May 4, 2021
I don’t know if it was because I was raised in a Christian home, a southern home, or from just the societal norms of being a woman that has led me to have an instinctive reaction to be friendly. Maybe it’s just part of who I am as a person. The age old: nature versus nurture debate. Regardless of the reason, sometimes it plain sucks. I just read a book called “Talking to Strangers,” by Malcom Gladwell (I highly recommend it, by the way). He describes that it is in our human nature to default to truth. I’m stealing from him a bit and saying I have a default to being unnecessarily friendly. You would think it’s a good character trait, and most of the time I guess I’m happy about it. However, there are other times it makes me hate who I am to my very core. Sounds harsh right? Yea, it’s been a tough weekend with myself.
So let me catch you up. I have two quite simple and seemingly harmless stories. Most likely they are harmless, but it weighs on me harshly every time I have these types of experiences. As many of you know, I recently bought a house. The day I got my keys, I went over to my new place to make preparations for my move. As I walked outside to my car to go back to the apartment, a neighbor was passing by walking her dog. She was maybe in her late 50s and we’ll call her Susie. Now I don’t have the best memory for exact words, but the conversation goes something like this:
Susie: Oh, hello are you moving in?
Me: Yes, I’m excited to join the community.
Susie: Well, I’m Susie and this is my dog Fido. I moved here from California and just love it. Where are you moving from?
Me: Oh I’m coming from an apartment in Charlotte, just seemed like a good time to buy with the low interest rates right now.
Susie: yes I would say so. What do you do? Do you live by yourself?
ME: I’m a Senior Account for a company HQ in town. Yea it’s just me.
***insert more small talk with lots of questions directed towards me***
Susie: Well me and some of the ladies get together for games. I’ll bring my card by later, you’ll have to join us
I don’t remember all the questions she asked, but there were several. Obviously the important bits are what stick out. We’ll come back to this in a minute. Wanting to connect with my neighbors, I joined an app called Next Door. This app only allows people from your neighborhood to join. I go on runs 3 times a week. To be nice and friendly, I have made a few posts offering to walk someone’s dog if they need help. No takers yet.
A few months later and here we are in May. The pool has just opened and a friend and I wanted to check it out. We went down later on Saturday around 4pm and there was enough space that we felt socially distanced enough to be safe. We sat and chatted and after some time my friend wanted to check the water. I knew the water would be icy so I stayed in my seat. She sat on the edge, dipped her foot and looked back, it was icy. One of the men nearby, mid to late 40s, took this opening to converse. We will call him Jim and my friend Sara.
Jim: You just gotta jump in, if you slow play it or think about it, you’ll never get in.
Me & Sara: …
Jim to me: See this is where you go push her in to help her out.
Me: I’m not that kind of friend.
***Sara gets out and comes back over and rejoins me***
Jim to me: So what’s your name?
Jim: and your last name
Me:….. uh, [gives last name]
Jim: Oh you’re the girl who’s been posting about dog walking. You’re lightin’ up a fire with Rita.
Me: What do you mean?
Jim: Well ya’ know there are dog-walkers in this neighborhood, so you’re messin’ with their money.
Me: Oh, well I didn’t mean anything by it. I used to have a dog and miss him. I thought it would be an easy way to steal some puppy love and help someone if they needed it.
Jim: Well you better watch out or you’ll get your tires slashed.
Let me pause and take a moment to describe that the tone is joking and seemingly friendly. The dialogue doesn’t necessarily convey that. A few moments go by and he starts up again.
Jim: So where do you live in the neighborhood?
Me: …. Towards the front of the community.
Jim: Oh you live in the house with the astro turf. I’ve seen that house because I’m friends with your neighbors who live behind you. Why’d the prior owner do that?
Me: I’m not sure, she had a dog, maybe it was easier maintenance for her
Jim: That doesn’t make any sense, how do you care for something like that? Sorry, I don’t mean to grill you. Where did you move from?
And he continues with a thorough background check. At this point I start to get a bit annoyed, because I keep turning back to my friend to re-engage, and he continues to ask me questions. He finally started to go on his way and rejoin his friends. But not before I at least was able to ask, “Oh, I didn’t catch your name or where you live?” which he answered.
Have you spotted my issues yet? Do you see where I’m frustrated with myself? In example one, why on earth did that woman ask me if I lived alone? Example two, why does Jim need to know my last name or specifically which house I live in? And the biggest question of all…. Why in the hell did I answer them?! What the hell is wrong with me? Yes, you could make the argument that they were just being nice and friendly. Meeting the new person in the neighborhood. In return, I was trying to be a good friendly neighbor. But the lady had asked me many personal questions and she never brought me her card. If she was really connecting wouldn’t she have followed up? In example two, Jim never offered me any information about himself until I asked. Again, if he was looking to connect, it would’ve been a two-way conversation. I also find myself wondering, would he have come over at all if I hadn’t been a woman in her 30s wearing a swimsuit (two counting my friend)?
I spoke to my friend about it later and she was actually a bit surprised to find out I was upset. She said I didn’t seem distressed or bothered in the situation. And she’s right, while it was happening I wasn’t thinking much of it. I hesitated on some of the questions, but just answered right along. I was simply defaulting to friendly. And in these two circumstances, it sucks. First I put out there that I’m by myself. Next I have some weirdo who knows where I live and his friend might slash my tires for trying to help people walk their dogs.
And before you offer any advice, although I do appreciate it and am looking for it, yes I know I don’t have to answer them. I know a very easy and good tactic to take control of an uncomfortable conversation is to simply ask a question back. I could’ve said something like, “oh why do you ask?” or “ why do you need my last name, is this a credit check [insert fake laugh]?” Even more, I know that Jim or Susie are the rude ones for asking invasive questions. So I don’t even owe being nice to them. Further still, what am I afraid of, being called uptight by an invasive person?
I’d also like to take this moment to make a parallel that popped in my head while sulking all weekend. Both of the above experiences brought up memories of my essay from two years ago Cabeceo: Let’s End the Excuses. I wrote that discussing why it’s important not to just walk up to me (or anyone) and directly ask me to dance. Some of us have a default to be friendly, and despite our best efforts to work on saying, “no,” when we should, sometimes our instinctual response beats us to it. And let me tell you, we hate ourselves for it.
Most readers were very supportive of my piece, but of course there were a few who strongly disagreed. Mostly, they felt like I needed to learn how to grow up and just say no. Again, they are not wrong. The same perspective and application applies to the above circumstances. I just need to grow up and shut down questions I don’t like. But what do I do when saying yes, or answering questions, is part of who I am. It isn’t until later when I reflect on what has just happened that I’m mortified about it. Then I am the one, not the inquirer, who spends all weekend wishing I were a different person. Wishing I wasn’t made this way.
I guess I just need more practice, and probably some therapy to really make bigger changes in this area. Two years later and I seem to be in the same place I was when I wrote my Cabeceo essay describing essentially the same problem. For those of you who understand and go through the same thing, let me know how you get through it. I hope my sharing helps you feel less alone. I feel your pain and I’m sorry you face this, I know it isn’t fun. For those of you who have no clue why this is so hard, I wish I knew, but hopefully this will help make you aware of some of my (and others’) struggles. Feel free to step in for me, if you see me answering invasive questions. Often I don’t mind being open, but it’s nice to have a good reminder to think about how I am engaging in a conversation. Having a reminder to make a conscious choice, instead of simply defaulting to friendly.