Love, Etc. #1: People Like To Tell Me Things
Due to whatever brew of personality, being the youngest of three sisters or (I think this is it) arrangement of facial features — I have the face of a Muppet, you know, big eyes, a happily expressive face — I am a person who other people like to tell their secrets to.
This isn’t the same as, like, “people like me.” There, I’m average. Friends and strangers can sense that sometimes I’m not all in, that I’d rather go home and read than stay longer and hang out, and I can see them seeing it. There’s a shimmering panic to the exhausted introvert who is too good at putting it on, which becomes obvious when you know what to look for.
While they have me, though, they seem to want to tell me everything. Stories pause, and then go on a beat longer than they do when other people are around. Everyone comes to me, first, with news, good and bad, and plans, genius and ridiculous. I’ll meet my friends’ friends for the first time, and five minutes later they’re tilting forward with “Don’t tell her this, but…” Strangers stop me on the streetcar, in a lineup, at the dog park, and without encouragement or any instigating disclosure from me, tell me about their relationships, their families, their twisty, messed up, still-churning past lives.
The feeling is like being a sentient lighthouse, but it’s not as though I consciously switch on the sweeping beam to pull in wayward ships. I’m not, I don’t think, naturally suited to the role: I’m way too judgmental; I respond with advice without being asked for it; I have a bad memory, sometimes losing a secret soon after it’s been dropped in my lap. (My favourite example is finding out about a scandalous extramarital affair, responding OMG-appropriately, and then having an identical reaction when someone else told me about it a few months later, because I forgot.) But, my Muppet face betrays a certain truth: I always listen. I always want to know.
This habit, ability, talent, albatross, whatever, that I’m happy to practise as long as the secret-sharer isn’t on the intrusive-offensive-abusive continuum, slides between my personal and professional lives: on Saturdays, the Toronto Star’s Life section runs the “Dating Diaries,” a column I created and manage, where our anonymous “diarists” tell me about their best, worst and weirdest dates. Some roll in like funny or embarrassing party anecdotes, but most are revealing of something else. What I usually find, almost always buried in some tangentiality that drifts away from what they thought was the narrative, is the squishy emotional middle, the good stuff, all the hope and agony that dating extorts. Diarists share their stories with me, for the column, for a lot of reasons, but the likeliest of them is the simplest: to have a place to put a secret.
As hard as it can be to tell a truth, holding one is harder. Most people don’t want to be responsible for a slice of someone else’s inner life. Gossip, the gummy candy of relationships, sure, but not the rest of it, like bearing witness to vulnerability, or taking on the Ultimate Relationship Challenge of egoless listening. It’s dirty, hard, painful work (and in my experience, most of the Muppet-faced lighthouses who are doing it are women). The moment when we charged each other with “oversharing” has been engulfed by ubiquitous social media and personal branding, but there’s still very little expectation for one person to be genuinely curious about another. The more common position is to resist or deflect whatever is “too gross” or “too awkward” to deal with.
This took me too long to learn, probably. Sometime in-between my late youth (my 20s and early 30s) and fully realized adulthood (like, yesterday?), I stopped telling almost everyone much of anything about myself. Maybe not stopped: paused. My feelings were frayed from assuming that there would be symmetry in my own relationships, that being so available for other people and their secrets meant that people, most importantly my people, would be there for me, and mine.
I’ve started to consider reminding the secret-tellers that, just like a secret is a pact, relationships involve a special kind of social contract: if you want other people to listen to you, you need to want to listen to them. You can start by reading this column every week (see what I did there?), where we’ll get into the good stuff about relationships, that squishy emotional middle.
The "Love, Etc." column also appears in the Toronto Star.
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