"I'm not antisocial," I'll say. "I'm just unsocial."
There's a big difference, although many people don't see it. I tend to avoid too much social activity (by my standards), but I have nothing against being social now and then; in fact, I enjoy the company of others.
Explaining such nuances doesn't always help. It could be due, at least in part, to my failure to explain things simply. But there are also other barriers.
Several acquaintances, in my opinion, don't believe in introversion. Some of them even claim to be introverts, but when they tell me that they were able to practice over the years and change, I realize we're talking about different traits. These acquaintances are the kinds of people who think everyone should be treated the same, and everyone should want the same things, and they take offense at anyone who spurns those ideals. Children shouldn't be treated with special consideration, they say, because you'll end up raising a bunch of babies. And adults should, of course, be given even less leeway.
I can see their point; in fact, I agree to some extent. And that's why I do my best to avoid too much social activity. It's up to me to look after my own well-being. Not the system I'm part of. Not my acquaintances or friends or family. I don't need others to treat me differently or to understand me. As long as I make sure to treat myself in the way that I need, then I'll be okay.
It's always worthwhile to try coming to an understanding with others, but that's a huge task, and not always a pleasant one. Creating an environment that I can thrive in is much more important. As they say: start with yourself.
A few months ago, I left my relatively new job and accepted an offer at a startup. Returning to another startup after so many years seems a bit crazy, but at least I've joined a small team of guys whom I've worked with for nearly twenty years. Plus, I tell myself, these kinds of opportunities don't come around forever.
Then again, perhaps the real appeal comes from having the following:
I recently learned that I'm losing hearing in one of my ears. This has presented me with a new challenge and a new perspective. Now I'm not sure which is worse: hearing too much, or hearing too little.
I've always been a bit overwhelmed by my senses. I've felt like I was seeing a little too much, catching scents that I didn't want to catch, and hearing more than I could absorb at once. With every other sense competing for my attention, I couldn't understand how others managed to be so on-the-ball. My brain might eventually catch up, but by the time it did, it would often be too late.
Making sense of what people were saying to me has frequently been an issue. I heard them well enough, but the surrounding noise would interfere; and then, of course, even when I could hear a person's words correctly, there was the problem of interpreting their meaning. To this day, how everyone else succeeds at this so easily still baffles me.
Now I need to learn all over again how to respond when my hearing fails; this time, it's from hearing too little. Maybe I can respond the same way that I did when I heard too much. I don't yet know.
Sitting around a conference table, I typed away at my laptop while others chatted. I tuned in when they began discussing one of my projects, and when I was asked whether their plans for it were acceptable, I gave the thumbs up.
The product manager sitting nearby chuckled and said, "I've never seen Zeri enthusiastic."
"Oh," someone at the far end of the table piped in, someone I barely know, "the day Zeri is enthusiastic about anything will be the day that I eat my shoe." (Okay, to be honest, he may have said something else, but it was -- I promise -- equally dramatic.)
Meanwhile, I did some more work on my laptop and generally ignored the rest of the chat until, about twenty minutes later, I was told that -- given that the discussion about my project was finished -- I could leave if I wanted.
My eyebrows went up, and I shot out of my chair almost as quickly. Closing my laptop and smiling, I said, "I can leave? Now I'm enthusiastic!"
The product manager laughed loudly and said, "I love it! That's more snarkiness than I've ever seen out of him." I heard another manager say, "Wow, you do seem enthusiastic."
It wasn't faked. I've never been a fan of meetings.
It's the end of a work day and I'm crammed into a small conference room with other colleagues. The room is dubbed the "War Room", and the extreme proximity is intended to make us more productive. For me, it's mainly noisy, and I can't help being affected by the rising tension in the room.
Though I try to drown it all out, I happen to hear a remark from a coworker at the other end of the room. Some remarks stand out to me. My ears are attuned to them, unfortunately.
"I've never seen you interact with anyone," he's saying to someone else. "You're almost like Zeri, over there," he says, pointing at me, "but minus one or two points."
In a way, I suppose that I like being known for my taciturn nature; I mean, it gives me an excuse to avoid interactions (not to mention a reason to write a blog entry). But sometimes I wish I could just do my work without being measured for my social activity. I'm not sure how the chaotic environment I'm in is supposed to help me work, but it's clearly not making me communicate more. Perhaps the "War Room" will change me, but I doubt I'll become more productive.
I was hard at work and trying to ignore the chaos surrounding me, but at some point my mind registered that someone had been speaking to me moments earlier. One of the project managers was looking at me, I sensed. And then, a few moments after I registered it, my brain somehow replayed his comment, something that needed acknowledging. I turned to him and said: "I was nodding, but only in my head."
