Category Archives: Self-awareness Makes an Ass of You and Me

Let me tell you a little bit about one of my very good friends. She and I had many a fights when we were going through that process of becoming actual good friends. You know, those fights where you have to decide if you would prefer a superficial friendship or a deep one. One of our biggest points of contention was our differing understandings of generalizations, assumptions, and stereotypes – particularly ones tied to the jokes she seemed to love telling at the expense of all Nigerians.

Those storms that threatened the bliss of our budding friendship were often borne out of me taking offense at something she had said or laughed at when it came to “Nigerians in general”. I did not take those jokes lightly, and I let her know EVERY single time (Letting her know was a sign, on my part, that I did want us to be real friends – hopefully she’s got that part by now). Was she irritated? Yes! Did she think I was overly sensitive? Definitely! And, did she react positively? Not really. You see, at first it just seemed like she stopped propagating Nigerian stereotypes through her jokes but only when she was around me so that I wouldn’t get offended. She walked on eggshells for a quite a while. But in time, and after many many intense talks between us – with me straining to explain my reasoning and her struggling to grasp it – I think she has come to understand that it was much bigger than that. It was much bigger than just a few harmless jokes, and a seemingly prudish and oversensitive girl.

You see, we can’t always help ourselves when it comes to believing in stereotypes to be true and complete representations of others. It is much less difficult to hear and believe a single story about a community or a people, than to painstakingly get to know a lot of the individuals that make up that community. I must concede that stereotypes are very handy and convenient little things, and they are like the Sparknotes* of inter-cultural relationships. But, they also hamper real (individual) unassuming human connections in ways we cannot always conceive of.

Every individual has a story: a patchwork of labels, events, and identities that, as a whole, is uniquely them. Unfortunately, stereotypes are more concerned with picking specific labels, and passing them off as “all you need to know” facts, thereby disrupting the unique tapestry of identity, and discrediting the complex nature of each idiosyncratic human story.

I remember a time when I did not like telling people I was Nigerian the first time I met them. This was not because I disliked, or was ashamed of my country, at all – Nigeria is great, and she is mine! However, I do realize that there are so many stereotypes about Nigerians, most of which are unfavorable, floating around every part of the world. We are everywhere, and while that has its advantages, it also has its demerits. For instance, when the first thing people find out about me is that I am Nigerian, I very frequently lose the opportunity to make a first impression as an individual. It is so automatic. Suddenly, I’m no longer me: I’m a country, an abstraction, I’m the loud life of the party, the money lover, the crook, the jovial friend with an agenda, the smart go-getter, and so much more.

“I had no idea you were Nigerian, you’re so quiet!” – The astonished words of a girl I had met two or three times before, on the occasion of her discovering my nationality.

Sometimes, our prejudices, and subliminally conceived assumptions are transformed into micro-aggressions, often delivered with well-meaning intentions. It’s like the time I wrote part of literature review for a group project, and my otherwise very friendly and kind team member couldn’t hide her shock when she said “OMG! You’re such a good writer! I had no idea you could write so well!” Never mind that we were all taking a class to become writing tutors, which I’d think is indication enough that we were good writers all.  Never mind that we had all been nominated by professors for having this very skill. I could take the more flattering route and speculate her compliment was borne out of the notion that my writing was particularly exceptional and maybe genius, but I highly doubt that was the case. Literature reviews are not the most stimulating things to write, and I most likely had a “get it done” approach to that assignment.  So, what WAS that about? Was it about her thinking that I couldn’t write well because I was Nigerian (black, African)? Was it about her thinking that since English was not my first language, I couldn’t command it nearly as well as she? Was it about her having lowered expectations of me because of her unvoiced assumptions? Or did she simply perceive my “get it done” writing to be exceptional?

I don’t intend to claim that I never am a perpetrator of assumptions, generalizations, and/or micro-aggressions. A particularly now-cringe-worthy incident comes to mind. I remember incessantly asking this guy, “What are you?” in regard to his ancestry, and I could not, for the life of me, understand why he seemed to be taken-aback. If anything, I was a bit annoyed by all the fuss he was making because, to me then, it was just a simple question. I should probably point out that I’d not had a lot of experience with race, so I was not informed enough to channel my curiosity into a better phrased question. I just came from Nigeria, and you were either black, white, or “half-caste”/mixed race. I’m really not trying to make excuses for myself, the point is that it takes a conscious effort, and awareness to avoid incidents like these.

