09.29.05

Old mirrors

Posted in Society, Travel at 11:52 by RjZ

People often see themselves in old mirrors. Mirrors that reflect not who they are, but who they were some time ago. I know who I’ve been most of my life so even when I am successful at actually changing something I don’t like about myself, it’s hard to remember others see the new me, but I still see the old me in the mirror.

When I was growing up, my house was loud. The television was always on ‘for company’ and everyone spoke over it. We spoke over each other too. I still think that the only reason I speak so quickly is because I am the youngest and I had to squeeze my comments in just to get a word in edgewise. The dinner table was our customary meeting place and no member of the family would wait until whoever was finished speaking to jump in with something to say. I remember girlfriends taking me aside between dinner and dessert and say “your family scares me. Why are they always yelling at each other?” Didn’t everyone speak this way? Maybe it was a Jewish thing? Other Jews on TV were always shown as fast talking, slightly rude people.

I’ve lived with my best friend Françoise on and off over the years. Françoise is a quiet person. The 60 cycle hum from a plugged-in television is often enough to annoy her so she unplugs them when not in use. It took me years to notice that Françoise is also smart and insightful; she’d never consider forcing her opinions on others (I won’t be linking to her blog anytime soon.) I could tell she was smart because now and then she’d say something very interesting but during discussions and arguments she would just clam up. Eventually I shut up long enough to learn what the problem was. As soon as I interrupted her, she politely stopped speaking. Unlike my family, though, she wouldn’t start up again. Ever. I started to notice the problem and I’d catch myself, but still she refused: “I forgot what I was going to say” she’d tell me after I asked about what I’d missed. Forgotten or just not willing to try again, the only way I was going to have a real conversation with her was to learn not to interrupt.

Then I started to notice that Françoise isn’t just some strange anomaly. Many people are like this. It was (and still is) difficult to wait for people to finish their thoughts. It seems to take forever and it’s challenging to even know when they’re done. Like pouring coffee into a cup, even after you stop pouring a few drips hang there and eventually fall into the cup. Interrupt the pouring too quickly and you mess up your tablecloth.

On a visit to Israel I was in a business meeting which was strikingly like being around the dinner table as a child. Each participant spoke as soon as he was ready, charging in louder than the whoever was holding the floor so he could have his say. Before his point was made the next person would trounce all over the words his words. Suddenly, frustrated by all this I heard myself say “let him finish!” Everyone was silent for at least the time it took to flash me a puzzled look that said something like “funny, he looked Jewish…wonder what the problem is?” and then they were off again. I’d finally seen the world from Françoise’ side!

I don’t know if it’s Jewish culture, my family being from Chicago, or just what I was like but actually it’s a handy skill being able to get your point across as forcefully as necessary. It’s even better being able to learn from what others are saying and being able to have some control over my conversational style. There’s still plenty to work on though. After all, as nice as it is to sometimes hear that I was a good listener or that even though I made my point strongly I let the other person make hers as well, when I wake up in the morning I still see the same person in that out-of-date mirror and I still want to cut him off just to get a word in edgewise.

5 Comments »

  1. Penelope said,

    September 30, 2005 at 21:27

    I think this is your best-written blog entry so far. Lovely, well-developed ideas, great stories, strong images… I liked it a lot.

    An idea which intrigues me, and which this entry brings up, is how we have different surface personalities depending on who we’re with. For example, you have learned to become more polite and thoughtful when listening to quieter people like Françoise, but you’re still able to plow right through and keep up with folks like the Israeli businessmen, your family, or my brother. (Incedentally, it may be a Chicago culture thing. My dad, Scottish Methodist, but raised in Chicago, talked just like you do when you’re in your best debater mode, and my brother, who idealized Dad, gets along famously with you when you’re like that, as you’ll recall.) I think this is really cool. Adjusting our style for who we’re with seems to me to be the height of good listening skills.

    For me, I’ve noticed that I clam up around extreme fast-push-through types (like my brother, or you in debater mode), but I become much bubblier when I’m around slightly exuberant folks, like you on most days. During a quiet conversation when you weren’t around, Aaron observed, “Wow. You’re really different when you’re not around Ron.”

    I had to think about whether I should worry about that. Now I don’t think I should. I just enjoy the interesting effect. Similarly, one of the things I really liked about my guitar buddy Brian, a very quiet, soft-spoken soul, was that without thinking about it, I was a quieter and gentler person when I was around him. Being affected by different people is kinda cool.

  2. Penelope said,

    September 30, 2005 at 21:36

    One more thought this entry brings up (I really liked this entry. What can I say?):

    You’ve told me that Françoise, being her deeply insightful self, pointed out that you tend to be attracted to “artist types”—also known as “highly sensitive people”—and this may not be a good thing, since you’re not that type of person, and so you tend to accidentally do things that really upset them. Why is it that you gravitate towards such sensitive people?

    I think the answer is clear: You’ve had the honor of knowing one of the best people the sensitive side of the human race has to offer. People who speak softly, feel deeply, and notice small details remind you of one of the coolest people you know. Not all sensitive people are that cool, but some of them are, so it’s wonderful that Françoise has taught you how to hang out with them.

  3. Penelope said,

    October 1, 2005 at 10:02

    Françoise, that is, is one of the cooler, smarter sensitive people you’re likely to meet. Ahem. I’ll stop commenting on this post now.

  4. Amy said,

    December 28, 2005 at 20:48

    OK, so I just recently found out that you HAVE a blog, since we’re not in touch so much anymore. In catching up on your writings, I came across this one, and I really like it! Isn’t it great to know that we can continue to grow and evolve, as long as we see a reason and are willing?

    P.S. I agree w/ Penelope… Francoise is one of the “cooler” people I’ve met and I’m looking forward to seeing her again at your NY Eve party! And you too of course!

  5. Elena said,

    June 16, 2006 at 15:24

    Is the conclusion then is that it’s a ”Jewish thing”? Joke, of course.

    I think it’s a good skill being able to adjust your style of conversation depending on who is around you. It simply shows your respect for other participants. I’ve known people, who could do this and some who couldn’t. And no matter how interesting the latter were, sooner or later you realized, they were not interested in conversation, but only in a monologue. If I want to be by myself, I stay at home alone; if I’m with people, I’m interested in exchange, and I’m assuming others are too, otherwise what’s the point?

    If you only always listen to your own voice, no matter how cool and right your opinions may seem to you, you lose perspective (read: start cooking in your own juices, translating an old Russian saying). This may (or may not) lead to weird things. I actually heard people say, that they would never even consider other people’s opinions about their actions because there couldn’t possibly be a better judge of them, than themselves. How about that?!

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