I’ve almost always been aware of a dichotomous yin-yang of self-awareness. As in, I’m either hyper-aware of or utterly clueless about how I might be perceived by anyone who happens to be standing around, glancing at me at any given moment.
I know. It’s a little terrifying to think about. People might catch me/us in their panoramic sweeps of their immediate surroundings, something that I/we never actually consented to.
If I were ever to happen upon a magic lamp with a genie inside, my first of my three wishes would be for an invisible cloak that I could wear or remove at will. One that is always with me, so that I can’t forget it at home, either.
The hypo-awareness can be embarrassing, but perhaps semi-comical (years, decades) after the fact.
A FunFact I’ve never breathed a word about before: when I was a toddler, I was standing in line somewhere with my mom, and my hand happened to come to rest too close to my girl parts. I wasn’t doing anything, but it was just Too Close.
My mom bent down close to my ear and hissed, “We don’t do that in public.”
Oh, that. I wasn’t actually doing anything, but OK. Sure, whatever. Before then, I hadn’t given any thought to where my hand was, or who else might have noticed, or what they might have thought, either of me or my hapless mom.
Then there were the countless misinterpretations of my verbal messages.
This phenomenon was too commonplace for me to be able to recall specific, isolated incidents, but let’s just say that it was the story of my life, and it all condensed into a theme of “I Had No Clue How Other People Would Take What I Said”. As in, no idea how my words might come across to others.
I didn’t get that memo. Apparently, I didn’t get lots of memos. I wasn’t on someone’s Favorites email list or something.
I’ve been surprised too many times by peoples’ reactions. File under: Never Saw That One Coming.
Hypo-awareness swung its pendulum over to hyper-awareness.
The Internal Critic was born.
And once she appeared, she never went away.
For example, I’ll be composing the simplest of emails. Let’s start with an opening.
My Inner Critic awakens, instantly vigilant. Are you sure you want to say that? Isn’t that a little cheesy? Who in 21st-century America says that?
She nods, arms folded across her chest. OK, good, friendlier, but it could sound condescending. They might think you think they’re a little kid, or somehow subordinate.
Not everyone is from Texas, you know.
Now they’re going to think you’re a little kid.
I can’t win.
I settle for “Hi!” and hope for the best. I have to greet them somehow!
On to the next hurdle…
“How are you?”
Inner Critic shakes her head disapprovingly. Too cliché. Now you sound boring, predictable, and worst of all, trite. It’s not like they’re going to answer that, because it’s email and not a spoken or otherwise live conversation.
Inner Critic raises one eyebrow, something I frustratingly cannot do in real life. Are you sure you didn’t say that in your last email to them?
I decide on a statement: “I hope this finds you well.” And I move on, with fingers crossed, to the next land mine.
The rest of the email is full of similar land mines, but I proceed, with extreme caution and plenty of smileys, lest anyone get the wrong impression, and remain on guard, careful to step “this” way and not “that”, agonizing over every choice of word and phrase.
“Like I said,…”
Inner Critic gasps. No, no, no! That could be misconstrued as rude. (“Like I said,..”) It’s like you’re accusing them of not listening; it’s as if you’re getting testy with them. Don’t sound testy. Don’t even give them the option of imagining that you are. Don’t even leave the question open. Nail that shizz down.
OK, how about “like I mentioned above?”
Inner Critic touches her chin with the tip of an index finger and considers. Ummm…better. Not great, but better. But it’s only acceptable because if you’re going to repeat yourself, you had better indicate somehow that you’re aware that you’re doing it, or you’ll sound like a forgetful clod.
Tone of voice, both online and offline, is a land mine. I write like I talk, but not everybody does that, so my conversational writing might come across as rude, blunt, casual, sarcastic, offensive, brash, even uncouth.
Offline, when talking with someone, I’ve learned to modulate my voice enough and pepper my speech with enough wry grins or nervous chuckles to convey that I’m not actually being snarky or mean. And when I do intend to be snarky (common, but not as much as one might think) or mean (far less common), my voice leaves no question. It’s everything else, the words and messages I intend to be benign, that actually foster the most misunderstanding and thus land me in the hottest water.
Online, the advent of smileys has been a blessing, because they don’t leave any question dangling in the air.
And when smileys become too monotonous, there are always hearts! I know I probably use too many, for fear of using too few.
But then once I start using them, I have to keep doing so. People have gotten used to me using smileys and hearts, so if I suddenly cut back, they might not think I like them as much anymore. Or they might think I’m in a bad mood. They might even start to wonder what happened.