Maybe the girl from my writing class didn’t mean anything by it. Maybe she was actually appreciative of my writing, and did not understand that her expression of shock might be perceived with different connotations. What this means, is that we all have to put in extra effort to identify, scrutinize, and terminate our prejudices, lest we rob other humans of their chance to be persons.

But until everyone gets to that level of consciousness, I have decided that any assumptions another person makes about me will be their problem, not mine. So, heck yeah! I’m a Nigerian! Do with that what you will.

Good Evening, but I Bring Bad News

I feel I must confess: I hate keeping up with the bad news of the world. I do not like watching the news, listening to it, reading it. I cannot pretend to be up to date on what’s happening in the world. I cannot claim to be one of the first people to know. I am not that person that has the morning newspapers and evening news ingrained in her routine. And, I don’t ever feel guilty about it. My dad will probably have a rage attack if he ever sees this. But, that’s just the way I feel. Have you ever noticed that it’s only on a News program that the host wishes you a Good Evening, and then proceeds to tell you exactly why it is not?

Yeah, yeah, I know awareness is great. Ignorance isn’t really bliss (although I do prefer the illusion of bliss on occasion). Knowledge is power, the more you know…and whatever other adage. But I find that when I do keep up with the news, one of two equally unfavorable things happen:
1. I get emotionally involved, and consequently depressed – because it is almost always bad, hopeless-sounding, and practically catastrophic news.

2. I feel detached and develop that, “at least it’s not happening to me” kind of attitude.

When I get invested in the news of people dying, a war brewing or boiling over, children being sold and violated, buildings and aircrafts being shot down, devastating natural disasters, and so on, it can very easily begin to feel hopeless. I don’t know if it’s the media building sensation over the hopelessness of those circumstances, but once you get invested, if you’re anything like me, it is very difficult to get out of it. You might start thinking, “What’s the point of everything?” “Why isn’t God here already?” “Can I move to another planet to be by myself, peacefully?”

I have decided that shock, and rage, and sorrow, with all their propensity to move people into action, can become like drugs. They will get you high on indignation, and bring you low into depression and cynicism. They can get you addicted and jaded. They will increase your threshold of tolerance for horrible happenings, and gradually get you to the point where you’re so desensitized, nothing moves you anymore. This could be the secondary reaction of always listening to the News – again, if you’re anything like me.

I cannot, for the sake of sensitivity and awareness, deprive myself of enjoying happiness and the little joys of life. Yeah, bad things are happening everywhere, but so are good things. What’s the point in letting myself seep in a constantly depressed and outraged state of mind? Who is that going to help? What is that going to achieve?

I have weighed the pros and cons, and I have decided that at this time in my life, all I need in order to maintain a reasonable amount of awareness is Twitter …and maybe Google, if I feel like it. I don’t need all the gruesome details constantly repeated CNN-style, which will most certainly keep me depressed for days long after the sensationalist part of the Big Media Break is over. What I do require is a 140-word-or-less description of the biggest news the world’s media has to offer, sprinkled occasionally with jokes and gossip from different perspectives (of course). If it’s something I think I can handle hearing more about, then I’ll look into it. However, I refuse to subject myself to the constant bombardment of despair that is our daily evening news – thank you very much, but, No.

I don’t mind listening to inconsequential news (E!), because it’s easier for me to prevent emotional attachment when it doesn’t involve people losing their lives, sanity, and liberty unjustly. I know I wouldn’t care as much if Jennifer Aniston got a new rad haircut as I would if there was a mass shooting at an elementary school.

I’m certain not everyone will agree with me on this, but that’s okay. I know myself. I know that once I’m invested, getting out of an unresolved worry is practically impossible. And most of the stuff reported to us, the masses, stays unresolved for really long lengths of time. My solution? Keep a bit of distance – not so close that melancholy and cynicism are constantly poured into my life, and my happiness stolen away with every word, but also not so far that I’m entirely oblivious*.

My advice? Know thyself.

*Hence, Twitter. Twitter feeds can be great and annoying at the same time - you can stay in-touch if you’re willing to deal with the rascals.

