Apr 03, 2014 2 Share

Without Pretense

Two women talking.

One of the reasons I love spending time with Willie is his refreshing lack of pretense. I'm not good at polite deception, and neither is my brother. For example, Willie doesn't pretend to like foods that he dislikes. That is, he doesn't lie effectively enough to be believed; he'll take a bite of a dish and force himself to say, “Yes, I like it!” with an obvious grimace. He knows the socially correct response, he just isn't able to match his untrue words with fake facial expressions. Come to think of it, I have the same problem. For my brother and me, our faces always give us away. 

Likewise, when I call my family, Willie usually stays on the line for a minute or less, then says, “Goodbye Caroline!” His tone is bright and chipper, yet distinctly final. The implicit message is: We're done talking now! I have videos to watch, so I'm hanging up! For Willie, a small amount of time suffices, and a little goes a long way. It's a little abrupt, sure, but in a world of pleasantries and platitudes, Willie's honesty is bracing. 

For example, here's a social convention that drives me crazy. Often, when I run into a friend, I'll greet her by saying, “Hi! Good to see you! How are you?” 

She will invariably chirp back, “Good! How are you?” 

I will invariably reply, “Good!” And unless I remind myself not to, I'll probably let the same question slip out again: “How are you?” 

These questions have the potential to run in an endless loop. It's as though there's an unwritten rule that we have to get the first “ask” out of the way as quickly as possible. The other person must reply that they are well. Only at the second ask does the possibility for an honest answer arise. 

I understand that this is just a social ritual, something we do to set ourselves at ease. But when I participate in it, I get the feeling that I'm doing a dance at which I have no natural aptitude. I feel like a ballerina trying to do hip hop … and I know from experience just how awkward that can be. (It doesn't work in the movies, and it really doesn't work in real life. At least, not in my real life.) 

When I pose this question, I also get the feeling that—if I may mix metaphors—I'm tapping at the window of a friend's house, trying to glimpse the person inside. And if she says, “Good!” a second time, I feel as though the curtains have been pulled politely but firmly shut. Translation: “While it's sort of nice that you want to hear about my actual emotional state, I feel the need to hold you at arm's length. Sorry, we're not gonna go there.” 

It's frustrating, especially with people I consider real friends. When I get that second “Good!” I want to stomp my feet and wave my arms and say, “Don't you know that you can skip the polite answer with me? I want to know you, not this cardboard persona! I'd rather hear you say, ‘You know, I'm exhausted and I'd really rather go home and take a nap than make small talk with you,' than, 'I'm good!'” 

Yet I confess: I've given many a second “I'm good!” myself. Even though I try not to, I can't help myself; I mirror what I see and hear. It takes tenacity and courage to break the cycle, to slow down and tell the truth. It takes strength to be as honest as my brother is, naturally. To be sure, I need to use discernment; it's unwise to let just anyone see into my emotional “house.” That said, I'm resisting the conditioned response. I'm doing so not because I want to be original, but because I want to be real. Or at least, a little closer to real. Because that's the best I can do, most days. Total transparency? No; the prospect of such vulnerability is terrifying. But opening the curtains a few inches more, letting some light in? That's realistic. And that's exactly what Willie is teaching me do, just by being himself.  

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Cheryl Fortunato (not verified)


My son's psychologist always follows up with "what's good".  He shared asking that follow-up question helps to engage us out of the standard "good"!  I try to do this with my kids, one of whom is on the spectrum, with "what was good today" and "what wasn't so good today".  Always enjoy reading your articles and often share them with my daughter who is "the sibling"!  Thank you.

Caroline (not verified)

What a great idea!

Thank you for an excellent conversational tip - I'll be sure to try that with Willie next time! Glad to hear that you enjoy the columns - it always gives me a boost to hear! :) ~ Caroline McGraw