I learned fairly early on, but honed the skills most specifically in high school, that vivaciousness was invaluable. And, it could be learned. Honestly though, I also had the gene. My dad was about as gregarious as one could get. Outside the house (fodder for another post). Anyway, he was lively and funny and friendly, personable and funny and generous to a fault. And did I say funny? My dad had charisma, there was no denying that. So yes, I naturally had some of that in my genetic makeup. It wasn’t exactly my most natural expression, nor would it have been my first choice in how to be in the world though. Except that, forcing myself to be outgoing, animated and self-deprecatingly humorous distracted from my nonconformity and seemed to desensitize people to my differences. The friendlier and funnier I was the less likely, it seemed, that people would notice (and focus on) how different from them I was.
And so it was that I became more and more adept at friendly banter and chattiness. Appearing, but not really being, almost pathologically outgoing. I learned to notice things about people and their surroundings and make interesting comments. I learned to ask more questions and take more interest. I learned to find the connective thread. We brown-eyed people sure do have to stick together, don’t we? No matter how gossamer a filament of similarity. Find it and highlight it and maybe they won’t scorn, discredit, despise the butch hair or the men’s clothes, the swagger or the mannerisms. It works fairly often, though not 100% (remember that basketball mom a few months ago?).
The chatty Cathy routine has worked for me on a lot of levels. It disarms people’s initial opinions of me and puts people somewhat at ease if not off-balance. It sets a positive, chipper tone. It has allowed me to control the initial flow of interaction and conversation. My effusiveness regularly has gotten interpreted as affinity, intimacy and camaraderie even if I’m not truly feeling those things on my end. People end up feeling as if they know me, really know me, far better than they actually do, ascribing a depth to the connection that has no basis in my reality. But I’m friendly, conversational, convivial, so happy to make their acquaintance. How could they not be won over?!
In the last few years I have been observing my multieloquent compunction with a sense of curiosity and wondering (this skill, in no small part, learned from reading Pema Chodron), trying to parse out when and why I do it and whether or not it is beneficial to me or anyone else. As I’ve said, it doesn’t come completely naturally to me. I’ve noticed as I have become/am becoming more and more me, that I am less loquacious and more, dare I say it, contemplative. The difference between garrulous and gregarious. I’m seeing that not only is my gabbiness intentional on my part, to distract people from me, it also seems to be something that is encouraged, if not taught outright, to girls in our society. There is no male equivalent to “chatty Cathy”. And as an aside, I’ve been specifically paying attention to strangers in passing lately. Most men walk right by. They can look you straight in the eye and not say hello. Even going as far as to say nothing after someone else has greeted them with a hello. On the other hand, eye contact generally seems to oblige women to smile and acknowledge you. Having made eye contact, most women seem compelled to say hello. It’s kind of creepy actually. Try it some time.
At any rate, I have had to take Joita to several medical appointments in these last few weeks because of a sprained ligament. And, watching myself in the various healthcare circumstances I was not surprised to note my behavior. Neither did I feel great about it.
I saw her sneer of disapproval varnish me from head to toe as I approached her desk in the urgent care area of the hospital. She made no move to hide or cover her feelings as she peevishly waved me toward her window. And even with me standing right in front of her she made no effort to be cordial, never mind talkative and friendly like she had been with the two people ahead of me. Instead, her long painted fingernails tap tap tapped on her computer keyboard as she asked the obligatory questions with a profound disinterest. She tapped away my answers, looking up to stare at me, looking me over with a mingled look of curiosity, confusion and distaste, but never once making eye contact with me. Rather than watching her evaluate me, I looked around her cubicle.
“Is that your daughter?” I asked hesitantly, glancing at one of her photos. The tapping slowed, encouraging me to press on. “That’s quite a twinkle in her eye.” I took a risk, “She a handful?” My eyes didn’t leave the photo pinned to the wall, but I could feel her gaze shift between me and her little girl’s corny-pose picture. “Oh yeah” she said appreciatively. “Yeah,” I said, “Got one of my own like that at home. Wish they came with an instruction manual huh?” With that she smiled and agreed. Her face seemed to relax and her eyes softened as she allowed herself to feel some small kinship with me. The rest of the registration was much more pleasant. For both of us. Perhaps my intentional mention of offspring allowed her to consider, despite my appearance and her initial presumptions about me, that perhaps I was normal like her after all. Even in this day and age, the initial assumption of many people about someone having children is that they are straight.
Regardless. What I wanted to say was, “Look, I know you don’t like the way I look. You don’t like the way I dress. You can’t figure out whether to call me sir or ma’am and for sure you can’t figure out how the hell to pronounce my name. But what gives? I’m a person you know. Underneath the awkward mens clothing and uneven, sticking-up haircut, I’m blood and bones and nerves and lots and lots of feelings. Just like you. Would you like to be treated this way? Do unto others, no?” But I never have the guts to say something like that. I also know that speaking my mind in that way will be construed as antagonistic and hostile. The reality is that I don’t ever feel so good about having to play this game/do this dance with people in order to escape or even avoid their judgments during even banal interactions. “Hey, look at that?! We both have a nose! What a coincidence! We’re practically like twins separated at birth! Don’t you like me so much more now? At least I’m not so scary, huh?!” But as is typical, my irritation was tempered by my humanity as she handed me Joita’s registration slip. And I went even further by looking more conspicuously and appraisingly at her cubicle and saying, “And can I get a side of fries with that?” When she smiled at my mediocre joke I added, “Bummer you have to be stuck in there on such a nice day. Hope you get out in enough time to enjoy even some of it.” And that part was genuine, as I turned to make my way to the next window.
There is a difference between attempting to prattlingly placate someone’s discrimination, negative assessment and condemnation of you and making expansive, companionable comments as a way of connecting with someone. The first feels shitty, like I’m debasing and degrading myself in order to be acceptable enough to humans. Yet given the alternative (to be disregarded, spurned and held in contempt), it is historically what I’ve done. Now though, it feels like a worse blow to my self respect than I am willing to sacrifice. I think it might just be time I put on my big-boy underpants and cut out the twaddle. Just a thought.