Monday, August 19, 2013

Friendliness vs. Privacy

For those of you who follow my blog series where I'm snarkily reading through what may be the worst Christian book of all time, you saw my frustration when in this last chapter, a little girl was raved about for being exceedingly polite to people based solely on these two qualities: 1) she opened doors for people, and 2) she greeted everyone she saw and talked to them and was generally very friendly.

It irked me specifically because it ties into the big introverson/extroversion divide in the U.S., and I thought I'd share a few thoughts on it.

I read an interesting observation about introverts once. (I don't remember now where it was that I read this and my Google-fu has failed me, so if you recognize it, please let me know!) It talked about the way that "friendliness" is viewed by extroverts, and therefore by most of the U.S., as the cardinal virtue, and, more specifically, the kindest thing you can do for somebody. The assumption is that if you are friendly, you are kind, because someone being friendly to you is the ultimate act of compassion and love. The piece I read contrasted it to more reserved societies, where the assumption is flipped: the kindest thing someone can do for you is grant you your privacy and not intrude.

This, I think, is one of the key reasons why introverts and extroverts sometimes stereotype each other. It's why introverts may think of extroverts as obnoxious, and extroverts may think of introverts as stuck-up and unlikable. It's because of these two completely different value sets.

In many cases, friendliness may not be the kindest thing for someone. I remember days in college when I dreaded leaving my dorm room to get food because I worried someone would want to chat, and I just couldn't deal with it that day. So I'd put on headphones, stare down at the ground, and pray nobody ignored the "please don't talk to me right now" signs by tapping me on the shoulder and forcing themselves into my space. While they may have seen it as a kindness, it was all I could do to keep a smile on my face and respond politely to their questions.

They may have meant to help me, but they hurt me. Those people who did this consistently, over and over again, even when I specifically, clearly requested time alone, lost my trust and my affection. Their insistence that friendliness would always pleasant for me was not only misguided, but actually, in some cases, damaged what could have been a good friendship.

On the flip side, privacy is not always the kindest thing for someone either. I know there have been times where I have made friends feel neglected because I thought leaving them alone would be the kindest thing. I know there have been times where somebody sitting alone in the cafeteria probably wanted someone to sit with them, and I instead left them to themselves and sat by myself.

So here's the question: How can you tell the difference?

How can I tell when I need to be friendly and how can extroverts tell when they need to give me privacy?

Well, for one thing, you can just ask. "Do you want some space?" and "Do you want to talk?" are both completely valid, non-imposing questions. The key here is that whatever they answer, you accept that. You leave them alone politely if they say they'd rather be by themselves, and you sit and spend time with them if they say they'd love to talk.

Sometimes you have to read a little body language. I did everything I could to convey the idea that I didn't want to talk to anyone. Not making eye contact, walking quickly past people, headphones, a book (I'm always astonished by how many people think it's totally OK to interrupt someone reading a book with headphones on just to chat with them - they're clearly occupied). When I'm more in the mood to chat, I'll make eye contact with people, smile, watch the people around me, and even if I may check my phone every now and then, I won't be involved in anything really focus-consuming.

Sometimes you'll just guess, and sometimes you'll be wrong. In that case, as soon as you find out you're wrong (they write a Facebook status about being alone, they stiffen up as you hug them, they give you short answers and go back to their book, they text you and say "I feel like I never see you anymore"), you can go back and do what you now know is the right answer. Offer to spend some time together and talk about stuff. Back off, tell them you hope they have a good day, and leave them alone.

"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" works as a general principle, but there are so many different character traits and personality types in the world, assuming your favorite thing is everyone's favorite thing is going to lead to some major issues. Instead, just as you want people to take your preferences and your personality into account when determining how to treat you, take other people's preferences into account when determining how to treat them.

As a final thought, please don't make the same mistake that book author made in Friday's blog. Those who are friendly are not better people than those who grant people their space. Gregariousness is not more instantly worthy of a reward than reservedness. Friendliness doesn't make someone a good person any more than blondness, tallness, or geekiness does.

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