It was a simple question really, but we often overlook the significance of simple questions. One day during the second semester of my senior high year in high school, a friend asked me in passing, “How are you doing?” I froze.
I didn’t know how to respond and instinctively said “I’m good” before registering the question. I then corrected myself and stated, “I take that back. I’m not doing too well.” I smiled one of those “let’s be positive and work through it” smiles, but my friend stopped. We looked at each other awkwardly for twenty seconds before departing.
Even though we were friends, Sigma didn’t know how to respond when I sincerely answered a question that is too frequently asked insincerely. As we move forward into an era where the platforms for social interaction (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Messenger, etc.) are becoming more prevalent and pervasive elements of our world, it is important to understand that the words we utter carry weight and significance.
To be sincere in social interactions is to be true to ourselves. We shouldn’t treat everyone the same, but we should treat everyone with the same level of baseline respect, positivity and trust. It’s hard for us to be sincere because of two reasons: either we don’t expect to meet whomever we are speaking to again or we aren’t comfortable in the environment we find ourselves in.
In the former case, because we don’t expect to ever meet again the strangers we are speaking to, we hold ourselves back. We stick to polite remarks that never extend deeper into the more meaningful areas of conversation. To many of us, sharing our true selves with others is like an investment. If those other people disappear from our lives, the investment doesn’t succeed and we experience emptiness. It’s similar to screaming into the abyss and expecting to hear a voice back. Consequently, we become insincere so that we don’t experience the emptiness of never meeting again people who we have become attached to.
In the latter case, we view social interaction as a responsibility, obligation, or intimidating experience and where we can’t be who we are. Typical scenarios that might induce fear include speaking with upperclassmen, heading out to social events, having lunch with professors, or even interacting with new roommates. In environments where we aren’t relaxed, we can’t let our guard down and speak from the heart.
Rather than speak as we would to intimate friends, we depend on neutral, open-ended statements that foster agreement without sharing what we truly think. In having lunch with a professor, we may become timid and afraid to say that we don’t like how the lectures are structured when the professor asks if we enjoy the course. We don’t want to offend, so we keep our thoughts to ourselves and ambiguously in one way or another agree with whatever the subject matter happens to be.
I’ve found myself in both of these situations here at MIT. I’ve met other students randomly in the hallway, at REX events, or in dining halls and become overwhelmed wondering what the point is of trying to establish a meaningful connection or conversation. When those thoughts come, I have to push them down. Only then can I be myself and meet others.
When heading out to REX and orientation events, I was taken aback by the sheer scale and intensity of the events. Having a huge crowd of energetic people in any given place is overwhelming, and I have to tell myself that I will define my space and identity before interacting with others.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have had the courage to speak my mind around others in these types of situations. Then, a high school substitute teacher’s words changed the way I viewed people. The teacher said, “There are friends for a lifetime, year, month, day, or minute. Today I am your friend for the duration of the class.”
I’m not sad anymore when people leave. Rather, I look forward to the time when I meet people again. However, those people can’t become friends until I become brave enough to treat every type of acquaintance with attention, care and sincerity. So I learned to just be myself. If I’m always worried about what someone thinks of me when I say something, then I won’t ever become intimate friends with that person.
So I’m going to be who I am, and the people who appreciate me will end up becoming my friends. I know that like in any relationship, whether platonic or romantic, my 100 percent is only 50 percent of the social endeavor and I shouldn’t be discouraged if my sincere self is not taken well. Even when I do my best, sometimes I don’t connect with someone else. There have been people I’ve met here at MIT who I’ve spoken to a few times but never again. That’s okay though. Some people click. Some people don’t. That’s just the way it is.
So next time you meet someone, skip over the polite exchanges that stifle meaningful conversation and take a leap of faith by speaking your mind. Someone will catch you.