When someone asks me how I’m doing, I’ll honestly reply “Excellent!” and after I’ve returned the question and you’ve also answered affirmatively, I’ll fire a follow-up, and another, and we’ll end up talking about you, and about non-personal stuff like the weather and politics. Then it’s goodbye.
“Wow, you must be such a great listener if you’re not one of these people who chats about himself all the time.”
I know right?
Unfortunately, that’s not it. It has simply always struck me as more useful to listen. It can teach me about how you think, perhaps even about how people like you think, force me to consider new opinions, play with unusual topics, and give me a glimpse of what it’s like to be you. I enjoy that more than talking about myself.
At the end of lunch, coffee, a beer, the other person often exclaims: “Next time we have to talk about more about you! I want to know more about what’s going on in your life man.”
Note to self: beware.
We’ve been seeing each other for over a month now
I’ve never really understood why anyone would care about what I do.
When you start dating another human being, I’ve found, this person tends to ask questions like: “How was your day?”
She was away at a festival for a long weekend, so, on a Saturday, we talked over the phone to catch up.
She’s a teacher, she works with kids, and kids are funny. I love hearing her stories, also because she often gets the giggles before she drops the clue (if there is one).
In contrast, my days usually consist of studying and writing so I typically skip straight to the beer tales but, during that phone call, she started asking about what I was reading exactly, and what articles I was working on precisely, and what philosophical thing occupied my mind that very day.
To my own surprise, I got uncomfortable. Her wanting to know about what Ido between breakfast and dinner, made my chest tighten up like someone just dropped a ton of bricks right on my torso. My mind went blank, no more thoughts, like danger was immanent and the fight-or-flight mechanisms of my body were being marshaled. I was involuntarily contracting muscles, tightening up, preparing for battle.
Why am I behaving like this?
This is what I do for a living. I enjoy it. It matters to me. Why couldn’t I just share this aspect of myself? Why was this so hard? It shouldn’t be.
We’re sitting on opposite sides of her kitchen table
It’s a narrow piece of furniture. If I extend my arm, I can easily touch her.
It’s my third time in her apartment, a few days after the call. I didn’t think she noticed my panic when my dayjob-as-a-writer came up. I wasn’t sure: women have a sixth sense for these kinds of things. (Alternative hypothesis to this theory of extrasensory perception: I’m obvious.)
That day, I came straight from the library, so when she asked what I had been up to, I reached for my backpack and showed her. I pulled outFactfulness by Hans Rosling — big book, screaming red cover with capital letters on it. I put it on the surface. In between us.
Resting her head on the knuckles of her right hand, her elbow on the table, she started skimming the text.
“So what is it about?” she inquired without looking up in a neutral tone of voice.
No eye contact, good.
“The book shows how when asked simple questions about global trends — how many people live in poverty, stuff like that — we systematically get the answers wrong. And then — ”
I felt my chest closing up again when I had to speak up about the fact that this is how I spend most of my days.
“ — And then it explains why our beliefs are so off-track. Basically we have these cognitive instincts, default ways of thinking, that lead us to false conclusions without us realizing that’s what’s happening,” I mumbled.
She looked up from the book, as if she sensed it.
I couldn’t keep eye contact. A strong desire to jump in the backpack and hide was gaining momentum in my head.
You wouldn’t fit.
“So why are you reading this? Are you writing about this?”
Find a way to change the topic, now.
“At some point. It seems it contains much information I need to know — I was wrong about many things. I have to update my beliefs.”
My face got red. I was sure I sounded stupid, saying these nerdy words.
“Wrong? About what then?” She looked at me expectantly.
I wanted to look her in the eyes, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. “Well, for example, we divide reality into two camps such as the “developed world” and “third world countries” but actually putting it like that misrepresents the facts because the “developing” countries are doing a lot better than we tend to think over here.”
Stop this conversation.
I felt like my most shameful secrets were exposed just because someone asks how I spend my waking hours.
What is going on?
I don’t understand
Am I afraid she thinks my life is boring? It’s certainly true not a lot happens. Making coffee is about as eventful as the day gets. I also on occasion successfully relocate my body from the desk to the sofa. What a magnificent adventure.
Perhaps I’m scared of being considered a loafer. “Philosophy, isn’t that just woo-woo talk for when you’re tipsy and high?”
Somewhere in my head, the words “proper job” echo.
Reading and writing about what happens to interest you — aren’t these leisurely activities, to be conducted in your spare time?
I don’t think anyone has ever literally said that to me. But it has been implied sometimes. Here’s another writer’s experience:
This year, I met with an old friend (he’s an artist) for lunch. His father happened to be nearby, and we asked him to recommend a restaurant. “Well,” he replied, “since neither of you have real jobs, how about you go somewhere cheap?” — Charles Chu
I write for a living (not a real job), mostly about philosophy (a good-for-nothing subject).
Last week a friend asked me about my holiday plans, since it’s summer break and I’ve already fulfilled my PhD-obligations for this academic year: “You’re basically free now, I mean, you have to maintain your blog, but you’re basically free?”
When I got an answer
Some days later, we were chatting on the phone again, and I shared my embarrassment with her and told her about the innocuous-yet-biting remark about my summer plans.
She tried to cheer me up: “In your situation, in terms of both readership and finances, saying that writing isn’t a real job doesn’t make any sense. And writing is hard. I’m sure all these people couldn’t do it.”
This was very sweet of her, but I wondered whether difficulty was the issue. I can think of many herculean endeavors that (might) bring in cash yet wouldn’t be considered ‘proper jobs’ just for being hard to do and paying, like being really good at DOTA or eating 100 hotdogs in one hour or whatever the record is.
She noticed my tone was lifeless still, and enthusiastically tried another angle: “And you spend your day, making money, doing your hobby — your hobby became your job! How awesome is that?!”
I don’t want you to try to cheer me up over this.
I tried to express how opinions you disagree with can still hurt, so even though all these concerns about doing something people who are misinformed and/or random strangers consider a “proper job” is nonsense, that’s beside the point.
I told you talking about your life was a bad idea because, as I predicted, people think men ought not to have embarrassments so they’ll try to fix them — clearly, you’re still broken. Shouldn’t have shown your flaws.
I felt like my “irrational” feelings were silly, things to repair. Patch me up and I’ll stop whining. I felt like I was only good enough when I’m happy.
And to make matters worse, I laughed it off, changed the topic, it didn’t matter, it wasn’t a big deal, never mind, forget I brought it up, I’ll just push these emotions down and be jolly old Maarten again.
You shall not be weak.
What I should have said
Here’s what I really wanted to say.
I don’t have funny stories of kids, or colleagues, or meetings. When I talk about what I did today, I have to reveal a congenital uncertainty about my own value.
I worry about failing to conform to the standard ideals of success laid down by our society. That, in turn, makes feel ashamed for my desire for random people to think well of me and accord me respect because I think that’s a stupid desire to have and yet I have it.
Please love me?
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