The power of a few carefully chosen words

In an argument, someone once said to me, ‘When you walk into a room, people wish you weren’t there.’
They explained, ‘You’re odd. You make people uncomfortable.’  

I didn’t know what to say. My brain raced to “if that’s true, I should apologise to a lot of people, but I can’t apologise without being in the same room as them, and it would only be awkward…” I never apologised and never learnt how to answer, even when it became a recurring theme:

‘You don’t realise when people don’t like you.’
‘Normal people don’t genuinely enjoy your company. They’re relieved when you leave.’
‘Sometimes people are kind to you and you think they’re your friends, but you don’t actually have normal, real friendships.’
‘[Name] will never be comfortable with you, you should leave them alone.’
‘You can’t help it; it’s nothing you do, it’s just you.’
‘You were born weird. Even your parents think so.’ 

Were these things true? It was just one person’s opinion but the more they said, the more I wondered, and when I walked into meetings or gatherings, I started to look. I’d peer into people’s eyes to gauge whether or not I made them uncomfortable, and one thing that’s pretty much guaranteed to make you look odd is to walk into a room and stare right into someone’s face, wanting to ask, ‘D’you think I’m odd?’

Of course the answer is, ‘Well, NOW I do.’

‘Did you want to ask something?’

Some of the eyes were warm, kind and gorgeous, but still the reflected bafflement of my poor, out-stared acquaintances bolstered the idea that I was strange which halfway validated “you’re odd and people dislike you”.

It became a feedback loop; I started shying away from people whom I liked, not wanting to impose. Especially the ones I liked a lot. I hesitated when I wanted to leap in, retreated when I might otherwise have stood firm, muttered instead of speaking up, and then when asked to repeat myself, would retract it. I left clubs and groups where I wanted to belong, worried about inflicting myself on the perfectly reasonable people who had just come to have a pleasant, productive time, and who did not deserve to have it spoiled by my peculiar presence. I started to feel frightened of getting to know people, afraid of seeing them start to dislike me.

Oddness, or otherness, became a self-fulfilling prophesy that I could sense and predict but not stop, in the same way as when you run too fast downhill as a child and find yourself neither able to slow down nor keep up with your own feet: you just know it’s going to end with bloody knees.

In the end, I reverted to a kind of null hypothesis: even if no one liked me, I couldn’t help existing so I’d better just suck in air and get on with life. I convinced myself that as an individual, I didn’t matter: good, bad, loved, hated, happy, sad; I was inconsequential. All that mattered was looking after my family, supporting the community, and trying to be me as quietly as I could.

I couldn’t escape the relationship (without damaging others), so these weekly or daily painful observations continued for years. It achieved nothing and made no sense, so one day I asked why, feeling as they did, they spent any time with me?

‘I like spending time with you,’ they said. ‘I only say those things in arguments. Everyone says stuff they don’t mean in arguments.’

NO. Not like that, they don’t.

So… was any of it ever true? I don’t know, but it probably became true, after all my staring at people. (The darkest recesses of my humour found that hilarious. The rest of me was po-faced.) I experienced a vertiginous moment when I tried to picture what life might have been like, if I’d not spent years feeling mortified; if I’d actually felt wanted or liked by all those lovely people? I couldn’t see it – the gap between lenses was too wide.

That relationship bit the dust in a long overdue, quietly shrieked, ‘Stay away from me.’*

*paraphrased.

Clouds and linings… the experience taught me a lot about the power of words. The sheer enormity of the influence that those few fairly simple yet exquisitely targeted, oft-repeated words had on me was nothing short of incredible. It was a beautifully crafted word-trap. As elegant, baffling, and strangely inevitable as a Mobius strip.

“No one likes you and you don’t even realise it.” 

It informed my parenting. I taught my children to avoid the ad hominem argument, to be honest even when angry, and that arguments aren’t for winning; they’re for resolving. I told them that it’s OK to say, ‘Let’s forget the argument, we’re friends.’ Or, ‘I said something I didn’t mean, I’m sorry.’ We all say the wrong thing sometimes.

As a writer (and scientist) I also wanted to grasp and harness the incredible power of these words. How could I weave that magnitude of effect into my writing? Could I leave a reader forever able to see the world through a wildly different lens – but safely and enjoyably via fiction — giving them a choice between their before- and after-read vantage points?

Could I redirect the cruelty of that phrase? The words are potent when reversed: “you’re incredibly kind and clever, and you don’t even realise it!” They also make a powerful question: “everyone likes you, didn’t you know?”

There must be a million different ways to bend minds with simple words, and I want that skill. I want to understand how we let other people narrate our own stories. Are we a natural hive mind? Or cerebral sheep? Or is it just me? (Unlikely; I hear a childhood mantra, “stop fussing, you’re the same as everyone else”. The protection a healthy upbringing can offer against abuse was the spawning point of my 2010 story in A-Minor magazine, SPILL.) Does a one-to-one, intimate dynamic penetrate more deeply than group culture? These concepts, explored, could take my fiction to another level.

One of the big – and most enjoyable – questions for me is currently fuelling my WIP and a series of flash fictions that will all be out on submission this year – a question that feels, again, as if it might have an inevitable answer:

are we all unreliable narrators?

I don’t think we are… until we speak.

 

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3 comments

  1. pjlazos says:

    ah, the conundrums of life. be yourself and let the world worry about measuring up against you or pretend to be someone no one is intimidated by. a tough choice, but I think choosing yourself is the best option every time. :0)

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