Why do we assume everyone else is impenetrable and that we are the only vulnerable ones?
We forget that our perception of the world is, in reality, our own perception. No one else’s.
When we notice others, everyone looks so comfortable and content in their skin, and here we are feeling unsure, as if we’re not doing anything right.
And yet, we’re all very much the same. We are all fighting battles, every single day, whether we acknowledge them or not. And we’re all wishing to connect a little deeper. We wear smiles that hide our soft spots, and we assume that other people’s smiles are genuine.
Of course our smiles are often real, but how often do we look each other in the eye and see the truth?
Not so often. Maybe it’s because we aren’t taught how to in our upbringing. It starts with our daily pleasantries:
“How are you?”
“Good, how are you?”
There’s a reason this feels disingenuous. We use these words as a greeting, not an honest informative tool. How could we ever feel others are as vulnerable as us if our typical greeting says, “Hey, how you really feel right now isn’t as important as making this quick.” With that as our greeting, of course everyone is impenetrable. We’ve created this perceived shell, and we’re all living in it looking out with wide eyes, hoping others are as lonely and curious as we are.
Doesn’t it seem sometimes that the people we wish we could connect with are just not the same as us? That we have nothing in common? But we do. We all have the desire for a deeper connection. And that doesn’t come just by caring how they’re doing, it comes through honesty and openness.
Imagine, you ask a person you work with who always seems on top of their game, “Hey, how are you?” And they answered, with a softening expression and hesitant voice, “You know, not so good. I’m really struggling.”
Immediately, you’re closer. Why? Because they’ve confided in you, and you cared enough to ask. Now, there’s business to get down to. It gives an opening to ask, “Why, what’s wrong?” And if there’s no time because the coffee machine is no place for therapeutic conversation, you make plans. “Let’s have a beer after work.” This is more comforting to that person than any cordial words or small talk.
There’s this unspoken dogma that we’re all supposed to be okay and good, all of the time. No wonder people go home and zone out in front of the TV, or unintentionally get angry with their partner. They’ve been acting all day and suppressing the truth that was growing on their tongues.
Have we forgotten that acting is a full-time job, and that doing that on top of our regular jobs all day is doubly exhausting? A simple thought-experiment will tell, I said to myself. Here’s what I did:
First, I stopped asking people how they were unless I really wanted to know. I noticed that many didn’t seem to notice my change in greeting, and were happy to just reciprocate my “hello.” But many others felt inclined to ask it in return. So, I did what I thought should be done. I stopped, planted my feet, and began to describe my inner-experience.
“Hey, you know, I’m alright. This morning my dog peed on my shoes, and I didn’t have time to clean them, so I have a pair of slowly ruining leathers at home. They’re a gift from my mom, and I actually really like them, but you know, it’s just shoes,” I said with a shrug and honest realization.
That first act received a laugh. An odd but enjoyable greeting, they might’ve thought.
Eventually though, it became tiresome. Everyone who asked me how I was doing got similar answers, me just describing what had happened through my morning or the night before that affected my current emotional and mental state. A look of uncertainty crossed faces, particularly if it was the second time they’d slid into another detailed description of how I was. For some, I saw on their faces the moment they realized their error in asking.
What I found most interesting was how well I became acquainted with what mattered and what didn’t. Come to find out, my dinner the night before was good but actually didn’t affect me at all today. My dog soiling my shoes was annoying, but not nearly as important as the deer I saw crossing the road that morning. The call from an old friend the night before had made my week, so I took every rhetorical question as an opportunity to tell whatever delightful memory of her that happened to be drifting through my subconscious at the time.
The week went on this way. By Friday, people had picked up on the new trend. That’s all it took: four days. Many people smiled and said hello. And one person, who before would ask “how’s it going,” and then immediately turn back to his computer, learned that now, I would stand by him and explain exactly how and what was going on and at what speed. He eventually learned that hello was all he ever wanted and nothing more.
I learned that people aren’t just friendly, they’re often very curious. I’m a borderline introvert, and yet I became a source of entertainment. Some people would use their break time to swing by my desk and ask me how it’s going.
I complained or rejoiced about the work I was doing or the lunch I’d just had, or I might only shrug, if that’s how I felt. I became a more genuine storyteller. I learned to tune into what really makes me tick and to forget the things that don’t matter. If something truly bothered me, I came to wear it on my sleeve, often venting to the first person who asked. Eventually the venting of serious matters turned into stories that turned into laughter.
And that’s what healed me of my fear that everyone else is crushing it while I’m drifting.
Because I only asked people how they were when I really wanted to know, I gave them my full attention and listened. I encouraged further description and even turned a few office relationships into friendships. Incidentally, a few people who I got along with before seemed to fade away, as I was no longer satisfied with the superficial “okay-ness” that we shared. I realized they weren’t ready for the sincerity of knowing me.
I’m no longer a water cooler greeter. I’m trimming fat and gathering the wool of those that actually add value to my life. And I won’t lie, it’s been uncomfortable at times. But just like going on dates or presenting in front of a classroom, the more we do it, the easier it becomes.
Practice turns into not just a technique for growing closer, but a way of living more closely to the vulnerable and curious people around us, all of whom are just looking for a way to feel connected.
So, how are you?
Author: Will Hearn
Editor: Deb Jarrett