What is Normal?

This is a Story of The Normal Myth

What is normal? How do you define what is and isn’t so? Is it an average? Is it a certain yardstick by which we must all measure ourselves? Is it a myth? Or a reality? Is it based on prevalence? Or is it universal? Oh no! It couldn’t possibly be universal, could it? Is universality even really a thing when it comes to people? The question of universality is one I will ponder at a later time. Now, I’ll just focus on the alleged myth of “The Norm.”

Yes, I looked it up in the dictionary and read most of the definitions I could find. Then I read a little description about the history of the actual word. Then I took a look at what I’ve come to understand as its meaning based on what I’ve done, felt, heard, thought, said, and seen others do.

I’ve come to discover, being normal is like being able to fit in a box…or a niche, if you will.  I think that the problem of abnormality arises when it is unclear with which box one is supposed to measure one’s normalcy. How do I embrace being different if I’m not sure to what I must compare myself in order to determine my level of normalcy? Who decides what the boxes are? Who decides what the niches are? If I were to create a niche and no one recognized it as a niche is it still one? Is it like human rights in that sense? (You can’t claim to have human rights if no other human recognizes/acknowledges that you do). If claiming to be normal weren’t like human rights, then I could claim that everything I say and do fits perfectly within a niche that I have created for myself and is therefore my normal. Would that fly? Would my personal normal be considered normal? That’s the big question, isn’t it?

So, is the norm just the box or niche with the most people in it? Is it about averages and prevalence in that way? Or is that understanding of The Norm based solely on our perception, which tends to play tricks on us?

This society is increasingly against conforming. Apparently mainstream is uncool, unhip, and dead (or is sentenced to death). But here’s a premise I found a bit confounding: if nobody is conforming, it follows then that no one is “normal”, and that simply cannot be, because there are certain traits, and behaviors that occur more often than others, and surely those have to be the norm. The Norm seems to be decided based on what’s prevalent. There are attitudes, beliefs, systems, and styles that may have been aberrant before now, but have now been made into the new norm due to the sheer amount of nonconformists who have taken it upon themselves to “not conform” by imitating a particular brand of the atypical. Therefore, the atypical becomes the typical if enough people go that route. You see, Normal is not a stagnant concept. Culture and Normal go hand in hand, and as one changes, so does the other.

What is The Norm if not the rule, as opposed to the exception?

I will use a simple fashion example to illustrate. Let’s hope I can keep it simple. Say, in the year 2001 you saw a regular 15 year-old girl (not a celebrity, not even popular in school) wearing shorts so short that she couldn’t possibly be wearing sensible underwear as well, would you not have been at least a little bit shocked? I would even go as far as suggesting that some people would have been outraged. No fifteen year old girl in 2001 would wear anything like that unless she were intentionally trying not to be normal – to be an exception. Fast-forward to America in the year 2014, some people still think wearing shorts that short is an act of rebellion, an abnormality, an exception, but all you really need to do to see otherwise is take a walk around a mall sometime. Short shorts are not, contrary to what some people may still belief, an exceptionally provocative fashion choice. So many girls have signed up for that style of fashion that it is now a norm. You see, once a barrier is widened, or a limit pushed, in order to achieve exceptionality and inspire shock or awe in others, one cannot rely on repetition – one has to go further. Short shorts may have been a boundary-pushing fashion choice on what women could and could not wear in public, but it is no longer an aberration. One must look to the future for even more boundary-pushing movements, like the one that’s likely to gather momentum with Rihanna’s recent naked dress. Glamorous nipples and fashionable butt crack in public?! I’m practically clutching my pearls!

If tomorrow I decide to take it upon myself to become a hipster, and I begin to frequently research what hipsters are doing in order to copy them, then I can never truly be a hipster. Because being a hipster involves setting trends, not following them. Being a true hipster is about making things cool, not about finding out what’s cool and doing it before most people. Then, a few questions arise – who defines what cool is? The hipsters, or their followers? Is the coolness factor added by the hipsters themselves, or by their followers who believe them to be the mavericks, the trendsetters, and the in-crowd? Are there even true Hipsters, or are they all just ardent followers and overconfident, possibly grandiose, snobs?

