Flinging Against a Wall

The difficult volunteer at the school continues to be difficult, but I feel so much calmer about her now that I know other people find her difficult. In fact, it gives me room to feel some sympathy for her. She’s trying so hard to get things changed, and she is going about it in the wrong way entirely, and I don’t think she has any idea why it isn’t working. I can see her thinking this is a backwards town, or that everyone here is resistant to change, or that people are too stupid to understand her points—when actually it’s that her manner and presentation are ineffective/off-putting in multiple ways.

It reminds me of language, and how hard it can be to explain the difference between two similar words. When a magazine says that a celebrity “ballooned” during pregnancy or “splurged” on a purse, these are highly communicative words—much different than saying someone “gained weight” during pregnancy or “bought” a purse. There’s a huge difference between the word “drugs” and the word “painkillers,” especially if you’re talking about medications used during childbirth. Second-person singular (“You need to keep in mind that…”) is very different than first-person singular (“I need to keep in mind that…”), and both are very different than first-person plural (“We need to keep in mind that…”). Small changes can make large differences: starting a written comment with “Um” can add a strong layer of scorn depending on what is written next, and it would be hard to explain why. People who don’t see the differences find themselves mystified by how TOUCHY people are. People who don’t see the similar subtle differences in human behavior can find themselves similarly mystified.

Awhile back, one of my sister-in-law’s siblings mentioned the idea of a service that would follow you around and then tell you what to stop doing. Like, you’d pay them a fee, and they’d give you a list like “Listen, you keep darting your eyes and it makes you look shifty,” and “Your posture looks threatening rather than confident,” and “You press your lips together about every ten seconds.” Things like that. This is the kind of service the difficult volunteer could benefit from. “Listen, you talk to the other volunteers as if you’re in charge of them,” the service would write in their multi-page report. “Your ‘listening’ facial expression communicates that you think the other person is amusingly stupid.” “Telling everyone that a certain additive leads to childhood brain tumors is unconvincing if none of the children in the entire school system has ever had one; maybe use the study about poorer test scores instead.” “When you compare this public school unfavorably to your kids’ previous private school, and ask for expensive changes to be made to make the two schools more similar, you need to show you realize that the $25,000/year tuition difference between the two schools (rather than everyone’s failure to realize the other way is better) may be the reason the answer is no.” And so on.

It’s given me a lot to think about, because everybody’s got potentially off-putting things they don’t realize they’re doing. Some of us are laughing nervously after every single thing we say. Some of us don’t make eye contact while we’re talking; some of us make overly intense eye contact. Some of us blurt things out before considering if they represent our actual thoughts/feelings on a topic. Some of us ask overly blunt questions. Some of us interrupt too much, or talk too much, or overuse certain words/phrases. Some of us are completely obvious with our subtle prying or subtle suggestions. Some of us choke up CONSTANTLY over NOTHING (ahem). But a LOT of stuff is absolutely fine once we get used to each other. It’s an argument for giving relationships time to develop: the woman I know who asks overly blunt questions did startle me the first couple of times, but now I’m used to it and in fact I consider it part of her charm. Another friend was stand-offish before we got to know each other, and ended up being the best roommate I ever had. Sometimes things that seem off-putting at first end up making the person even more dear to us, or go away once we’re less new to each other. (And on the “can’t please everyone” principle, you can’t even go around changing things like this: one person’s off-putting is another person’s appealing. I myself am put off by attractive, fashionable, confident people with perfect eye contact.)

In other situations, it doesn’t work that way. The person is trying to get things changed, trying to fit in, trying to make friends—and it’s not WORKING. It can be quite easy to notice what someone else is doing wrong (“You’re talking to other people like they’re stupid; you’re working from the assumption that no reasonable person could disagree with you” or “You’re moving too fast; you’re coming on way too strong/desperate”) but hard to figure it out in oneself. The difference between these two situations (something off-putting/startling that is not a long term problem, versus endless unproductive flinging against a wall) has been very interesting to think about, and is something I’m going to keep in mind the next time I feel like I keep flinging myself against a wall.

30 thoughts on “Flinging Against a Wall

  1. Rah


    How do I apply for that following-people-around job? I find myself being overly critical at times; just as well harness it for income.

  2. MomQueenBee

    I want to come to your family dinners, because your sister-in-law’s sibling is BRILLIANT. I would pay for this service. Really. I would.

