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.