Bottom-line is, everything cannot be the rule all at once. We all wish (and might fight/advocate) for our differing and sometimes unique ways of living and perceiving to be acknowledged and accepted as normal, but that simply cannot happen. If everything were to be considered normal, then that word would lose its meaning. You could also say the same for the word aberrant – if we were all aberrant and abnormal, then we would all be normal in our eccentricities. Normal and Aberrant need each other in order to even exist – Given that all humans are not the same, if nobody is normal, then nobody is atypical, but if some people are normal, then it follows that some people must be atypical…

I must mention that I almost did not publish this because I was informed that it’s a bit too dense. I did try to make it less convoluted, and I had to cut myself off at some point (I really could have gone on). So, if you follow the thought processes here, and you have any questions, qualms, or contributions, by all means let me know in the comment section below!

When Compliments are Uncomfortable

Have you ever been praised for being humble, after which a response was expected? Have you ever been told you’re the most beautiful, or purest, or kindest, or most inspiring, (or most anything) person the compliment-giver has ever met? What is it about these kinds of praise that make sensible people cringe a bit?

It might be the hint of insincerity that accompanies statements like that. I often sense that people who dole out such hyperbolic compliments at will rarely, if ever, mean it. And it makes me wonder what runs through their heads as they utter the disingenuous words. As for praising someone for being humble, I think maybe the praise-giver doesn’t always realize just how uncomfortable that could be for the receiver – who, if she/he were truly humble, would be immensely embarrassed by such commendation.

But I will start by addressing the hyperboles. This sort of applies to one of the things I’ve noticed, living in America. You see, people claim to “love” more frequently than I had ever seen. How many times have you heard something along the lines of, “Oh! I just LOVE (insert banal object/ mediocre person here)!”? What’s wrong with saying you “like” something? Or saying that something or someone is your current favourite? I am a strong believer and perpetrator of the notion that “Love” is a strong word, which should be reserved only for when you truly and deeply love. We should refrain from throwing it around so willy-nilly. I do realize I may be fighting a lost cause here, so…I’ll just have to keep cringing inwardly whenever I get annoyed about this.

There is something about hyperbolic compliments, or expressing praise in exaggerations that make them seem so much more bogus than the speaker may have intended. Here’s a story to illustrate:

I remember my first time speaking at a Bible study group I belong to on Campus. I was so nervous, I fumbled a lot, I could hardly get the words out, my voice wasn’t loud enough to reach the back of the room at times, and there were a lot of awkward pauses and nervous stares. I led Bible study two weeks in a row, and admittedly, by the second week I had gotten a bit better at it. I was able to laugh at myself a bit more, but I wasn’t an expert by any means! After that second week, I remember a particular girl, who I’ll call Samantha for the sake of this blog, came to me and said, “That was so good! Yo! [she] should lead Bible Study every week, guys!”

A part of me knew that Samantha may have been saying that just to make me feel better about all the fumbles, (and she was not being sarcastic at all, in case you were wondering). However, I did wonder why she would go to such excessive lengths, which just made her compliment come across as insincere (Really? EVERY week?).

Fast-forward a year or two later, Samantha probably already forgot this little encounter. I was asked to lead Bible study again, and this time I was way more comfortable up there, and it was just a smoother, and dare I say, fun delivery of the message I was given (still not an expert though). Along comes Samantha, in the middle of a conversation I was having with someone else about how much of an improvement I had made from last time. Imagine my astonishment, when she chimes in something along the lines of, “oh yeah, that was kinda bad, but you were great up there this time!” My initial suspicions were confirmed at this point. You can imagine what now runs through my head every time Samantha pays me a compliment. -_-

Another uncomfortable kind of praise is when you’re lauded for your humility! As far as I know, there is no right, non-awkward way of getting out of this kind of compliment without offending anyone. Please, correct me if I’m wrong.

If you are going to praise someone for being humble, please do not say it to their faces! One of three things will happen; the person could thank you and generously accept that compliment, at which point they don’t seem that humble anymore; The person could start to explain why they are not humble, at which point you’d just wish they’d shut up and accept a compliment for goodness sake!; Or the person would not know how to react, at which point a massively awkward moment ensues.

