I’m not proud of this but I’ve done my fair share of inadvertently alienating people. Sometimes, in an effort to be funny I’ve ended up hurting someone’s feelings. My humour does tend towards the sarcastic and cynical, but I guess I have a tendency to go overboard. Once, and this example goes back 20 years or so, I was hanging out with friends of a friend. The topic of football came up and I disparaged the sport and referred to someone in the group as not even existing, not being worthy of my attention, because she liked football, or maybe it was soccer, or rugby, whatever. Later I was informed that this girl was extremely offended by my dismissive attitude, and I felt bad. I still feel bad. I don’t remember this teenager’s name, and I don’t remember what sport I was poo-pooing but I’m still traumatized by this event decades later, by the fact that I hurt someone so deeply without even meaning to.
Other times I’ve felt less guilty but more confused as to how such a misunderstanding could have come about. I know I have resting bitch face but do I also have resting bitchiness? Where everything I say comes across as rude and hostile even when I don’t mean it to?
Recently at work, my supervisor took me aside to let me know that there had been a complaint lodged against me. At first I just assumed she was talking about a hasty email I’d written because I know I can be curt in writing. But no, as she went on, it because clear that she was talking about an incident I couldn’t even remember. Apparently this
whiny baby perfectly pleasant guy came into my office to talk to me and I ignored him. Now this guy is known to be extremely meek and soft-spoken, and when I’m working I tend to zone out. I’m sure I simply didn’t notice him when he came to see me. But he was so offended by my not paying attention to him that he filed a formal complaint!
These are just two examples of a lifetime of being perceived in ways I don’t intend. People think I’m a hater. I’ve often been accused of misanthropy, but honestly, I don’t hate people. I’m actually a pretty big fan of humanity. Yet because I’ve been accused of misanthropy so often, I’ve sometimes tried to convince myself that maybe I do hate people. But it’s not antipathy I feel towards others, usually it’s just indifference.
I’m an introvert, so I have no patience for small talk, and I don’t really care how your weekend went. I mean, I do if we’re friends, or sufficiently close co-workers, and if you can tell a story in an amusing way, then sure, I’d love to hear about how you got sunburned climbing a mountain. But generally speaking, I’d rather stand in the elevator in silence than talk about the weather.
And, as mentioned, I’m also rather bad at noticing people. I can’t even count the number of times people I’ve been hanging out with have said, “hey, did you see that guy who just walked by?” And my reaction is no, I did not see him. Usually I’m in my own world, my mind is racing a mile a minute and I genuinely do not notice the people around me. I notice in a general sense, like I don’t constantly bump into people, and I’ll notice things that are interesting to me, but not the things that are interesting to you. So no, I didn’t see that guy you think is hot, and I didn’t see that guy who looks suspicious, and I didn’t see that mom being a bad mom, and I didn’t see that crack dealer dealing crack. I just didn’t notice because I just don’t care.
But sometimes I do care, and I still say or do the wrong thing, because I also have social anxiety. Back when I was a kid, in the ’80s, we called it shyness. But now we’ve pathologized it, which I actually think is fair. Anxiety can be quite crippling. I don’t just dislike talking to strangers, sometimes it fills me with dread. I’m fine in everyday situations, like going shopping or whatever, because I know the rules of shopping. I don’t have to tip cashiers. But I hate situations that are even vaguely ambiguous. I’ve been to a hairdresser a total of four times in my life and they’ve all been traumatic events. I prefer to cut my own hair than face the awkwardness of making small talk with a stylist or trying to figure out how much to tip the shampoo kid. And then there are social events. I know intellectually that people aren’t just standing around judging me, but it’s difficult to get past that perception emotionally.
I’m fine at parties where I know everyone, like work parties. Or small gatherings where I’ve built up a respectable level of ease with the other guests. But events filled with people I don’t know are literally torture. Imagine being in a group, or even just with one other person, and they’re talking and you can’t think of anything to say in reply. You’re just standing there mute, knowing with every passing second that you’re coming across as more and more rude but you can’t do anything about it. Or maybe you can think of something to say, you can think of a million witty rejoinders, but you can’t say them out loud. Your mind is full of possible comments that simply won’t escape your lips. And because I’m now so acutely aware of my tendency to accidentally offend people I default to saying nothing rather than risk an inadvertent faux-pas.
As a result, I come across as the most boring person alive. And ironically, this problem is exacerbated if I’m bored. Boredom, of course, is a subjective feeling. One person’s exciting topic of conversation is total dullsville for another. So I’m not judging. If your thing is cooking, then more power to you, but it’s not my thing and I don’t give a shit how much paprika you put in the casserole. So my mind wanders. If you don’t hook me pretty much immediately then I’m out. Sometimes my mind wanders even when I am interested in the topic at hand. It’s not a problem of being unable to focus. It’s more that I’m not prone to interruption, so rather than interject with my thoughts on a subject while another is talking, I’ll just go off on a digression in my own mind and only be snapped back to reality when I’m asked a direct question.
So people think I’m a jerk. I come across as an asshole. And I guess I am an asshole, if that’s how I come across. Because result, unfortunately, is more significant than intention. And I guess you could make the argument that being indifferent to other people is hateful. It’s certainly not empathetic, or compassionate to not give a shit about others. So I guess all the times people referred to me as a bitch, they were right. Maybe I should embrace that label. After all, why do I even care how I’m perceived? If I’m largely indifferent to people, why would I care about their opinions of me? The answer is that I’m human. Of course I care what other people think of me. Everyone cares what other people think of them.
It’s trendy nowadays to tout the benefits of self-acceptance and not putting stock in other people’s opinions, and that is healthy to a degree. It’s especially important for women, who are so constantly expected to perform for others, to focus more on their personal journeys and less on others’ expectations. But if we all truly didn’t care how others were perceiving us then we would be sociopaths. We can’t help but care. Humans are social creatures. Anyone who says they don’t care what others think is either lying to you or lying to themselves. We all go home and agonize over what we said to who and how it was perceived. If you seriously never wonder what others think of you, you might just be a narcissist.
So yes, I DO feel badly that I hurt that girl’s feelings in 1996, and I didn’t mean to ignore my coworker last month, and I do regret any number of times I’ve been overly sarcastic or didn’t say anything at all. But what can I do? I guess I’m just a hater.