Feb 272013

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,

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Adjust your conversation to the person in front of you. Both in the way you speak, and what you speak about.
And this just goes on and on and on. And every time I tell my husband about one of the rules – there is a whole big rulebook about things special to him like, “When he tells me that he is perfectly fine cooking alone set a timer for ten minutes, and go check if he needs help anyway.” – every time I tell him, he says that I shouldn’t need a rule for this, normal people know these things without rules, and do them instinctively.
Well, it seems that I don’t, and so I make little rules for myself, and now I am in general a much nicer person. Or I appear to be a nicer person. I’m not actually sure at all if I am nice or not. (My husband also once said that it must be really complicated to be me, what with all those rules. I wouldn’t know, though, I’ve always been me as much as I can.)

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.

  7 Responses to “On being nice, patient, and fun or – “Susanne is really direct.””

  1. Yes, I understand this. My husband and I often wonder to each other if we are unintentionally condescending. But what the hell? I think I’m having a good day if I keep a straight face and don’t roll my eyes at people. Many years ago, my friends told me (as a compliment) that I was fun to go out with because I would say outrageously direct things, as if it were for their amusement.

  2. Could be me. Or my son. But then he has Asperger’s Syndrome and my husband offen jokingly (?) remarks that he is quite sure that I have it, too. How about you?

  3. LOL, also im Podcast kommst Du auf alle Fälle als sehr ruhig, gelassen und sympathisch rüber (während ich ja manchmal eher wie das Eichhörnchen aus “Ab durch die Hecke” wirke 😉 ). Ich glaube, das mit dem direkt kommt wohl aus der Situation des anderen kulturellen Hintergrunds. Ich weiß von genug Situationen mit Freunden aus England/Schweden/USA, wo die mich völlig irritiert anguckten, nur weil ich meinte, dass mein Essen echt nicht gut gewürzt sei. Und wenn man mich als Kellner danach fragt, dann muss man doch mit einer ehrlichen Antwort rechnen.
    Ich kann auch eher mit Leuten umgehen, die direkt sind, als mich stundenlang mit jemandem über etwas zu unterhalten und der kommt nicht zum Punkt 🙂 Schieb’ es also auf die generelle Erziehung hier 🙂 und nicht auf Dich persönlich.

  4. I also thought Asperger’s, Susanne, but it’s awfully hard to say when you only know someone online. I’m speaking as an adult woman who is an Aspie, and all the rules and pretending sounds awfully familiar. And I think the crabbiness may come from never being able to just relax and *be*. You might look into it, anyway. en.Wikipedia’s article is a good overview. But remember, no two aspies are alike. It’s a hard thing to diagnose. If you want to talk more about it, we can talk on Rav, or feel free to email me.

  5. One of the things I cherish in people more now, in my sixties, is directness, and one of the things I’ve learned to do more, in my sixties, is to judge whether I should be direct all the time. I think I’m the same person I used to be, but I’ve learned to cloak the things that often pushed people away. Sometimes it feels insincere. Usually, though, when I think about it, it’s an exercise in compassion, and learning to sense the other person’s need before responding.

    Wonderful post!

  6. Also, fü rmich ist dein “direkt” normal – ich bin auch ein bisschen so. 🙂 In der Schule fand eine Freundin mich immer schrecklich unhöflich und ich fand sie völlig übertrieben freundlich: wer hat da am Ende Recht? Erziehungssache, Charakterfrage, Tagesform. Ich versuch so einen Mittelweg zu finden, finds aber auch total nervig, immer einsortieren zu müssen, wie höflich ich zu der Person sein muss, die mir grad gegenüber ist (Arbeitskollege? Fremdling-in-der-Sbahn? Freund? Potentieller Freund?) Wirklich raus hab ich das nicht… und manchmal ist es unglaublich nervig, wenn man für seine “Direktheit” bewundert wird. Natürlich sage ich der Chefin meine Meinung! Wem hilft es, wenn ich die Klappe halte, wenn sie nen blöden Fehler macht, den man völlig simpel verbessern vermeiden kann?

    Menschen sind komisch und kommunizieren ineffizient.

  7. Liebe Susanne,

    ehrlich gesagt finde ich es auch sehr direkt, jemanden so vorzustellen! Darf die neue Person sich kein eigenes Urteil bilden? Man kann ja gern sagen: “Das ist Susanne, ich kenne sie schon sehr lange und schätze an ihr dies und das…. sie wohnt in der Nähe von München… sie ist von Beruf…”
    Aber ein Eigenschafts-Label “Sie ist direkt” oder “Sie ist schüchtern” oder was auch immer, das finde ich unhöflich.

    Ansonsten geht es mir auch wie Dir. Erst vor Kurzem habe ich mich mit meiner Schwester darüber unterhalten, wer uns alles in der Kindheit erzogen hat, denn das sind nicht nur die eigenen Eltern. Da gibt es Geschwister, Nachbarn, Freunde, Eltern der Freunde, Freunde der Eltern usw.

    Manche Menschen haben Glück und lernen spielerisch von Klein auf, wie man sich in allen Lebenslagen korrekt benimmt. Andere eben nicht oder nur teilweise. Wer das irgendwann selbst bemerkt oder von netten Menschen sanft darauf hingewiesen wird, kann es später nur noch anhand von solchen Regeln lernen. Instinkt oder Intuition kann man nicht von heute auf morgen entwickeln. Je intelligenter wir sind, desto schwieriger ist es leider auch noch. Das Problem ist, dass wir uns nicht natürlich verhalten, wenn wir unserer Natur nicht nachgeben, sondern die spät gelernten Regeln befolgen. In unserem Fall geht nicht beides gleichzeitig.

    Fühl Dich umarmt, Du warst mir gerade sehr nahe, als ich Deinen Post gelesen habe. Danke!

    Liebe Grüße aus Berlin,

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