If you’ve read up to this point, please let me know how you’d react if someone praised you for being humble, or gave you a hyperbolic compliment contaminated by insincerity.

Why Would Everyone Want to Look The Same?

The internet is surfeit with galleries of celebrities, from A-listers to Z-listers, who have changed their appearances in order to achieve or maintain a particular kind of prettiness. And I say “prettiness” because I think beauty is so much deeper than what you see when you look at a person. Always with the nips, tucks, facelifts, cheek implants, engorged lips, and narrowed straightened noses that I could slice cheese on. The “after” pictures of these celebrities always show that they were shooting for very similar looks.

For a society that incessantly preaches individuality, there is an inordinate amount of people trying to copy a certain idea of what “good-looking” means. It may have started in Hollywood, but it is slowly and steadily spreading through to the rest of the population.

Homogeneity of any kind, in the big picture, is not usually a great thing. It is not always a good thing to maintain a non-changing culture among a homogeneous group of people. What does a community become when their culture or appearance is not allowed to evolve with some introduced heterogeneity? A cult? Another extinction? See Elif Shafak’s talk on fiction, if you wish to get a better understanding of what I’m saying here.

Also, think about it from the perspective of a scientist for instance. There is a reason a wide and varied gene pool is necessary for the survival of the human race. It is one of the medical/biological reasons close relatives are discouraged from getting married and/or having kids with each other.

There is a reason every individual person was created to look different from the rest of the population. Even with identical twins and doppelgangers, there are still little ways of telling them apart. We have varied blood types, genes, facial and bodily features and shapes. And let me not forget the whole finger print thing – no two people have the same one! Is that not indication enough that we are not supposed to be one big homogeneous soup pot of creatures?

I’m just trying to stress the importance of heterogeneity, I might have gotten carried away, but I’m sure by now you get the point. We should not all be trying to attain that particular narrow-nosed, fair-skinned, full-cheeked, full-lipped, skinny-but-shapely image of good-looking. And for the guys, not everyone can be or should be a tall beef-cake with washboard abs. I personally know a few girls who are not big on the whole sculptured abs thing.

I strongly believe that the attractiveness of a person is not, and should not be a universally agreed-upon idea, because that saying – beauty is in the eye of the beholder – has a lot of merit.

At the end of the day, it comes down to being comfortable and confident in your own skin and your own looks. It comes down to accepting the fact that no matter how you look or don’t look, there are going to be people out there who find you good-looking, and people who do not. And, you should not always take the fact that someone doesn’t find you attractive or good-looking as something to be internalized. Those kind of comments are more about what people see than about what is actually there. In the same way, how you feel about your looks, and your confidence level, are actually more about what you see than about what is actually there.

I Might Just be a Spoiled Brat

Or maybe I have an integrity that refuses compromise.

Let me start by saying, that I believe my work ethic is tied to my belief in working for a cause or a vision. I have this tendency to not do things just because someone asked me to – I have to strongly believe in either the purpose of the task or the person who’s assigned it. When I can find neither foothold of belief, it’s like this innate stubbornness just kicks in, and I can’t bring myself to do whatever it was I’ve been asked to do.

Let me give a proper example here. Not too long ago I volunteered at this organization whose vision and mission I think are pretty cool – they are in alignment with some my own beliefs and convictions and I figured it would be a good avenue to exercise my passions. However, as time went on, my excitement for the position I had taken failed to build up – if anything, it dwindled considerably. For this reason, I could not motivate myself to accomplish in a timely manner even the littlest tasks I was assigned. Coupled with the fact that I had a lot going on mentally, I could not bring myself to focus on the little jobs I was given. Because without a vision which I could see, those jobs just became banal unrewarding tasks – and as far as I was concerned, I might as well be reading a book or visiting friends!

I have been told by someone with whom I had just had a disagreement, that he admired my integrity. At the time, I wasn’t sure if to take that as a compliment, or just a politically correct way of saying “stubbornly strong-willed.” I have now come to accept it as a deep compliment that says a lot about my character. But I still sometimes feel like I need to explain myself.

