I am taking a break from creative writing to explore something that has often fascinated me: social cues and social understanding.
Okay, I admit that being raised a “southern belle,” and having certain life experiences has helped me with this exploration. But…I remember very well being that awkward, highly intelligent, somewhat introverted girl who didn’t realize that not everyone thought “that way” and who at times had a playground target on her back. I did all the wrong things at 11 when 3 girls decided not to like me, left notes in my desk, talked about me with whispers and giggles. Instead of shaking the dust from my feet and enjoying other friendships, I asked them all to a sleepover, and, well, I think we all know how that story ended. It wasn’t until I learned the “normal” way of dealing with those things that the target was removed. Then, in college, when the director of a traveling singing group informed us that we would be responsible for greeting and conversing with everyone who attended out concerts, I froze inside. Talking to random strangers of my own free will?? However, two weeks into the tour, I was saying friendly hellos, making small talk, and smiling comfortably with the best of them. There was something innate in me, whether it be from my parents’ rearing, my own choices of observation, or because I made a study of people the way I made a study of math and literature, that understood that success with other humans = knowing how to play the game. I don’t know how I knew this. And it wasn’t a matter of putting on a mask or becoming a persona. It was a matter of understanding that the parameters had been set long ago, and I could either choose to work within them or suffer the consequences of choosing NOT to work within them. It sounds simple, but it was a process. And now, when I see people who choose to ignore the same social cues and emotional intelligence markers over and over….I struggle over whether to be sympathetic or to shake my head and think, “How can you not see it?” Much like we feel for the person who is burned by the hot stove the first time. But after the 4th time they put their hand there knowing what that red glow means……not so much.
The first thing I did was look for articles. Most articles that pop up when one types “social cues” into Google have to do with Autism and Aspergers. Now, I know that not everyone who embraces their playground target has these disorders, so it was tough to wade through the mass of information to try to find some nuggets for “regular” people (not that people with disorders are not regular, heck, I have a disorder, but I couldn’t think of a better word). The next deluge of articles, once I typed in “social cues in adults” were articles about adult ADHD. Still not applicable to everyone, but at least now we are getting somewhere. I found some helpful information.
Then it occurred to me, a lot of these things that seem “obvious” to me are actually more about social skills and those unwritten social rules that we either learn and embrace, learn and reject, or just don’t seem to learn. With those terms, I hit the jackpot.
So what prompted this exploration? Well, over the last several months I have encountered and observed people in a variety of situations who felt mistreated, were mistreated, reacted outside of the parameters to being or perceiving mistreatment, thereby guaranteeing more of the same. It is a vicious cycle. As a teacher of children I have seen it over and over. A child is just…well, different. And certain children tease them because of it. At this point in the game it is rather simple. Said children need to be taught to celebrate differences. however, then the child who is teased does not understand those social cues or how to turn the situation around into success, and their reaction seems to engender even MORE teasing, which causes even greater reaction, and the cycle continues. After a time, it is stressful to watch and a teacher is chagrined to know what to do. While bullies SHOULD be called into account, the child who keeps inviting through their complete disregard for social cues needs to be taught as well. We do a child no favors by just punishing the bully and never teaching the victim how to socially cope.
And so my exploration begins. I am not touting dishonesty, fakery, or training someone to be the homecoming queen. But the rules – unwritten or not – are there. And we can learn to be authentic within them and reduce anxiety and stress, or we can operate outside the general norms, in which case we should not question when the norms rub up against us in an unpleasant way.