Friday, June 01, 2007

How Are You?

I’ve written a fair amount on this blog about the nature of human interaction, mostly because I don’t consider myself to be very good at it. I never know the right thing to say, and I’m particularly bad at asking questions. I always feel like I’m prying unless I know someone very well, and even then I have to think carefully about what I should ask. I probably come off as a little self-absorbed, but that happens when you spend your formative years being reverse-socialized. I’m perfectly good at watching people interact and knowing where other people are making social missteps, and I can have a fairly even exchange about non-personal stuff (philosophy, politics, religion, education, technology, movies, television? I’m good), but personal stuff is tricky. How much do you need to say to let someone know you care without getting too personal?

This is particularly difficult when you know someone is going through a hard time. To me, a sincere “how are you” is enough to know that someone cares. If someone feels like talking, they can answer honestly. But I don’t like asking specifics until the other person brings up the topic because I’m afraid to remind people of their pain. If someone does not open up after one or two questions, I assume they don’t feel like talking about it. And at that point, I feel it’s more my job to help them take their mind off of their problems than to help them dwell on them. I know that’s how I am. I’ve never been one for talk therapy, and I’m perfectly capable of dwelling on my problems on my own. If I feel like talking about it, I will talk about it. Otherwise, I want my time with my friends to be uplifting.

My aunt (who is going through a difficult time herself at the moment) seems to think that people who try to distract you from your problems are being insensitive. I suppose, yes, if they completely ignore that fact that you are in pain. However, she doesn’t see “how are you?” as enough. It’s too general, too common. While I’ve been desperate for human interaction and work and movies and anything to get my mind off the little pieces of my soul that are now buried in my parent’s front yard, she has been emotionally exhausted and desperate for alone time. But her friends and co-workers (mostly female), who are totally well meaning, keep asking her about her situation. My friends and co-workers (mostly male) are content to listen to me talk about my kitties for a few moments if I so chose, but they don’t dig at the wound. And that’s fine by me. I’ve probably talked about it too much as it is.

Maybe I’m just so used to being around guys and that’s how they deal with things. Or maybe my aunt and I really do live in completely different worlds – she in a world where people talk about their feelings and go to art galleries and hang out in coffee shops; me in a world where people talk about sci-fi and make constant pop-culture references and hang out on the Internet. It’s not that I don’t feel or don’t empathize when others are going through a difficult time. It’s just that there’s not always a lot you can say. Reassurances and sympathetic words feel so inadequate. I prefer to be a listener rather than an interrogator. I think that’s all most people really need – someone to listen. And opening that door really only takes one question: “How are you?”

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