There are a lot of debates in this world that I know for sure to which side I lean, although I remain somewhat flexible pending a greater understanding of those matters. There are even more issues/debates upon which I have not yet decided which way to lean. So, when I arrive at certain convictions after broad considerations, I am usually very sure of myself, and it would take a paradigm-shifting experience – or maybe even more – for me to change my mind on those things.*

For someone who hates confrontations, and would do whatever it takes to avoid a heated debate (unless, of course, I was sure I would win), sticking to my convictions and remaining agreeable at the same time can be a bit challenging. So, over the course of my life, I have mastered the art of silent stubbornness, whereby I will refuse to argue with you, or say much on whatever is our subject of disagreement. Meanwhile, I will still go ahead and do whatever it was I intended to do in the first place.

I remember, back in secondary school (SS2/11th grade) we had this Food and Nutrition Practical exams, where we were each assigned a partner with whom we were supposed to plan a three-course meal for either a hypertensive or a diabetic person. Now, I went into the brainstorming session with some pretty good ideas for dishes we could make, and a long list of options which I was very willing to tweak according to my partner’s preferences. But, when I met with her, she had already decided on exactly what she wanted to make, and I thought some of them were horrible choices, so I let her know very nicely we should consider changing them.

My partner was one of those very vocal girls, who on one hand could be nice, but who also had physically beaten quite a few people (mostly male) in school to earn herself a nice little reputation. So I wasn’t about to start arguing with her for fear of encouraging a physical or maybe even just verbal confrontation. I figured, at the end of the day, she would still need my money and my approval to buy any ingredients. So, while she vehemently declared her faith in her menu, I quietly sat down and planned a menu I felt would make us both happy.

It was during this episode that one of my friends first told me that I was “very stubborn o! But in a quiet way.” At first, I felt scandalized that she would call me – of all people – “stubborn,” because I considered myself nothing if not pliable. I didn’t have a lot of strong opinions back then. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how right she was! Any other non-stubborn person would probably just agree with my intimidating partner – after all it was just for a grade, and she may end up doing most of the work anyway – but not me. Let me just say, I was probably happy with what we ended up making, because if I wasn’t I would still remember how that episode ended, probably with some bitterness.

My discovery of this trait in my person was not a recent one, however I lately recalled that experience back in secondary school because of some recent happenings. A couple months ago, I took up another volunteer job, where I could not only see the vision, but could make it mine – and guess what else? I’m in charge of this new project…well, for the most part, which means that I’m not just performing empty tasks without a greater understanding of their purpose.

My reaction to this position in terms of my work ethic has been nothing like how I was with the one I took up last year. Since most people won’t understand what difference between the two positions make me work harder at one than the other, it just seems as if I like one better solely because I’m in charge. While this is partly true, it does make me feel like I might just be a whining brat who just wants her own way – and I felt the need to explain myself a little.

I have even more recently discovered that I am not as motivated by money as some other people are – it sure took me a while to arrive at that. I mean, I studied English in the University – that’s not a course aspiring billionaires would willingly choose!

So, it’s not about money, being in charge, or getting my own way – it’s about working towards a set meaningful vision, preferably based on a personal conviction.

* This may just have something to do with my personality, I’m not sure. I recently took a very detailed personality test that happened to be eerily accurate, so I’ve been trying to find ways I fit into the description and ways I don’t.

The Hypocrisy of Tolerance

“What price tolerance if the intolerant are not tolerated also?” – Salman Rushdie

These days there are a lot of movements for tolerance in the society. And sometimes I feel that people get carried away and lose the real essence/basis of their activism. Right now, I will use gay rights activist to illustrate what I mean – just because it’s one of the biggest causes in U.S. at the moment. The idea is for those beliefs and convictions to be accepted by the society. Yet, majority of the activists are always ready and eager to bully into silence and passivity anyone who has contradictory beliefs and convictions.

These days, one fears that if one speaks against lgbtq rights in any way at all, one may be lynched by a mob drunk with indignation. Yet we are encouraged to speak out for the lgbtq community – no, not even “encouraged,” because “harassed” is a better suited word for what sometimes happens.

If you doubt me at all, think about it from the point of view of a celebrity who depends on an image and popularity for a living. No celebrity who wants to stay loved and popular (not infamous or defamed or obscured) would ever confess to having beliefs that do not completely support that community. And if they dare speak out on those convictions, they would immediately be bad-mouthed, hated, bullied, and pressured by about 70 percent of America.

