It occurred to me that even the most social among us share only a fraction of ourselves. The truth is that we barely know the people we work with, the people we love, and the people who raised us. The only people we know are characters in books because every thought and motivation is portrayed on the page. We all have secrets and we will all be surprised by the people closest to us. Do you remember the first time a parental figure came crashing off that pedestal?
I sure do. I found it devastating.
My perception of that family member was the egg.
It didn't end well for the egg.
I would estimate I verbally share only 2% of what runs through my head. I'm on the quiet and introspective side of the spectrum. I view myself as socially awkward and can be very shy, although I've learned to be a bit of a chameleon when necessary (conventions, day job, work functions, interviews, etc.). That change only came about because my shyness was often interpreted as snobbery (and still is when I give in to it), and I feel terrible about giving the impression that I'm snubbing other people for some perceived shortcoming. When someone first told me they interpreted my shyness as me not liking them, it blew my mind. I didn't engage with them because I had already assumed they wouldn't like me. My point is that so much of our thoughts and emotions are censored that it's impossible to really know one another.
In some ways, this secrecy is a very good thing.
Public perception versus privately held complexity reminds me of
The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde,
which I'm sure was the author's intent.
While I generally live by the saying "honesty is the best policy," I think Charlaine Harris did a good job of conveying the damage that would be caused by hearing the snap judgments and anger of others in her Sookie Stackhouse series. There have been times when I've been irritated with someone's behavior only for them to surprise me by doing something kind. In an instant they went from someone I couldn't wait to run away from to someone I would be proud to know. My husband can drive me up a wall (and I know the feeling is mutual), but my love for him far outweighs the few moments in our ten year relationship when the temptation to storm out of the house, get in my car, and keep driving popped into my head. I've always had an inclination towards the dramatic, even in my daydreams.
Judging people in a split second is a survival mechanism that is especially prominent in those of us who have been abused. I don't mean buying in to the illogical fears that fuel misogyny, racism, and homophobia. I would posit that those fears are taught and fueled by people who either fan that flame for their own gain or have bought into the rhetoric hook, line, and sinker. Humans exist on a spectrum, and an asshole is an asshole no matter the race, creed, or gender identity. The survival mechanism I'm referring to is the ability to read body language and facial expressions that we've all been developing since infancy. Accurately judging the mood of a person or crowd helps us determine intent and avoid injury. Verbal interactions can help balance out or fuel initial perception.
This makes the words we choose to share all that more important.
Whether you're an author or interacting with another human, your words have a lasting impact. Delivery is equally crucial of course, but your words are what you leave behind. They are what people share when remembering you after you are gone.
In the U.S. corporate environment, the expectation is that we behave like a bunch of unemotive robots. This applies to all people. I've heard women classified as bitchy or shrill if they are passionate about a topic while men are...well, just passionate. I've heard men referred to as weak if they didn't defend their work. Sniping at one another is fine as long as no one cries or yells, and if you get defensive, the sharks will scent that blood in the water and bait you for the fun of it. Don't cry in public. Ever. Body language is key. If you appear flustered or nervous, you're not knowledgable and your opinion is worthless.
The corporate environment is like a parade of social norms on steroids. I figured out early that confidence is key to gaining trust, I suck at maintaining a poker face, and closed up body language (crossed arms, lack of eye contact) puts people on the offensive. I'm very logical and direct, and I'm still learning to lead people to a conclusion because it goes over much better than just telling them they're wrong. There are people who play the political game and people who shoot themselves in the foot by navigating the social structure poorly. I will tell you that my ruthless honesty has led to several foot wounds.
What we say is what we are judged by at work. What we choose to share with other humans is how we are remembered. All of us carry invisible burdens. If someone is having a hard day and says something cruel, I will forever know them as the asshole who snapped at me on the bus. I will never know that they're worried about a child or lost their job that day. When someone unleashes on me, I try to remember that they have a secret backstory. They're reacting to more than me. But I will always remember them for the words they chose to share.
Hate is very popular right now. If you haven't noticed, I'd like to know your trick so I can unplug on occasion. There have always been bullies, but in today's world you can't leave them behind at school or work. They're everywhere, and it's more in your face than ever with social media. The perceived anonymity of the internet has led to people attacking anyone who makes them feel different. It doesn't take a psychologist to see that this is probably because they perceive themselves as unaccepted in the real world. People have made lucrative careers out of trolling, and we're saturated in hateful commentary. As any of us who have dared express our opinion on the online video gaming culture or give off a feminist vibe (sometimes just saying the word 'feminist' sets people off) know, the trolls are restless and hungry.
As messed up as I think it is that we have to squash emotions in the corporate environment, there are rules and people play by them. I don't like all of the rules, and many of them need to be changed, but I know what to expect. The internet removes that pause I see people take face-to-face to censor themselves. Very few people want their real name and face associated with bullying behavior even if they lack the empathy to hold back for the sake of others' feelings.
On the other hand, snark has been popular for a long time, and meanness is a fallback crowd pleaser. When a comedian's joke falls flat, they often turn to making fun of specific members of the audience. Sometimes ripping apart the audience is *the* shtick. It's funny until they turn on you, and then you're forced to laugh because in that moment you hate what they're saying and that you took joy in laughing at someone else. Mean is a defense mechanism used by people who lack confidence and can't handle criticism. We've seen it a lot this past year in particular. When a certain very public figure was accused of doing something wrong, he deflected the focus onto someone else by either drawing attention to physical flaws or maligning their character. It reminded me of every bully I witnessed in school, but what scared me was how effective the tactic is.
Humans are fragile. It's impossible to know whether a moment of thoughtless or calculated cruelty is the final kick in the ass over the edge of despair. Kindness is hard. It takes more energy at times. It can feel weird. It's not popular. It's something I still have to consciously work towards. But a kind word at the right moment can be life saving.
Hug your loved ones and remind your friends why you chose them over all of the other humans who surround you. Life is fleeting and the words we choose to share with others are our legacy.
How do you want to be remembered?
Freelance writer and Dark urban fantasy author featuring vampires with bite.