Social connection.

Ann Finkbeiner on the ‘last word on nothing’ blog talking about some of her own experiences with sexual harassment brought up something interesting for me that’s related, but tangential. The penultimate paragraph:

“Later, however, I thought that the job of editors is to use writers to get stories, and the job of writers is to use editor to publish stories. Kant’s rule needs — and for all I know, has — a rider that says professionally, ok, use other people to get jobs done that you both want done.  But personally, don’t use other people only to offset your loneliness and depression – she didn’t like me all that much either – and to fulfill your private necessities.”

This very thing has been a problem for me- I’m sure I’ve acted out of desperation to connect with people sometimes and have learned that it doesn’t work (not in the exact scenarios she talks about in her post, but from that same mental place). It’s resulted in a rule I try to follow:

I cannot show interest in another human being (or too much interest…but I try to err on the side of caution and define it narrowly- interacting even once could be too much). And I’m almost never the initiator of a conversation.

It is therefore up to other people to show interest in me. I will talk to people but try to be detached. Hard when they’re talking about something I like, like Star Trek, but then it’s more me showing interest in the subject that the person I’m speaking to- of course, they are more interesting to me because they know Star Trek. When it comes to talking to that cute woman at the bar (as if I’m ever at a bar….rare occurrence), the last thing I think she needs is me actually going up and talking to her and saying “hi”— I admit this may be my huge aversion to small talk speaking.

Of course I have my good friends who as Brene Brown talks about in ‘Daring Greatly’ have earned enough trust to hear my story(ies)- and I hope I theirs (don’t ask how I got said good friends…I’m honestly not completely sure, but I am truly grateful for them). I also try not to share things that I haven’t fully processed (or need to sort out w/ another person first). For instance, the fact that I’m a lot more comfortable writing about depression and my experiences with it is a good sign that I’m actually managing it better than I used to. Have I screwed up here too? Absolutely. I’m sure of it.

Following my rule ensures that I am largely a loner much of the time. I feel disconnected from others and often numb to the world (that’s a recipe for depression, by the way, research consistently shows that isolation is bad for human health). It’s in part a result of the message I got growing up that I truly took to heart: strangers = bad news. That’s fine unless you want to meet new people and make progress in life and career….

So I’ve been trying to figure out just how to genuinely connect with people because as research on our primate relatives tells us, social interactions are really important as is being treated fairly. Professionally, it’s a little easier for me- just talk about work, show interest in what that colleague/person does for a living, see how you might be able to help them in some way, possibly take down their contact info, follow up and say it was nice to meet them, and get your work done with them if it’s a collaboration. All with zero expectation that a friendship will result from said interaction. Done.

Interpersonally- i.e. dating, friendships- it’s harder. It’s not a new idea that it’s harder to make new friends as an adult- and that’s true of dating as well I think. Trying not to mix the professional and personal can be difficult as well, especially since the number one factor in two people being attracted to one another is proximity…so despite not being a good idea, office romances are common. Similarly, if you live in a small town (as I do now), keeping those things separate can be challenging as well. I’m sure there’s an ecological principle that applies here somehow.

I guess my social interactions are a bit like a journalist interviewing someone (I am not a journalist, nor have I ever interviewed someone for a story, so I’m speaking as a total outsider). I don’t like talking about myself (here on the blog is an exception, though it’s overstating to say I like talking about myself in writing— it’s really uncomfortable actually, but I’m writing about what I know) so I try to ask questions to keep the other person I’m speaking with talking. For someone to get to know me takes a very long time. You’re interested in me? I am skeptical and raise a Spock ‘illogical’ eyebrow at you.

The moral idiocy that Finkbeiner talks about is at least in part a vulnerability problem that exists in our society (again, look at Brene Brown’s work that actually is fairly obvious in some ways and is something that seems well supported by research). In a dearth of connection, anyone will do and if there’s even a glimmer of an opening with someone, keep going with it even if that’s completely inappropriate and a misreading of the situation. Maybe it’s OK to open up to an old friend that you’re really depressed and feeling isolated. It certainly isn’t with a professional colleague or a new friend.

The exception- if you your mental health is interfering with your work, maybe have that discussion with your PI/supervisor and figure out how to deal with it or tell them how you are dealing with it- seeing a therapist, etc. and maybe see if there are things you can do in the lab that will help- if you have any other medical issue interfering with your work, you’d likely disclose that in some way- same thing holds for mental health. Take care of yourself. Especially if you’re having suicidal thoughts- find someone- a professional, a friend/family member you trust, just someone to talk to (or I think this Frank Turner song makes an argument for why to keep going on— life is something to be grateful for each day — it took me awhile to be convinced that that’s true, but it is, really amazing that all the cells in your body that make up ‘you’ work in concert daily to greet the day).

You really can talk to people and be vulnerable— in fact it’s necessary for connection, change, creativity and innovation (yes, it’s very hard sometimes and as a guy, I know that it can be perceived as being weak which in the USA is pretty unacceptable for a guy to show in front of both men and women). The moral idiocy comes when you expect someone else to be vulnerable and you yourself want to maintain your protective shield. It comes off as desperate and awkward. As Finkbeiner writes, someone over-sharing and her not feeling comfortable with that level of sharing/interaction with this person she was happy to work with, but nothing beyond that.

So remember: genuine interactions tend to be two-way affairs. Share a bit of yourself with someone else— an appropriate amount for the given relationship— and hopefully they’ll reciprocate. And unlike my past self, don’t be too fearful of taking a social chance with someone now and again just be appropriate about it.

Ever on and on.


Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

One thought on “Social connection.”

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