Awhile ago, I wrote about The Thing.
If you prefer NOT to read/re-read, I will summarize: The Thing is a TOTALLY NORMAL fact (or facts) about you that you prefer to avoid in conversation because it evokes a Judgmental Reaction in other people. It shouldn’t be a big deal, because it isn’t a big deal, yet it changes the way people see/talk to/interact with you.
We all have The Thing. Or many Things.
Things that we prefer not to discuss. Or we prefer to discuss only with a certain subset of people. Or we reserve for those who know us the best.
Things that we prefer to reveal – when we feel like revealing them – on our own, to the people we choose.
Let’s pretend that my Thing is owning 16 cats.
(Listen. I do NOT own 16 cats, or ANY cats. The cats are a PLACEHOLDER.)
I would also like to say up front that I WISH I could own 16 cats (or ANY cats) and that I certainly wouldn’t pass judgment on anyone who owned cats, 16 or otherwise.
But knowing that I own (I do NOT) 16 cats might set off a Judgmental Reaction in some people.
They might think things like, “Oh, I bet she has trouble getting a man.” Or, “I bet her house smells.” Or, “Man, she is headed straight for that Animal Hoarders show on TLC.”
And because I am (but I’m NOT) a cat owner, and I’ve had YEARS to encounter these reactions and I’ve spent YEARS explaining myself and enduring questions about “What’s wrong with you?” and statements like “Dogs are way better than cats. You should get a dog.” I will likely prefer not to reveal this information about myself until I’ve assessed whether the person with whom I’m sharing the information is a Judgmental Reactor or not.
I may decide to wait to reveal this information until I know that person very well.
I may, in fact, choose to NEVER reveal this information about myself to certain people.
And that is fine. Because it is my Thing (it’s not) and it’s up to me whether to share it or not.
But there is one problem standing in the way of Proper Thing Revelation Making. And that is Other People.
I mean, it’s bad enough that you have this Thing to begin with. It’s worse to have to figure out how to bring it up with people who don’t know.
But worst of all is when someone else bares your Thing to the world without your permission. (“Bares your Thing.” Heh heh. Dirty.)
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been “outed” by other people. When that happens, of course, there’s nothing to do but grit your teeth and listen to the inevitable judgmental questions and statements and un-funny jokes and strained awkwardness.
I think this makes me particularly sensitive to revealing information about others. If you tell me something, I will probably not pass it on. Unless it’s something that seems, on the surface, to be very benign. Like the fact that your favorite cookie is the gingersnap, for instance. Or that you enjoy boating.
Of course, you can argue that ANYTHING could be another person’s Thing. And that they hate the long, boring conversations about the relative merits of speed boats vs. sail boats and they absolutely dread the lectures about the unforgivable inappropriateness of a non-Christmas gingersnap.
So I think that we should stipulate that The Thing is typically something about you that is unusual in some way. Something that makes you stand out from most other people. Maybe you have a third nipple. Maybe you won the National Spelling Bee at age nine. Maybe you only eat purple foods.
Those things would merit reaction, no? Questions. Wonder. Awe.
Now, maybe you find this knowledge irresistible. Maybe it makes you feel inferior in some way, and it’s all you can think about, and all you want to do is blurt it out so others can feel inferior, too. Maybe you have a very strong Judgmental Reaction to this Thing, and you want other people to echo your feelings. Or maybe it simply delights you and you want to share that delight with others.
But let’s agree that when it comes to those kind of unusual delightful little details, you should allow the person to share it with others him/herself.
Now, of course there are exceptions!
When it comes to my Thing (the real one, not the “16 cats” Thing that I MADE UP for this post), my mother and father have free rein to share it with others. I can’t explain why. But… they just CAN. Same goes for my husband, although I have to say: he would only share it in an appropriate situation.
Also, if you know two people who share The Thing, then it does seem okay to introduce them to one another, using The Thing as a point of commonality. (To the other person ONLY, not to a large group of people.)
