If you read my prose or follow me on social media, you might be surprised to learn that I am an extremely bad conversationalist. This is because my prose is (from a grammatical and socially-adjusted perspective) excellent. I was trained by a professional grammarian and had relatively healthy interactions with Internet discussion groups from a very young age. This, blessedly, turned me into the word-slinger that I am today, and I’m very thankful for it.
But when it comes to speaking, I am not so good. I have no formal training in effective dialog: everything I learned about spoken communication instead came from public speaking classes, theater, and modeled behaviors reflected from my family. This imparted in me a warped sense of social presence in most casual conversation.
Being an odd duck, with eccentric tendencies and highly gifted mathematical abilities, I didn’t do so well in most social circumstances growing up. I was frequently abused and attacked by my peers, cast out of most of my classroom social circles, and I developed a small set of friends with whom I had mostly topical relations. Peers in my interest areas were few and far between (even with the aid of the Internet), so I just didn’t develop the social practices that I wanted to.
Then, in my teens and early 20s, I fell into the common social trap of believing that I should somehow change the world, while quietly languishing my abilities to interact with people further and further. This negatively impacted my life, costing me friendships, relationships, interviews, and other opportunities to my severe patterns of social behavior. While well-intentioned, I am not proud of my behavior during those years.
I have since recanted how I interact with and understand people. For the past five years, I’ve been struggling to speak better, to take a better interest in other people, and to allow myself to love and grow. I say “struggling” because these interactions were, until very recently, continually tainted by my previous patterns of behavior. In some ways, they still subtly are.
My reason for going through all of this pain and effort is: while I am most decidedly not an extrovert, I really do care about the small set of people who know me and interact with me regularly. I want to be better for myself and for them, because I love them all very much. And it had brought me an incredible amount of existential pain in the past, to simultaneously maintain a caring and nurturing perspective and face constant rejection by wonderful, tender, and loving people for my poor social inheritance.
And the reason this had been happening, quite simply, was I was unintentionally an asshole to them.
This is something that has taken years for me to come to terms with, and something I now quietly accept as part of my past. For discussion, we will separate the concept of intending to be an asshole and effectively being an asshole. Assholes who intend it should unequivocally be steered away from at all costs, whereas assholes because of bad social indoctrination have a good shot at rehabilitation as they learn better patterns of behavior. This is because in many cases, the latter group are looking to change their behavior to become more effective.1
I am of the latter category. Because of bad social practices modeled by my family and my own poor synthesis of the conversation style of my peers, I spent substantial time ineffectively dominating conversations. And because I now listen to the effect this has on people, managing my self-esteem and anxiety has been a major factor as I worked this all out.
I don’t know if this has been entirely effective. The people I care about the most are still wary of me in many respects, having been there from the very start to see the pain it caused me. I am still very timid on most communication media other than Twitter and IRC: not by choice, but because I am at the awkward stage of rebuilding my own self-confidence. But, I’ve been talking to the right people about sorting it out, and I am both hopeful and cautiously optimistic.
So, I suppose I’m writing all of this out as a form of purgation. Not so much an apology for the past as a love letter for the future, in the hope I’ll look back on this in ten years and remember it as an important inflection point in my life.
Thank you for reading. I am hopeful for a bright and shiny 2015!
1 Desire to change is necessary, and it is on the individual to change, not for you to try to change them. This is incredibly important.