Posted by: CJ | July 15, 2010

I understand you so much better now…

Every so often I’ll say something or friends of mine will meet other friends of mine, and I’ll hear someone tell me, “I understand you so much better now.” Or some variant of that. Many times it’s little things. But several specific times that’s happened have stuck with me. All from when people I was close to/was very open with said it. (After all, it’s not very surprising if someone who doesn’t know you very well says that. It’s a lot more interesting from someone that knows you well.)

This never really happened to me until I went to college. My hometown was small enough, and my circle of friends self-selected enough, that no one really learned more about me from meeting other friends or meeting my family. The only break-throughs in understanding they could get were the hard way: by spending time around me and incrementally learning how I thought and why.

In college it happened two different times.

The first was with my college girlfriend. We’d been dating for about half a year when she first met my family. Meeting my family was somewhat fascinating to her; she’d heard about them from me plenty, and certainly not in a bad way. But what fascinated her much more was watching my interactions with my grandparents and mom. I talked comfortably and (for me) very quickly, while also paying attention to what was being said and taking part in conversations as an active participent. Around people in college I usually made a choice to be one of three things: shy and subdued (particularly when I was anything less than perfectly comfortable), extremely serious (perhaps professorial is a better word), or purposefully ridiculous as a way of participating without risking anything (a fool has no status to lose). All of those modes of interaction, one way or another, kept me at a distance (a good, far distance) from the rest of the group. She was used to that. Enough so that she thought that was the only way I reacted around people. (At least other than her.) Realizing that those modes of interaction were something between a choice and a coping mechanism was a revelation to her.

The second time in college was again when a close friend met my family. My grandparents and mom were visiting, and we went out to dinner with my suite-mate TR. She was a physics major who grew up on a farm but went to a suburban school. She and I connected fairly well, but she connected easily with a broad range of people. So the easy connection wasn’t particularly noteworthy. But she never really had a good handle on my background. She understood some of the small town parts of me well-enough, but any more inner-city part of my worldview or experience was lost on her. But when she met my grandparents (who lived less than a mile away from me, and I spent lots of time around growing up), a lightbulb suddenly went off in her head. After the meal she was busy saying, “I get it now. Your grandparents are hicks! I understand you so much better…”. Apparently hick wasn’t a bad thing for her; she drew a distinction between hicks, which to her essentially meant nice country folk, and rednecks.

The most recent case was my upstairs neighbor. I spent many hours around her, and her first impressions of me were primarily as a science grad student and a fellow midwesterner. One day while we were hanging out with a mutual friend, he said something about the annoying and petty politics of his suburban (Bay area) high school. He said it with the expectation that I’d had similar experiences, particularly about differences between the geeky/nerdy crowd and the jock-ish school activities crowd. I had to admit that I was, more or less, part of the latter crowd and played 3 sports a year. At which point my neighbor had her own epiphany of understanding me better.

UPDATE: I should have been more clear in the second case. Meeting my grandparents gave my friend a better idea of how we were able to connect so well in spite of very different backgrounds. She realized part of the connection wasn’t just basic personality or common goals, but also some unexpected common mannerisms/culture from being around “hicks”.

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Responses

  1. Your school didn’t have a large enough geeky/nerd crowd to separate from the jocks, especially because jocks were represented in advanced classes and music, and the Student govt/student activities were so very weak (read non-existent, except for yearbook and newspaper–which had geeks and jocks alike.)

    I’m a bit confused–did deciding that your grandparents are “hicks” help the friend understand the inner-city part of your make up?

  2. On “hicks”: That was much more confusing than I intended. I didn’t reread the post carefully enough. I put an update at the end of the post that hopefully answers your question.

    On the non-separation of geeks & jocks: It’s true that a lot of the better students at my high school were able to go between groups, and that even the groups themselves weren’t very well defined. But I still played 2 to 3 sports a year compared to no outside class academic activities. But even if I wasn’t particularly a jock by my high school’s standards, I wasn’t really an archetypal geek/nerd. I wasn’t particularly socially isolated, my “academic” projects in my spare time were reading history and literature as often as not, rather than computers and electronics. My “geek” friends weren’t particularly geeky either. I did read RPG books and play computer games, but that was the limit of my initiation to geek culture. I didn’t play any RPG’s or customizable card games, just collected materials to do so.

    No one would have labeled me a jock, but I was more of a jock than the quiz bowl or many yearbook kids, and I was close-but-not-quite a music kid either since I only did choir. (Three of them, but still…) So I think it’s a closer call whether I could be called a jock or pseudo-jock or whatnot than it first appears. But that’s definitely due to both the structure of my high school as well as the activities I participated in.


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