I recently had an experience where someone misinterpreted my not responding within 24 hours to an email as an act of “passive-aggressiveness,” coldness and not caring about them as a person. Actually, this email made me angry, and I read it after a long, frustrating day at work. So in my mind, I was giving myself time to cool off and regain a larger perspective before responding in a way that might’ve ended up being “aggressive-aggressive!” Such a minor miscommunication and yet so profound in highlighting the sometimes vast chasm between how we experience ourselves and how others experience us.
How does it happen, and with such seeming frequency, that we mis-portray ourselves or misperceive others? Well, in a nutshell I think it happens because we see the world through a subjective haze most of the time. People act subjectively and perceive others subjectively – according to a big soupy mess made up of our past experiences, our fears, our anxieties, our desires, our language skill, our neurological associations and all sorts of other subtle factors. Hell, two people probably don’t even exactly see the same color blue when looking at the same sky.
Our brains create associations (think, red light means stop and blaring horn means jump away from the street!). These are usually to protect us. And although sometimes they are extremely helpful, sometimes they aren’t. (Think, men are aggressive, or authority figures are cold and uncaring.) One of the problems is that you never know what others’ associations are. If you’re really, really astute, you might pick up on someone shying away from you, or responding poorly to particular things you say or the way you say them. If you’re even more astute, you might kindly ask them how they’re interpreting what you said or what you did? But then in some cases, the other person may not know that they’re responding based on an association, believing their interpretation to be unequivocally true, and their judgments of you as right.
That was my case in not responding to the aforementioned angering email. There was nothing I could do to explain my actions to soothe the hurt the other person felt. Patterns of miscommunication can build to real animosity.
So who am I? Am I cold-hearted and uncaring? Or am I detached and professional? That depends on who you ask, and when you ask them. I guess my lesson here is to both listen and not listen, to others’ responses to me. To take responsibility for clarifying my own internal world, associations and unsaid intentions. And after that, to let others’ judgments roll off my back.
I also think about giving others the benefit of the doubt (which I’m not always the best at.) I would want someone to pause before jumping to some negative conclusion about who I am and ask me first, “Hey, wondering why you did ____________? It was a little confusing to me….” Can I do that for others? Yup, always room to improve.
And zooming even further out, it makes me realize – again! – that each moment is fresh, new and completely unique. People aren’t one thing, all the time. We are complex manifestations of past experiences, the other’s needs, our own senses and perceptions, our own immediate physical state, our own and the other’s desires and emotions, etc, etc. And these manifestations emerge, morph and recede moment to moment to moment. Yes, we can change. We are changing all the freaking time. We only exist in this very moment, and we exist in relation to everything else in that moment. Who are you, really, outside of…… this?