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Silence, agreement, and conflict-aversion

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This is a pattern in my life:

Someone tells me something. I don't agree with what they said, but I don't say so out loud. They assume that I agree.

It happens in a variety of contexts, for a variety of reasons.

The most common is that someone who I don't know well, but who I want to like me, makes an assumption that I'm similar to them in some particular way, and tells it to me as an obvious and undeniable fact about me. Like (made-up example): “I can tell that you're the kind of person who loves rain.”

I've always been conflict-averse. I don't like disagreement. But I can usually muster the willpower to answer a question. If instead of making a statement about me, they say something like, “I love the rain. Do you?” then, no matter how much I want them to like me, I can usually manage to say “Sorry, not really my thing.” I do soften my opinions for such answers; in that context, I'm unlikely to say “I hate stuff falling from the sky; it's unnatural, and shouldn't oughtta be allowed.” But at least I can communicate the general idea that I don't love the rain.

(...For the purposes of this entry, pretend that I don't live in a state that's having an extended drought; consider my comments about rain to be simply a matter of personal taste.)

But when it's presented as something that they're certain is true about me, I feel backed into a corner. If I say no in that context, I'm not just expressing my own feelings; it feels like I'm actively attacking/insulting them. I feel like I'm not just saying “I don't like rain,” but also “You're a bad judge of character and you've made a false assumption about me.”

And so sometimes, rather than insult this person who I very much want to like me—maybe I want to sleep with them, maybe they're important to someone I care about, maybe they're an author I've admired all my life, whatever—I just stay silent. Or I shrug. Or I grunt something noncommittal. I let the moment pass, and I let them believe that they're right.

Which is bad, I know. I don't intend to mislead them. But some part of me fears that if I tell them that this thing (that they made up) that's part of what they like about me isn't true, they won't like me any more. (And of course another part is just general conflict-avoidance.)

There are other scenarios, too, of course. For example, sometimes their assumptions aren't even verbal; to continue the made-up example, sometimes I'll have been hanging out with someone for months, and I gradually realize that the reason we keep ending up standing in the rain is that they think I love it as much as they do, because I've never told them otherwise, because I didn't want to make a fuss, because it would've felt like conflict to me. And by that time, it's much harder to bring it up, because they think they know this thing about me.

But although there are various ways that this dynamic manifests, the most common scenario for me is the above-described thing where someone makes a firm statement about what I do or don't like, and I don't manage to contradict them, and they don't notice that I'm being quiet, and so they continue to assume that I'm just like them.

I think a solution requires some work from both sides:

For the people I'm hanging out with, I would very much prefer that they ask me questions about what I do and don't like, rather than making statements. My tastes are in some ways pretty idiosyncratic, and are sometimes quite hard for others to predict. (It's very hard to give me presents that I'll like, for example.) So asking me if I like rain is far preferable to telling me that I do.

For me, I need to learn how to communicate even when someone isn't going out of their way to make it easy for me. I need to learn that disagreements and non-matching tastes are not necessarily huge friendship-ending conflicts. I need to really internalize that most people who like me will probably still like me if I give voice to opinions that they don't agree with. I need to learn that being liked by people I like is not the most important thing in the world, and that in the unlikely event that my fear is true—that they only like me to the degree that they mistakenly think I'm like them—then that's not a healthy friendship. And I need to learn that sometimes when people phrase things as statements, they really intend them as questions.

So I apologize to anyone who, through inaction, I've allowed to come to false conclusions about me. I think at this point there aren't many such issues outstanding; the only one I can think of offhand is that I haven't been good in recent years about explicitly telling people that I don't cope well with unexpected unilateral changes of plan. (Sometimes I think I should finish writing the Jed User Manual I started a while back, and give a copy to anyone I want to be friends with.)

Anyway. I think this stuff is difficult on both sides. I've been thinking about this for years; took me a long time to get up the courage to write about it. But I figure writing about it is a good first step.

(Written in January 2015, but not posted 'til now.)

1 Comment

"(Sometimes I think I should finish writing the Jed User Manual I started a while back, and give a copy to anyone I want to be friends with.)"

I would love to read this! And I'm glad you've written this.


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