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.