Friday, July 11, 2014

The Petty Things

I find myself second guessing my instincts lately. As our circle of friends has grown, matured, and evolved, it has become increasingly difficult to navigate the unspoken perils of social expectation. Some friends don’t play well with large groups. Some friends have issues with other friends. Some friends have kids. Some friends don’t drive. Some friends pay their own way. Some friends pay for nothing. Some people can be trusted to tactfully avoid complications. Some friends are nothing but drama. Some people want someone else to initiate contact. Other people will let you know if and when they want to share their valuable time. I used to think I was at least competent to handle my own social schedule—lately I’m not so sure.

Social obligation is the fine art of keeping relationships in balance. It’s not polite to talk about this sort of thing but everyone thinks about it. That couple always shorts their share when we eat out. That guy always makes us drive an extra hour to pick him up. We never get invited to that group’s poker night. She always invites herself to our private get togethers. I stopped trying to make everyone happy a long time ago. The truth is that my private life is my private life—socially or otherwise. I’m not required to invite everyone to everything, attend every event I hear about, or cater to everyone’s whims. That being said, part of good friendship is making sure the scales are balanced. Part of that comes from making sure that you are giving equal value in a relationship. Part of it is being tactful and considerate when planning events where select people are welcome. Part of it is also making sure that you aren’t putting your friends and family in a difficult position. Put that way it looks easy. Don’t screw your friends and family over.

Of course, such issues are rarely 100% within your control. It’s very easy to say or do something that makes perfect sense at the time but that ends up ticking people off later. So far, I’ve written off exactly one friendship in almost 40 years. The person in question exploited my naivety in a very personal and hurtful manner. It took them one really thoughtless moment to end everything. Most of the time though you can’t point to one single event and say “that’s the one, that’s where we went wrong.” You make a small error in judgment one day—then an acquaintance does something without thinking that pushes your buttons. It piles up bit by bit. The straw doesn’t break the camel’s back, but the hay bale will flatten the beast if you let it.

I suppose I take this more seriously in part because I rely on friends and family. The brunette and I take pride in our independence. We try to handle as much of our own upkeep as we can without assistance. Some things however, are simply easier with sighted help. Both of us have been in the uncomfortable position of having to ask friends, family, and coworkers to do something they clearly don’t want to do. Just like we’re not supposed to talk about the relative debt levels in a relationship you aren’t supposed to say no to a blind person. That particular convention sucks. At any given time the party on the other side says quite truthfully, that yes they’ll be happy to drive you to that appointment, help you go shopping, fill out your paperwork, go through your mail…etc. But ask for the third time in one week and it starts to feel less like a favor for a friend and more like using someone who can’t politely decline. When most of your social interactions come with a helping of accommodation in the first place, it makes you sensitive about taking advantage. Years ago, a friend would throw a party once a year. I think we were invited to the event more out of habit than anything else—a holdover from earlier days. The catch was that the event in question was held at the friends’ home which was many butt longs away. The host’s solution was to invite another friend of ours with the expectation that she would provide us transportation. This was a huge imposition for the driving friend—we weren’t anything close to on her way, the hosting friend wasn’t a really close friend to begin with, and there was a feeling of implied obligation in the invitation. The situation put us at odds with two people we respected. Not going to the party would slight one friend. Guilt tripping the other friend would have simply transferred the hurt feelings to a different party. When I first started with the bank some of my coworkers were asked to give me rides to and from work. Most of the time this practice was fine…until it wasn’t and a coworker couldn’t tell his friend that it wasn’t convenient to cart his sightless butt around every day. Experiences like this rammed the concept home to me that friendship is a two way street. I’m not paranoid about the balance of obligation exactly; but I am very aware of where the scales stand.

It’s tempting some times, especially if you’re in a pissy mood to begin with, to start assessing relationships on a transactional scale. How much drama does that person create for me? Do they mooch off me all the time? Do I owe them for the last range trip? In almost every case the brunette and I find that we end up on the owing end of that scale. We don’t sit down with a spreadsheet and tally our obligations every day. We are simply aware of the fact that part of being friends with us involves driving us places, reading things, and helping with certain visual activities. We understand that our friends take that as a given just like we accept their particular quirks. The issue being that lately I’ve seen a lot of little negative transactions that have put me in that pissy mood.

I don’t want to be that person who is always keeping score. You know who I’m talking about—the relative who knows who brought cups to the last three family dinners or the friend who remembers who gave Christmas presents last year and for what value. That’s a mean petty sort of life. Part of this comes down to the fact that I spend most of my life in balance. When I end up genuinely feeling like someone has crossed a line it really sticks in my craw. After that point I start amortizing every little thing. It’s hard to have fun when you live like that.

We went tubing with a group of friends and family recently. It was a really great experience. I haven’t been swimming in fresh water in forever. I really, really, love swimming in the outdoors. We had a few drinks, played around, and had about as close to a perfect day as you could ask for. Unfortunately before we got to the tubing part, there were delays, complications, and changes in schedule.” I spent about three hours pre-river in a really grumpy mood; not because I had that much to be grumpy about but because the process of having “fun” had become more complicated than it should have been. If I had just sat back, took a deep breath, turned up the music, and let it go, it all would have been fine. I didn’t—and for my sins I wasted a good three hours of my life and probably spread my annoyance to the other people in the car.

My point is that I need to stop sweating the petty things. I need to make sure my end of the scale is balanced and beyond that, try and let things go. Also, I need to start taking a few steps to minimize the aggravation in my life. To that end:

1. When planning an event I will be specific as to time, date, scope, who is invited, and who is not invited. Even if I think I know the answer I will clarify.

2. Wherever possible I will get the “who’s paying” discussion out of the way up front. This includes asking for separate checks and talking about who is paying for range time.

3. My response to invitations that I cannot accept is going to be that “Unfortunately I/we won’t be able to attend.” There will be no mention of money, contributing factors, or alternate plans.

4. I am going to start holding people accountable for doing and saying things that are clearly not appropriate when they make my life more difficult. Suffering in silence doesn’t help either of us. I can’t complain if I don’t give them the chance to correct the issue.

5. To the best of my ability I am going to try and be a polite person. If someone else has an issue with my choices, I won’t try and force the discussion. It’s up to them to talk to me—not the other way around.

Note: If you’re reading this and thinking that you are in any way responsible for this post, please be advised that you are mistaken. This raving discourse is the product of *many* small interactions with a variety of people over the last month—most of whom don’t even know I have a blog. I’m working things out—and you have nothing to worry about.

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