Tuesday, December 19, 2006

My grade in Social Niceties 101 : "F"!

This weekend:
    Ms Tex: "It's *SO* nice to *FINALLY* meet you!!
...we are queueing for the BATHROOM for heaven's sake, this is NOT the time for fake small talk... in addition, the obligatory-not-necessarily-true "Well, *me* *too!*" just dies in my throat, and all I can bring myself to do is put on this forced surprise/smile expression on my face, and nod.
    Poor Ms Tex, I bet she didn't quite know what to make of me.
I've made quite the oscillation in terms of social niceties.

I have a memory at age 8 or so:
    "*lynne*, say hello to Mr So-And-So", so I stick out my hand and mumble "Hello". Later I am scolded for not just the mumbling, but for the looking down at my feet while shaking hands.
aside:I wonder if "they" ever put *any* thought into *why* I'd do that? A symptom of low self-esteem & self-confidence, perhaps? Because the scolding? Not the best way to go about lifting one's spirits, y'know?

Aaaanyways... so many years pass... I grow into a conflicted person dependent on others for approval and yet wanting so much to believe in myself... the "gang" of friends in Form 4 & 5 helped "ground" me... then my university years in the US helped "free" me: I not so much emerged as LEAPT from my shell, LoL

Very soon upon graduating and returning to Malaysia, I remember attending some sort of function, and I held my own extremely well in terms of socially interacting with complete strangers, carrying on with superficial social banter [heck, after 5 years in the land of the great communicators, if you haven't picked up this skill, well, you didn't make use of your time there!]. I remember getting feedback from a particular couple who said, essentially, "Wow, you've really grown up! We're amazed that you carried yourself so well at that event!". Who this couple was, and why that actually seemed more insult than compliment will not be addressed, but if you know anything about my rants, you'll figure it out :p

Then I started work, and had to totally clamp down on how I expressed myself, and to whom. This liberal half-breed with *gasp!* uncovered hair stationed to a very conservative part of Malaysia, Muslim/Malay/male dominated, with both overt and covert disapproval of my presence felt from the start. Not fun.

Two years later I managed to get a job posting in KL, yahoo, back to civilization! But due to circumstances this time relating to relationships, I still had to clamp down on what I said, who I shared info with, had even been trained to lie and say what was wanted/needed to be said & not what my truth really was. For about 5 years. Again: not fun.

Then, my world changed: the absolute best and absolute worst thing that could ever have happened to me - I got assigned to this 9-month "special project" that was supposed to lay the foundation for a great change in the organization where I worked.
    "The best thing" because early on, my "boss" recognized I had opinions I was not sharing, and encouraged me to express myself. In addition, with it being a "special project" and all, the team members comprised atypical hand-picked people plus consultants from a prestigious firm... essentially I felt "safe", and started opening up.
And there was no going back.
    "The worst thing" because silly me, I actually bought in to the stuff our group produced that we were supposed to practice ourselves, and cultivate and put into practice in the organization... and the lip service I saw practiced by the powers that be totally ate at me... and the [much wiser!] team members who preferred to play political games rather than burn themselves being vociferous proponents of the change we were charged to bring forth from the organization - well, they REALLY ate at me. My contributions slowly warped from enthusiastic suggestions to cynical sniping.
Yes, there were PLENTY of other factors at play here on the personal side, but still... up till this point, my work was my life. But I was horrified at how ugly I'd become as a result of what was going on at work. My frustration and anger was resulting in my being rude and disrespectful - which is not really me [yes, I'm sarcastic, I'm blunt, but this was going waaaay too far!] *and* is NOT something one does in an Asian society!

It came to the point where I had to make a choice: be true to myself and walk away because I was no longer a positively-contributing member of the organization, or ignore/repress my true feelings, put on a fake mask, and "give in" to how I needed to behave in order to survive in the organization.

Remember I said "there was no going back" once I had been "re-released"?

I made my choice.

An important consequence to all of this?
- I have found myself no longer a willing producer of lip service, small talk, fake conversation and the like: I was tired of talking without meaning. Words spoken unnecessarily and not truly "felt" twist my mouth and taste like ashes. And I try hard to live by the credo "if you don't have anything [nice] to say, then say nothing".
- I have also found myself reluctant to enable or encourage others who speak words from the lips, not from the heart: I'll smile and nod politely [hopefully the smile doesn't come out twisted / wry / painful.. you know, unlike how that smile to Ms Tex felt like!], probably get this glazed look in my eyes, then turn my attention to my plate / drink / *something!* Quite a challenge, what with my being in the US, and everyone does a lot of talking...

And so.

Kinda amusing that at age 34, some people might classify me "almost as bad" now as how I was at age 8.

After all, through the years, I *still* struggle with the eye-contact thing. At least the mumbling part's no longer an issue, though here in the U.S. I feel I talk too softly PLUS my accent/inflection/pronunciation has most people needing me to repeat what I say.

I am perfectly happy to sit at the table / counter during a family/social gathering and just. observe. everyone. People watching is EXCELLENT entertainment!

At least the warped self-esteem/confidence manifestation of talking just for the sake of talking, to hear my voice, or to try to get validation of my existence from others is no longer an issue. Sure, I still struggle... but I've come *such* a long way, and I know it! Go me!

Bottom line: I'd rather be known as a person of few words, but the few words that *DO* get spoken are acknowledged as meaningful, relevant, bullshit-less and from the heart.

Of course, this leads to moments like the interaction with Ms Tex last Sunday.

And my avoidance of the telephone, to the extent I owe a few people a call and I keep. putting. it. off.

And.... gahhhhh... how on earth am I going to meet and get to know people during my year in Chicagoland??

I gotta get out and interact in my non-speaking social interactiony way a LOT more!
p/s> this "few words" policy applies to verbal communication - as you can see from the length of my posts, I am *quite* verbose when writing, LoL! [this post took about 1hr 30mins from start to publish]


  1. I love that you let go of society's forced small talk! I just had my weekend with the in-laws... and more and more I am finding myself remaining quiet unless I really have something to say. I love to chat and see how people are doing, but I hate the superficiality of some of it. It would be easier if we all just felt comfortable around each other and could have true conversations. I think living in a PC world is what makes it so hard for us to speak without inhibitions.

  2. so, basically, you're idolizing "silent bob" then, eh?

    "no ticket."



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