I assume I’m a likable person, perhaps even interesting at times. I pride myself on getting along with people. I rarely question my assumption that most anyone would enjoy hanging out, cracking jokes or having a meal with me. When I realize someone doesn’t like me, I suffer a rude awakening. A few examples come to mind.
For the last eighteen years, a woman at work, Sue, has been paired with me on major projects over and over again. At first, I thought she’d see that I’m a hard worker and enthusiastic about our projects. Naturally, she’d like me.
But Sue had one goal in life: to spot famous people and find a way to talk to them and brag about it to everyone. Our work, organizing tours at a local museum, rarely provided access to the stellar rock musicians she coveted. I seldom recognized their names and so couldn’t join in her enthusiasm. She quickly perceived my lack of interest when I ran out of responses after I’d said, “Great,” “Nice,” and “Good luck.” I couldn’t manufacture real interest. She began to avoid me. When work threw us together, she looked the other way, treating me with disdain, as if I were pitiable for not venerating Tom Paxton, Robbie Robertson or John Cale. She’d met someone of that caliber on a golf course and gushed endlessly over him. His name sounded like meaningless syllables to me.
As the years went on, she mostly ignored me. Although I tried discussing our kids, who were the same age, and the latest gossip at work, she seemed to have put me in a box: boring. In the last few years, I accepted we would never be buddies. I found her shallow and decided it was okay to let our disdain become mutual.
For twenty years, I belonged to a civic volunteer group. Ten years ago, a new woman joined. Her husband, Jacob, came to our occasional picnics, bringing his homemade cookies which I always praised. He rarely spoke to me, but responded with a slight grin when I thanked him for his latest baked goods. I considered him shy.
But, last year, he startled me by seeking me out, walking across the lawn and hailing me with a stream of questions. I’d never heard him talk so much. In the past six months, due to scheduling mistakes, I’d gone on two big trips, back to back: one to S.E. Asia and one to Turkey with my son. I couldn’t resist posting photos on Facebook of me on a camel and Vietnamese Buddhist statues decorated in yellow and orange garlands of flowers for their lunar New Year celebrations. This seemed to excite Jacob and he wanted to know about my travels. Did I intend to go on more trips, perhaps around the world?
As we chatted, I found myself bemused by this new side of Jacob who’d been quiet for almost ten years. It seemed he wasn’t an introvert, but had previously found me uninteresting. I laughed at myself. I preferred to imagine him afflicted with shyness rather than suppose he found me dull. He seemed disappointed I had no grand scheme to traverse the globe. He might not speak to me again for another decade. With Sue and Jacob, I felt surprised at my misjudgment, but not hurt. We weren’t friends.
But with Rebecca, a sharp pain pierced my chest when I discovered she didn’t reciprocate the friendship I thought we’d enjoyed. For thirteen years, our children attended the same schools and sports teams. In the child-raising trenches, we shared room-mother tasks and endlessly discussed our kids’ highs and lows. We formed a folk music group with a couple of others and performed old Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie songs once in a while. When I discovered I needed to separate from my partner of thirty years, she was the first person I told. In recent years, our music group hadn’t performed much, but we got together to practice every two weeks or so.
Last year, in a group conversation, a more recent friend thanked Rebecca for the wonderful retirement party Rebecca had thrown for herself the week before. I felt astonished. I hadn’t been invited. What a shocking and truly humble moment. After all our years of comradeship, I’d assumed Rebecca felt as committed to our friendship as I’d been. In reality, it seemed she hadn’t considered me much of a friend. What the heck? I’ve never figured it out.
Luckily, I believe humility provides opportunities to learn about myself. It’s good for the soul. I’ve accepted I can’t always find a basis for friendship with some people, no matter how hard I try. Now, before assuming a person is my friend, I try to keep an open mind. Through Sue, Jacob and Rebecca I learned that not everyone likes me or considers me interesting or wants to be my friend. However, in the front of my consciousness, I’d rather continue to assume I’m an interesting person. I remain captivated with myself and will allow this old habit to prevail.
Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.