  3. Sarah

    I also would pay for such a service. I am an outgoing person, and prone to blunt questions if I feel the mood/relationship/timing is right for them, but then I find myself constantly wondering if I misread the situation and if a certain question, tone or joke was amusing and charming and part of my (hopefully) funny, frank personality… or in fact off putting, rude and presumptive! Mostly I feel like I’m good at feeling things out, but occasionally I am Very Wrong and end up offending, which I then agonize over for MONTHS afterwards, honestly.

  4. jkinda

    Swistle – i would love for you to do a poll to see how many people would love to DO this job and how many people would love to HIRE someone for this job. Interesting perspective! I personally find myself in the “I would like to do this job” camp, but I know (FOR a FACT) that I should also Hire someone for this job. My husband recently told me that i have a permanent frown on my face when i am “thinking” about something. which is all of the time, right? I am an otherwise very positive person, so this was slightly jarring. On second thought, maybe I should not try to DO this job and should just HIRE for it. Hmm.

    1. Ginny

      I’m definitely in the “would love to DO this job!” camp… although, like anybody, I could probably benefit from some feedback myself. I already tend to do it in a casual and informal capacity with very close friends (and a certain husband), like, “I think maybe the way you phrased that made them feel like you were attacking them” or “I’ve noticed when you get really excited about an idea you sometimes sound like you’re angry.” Be nice to get paid for it.

  5. Ami

    Chiming in with yet another “I would totally buy ‘Swistle’s Guide to Life.'” Multiple copies, as posts like this really ups their “great gift” potential (cough, cough.) :)

    1. Shannon

      Yes! Please write a book. I’m currently getting through my day on a combo of “What CAN You Do?” and “Drops in the Bucket. IN.” I would definitely pay for this service too.

  6. Becky

    I would love to do this job for other people, but I would still pay to have it done for me. Some of the things I am aware of (I’m “nice but frank,” as a recent acquaintance said when I went to the bathroom; I know that means that sometimes I open my mouth when I should probably keep it shut). Some of them I’m not. Who is going to start to this company so I can work there/hire their services?

  7. Slim

    I think information on “What makes you weird” should be collected on everyone. Then people could ask to see their files or not, but knowing it’s there . . . wouldn’t that drive people to check? Even the smug ones who are sure their files are empty (looking at you, volunteer mom) and who really need to be informed that they’re not?

  8. suburbancorrespondent

    A little off-topic, but I think the lack of eye contact while speaking shouldn’t be labeled as de facto “off-putting.” Some people are just more comfortable that way, and it doesn’t cost us anything not to take that personally, right? I tend to give those types of people more space and even tone down the eye contact myself, just to make them more comfortable. It’s like people who don’t enjoy hugging everyone they meet (myself included) – it’s just a matter of personal preference.

    1. dayman

      I recently got feedback that my eye contact is not awesome. Kind of horrible, in fact. I then started trying to make excellent eye contact and was shocked to find that it made me supremely- SUPREMELY- uncomfortable. I work in a setting where there is a LOT of talking, and it is not always work-related, so now I try to make disarming jokes about my lousy eye contact, because I just don’t think I am capable of being good at this. I realize that is a cop out but it exhausts me and really, really sets me on edge.

  9. Matti

    Wouldn’t the gift cards for this service be so wonderfully fraught?
    My husband, who is one of the least confrontational people on the planet, but has a very public-centered job, would like someone to start a company where you could hire other people to have your confrontations for you. We’ve jokingly named it, “Listen A##hole.”
    I tend to think your SIL’s idea would do more god in the world. :)

    1. nic

      Now that’s a job i would love! I’m so tired of people who avoid confrontation (and who because of that often end up hurting people), i’m getting to a point where i want to start every. single. sentence with ‘listen, a##hole’ even when there’s no need for confrontation at all… :s

      1. Matti

        Yep. I wouldn’t just be the founder of that company, but also a member!
        Also, not “god” in the world, but “good.” Though, I suppose depending on your definitions it could work both ways.

    2. The Sojourner

      I am pretty sure my MIL would buy this as a gift for my FIL. (And yet, reinforcing Swistle’s point that you can’t just go around changing people–I doubt they’d have stayed married so long if my FIL wasn’t so accommodating of my force-of-nature MIL. *I* could certainly never be married to her for 26 years. I can barely handle having dinner at her house.)

  10. Misty

    See, and I always thought that when I put “Um,” in front of a written comment, I was conveying a level of uncertainty or that I could most certainly be wrong. Not scorn.

    Well, damn. Maybe I need a follower person myself.

  11. Nancy

    According to google you can get counselling in body language, although I think what you’re talking about is a bit broader than that.