Part of me (The Inner Critic, of course) is always helpful. That blog comment/reply sounds a little brusque, don’t you think? Better add a smiley.
Thy will be done. Smiley added.
But you added a heart last time, too. Better type one of those.
You added two or three when you replied to your good friend’s compliment. Better add one here, too, so that no one thinks you’re playing favorites. Everyone will read all of the comments all of the time, and they’ll always notice. The whole world is always watching you.
Got it. Done and done.
Now, are you sure that’s not too many? You don’t really know that person very well yet. You don’t want them to think you’re clingy. Or desperate. Or creepy. You know how people are.
(Well, actually, I don’t. Which is why I get into these messes in the first place.)
Better take out one of the smileys and add an “lol” to the end of that sentence instead.
No no no! You’d better clarify that you’re laughing at yourself, lest the other person think you’re laughing at their expense!
(Did I mention already that I can’t win?)
Compliments can be another land mine. I’ve always been a little self-conscious about them, so I’m not sure how to accept them graciously. I’m extremely grateful for them; they make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. They melt my heart and bring tears to my eyes.
But they’re also so foreign to me that I almost enter states of surreal disbelief and shock when I receive them. Did someone actually just say that they think I’m cool? Do people really like my work? Did I actually do something right?
When you’ve lived a life of always being wrong, it’s hard to believe that you can get it right.
Better respond to that compliment; don’t forget to reciprocate!
“Edit” buttons come in very handy. Except that email doesn’t have an edit button. Once an email is sent, it’s sent, and there’s no editing it or taking it back. Its fate is out of my hands and at the mercy of someone else’s. So I take what feels like forever to compose what is “supposed to” be a “simple” message.
The Internal Critic stands over me, looking over my shoulder, in begrudging approval, only when there’s no other way to express myself.
I walk the line, which has been pulled taught beneath me, consulting dictionaries and thesauruses (thesaurii?) every step along the way, diligently avoiding excess repetition, over- and under-formality, and the misuse of Big Words in attempt to come across as more competent than I feel inside.
Nothing gets past my Internal Critic. She sees all, knows all, and scrutinizes all. Everything must meet her reluctant ratification.
Closing an email is the hardest part.
“Talk to you later,” is my first choice.
Denied, by the Inner Critic.
Are you really going to talk to them later? You’re presuming that they even want to talk to you again. Maybe after reading this email, they won’t. Do you even plan to talk to them again? Isn’t that a little too conversational?
OK, fine then.
“Until next time,”
Now you’re just being cheesy.
Does any American say that anymore? Are you trying to be British? Brits are fabulously cool, and you’re not. Stop trying to be something you’re not.
“Have a beautiful day!”
What if they aren’t? What if their day isn’t quite so beautiful? What if their area has just been devastated by a tsunami, a flood, a blizzard or even a drought? What if they’re depressed or dealing with emotional trauma or pain?
“Have a great day!” That’s not too dramatic, is it?
What if it’s not daytime when they read it? Hell, it might actually be nighttime where they are!
I finally sneak a peek at how they closed their email to me.
“Have a wonderful day/evening!”
Inner Critic is begrudgingly satisfied. For now. Yes, much better. But did you use that same phrase to close your last email to them? You better check, or you’re going to sound unimaginative.
And so on.
If email isn’t bad enough, in-person communication is tougher.
Inner Critic follows me around the apartment. Are you groomed well enough? You really should have straightened your bangs/fringe today; they’re frizzy and not cooperative. Where’s that Resting Bitch Face? Better make sure it’s out of sight. Are you making enough eye contact? But don’t stare. Pick a spot and look. And for god’s sake, don’t switch from one of their eyes to the other; apparently you didn’t get the memo that it’s unnerving to people. Check your clothes–any smoothie drip stains? You spill all the time, you know. Any Sharpie pen marks? Better check again. Look at your sleeves, too.
Unfold your arms; you look standoffish. Take your hands off your hips; you come across with a bad attitude. No, don’t put them in your pockets; don’t teach them to treat you like an underling. Don’t give them the upper hand yet; they’ll take it soon enough anyway. Don’t play with that spot on the palm of your hand; it already has enough of a callous, and it looks funny.
Inner Critic is a pain in the ass, but at the same time, she probably saves mine. (Sometimes.)
Don’t tell her as much, though. I wouldn’t want the idea that she actually comes in handy sometimes to go to her head. Best not give her any more ideas. It’ll be our secret, OK? Even walls have ears.