Maybe, for instance, if The Thing is that your friends both climbed Mount Everest, you could say, “Alicia, I wanted you to meet Greg because you both have such a fascination with mountain climbing. You may have even scaled some of the same mountains!”
Or instead of saying, “Alicia! Greg has 16 cats just like you do!” you could say, “Alicia, you and Greg will have so much to talk about – you are both cat lovers!”
Or you might not come out and say, “Alicia, you and Greg are both vegans!” But it would be totally acceptable to say, “Alicia, Greg just told me that Vegan Palace is his favorite restaurant, too!”
Of course, some Things are a lot easier to introduce than a lot of other Things might be.
You probably wouldn’t say, “Alicia, you and Greg both posed nude for a national magazine!” or “Alicia, you and Greg both had cancer as kids!” or “Alicia, you and Greg are both adopted!”
Anyway. What I’m saying is that:
a) We ALL (well, at least MANY) of us have The Thing.
b) Knowing that, we can and should be sensitive to the fact that people we meet may ALSO have The Thing.
c) Knowing THAT, we can and should try to avoid sharing information that might cause the other person discomfort… which may take some empathy and a little bit of mind reading and a big dose of mind our own business.
Now, let’s be honest: we will ALL slip up. It is IMPOSSIBLE to know that sharing a friend’s love of astrology is going to put him in the middle of a terribly frustrating and insulting conversation about how astrology is hog wash and people who believe in astrology are stupid and so on.
But if we are in general AWARE that some piece of information we know about another person may not be ours to share… Well. Then the world will be a better place.
Of course YOU know all this, Internet. I know you. You are kind and thoughtful and non-judgmental to the max.
So please don’t take this post as me scolding YOU or saying YOU need to change.
I am just frustrated at the person who outed my Thing the other day. She did so without MALICE, I’m sure. But it was a totally random and inappropriate situation, in which she’d introduced me to a brand new person I’d never met – a person on whom I’d like to leave a favorable impression – and then IMMEDIATELY and OUT OF THE BLUE she threw my Thing right out into the open.
It wasn’t an accident. It didn’t naturally flow from the conversation. I was asking where the new person was from, and my friend blurted out: “SHE HAS 16 CATS!” (I do not have 16 cats. PLACEHOLDER.)
Of course, what followed was typical:
“Oh, how interesting.”
“16 cats? I could never have 16 cats! They would drive me crazy!”
“Oh I’m terribly allergic to cats – I better stay away from YOU, you’re practically one of them, HAHA.”
“Hahahaha – I thought only crazy old ladies had that many cats!”
“Do you ever worry that you’ll fall down and not be able to move and the cats will eat you?”
SEE WHY I MAKE CAREFUL CHOICES ABOUT WHEN AND HOW AND TO WHOM I REVEAL THE THING?
What miffed me the most is that my friend has The Thing too. It took her a very long time to share The Thing with me. So even though she told me it wasn’t a secret, per se, her reticence in opening up about it means that I would never share with someone else. Because it is her Thing to share.
(And okay, okay. You could argue that her Thing is much more clearly A Thing than mine is. But STILL. We are not going to get into levels of relative Thingness here!)
Anyway. I am not lecturing YOU, Internet. I am pouting in a lecture-y way in an attempt to clear out all the lingering frustration I have for this girl for outing me.
HOWEVER, please do not suggest that I simply talk to her about it and explain how I feel and tell her not to share my Thing with others. Because one aspect of my Thing is that most people seem not to understand why it would bother me. (That’s because it isn’t their Thing.)
And yes, I know we should EMBRACE our Things and be PROUD of them, because they are part of what makes us who we are. We are all unique snowflakes and besides, I shouldn’t care what other people think blah blah blah self-confidencecakes.
That’s all well and good. But I still get to choose the people with whom I embrace my Thing.
Well. I am getting CRANKIER the more I type and it seems that I am starting to veer into Sexual Innuendo Territory, which is not my intention. So I am going to stop here.