and follows with an obligatory, "How are you?" whilst pushing her cart quickly past.

"Great," you gush, "and you?" as the distance increases and you have your backs to one another. Neither of you turns to look back.

"Fantastic," she lies eloquently, "it's great to see you." And then the separation is complete, each of you is now well behind the other, the dance has been danced. You head off towards the organic peanut butter, she peruses brand name breakfast cereal, and you both hope not to meet again soon.

At least I understand this now. About ten years ago, I didn't. I was out in the front yard with Jonathan, who was little then and playing on his scooter. A couple of neighborhood ladies came by, on a walk. I think one of them had a son in a stroller, about a four-year-old, I'd guess. Jonathan was about six. They smiled and waved and asked if Jonathan and I would like to go along with them on their walk.

Thrilled at the prospect of company and exercise, I accepted the invitation and we stepped out into the road to join them.

Then began the exchanged looks (these looks were not exchanged with me, in case you were wondering), the fast pace, the backs turned toward me and the conversation in low tones about things I knew nothing of (nor was there any offer of filling me in). I loped along behind them, calling to Jonathan to ride his scooter safely and to keep up, feeling as though I was back in junior high and the popular girls were leaving me out. I began to feel angry; why would they invite me to go on a walk with them if they didn't want me to go on a walk with them? First I was angry at them, and then I was angry at myself for being dumb, for not understanding the social cues, for not knowing that when they said, "Why don't you come for a walk with us?" they did not mean that I should really go for a walk with them, any more than people care about the answer to, "How are you?"

I was humiliated. When I finally got home, I ducked into the house and hid my burning face, reliving my shame for days and trying not to cry. One of these women has since moved out of the neighborhood, and I have not exchanged a single word with the other one since that day.

I did not understand then, but I do now. And that is why, in the grocery store, when I pass a woman of that ilk, I am prepared to smile my sweetest smile and get the heck out of there.

It is pretty sad that life is like this, but at least it helps you recognize and value your true friends.

It is important to use these kinds of lessons for good in your life. My take-away is this: be kind to people. Go out of your way to make people feel comfortable when they are on your turf, and you have the power to set the tone. Be inclusive. Of course, there will be times when you are simply in a hurry in the grocery store, and you would not have time even to stop and chat with your best friend. But a cheerful, honest, friendly, "Hey! Great to see you! Gotta run!" is pretty easy to distinguish from the catty, hair-raising, sickly-sweet fake politeness of virtual enemies.

And what about forgiveness? Have I not forgiven that woman, the one with whom I have not exchanged a word in nearly ten years? I do not wish her any harm. I do not want to get back at her. I want to protect myself from being hurt again, and I do not want to offend her by my presence or my conversation (since she was obviously offended by them that day so many years ago). I think I have forgiven her, because if she approached me, I would be willing (even happy) to speak with her. I have not needed to go out of my way to avoid speaking to her; she has pretty much taken care of that herself... she's probably afraid that if she offers a simple pleasantry, I might jump into an all-out conversation. Little does she know how much she taught me.

1 comment:

Ruth MacC said...

It's tragic and horrible... I could almost feel my own face go red with shame and annoyance as though I was there myself.

Just pray for them.

I am glad you posted this. It is food for though. Makes me scan my memories to see if I have ever done anything like that myself although to be truthful, I would be one of the ones to be put upon rather than the offender.

Thanks Ruth.