One thing I will say to any activist of any kind is this: even as you fight for this to be accepted, and for that to be accepted, just reexamine yourself and your reasons. When you claim to fight for tolerance, make sure you’re not fighting for your own beliefs to be the supreme one, which ultimately replaces whatever is, was, or could have been. Don’t make it seem like you’re fighting for tolerance, when what you really want is dominance.

Self-aware Awkwardness: Cute or Nah?

In a previous post I talked about small talk, and the problems that arise when you’re forced to engage. I fancy myself a kind of expert when it comes to these, partly because I feel like I have participated in so many such exchanges. I like to think that I can now navigate these conversations in such a way that the other person either doesn’t feel the full awkwardness of the exchange, or we get a good laugh out of it somehow.

I think the key to my “success” (I don’t think you can really call it that, but I choose to anyway) is being aware of the conversation’s inelegance, and finding my way around it. When I do have to make small talk – because it is inescapable sometimes – I go into it with this understanding; If you have this kind of conversation in a social environment where you can admit it for what it is (an awkward exchange), and you’re able to laugh at yourself, then it takes a bit of the simulated edge off the conversation. Acknowledging awkwardness sometimes introduces an element of authenticity that is often lacking in most obligatory and/or unrewarding small talk.

If you’re a bumbling idiot, and you know it, and can laugh at yourself, then hurray! Because that could actually be adorable to an extent – it’s endearing, and also connotes a sense of sincerity. However, if you’re a bumbling idiot and are completely oblivious to the fact, or continually/consistently deny or ignore it, then that’s just tragic. Because, trust me, if you can’t laugh at yourself, others will do it for you.

I must say that in my experience, self-aware awkwardness can be overdone! Too many times, I’ve heard people START conversations with “OMG, I’m so awkward, sorry!” and it often leads to me wondering if their private thoughts were responsible for this otherwise incongruent outburst.

It’s definitely not a good idea to let yourself be known as that one person who always claims to be weird and awkward, because you might just speak that reputation into existence. I have a friend who apologizes for her “awkwardness” after almost every sentence, and sometimes even before she starts a statement. A typical conversation started by her would begin with something like, “I’m sorry, this is gonna be so awkward, but what do you think about so and so?”

As someone who is introverted, or shy, or just handicapped when it comes to impromptu social exchanges with non-friends, it really just comes down to being aware of your environment. If there is no indication that other people sense the awkwardness, or that pointing it out will help the air, then you’re most likely better off not doing so.

This is probably a good time for me to say that I still stand by my belief that silence can be better sometimes. How ‘bout you save yourself from the stress on occasion?

Small Talk is The Devil

If I ask someone about their day, and what’s going on in their life, I want to do it because I care, not because I’m trying to avoid awkwardness. But somehow, you sometimes feel the pressure emanating from your surroundings when you call that friend or acquaintance, who maybe you haven’t spoken to in a while, and you feel like you have to find other things to talk about first before delving into the real reason you contacted them. Or, say you just met someone, and no non-lame conversation starters occur to you – you have nothing concrete to say or ask – so you try to talk about the weather, or the local American football team (How ‘bout them Ravens?), or your college major, or some other banal subject.

Even though this seems a bit preposterous in my head, I do realize that this “small talk” phenomenon is the main basis for the idea of “networking” – a word I have come to dislike very much (you might say I’m biased because I’m not very good at it, or I hate doing it, and you might be right). The idea, from where I’m sitting, is to meet people who you intend to use as connections (resources) as a result of a position they hold and/or what they could do for you. Then, you’re supposed to cultivate an ersatz friendship with these people by connecting with them somehow.

Now, to properly connect, you need to have done your homework (because chances are, you’re not an extroverted social butterfly), which sometimes means research, preparing your mind for often mindless conversation, making yourself seem like you’re interested in something they are or might be fond of, or desperately grappling for a common interest.

I wish we could get to a point where we didn’t feel the pressure to simulate rapport, and conversation could just flow naturally where and when it’s meant to. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t make the effort to connect with others, I’m just saying that when you do connect, let it be for the right reasons – like a genuine interest – not just because you need to make a connection.