Minutes or hours passed. Then the director was sitting next to me and telling others a story that, again, I was trying to ignore. Once more, however, I inadvertently picked up the gist of it. Something about an employee being let go, and how he -- the expressive person that he is -- immediately did a jig. Then, after admitting it was an inappropriate time to do a jig, he said he should probably strive to be more like Zeri and that he should express his thoughts on the inside.
I think I turned to him and smiled, but I can't be sure. In reality, my mouth may or may not have moved.
There is a group of six or seven people gathered just a little way behind me who have aroused my curiosity a little. I naturally assumed at first that they were a group of friends out together for the evening. But as I listened to their exchanges, it became apparent they were strangers who had just happened upon one another here on this spot behind me. Evidently, they had all paused a moment for the lights coming on, and then proceeded to fall into conversation with one another. As I watch them now, they are laughing together merrily. It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly. It is possible these particular persons are simply united by the anticipation of the evening ahead. But, then, I rather fancy it has more to do with this skill of bantering. Listening to them now, I can hear them exchanging one bantering remark after another. It is, I would suppose, the way many people like to proceed. In fact, it is possible my bench companion of a while ago expected me to banter with him -- in which case, I suppose I was something of a sorry disappointment. Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically. After all, when one thinks about it, it is not a foolish thing to indulge in -- particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.
Excerpt from The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro
I like this quote mainly because I had similar thoughts and questions frequently while growing up. I wondered about the skill of talking and about whether people practiced at it, and I wondered whether people felt more or less close because of it all, etc.
But as I was looking up the wording for this quote online (I'd listened to the audio format), I found it referenced in a book called "Bullshit and Philosophy", which was amusing. Bullshitting is a good thing, it asserts, and I don't disagree. As it goes on to say:
"Just imagine that every conversation were to be informed with a strong concern for the truth. Conversations would be terribly fatiguing."
Then again, conversations are often fatiguing for me. Even the amusing ones.
There are ways of making your presence known that some would consider uncouth and even shocking. There are ways of announcing yourself that stand out in a peculiar, and even in an amusing way. And often they happen accidentally. Yes, I'm referring to farts. But, belches count, too.
And, yes, I'm going there.
I grew up in a family that had no shame, and no compunction to refrain from making such bodily (sometimes musical) refrains. Farts were something to laugh at, or something to blame on the nearest victim. They were performed loudly and proudly, or silently and furtively (the furtive sort are the worst, as everyone knows). My family got enjoyment out of the littlest of things, this among them. I liked how easily they could laugh, even if I was usually only smiling and shaking my head.
Rarely did I share in the fun. I remember my sister saying, years later, that "Zeri never farts". It's untrue, of course, but I acknowledge that I was much more restrained than the rest of them.
Holding back was, like many things with me, a reflex. In most ways, I hold back from bringing attention to myself. I speak up only when I mean to, and that includes speaking by way of fart. Not wanting to be noticed (and thus be dragged into conversations), I would tamper any kind of noise-making I might produce. Unless by accident, sounds didn't escape from me without a lot of effort. It's funny: I've only thought about it in terms of oral sounds in the past, but I suppose I was quite deliberate when it came to other bodily sounds, as well.
It didn't bother me when others farted (unless it was the furtive sort). I didn't feel like a more proper person. My only motive was not to be noticed, although, as I've said, the act of not being noticed became habit early on, and I hardly had to try. Even today, I hardly try.
But sometimes it helps to let your voice be heard, no matter where it's coming from. Sometimes, I've learned, being heard helps make others feel comfortable. Maybe it's not always important to do so, but when those people matter, then perhaps it becomes another kind of communication, a way of saying: I'm okay being fully human with you. In those cases, maybe it's best to try easing up with the sound barrier.
Then, maybe some extra humor can be had, and some extra closeness to boot. One more way of becoming close, at least with the right people, never hurts.
Just be wary about proximity.
Not many weeks ago, I told a colleague that I'd prefer him to use my full and correct name, and -- in case he couldn't handle that -- I offered up a couple of acceptable nicknames. I don't always respond to the name he had been calling me by, I told him.
Now, whenever we meet, he struggles to call me by anything else but his original name for me. After convening today's meeting, I mentioned this to another coworker.
"He has trouble calling me by my real name," I said.
"Yeah," my coworker said, "but he corrects himself half the time."
"True," I said, "but I wonder why he struggles. I think it's because he's a talker."
"Yep, he's a talker," my coworker said. "He's not like us. His words are more quick to come out."
It's not a bad trait to have, being a talker, but it's not one I readily understand. I can't imagine having difficulty with someone's name. While my colleague struggles to stop words from coming out, I struggle to make words come out at all. I deliberate on nearly everything I say. I tend to mean what I say, and I usually chew on things before they come out. Whereas he seems to have thoughts speed from their conception to his mouth, mine take long and winding detours before they're birthed.
But sometimes I wish I could be more free with my words. Or, at the least, I wish my thoughts could be more speedy.
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