Sunday, May 11, 2008

Social peanut butter

Other people are mysteries. I cannot understand them.

A. and I discovered that we both use the following scheme to model other people's behavior:
Assume other people are thinking, behaving, and decision-making just like you are.
After all, your only known model of the inner workings of a mind is your own. This may be a terrible approximation, depending on the person you are trying to simulate.

When this model breaks down, I default to viewing other people as enigmas. (For example: inexplicable-to-me behavior at airport security checkpoints, odd supermarket-traversing paths, abuse of sidewalk-usage protocols.) This default case is invoked quite frequently, as I am a compulsive, acute observer of others' behavior.

What does this mean to everyone out there who is not me?

By being silent and awkward around you, I am actually demonstrating my respect for you as a unique person (in my own odd way). I'm quite outgoing around people I already know, those who have put in the long months/years to get to know me to the point that I'm comfortable around them. I'm also social around those with whom I share an instant recognition of common background. (College roommates are examples of the former; conference nerds, the latter.)

What does this mean for me?

The accumulated effect of this strange policy is that it takes me a long time to warm up to you, and once you're my friend, you're stuck. It will take a long time for me to forget you. This is why I've been sending postcards and letters to my dispersed, graduated friends around the world: I move in social slow-motion. Like walking through peanut butter. Even after eight months here, I'm still not adjusted; my mental self-image has trailing emotional tentacles stretched back to college, and no firm roots yet taken in Toronto (mmm, mixed metaphors). (At least, I don't feel adjusted; what does adjustment consist of, but feeling adjusted? Objective self-assessment is difficult if not impossible.) This is all amenable to posting online, somehow -- I don't know how -- if I don't understand myself, how can I ever understand others?

I sometimes spend entire days here working quietly by myself. At the end of the day I realize that I haven't had a single face-to-face conversation (of more than a few words) with another person all day. I wonder: how will I make friends if I'm no good at socializing? Then my other obsessive thoughts crowd this out, and I have no worry left over for the friends I don't have yet.

This post's theme word: paroemiology, "the collecting and studying of proverbs."

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