One of my guilty pleasures is reading advice columns. But not the mainstream ones, like “Dear Amy” or the faux-Abbys’ out there.
I know I’ve mentioned this before, although I’m too lazy to go back and search for links. But my favorite advice columnist is Cary Tennis over at Salon. Several times a week, I find myself in complete agreement with his take on the world and all of us strange creatures living in it. Even when he’s writing about a topic that I can’t ever imagine myself in, his approach to facing the problems people describe to him so mirrors what I would like to be able to think and do it’s uncanny.
And then, of course, oftentimes, sometimes, the topic is even closer to home.
Take, for example, this week’s letter (link may require viewing a “Day Pass” ad, but it’s so worth it) from someone accused of defensiveness by his ex-girlfriend. Here’s Cary, explaining, essentially, how best to apologize to someone so as not to put them down:
Say you bump me on the sidewalk and don’t say “Excuse me.” I feel annoyed at the bump and insulted at your failure to acknowledge it or apologize. So I say, “Hey, watch where you’re going!” And you say, “Hey, the sidewalk’s too narrow, and besides, I was reading this book.”
That’s not information I happen to be interested in at the moment. What I want is an apology, clear and simple, no explanations. I want my dignity restored. I want recognition as a person who deserves an apology. I want civility.
I might be in the wrong — perhaps I should have seen you blindly stumbling down the street and gotten out of the way. But to me, it’s about the way I feel, not about why you did it.
She calls you “defensive” because you’re defending yourself instead of giving her what she wants, which is validation, acceptance, courtesy. She’s hurt, it has something to do with you, and she wants something from you. It’s about her, not about you.
People want to be acknowledged. People want to be recognized. Even by strangers; many is the time I’ve angered some stranger on the street by responding to whatever request they make of me with my generic “I’m not interested.” You’d think I called them some horrible racial epithet as the realization sinks in that they were just asking the time but I’ve brushed them off without even considering what their question was. In my darker moods I rationalize it by saying that I owe a stranger nothing at all.
But I’m only hurting myself by approaching strangers this way. It just makes it that much more difficult for me to honestly approach others when I’m in the mood to. It’s walling something off inside myself that is better out in the open, even if it’s more vulnerable.
But shifting from strangers to those who know me… dammit, is it too much to ask for that kind of acceptance and acknowledgment? If I’ve been hurt, and the other knows it, what is so difficult about a simple, unadorned apology? I have friends who can do that, and friends who don’t, and I find myself less and less inclined to spend time around the friends who can’t or won’t see this truth. And the friends who do are often pleasantly surprised when I return the favor with my own respect. How sad that that kind of thing is so uncommon.
Respect me and my thoughts and opinions as I try to do yours. But don’t be surprised if I view your judgments about me as hostility and arrogance, and return it with my own.