Wednesday, August 19, 2009


People who know me well know that I'm something of a hermit. It's not that I'm anti-social, or that I don't get out--I just like to be able to retreat to a quiet place after being in crowds. As much as I like people, I find crowds exhausting. Depending on my state of mind, I can sometimes find interactions with those I see every day exhausting as well. These people are not flawed in any way, or if they are, that's not the reason I stay away from them.

The main reason I prefer to be alone is that it gives me time to think about things. As you may have guessed, I like to think quite deeply about things, unless I'm very tired or ill. When I'm trying to write, especially poetry or fiction, I need to be able to let my mind ramble, to be able to take in experience passively without having to actively participate.

This is why I'm often quiet during conversations, especially conversations with people I don't know that well. The crowd dynamic is something I prefer to watch and take in; it often has an inconsistent rhythm that's hard to pick up, especially if you don't know too many people at the party or other event you're attending. In general, though, I've noticed an interesting thing about conversation. Regardless of how deeply thoughtful the individuals conversing can be, it is very rare to have a deep conversation. Most conversations are superficial. You could have a room full of people who are well traveled, some who may have Ph.D.'s in interesting subjects, others who would have created fine art or literature--and I could almost guarantee you that conversation will turn to the weather, or something that passes for "news", perhaps polite banter about mutual acquaintances. I always find those theoretical questions about the "5 people you'd love to have dinner with" amusing. Unless you've included someone in your list who is socially damaged enough to break out of polite conversational patterns, I would bet money that you wouldn't have a deep conversation with those folks, either.

Why do we do this? Conversations are an important means of sharing thoughts and ideas. Unless we're in a forum specifically designed for such talk, we tend to stay away from meaningful subjects. There is an inherent insecurity about groups, and sometimes about participants. If you feel that the crowd you're with "outranks" you in some way, or that you need to impress them, you may be more reticent to broach risky topics. In a place where people drink beer, crack jokes, and talk about local gossip, it's unlikely that you'll have a sympathetic audience. Even at events like art exhibit openings, literary journal publishing parties, and other such "intellectual" events, you're likely to find more, not less, superficiality. Creative work is much more personal, so sharing ideas at such events is very risky on a personal level. There is a sense of competition, of wanting to appear more erudite than the others in the room.

I think the other thing about social events that reduces them to banality is proximity. George Carlin once made the joke that a person's tendency to be an "asshole" is directly proportional to the distance you are from them at the time you discover this flaw. The farther away they are, the more of an asshole they are. We'd never tell someone that to their face, but we would say it if they weren't in the room. Joking aside, there is truth to this--we are less likely to reveal our true feelings face to face. Meeting someone in person does not necessarily give you a better sense of who they are as people. I believe that this is why social networking online is so popular--you can maintain your friendships without having to be in the same room with the people you're friends with.

Conversations require a give and take. When someone brings up a topic, it is necessary to be interested, or to appear to be interested. Often times, when someone broaches a subject, we try to relate what they're saying to something in our lives. This is one of the basic psychological rules of conversation. Often this can make conversations appear very self-centered--you talk about your experience with "x", and I talk about my own similar experience with "x". The intention isn't to be selfish--it's to try to relate to the other person through your own experience. My ex-husband used to tell me that such conversations were very selfish, but that's hogwash. You can't possibly have any experiences outside of your own--you don't possess other people's bodies and live their lives. I can only interpret the world around me via my own experience. Even in writing or talking about others, it's through my own subjective lens.

The give and take of conversation can be very draining, especially when we have a hard time relating to the subject. You either have to have a very good veneer of polite sociability, or you stick to talking to your close friends (or standing in the corner saying nothing if you don't know anyone) when you're in large social settings. One can develop the former, but it always feels political and insincere. Depending on your position in life, it may be an essential survival skill. One of the reasons I hate administration is that I hate kowtowing to people who supposedly have a higher station in life than me. I don't like to kiss ass with politicians, board members, and other such officials. If I can't talk to you like you're an equal human being, I don't want to talk to you at all. There is an expectation in polite society that one will defer to someone who socially outranks you, but I've never paid any attention to that rule, and it does get me some strange and uncomfortable looks at times. I can usually get out of those situations by telling people I'm an academic. Then they assume I'm quirky and have no social graces, and I'm sort of "let off the hook".

Social events are not really social; our personal boundaries were never more fortified than they are at parties. As a result, we only show our external disguises, not the real people underneath. By the time you leave--unless you managed to find one kindred soul to talk to, the whole experience is draining rather than fun. I think this is the real reason I hate parties.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

"I can usually get out of those situations by telling people I'm an academic. Then they assume I'm quirky and have no social graces, and I'm sort of "let off the hook"."........ Wow! I'm going to start doing that, telling people I'm an academic. I had no idea it could get me off the hook!! Quirky with no social graces? Definitely describes many of the acs I've worked with. Not you, tho. I always thought you were cool.