That quote is a direct one that a friend said to a person we had just met. And that assumption, the one that I’m really direct, had me thinking. About being nice, patient, and fun.
It used to be that most people thought I was rather arrogant, and distant, or too mouthy, a smartass, or cynic. In those days I was basically the same person I am now but there was not much of a filter between my brain and my mouth, plus I hadn’t yet learned the art of making the right kind of eye contact at the right time, or smile in an appropriate way at appropriate places in the conversation. I also tended to forget things like saying thank you and hello often.
Not because I was a totally horrible person, I was just so much in my head most of the time that I never thought about how anybody else perceived me. And I believed that total honesty was usually the best way to go. Part of me still values honesty pretty high but I do value politeness and niceness as well these days.
So I didn’t use to be a pleasant person to be around most of the time, and I had the lack of friends to show for it. Then I met my husband, and he taught me a lot about social situations and seeing yourself from the outside. Something also changed inside of me so these days I don’t have the overwhelming urge to criticize each and every person around me all the time. Not only do people like me better for it, I also am a much happier person myself.
So I hadn’t realized it before meeting my husband but when paying more attention to other people’s feelings I also realized that I had a problem with keeping the right kind of eye contact. My mother had told me not to stare all the time for ages, but since I usually didn’t stare anymore I thought everything was alright. But my husband helped me with that too.
This morning I had just taken my contacts out when he came into the bathroom, and I realized that I had looked at him with a smile pretending to make eye contact. Because I didn’t wear contacts or glasses I couldn’t properly see his face anyway, so my try at looking at him reassuringly, and lovingly while smiling was an automatic gesture to make him feel better.
Huh. I hadn’t realized that I actually have internal rules for that kind of thing. But there seems to be a little rulebook in my head telling me things like,
- When meeting people it is a good idea to say hello, and smile while looking them into the eyes briefly. (Then take a clue from them to see whether they want you to shake hands or hug. That one might need a flow chart to explain.)
- Don’t stare at people for too long, even if you’re really interested in their eye makeup, or the pattern on their sweater. It makes people uncomfortable.
- When talking to people do after each sentence or two check if they are still listening. When they start fidgeting, looking for an escape, or having their eyes glaze over drop the subject as fast as possible.
- When talking to people do at times a) stop talking, b) ask the other person a question about herself, c) don’t interrupt her answer, d) remember what they told you, if possible.
- Adjust your conversation to the person in front of you. Both in the way you speak, and what you speak about.
As awkward as I sometimes am in social situations I do my best in my work to project a persona of calm, competent, nice, patient, and fun on my students and their parents. This is more evident to me when I meet students for the first time. It is not acting as such but I take a minute to get into my “Look at me, I’m nice and patient, and fun! And I know all the things! You can trust me!”-state. Even if I don’t feel like it.
Years ago I decided that I’d rather act nice, patient, as calm as possible, and polite than being a jerk. I like it when people act that way towards me, and so I try my best. Even if I don’t feel like it. And I’m okay with that. I do my share in making the world just a little nicer to live in, I hope.
But these days I sometimes feel a bit stuck in the nice, patient, and friendly persona because while I am all those things I’m also a person who is quick to anger, and not patient at all, and often just wants to be left alone. But when I’m angry, and impatient, and not nice I make other people feel uncomfortable so I don’t act on that very often.
So – to come back to the scene I described at the beginning – with all that being polite and nice, and not saying every word that pops into my head and such – I was rather taken aback when this friend of mine talked about how ‘direct’ I am.
We had been meeting as a group to talk about our respective creative goals and such, and there was someone new there that day. At the end of the meeting she showed us a couple of pictures of her paintings, and I said, “I’m always really relieved when someone shows me her work and it is actually good.” And that elicited my friend’s remark.
Now I know that this is in part a cultural thing. My friend is (mostly) American, I’m German, and I’m from a part of Germany where people are said to be rather outspoken. It’s also a personality thing because among the rather outspoken people of East-Westphalia I stuck out as being even more so as well.
But it seems a little unfair when I’ve come so far in trying to be really, nice, and patient, and gentle. And I couldn’t help on my way back home to think about all the not so nice things that I had left unspoken that day.
I only told them to my husband, though.