It seems logical that if you can’t think of anything about a person that you actually wouldn’t mind hearing about, then you’re better off not asking lame questions sometimes. In my experience, real friendships rarely ever form from those conversations, because they often result in either one of two things. You could be trapped in a conversation where there’s one talkative and one rude inattentive listener – which can be very unpleasant no matter what side you’re on – or you could end up with an awkward and unrewarding monosyllabic exchange.

Too many times, I’ve been called back from very important trains of thought because I stopped talking and had my face scrunched up in deep reflection. It’s sort of goes like this, “oh, you haven’t said a word in five minutes, did someone die?!”  I’m not saying that I don’t  appreciate the concern, and I really wouldn’t want people to stop doing this because I actually do get carried away, but it just goes to prove my point. Silence in a social gathering isn’t always welcome, and is often perceived as a signal to worry that there’s trouble.

The way I see it, an “awkward silence” is only awkward if you feel it is – if you don’t sense any pressure, it’s just plain old silence, which can be very soothing and comfortable for reflection. Why can’t we just sit in silence sometimes, and live in our own thoughts sometimes? If there is nothing immediate to communicate or share, it’s okay to just be quiet sometimes.

Oh! So you are NOT a Quirky Maverick?!

Have you noticed how, these days saying someone is weird is practically a compliment? I think that we have reached a time where most young people feel they have to be different from what they understand to be the acceptable social norm. Now, I’m not even going to delve into how people’s understanding of the social norm often grossly varies from the reality. But, I have been trying to understand why it is that when most people set out to be “unique” and “different,” they mostly strive for the same brand of uniqueness – usually the particular brand that society has come to love and fight for its acceptance.

These days, in America at least, we young ‘uns are being encouraged – even hounded – to be different, to be unique, to be quirky, to be the maverick, to embrace the weirdness, and let your freak flag fly! Because, apparently, you have the right to be whatever/whomever you want to be…but if that thing or person is not weird enough or quirky enough…hmm? Well, it should be! Right?

“Don’t let society put YOU in a box,” they say. Meanwhile, society has sort of created a box for those ones who say they don’t want to be in a box, and most of our “aspiring” mavericks are running right into it to be catalogued.

Now, there are people who are truly quirky and eccentric, and people who are truly rebellious in nature – who can’t sit still, have to challenge authority and accepted social conventions because it’s in every fiber of their being. And you would think that at a time like this, life would be very easy for these ones, and they will be wholly accepted, but that isn’t always the case. Here is why: these truly eccentric ones are usually the ones whose way of life, or dressing for instance is strange and different but not necessarily cool. They are the ones who people don’t necessarily want to emulate.

Allow me to illustrate: towards the end my time in college, I met this guy, who would truly qualify as strange in your book if you saw him, I guarantee it. Before that, I had seen him around campus quite a few times, and he always managed to pass on the sense that there was something nonconformist about him, but it wasn’t always the flattering kind. I mean, he would walk around bare-foot and on his tip toes, his clothes were far from what would be considered normal, even his backpack seemed to have been made out of a sack (like the kind in which big bags of rice are sold, but smaller). I eventually got to meet and have a conversation with this guy, and he happened to be very sweet and sincere, and you could tell that he was just BEing. He wasn’t going out of his way to be different, he ate, and lived, and walked, and dressed, and was the way he was – it wasn’t forced.

So, maybe we should all just be who we truly are. A lot of times, when this message is preached, it pressures people whose weirdness isn’t as apparent to feel like they are too controlled, or too conservative, or… (dun! dun!! dun!!!) MAINSTREAM – a word that has come to be derogatory.

So, you’re not all that quirky like that guy on campus. So, weird and rebellious isn’t necessarily your thing. So, you love vanilla and plain khakis. So, you don’t particularly like dressing in what counts as weird clothing, and wouldn’t try something outrageous if you didn’t think it would make you look and feel cooler. So, what? Simply be yourself!

You see, when someone tries so hard to be unique and different – if it doesn’t come naturally – she or he just ends up becoming a caricature of who they want to be, morphed with who they really are, if at all the latter part manages to shine through.

I mean, at this rate, we may get to a point where what was conventional a few years ago and what is considered conventional now, will become the new avant-garde. So, be patient. If you’ve read up to this point, let me know what you think – Am I right, or am I right?