    I too used to use ‘Um’ to indicate uncertainty, but have been trying to avoid it since reading that it is often seen as indicating scorn. I wish I could find an example where I used it, so I could get a second opinion on the scorn level.

    1. Swistle Post author

      “Wow” is a similar one: it can be used utterly benignly/nicely (“Wow, that’s awesome!”) or as a way to imply that the other person’s objection was over-the-top crazy (in situations where it wasn’t, but the Wow-er wants to imply that it was). It all depends on what comes after it. “Um, crud, I’ve been doing that very thing!” is a fine Um. So are “Um, let’s see…I make a good chicken recipe but it has mushrooms…How do you feel about mushrooms?” and “Um, I may or may not have just consumed an entire batch of those.” But “Um, wow, did you ever think that maybe you might be overreacting?” is a non-fine Um (and a non-fine Wow).

  12. M.Amanda

    I would love to have someone do that for me. And now that my daughter is in school and sometimes makes comments that make me wonder if I have passed on my awkwardness, I would like to know exactly how odd I really am.

  13. Alyson

    you’re awesome. and I love that someone else falls down the rabbit hole of managing to see all sides of a situation (or at least more than one) and is so eloquent doing it. (I may be eloquent doing it but I’ll never know until I get hired for your service and have the complimentary review for employees). Like a bunch of the other commenters – commentors? people who commented, I already do this for some people and it would be nice to get paid for it.

  14. Monique S.

    I love that you bring these things out,I never thought about this, and soon I will be in the world of school / trying to make mom friends and what not. I tend to get highly defensive when someone critiques my words or body language. Although I really should be more open , it’s hard; my poor husband, he likes to try and “help”. But really only irritates me. Meanwhile, great idea for a job / company, but how well would a client respond even if they asked for the input.

    I know you feel you are socially awkward but may I suggest a chapter for Swistle’s guide to life entitled how to make friends as an adult? I think your reference to the coffee shop and these other experiences of yours would be lovely together.

  15. sooboo

    What you said at the end about the difference between something that seems like a problem but isn’t and endless, non-productive wall flinging, it really does take time to figure out which is which. I read this out loud to my husband and we had an interesting talk about how people are always told that first impressions are everything but you’ve made a good argument for exactly the opposite. Figuring out the difference requires a lot more from a person; patient observation, compassion, time and going against what most of us are taught. Of course this is only true with people you encounter multiple times, like the difficult volunteer.

  16. Mimsie

    I can’t tell you how often my dear old Scottish granny used to quote Robbie Burns–
    “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!”

  17. liz

    Your empathy for the difficult volunteer is inspiring. Too bad that just TELLING her that you are in sympathy with her but can see why some of the road blocks exist is probably not a useful exercise.

    1. Therese

      That’s a great point. I may have missed this in another post but has someone tried to have a conversation with the difficult volunteer? If not, that might be useful (from a volunteer coordinator or school person, NOT necessarily another volunteer). As annoying as she sounds, I might feel a little bad for her if she doesn’t realize.

      An argument could be made that at this age (old enough to have children in elementary school and volunteering) that she should have enough self-awareness to know better but maybe not.

      I have a very strong personality and as I matured in my 20s had a basic level of self-awareness about what that meant and how I should approach people/situations in a more appropriate fashion. However, via regular performance evals (from really good bosses) at work and after participating in a 360 degree evaluation in a professional fellowship program I learned way more. It was exactly like having someone follow me around and say the things you mentioned Swistle. That 360 eval took place about 7 years ago but I still have it and reference it from time to time. It’s a good (albeit sometimes painful) reminder about how I communicate and work with others. I will note that it is very focused on strengths and areas for improvement so if you’re sensitive (yes, although I am pretty outspoken and bossy I easily get my feelings hurt…) like me, you don’t feel completely beat down by the weaknesses that are pointed out.

      For anyone in a professional environment I would enquire if a 360 eval is available. I think a lot of professional associations offer them if individual employers do not. I haven’t researched but there are probably online versions available as well. The trick is you need a 3rd party to receive all the feedback and create the report so that the evaluators info is anonymous.

      Wow, didn’t mean to go off on that tangent. Sorry for such a long reply but I find this topic quite interesting.

  18. MaggieO

    AAHHHHH! Swistle, I need you to come observe me and fix all the things!

    Interesting the people who want this job vs the ones who think they need the service. That’s gotta be a personality type identifier right there.

  19. The Sojourner

    This service reminds me of Tim Hawkins’ “Marriage GPS.” YouTube it; it’s awesome. :)

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