(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: this)
Before you even Google, it’s a made-up word. There’s a similar term called social-emotional agnosia, but it’s not at all what I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is something that’s bothered me my entire life, has strained relationships with friends and family, and is kind of funny but ultimately sad.
I like to joke to people that I was born without the part of my brain that understands social niceties. The subtleties of conversations and things said between the lines, the understanding of what is and is not appropriate in a given social scenario, and the entirety of passive-aggresivism as a form of communication – all of these things are complete voids to me.
I didn’t really notice it very much until the first time I ever asked out a girl. Ah, wonderful memories. Her name was Lindsey Cornelius, and in the one of the last days of eighth grade, I had the audacity to ask her out (having spoken to her about five times previously).
She laughed and said no.
It was the first time I came to realize that there were tiers of social popularity, and that I was not in the top one. (I know, that realization came late, right?) Of course, this trend continued into high school, where all the shit really started hitting the fan.
I had a nice core group of friends and enjoyed making an ass of myself with them, doing things loudly and with little care as to who was watching. It got to a point where my little brother would defend me to his friends, who called me things like “weirdo” and I’m sure worse words.
I was a weirdo, and still am. I consider it one of my more endearing traits. But not everyone, especially the people close to me, see it the same way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had friends or girlfriends take me politely by the arm away from a party or other social setting and tell me, “What you just did was inappropriate.” Or worse, I find out about it a few weeks later, after it’s already left my mind.
See, the thing you have to understand about my family is that there were four boys growing up. Each of us louder than the last, all struggling to get our words – and sometimes our fists – into the conversation. There wasn’t exactly a lot of room for subtlety or passive-aggressive acts. As a matter of fact, there was pretty much no room for that.
My friends were kind enough to indulge me in my deficiency, and I didn’t associate with anyone ‘popular’ in high school, so I didn’t actually learn what it was like to be on the receiving end of passive-aggressive actions until college. And then, oh boy, did I learn.
I had a friend (I don’t believe he reads this, but it will almost certainly be hell for me if he does) who saw many of my habits and actions as being inappropriate. Of course, I never knew this because he never told me outright; instead, he would make passive displays of his frustration – which I am infinitely proud to say I actually picked up on.
Unfortunately, I never knew what he was mad at me for.
See, that’s where passive-aggresivism breaks down for me. I can understand someone wanting to change a behavior but wanting to be tactful about the way they bring it up. But when I notice someone is upset about something and I cannot determine what they are upset about, I get more and more guilty without knowing what to change. And believe me, I want to change it; I just don’t know what it is.
I explain it to people like this – I’m going to Japan for the first time, and I commit some unpardonable faux pas. A Japanese person starts yelling at me in Japanese and I can clearly see they are upset and want me to change something, but I don’t speak Japanese and I don’t know what it is.
Then someone else, well-meaning but frustrating to me, comes along and says, “Well, just learn Japanese!” and I am so down for that. But then I learn that everyone speaks a different dialect of Japanese, and everyone has a different set of social rules, and they all just expect me to know all of this. I ask them to teach me Japanese and they say, “It’s just something you have to know.”
I’m not kidding. People have before told me, “If you’re telling me that you don’t see how that’s inappropriate, you’re bullshitting.” To which there is only one response on my part – a shrug, a sad half-smile, and an apology for something I don’t understand but must be sorry for, under social convention.
I wouldn’t be quite so frustrated about this if it wasn’t for the fact that there was an alternative which is easier, clearer, and in a way more beautiful. It’s called direct honesty, and I work to cultivate it in every important relationship in my life.
You’re upset with me? Tell me why. I will strive to act in a different way, knowing exactly what made you upset and why it’s important.
Some people are wonderful about this, even if it makes them uncomfortable to say, “Hey, what you’re doing right now is pissing me off.” But some people continue to refuse to tell me what’s going on. They think (or I assume they think, because they won’t tell me directly) that I should just know better, that I should be able to pick up on the subtleties. It’s like telling a colorblind person to just know the difference between red and green.
Okay, having finished the rant, I now want to talk about why my beliefs about this are kind of bullshit.
^This guy, am I right?
I didn’t really consider this until some of my coworkers at the library brought it up a few weeks ago. Without going into a long story, I had said something during an interview with a potential staff member that was totally inappropriate. Of course, because I’m me, I didn’t know that until they brought it up a few weeks later, and then I was embarrassed in the extreme.
The conversation evolved from there into something more about the expectations we bring into social interactions. The staff members, both of whom were women of color, encouraged me to consider what I, as a straight white man, might not perceive about the expectations and rules applied to outgroups and minorities in social scenarios.
I have to be honest and say I mentally rolled my eyes at that point – old habits getting the better of me. I’m still struggling to abide by the YH8 principle and sometimes I forget that equity and equality are not the same thing. But later on, when I thought about things with a more level head, I decided that treating my social dysfunction as an excuse to not try to understand others’ headspace was detrimental to my relationships and myself.
Where does this put me on the argument I’ve been having with myself on this post? Well, for one thing, I still don’t believe passive-aggresivism is an okay thing. If my coworkers had never brought up the misconduct at the interview to me, I wouldn’t have been able to learn from it and grow as a person. But I do believe that entering a conversation or social scenario without giving consideration to the different beliefs, standards of propriety, and baggage each other person brings is rude and in some cases oppressive.
Bottom line – I will try my hardest to understand the expectations and rules of social situations in the future. If you know me, you know I will fail. When I do, please tell me in a direct way, so I can keep improving myself towards that golden standard of tolerance and pleasantry that I someday hope to reach.
Yours, cuddled up in a blankie,