My plumbing problem wasn’t a big deal, but the solution was beyond my meager fix-it skills. I went next door to ask my neighbor whether he knew how to replace the “seat and springs” on a faucet.
He and I worked on the problem together for about an hour before he decided he couldn’t do it either, so he called another neighbor — someone I don’t know — who lives about a block away. He said Brian used to work in plumbing a long time ago, so he could fix it.
After my neighbor left and it was just Brian and me, we were comparing notes about which neighbors we knew and didn’t know. I mentioned one guy who’s never been very friendly and Brian agreed.
“He seems kind of like a jerk, but I suspect it’s mostly that he’s not very social,” he said. “He just doesn’t have any social skills, unlike you, ’cause you’re obviously social and outgoing. I’ll bet you could talk to anybody. He can’t do that.”
I didn’t say what I was thinking, but I laughed inside. Me? “Social and outgoing”? Well, I see why he thinks so. And I found myself conscious once again that I was running a “social script.” Without thinking about it, I was playing the part of the friendly neighbor.
But I was just running an unconscious social script. It didn’t mean a thing.
A few minutes after Brian left, I ran to Walmart and randomly found myself having friendly banter with one of the employees who stocks shelves. Nothing I said was original. I can’t even say that it was genuine.
As I walked away after that 30-second conversation, I found myself thinking once more that what I had done was run a social script. It was all some old learned behavior that serves my purpose as I move among other humans.
How often do you greet someone you casually know by saying, “Hi, how are you?” And how many people greet you with such a question? If we were to consciously think about this particular script, everybody would realize — privately, of course — that he doesn’t especially care how the other person is. And everybody knows the other person doesn’t care how we are.
I sometimes like to pervert the flow of the expected script when people ask me, “How are you?”
“A truthful answer would take way too long, but I’ll say fine, since that what we all expect,” I say.
Normally, both of us chuckle a little at this truth, but almost nobody disagrees. He didn’t really want to know how I am. We both know that. It’s just expected.
I’m probably more conscious of these things tonight because I was musing earlier today about the difficulty that people must have when they move to entirely new cultures. I was thinking about what it would be like for me, for instance, to move to a foreign culture.
Around here, I know how to be friendly — just enough, but not too much — with employees at stores. I know how I need to act when I place phone calls to order things or ask for information, because I understand that acting in certain ways will be most likely to get cooperation from others.
In other cultures, those scripts are entirely different. The norms of American culture are considered too friendly and informal in some foreign cultures. And there are foreign cultures where we would consider the people rude and unfriendly, simply because they’re running the social scripts which are the norms for their cultures.
I suspect I think about this more than most people do, simply because I’ve always felt like an alien among human beings. My father was very insistent that we learn how to act socially proper in every possible situation, so that’s what I did.
As a small child, I could converse intelligently with adults in ways that left them amazed. I didn’t really care about the things I was asking them or the things they were saying. I was merely playing a role.
I’ve continued to run those scripts as an adult. I’m really good at it. You can drop me into any social or business situation and I can appear to be right at home. If I don’t have a ready-made script for the situation, I can adapt one of my existing scripts. I even have ready-made jokes to re-use at appropriate times.
I guess everybody does that to some extent, but I suspect I’m more conscious of it. I feel like an actor moving around on the stage of life, saying the right lines and eliciting the expected responses from other people. It’s like being social on autopilot.
I think that’s why it means so much to me when I can be genuine. It makes me feel real.
I recently rented a house to a young couple who are going to be in Birmingham for a year while one of them takes a temporary academic post at a local university. They weren’t able to come to look at the house and the woman is nervous. They’re selling a very nice home that she loves — and she’s moving her two young daughters into a house she’s never seen. And she’s terrified that she might be making a mistake.
Friday afternoon, she called me seeking reassurances about several things that she feared could be wrong with the house. As I read her emotions, I could tell what she was really worried about. She was scared about bringing her girls into the wrong place and not giving them the environment she thought they deserved.
I told her what I was observing and I told her I understood. She apologized for being so “demanding” about the things she was asking, but I told her I understood, that she didn’t need to apologize. I told her that I could tell that her daughters’ welfare was the real issue — that she felt bad taking them out of the home they had known and bringing them to a temporary rental home that wouldn’t be as nice as what they had.
She broke down and cried as she admitted this. I was able to reassure her — not about the house itself, but about her feelings. I validated her feelings and told her what she was feeling was perfectly normal and healthy. Then I promised to do everything I could do give her a home for her daughters that she could be happy with.
That changed everything.
By understanding her fears and letting her feel genuinely understood, I helped her break through her fears. For today, at least. And I felt good about myself, because she and I had had a genuine emotional experience. We had been real with one another about things that mattered. And that felt really good.
Most of my life is about running social scripts. I suspect much of your life is just the same, whether you’re conscious of it or not.
But the times I treasure are those moments when I can be real with someone else — when I can connect with another person on an emotional level.
There’s really nobody in my life right now with whom I can experience that regularly. It’s one of the things I miss most in my life, but it’s not something I can conjure on demand.
I love those moments when genuine connection happens. For most of life, though, I’ll keep running my social scripts. It’s the only way I know to make it in this alien world.