Monday, July 28, 2008

Don't be so sensitive

When I saw Advisor a couple of weeks ago, we had an amusing exchange that has provoked two very different reactions among those I've told the story to.

Guy is typical of one response. "Oh, man," he said after I'd narrated the episode to him. "I'm sorry."*

"Huh?" I said.

"I'm really sorry. That sounds awful."

"Oh!" I said. "No no no no no. It was good! I mean, those were totally left-handed compliments she was giving me, but it was--I don't know--playful? Not, like, mean."

I know Advisor pretty well, but as I found myself trying to explain to Guy and several others why I didn't read the interaction negatively, it struck me that another reason for my interpretation may be that I myself give a lot of left-handed compliments.

Now, I give a lot of genuine compliments, and I believe that, on the whole, I'm good at letting people know when I admire their work, appreciate their efforts, or totally love their outfit. But every now and again it's brought to my attention that people consider me--oh, how to say this?--excessively judgmental.

(This shocks you, I know.)

The first time I was aware of this perception came in my senior year of high school. I was chatting with my friend Andy, and during the course of the conversation I commented that, hey, I liked his shirt. He broke off whatever he was saying, gave me a nasty look, and said, "Oh, thanks a lot! You know, Flavia, you could just not have said anything." It took me a full five seconds to register that he thought I was being sarcastic. I reassured him that actually I just thought it was a pretty cool shirt--and chose not to let myself contemplate what it meant that even my friends assumed no compliment I might give could be sincere.

Yes, I was a teenager, and probably one who laid on the sarcasm more heavily than most; I have neither the tone nor the attitude now that I had then. But I do give an awful lot of mock faint praise and left-handed compliments. (An easy example might be my saying to someone I've recently started dating something like, "Hey. You know? I think I like you! Or at least, more than I dislike you.")

I don't consider the meaning behind such remarks to be ambiguous. It should be obvious to my friends and intimates that I like them--I wouldn't waste time on them if I didn't. Giving them a hard time is just a way of playing around.

Indeed, until I started thinking about that interaction with my advisor, it never occurred to me that any reasonable person might interpret my teasing as otherwise than affectionate, but I guess there is something aggressive there: not unplayful or unaffectionate, to be sure, but implicitly about asserting oneself while keeping the other person firmly in his place.

All of which is to say? Maybe we get the advisors we deserve and/or resemble.


*The other interpretation was basically my own: that Advisor was communicating her pleasure at seeing me and with my progress.


Anonymous said...

Wait, so that time I was wearing the cut-off shorts and Birkenstocks with socks, and you laughed (really loud) at me, and said how modish I looked--was that sarcasm? Is that why you wouldn't get into the car with me? I've just burnt the shorts and left the sandals on an Audi with a "Turn on, tune in, drop out" bumper sticker; will you return my calls now? Sincerely, Guy

Anonymous said...

Our Flavia? Sarcastic? Surely not.

It surprises me to learn that people are afraid of me, or think ill of me because of my alleged snobbery. I think of myself as good-natured and friendly; I'm perceived as abrasive and judgmental. What's amazing, once the flaw has been recognized (in my case, about twelve years ago), is how hard that is to work on, to reassess and improve.

So, that said: please, sweet Lord, let me never have an advisor who remotely resembles my apparently icy, unintentionally abrasive ass.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I only wish I resembled my advisor. Maybe I will when I'm seventy and have cultivated a great deal more confidence as well as tact, but I doubt it.

Flavia said...

Guy: I had to read your comment three times before realizing that the outfit it described was fictitious. That's not a good sign.

Neo: yes, welcome to my world. Friends I've had for years still periodically decide that I hate them--even if absolutely nothing has happened between us that could lead to that conclusion. And though I'm easily vexed (and loud about it when I am), I don't have much of a temper and am constitutionally unable to hold grudges. Nevertheless, I continually get the impression that people FEAR MY WRATH. It's puzzling.

And Fretful: I suppose I live in the hope that if I resemble my advisor in some things, I may eventually come to resemble her in others.

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Pamphilia said...

I get the same reaction from friends when I tell them about my interactions with my own advisor. I can't tell you how many times they have said "Oh . . . I'm sorry!" when I was trying to tell them that she was, in her way, being incredibly supportive (but also incredibly tough).

I've never thought of myself as similar, except perhaps in a vague physical way- I'm much less formal, for one. But recently I got a few negative evals from my first set of grad students, all of whom critiqued me for having too high expectations of them, and then rebuking them for letting me down. Which is exactly what I used to think she felt towards me. So I guess my point is that in my case, I became more like my advisor in my own teaching, not that we were necessarily well matched in the beginning.