Tuesday, 10 August 2010


There's a woman I know ... and we just can't seem to get along with each other.

Don't laugh.  This is something that hardly ever happens to me.  In fact, it's a point of pride with me, that I try to get along with everyone, and that I try hard to listen to everyone's point of view.  And nearly all the time, it works.

It took me years and a lot of hindsight to work out why she and I can never get along.  And since then, I haven't got around to writing it down ... But now, I'm starting to talk with a mutual friend of ours on Facebook, and every time I post something public on her page, my comment is invisible to this person (and a couple others I have blocked).  I'm starting to wonder if she's noticing our friend replying to nobody.  So I figured it was time to explain why she and I never understand each other, and why I've decided it's not worth communicating with her. 

I guess I'll start by saying what isn't the problem.  She's not a nasty person - or at least, not these days.  She tries reasonably hard to be friendly, and she can be charming.  It's not like she's downright unlikeable.

And when I say we don't understand each other, it's not a problem with her - it's both of us.  She's not ignorant, or stupid.  In fact, I'd count her as rather intelligent.

And it's not like she's deliberately set out to hurt me - well, not to start with, at least.  She's said and written some things when she was angry and upset, but that was when she thought I'd done something to her.  The problem is, I never set out to hurt her, either.  And I don't know if she'd believe that.  I just did what I felt was right, after making sure other people agreed with me.  And those other people didn't include her.

Well, down to the problem itself.  Every time I say something, she thinks I mean something else.  And vice versa, I'm betting.  And I can't even qualify what I'm saying, I can't reassure her by adding "And I don't mean X" because her understanding of things is just so different to mine, that I wouldn't even think of seeing it her way at first, without being told.  We have totally different world views.

The problem is in the subtext, the things that you assume are implied without being said.  When I speak to people who know me, there are certain things that I think go without saying.  I don't feel the need to say "I don't want to hurt you" with every sentence.  I think it's a truism that "I'm listening."  I don't think everyone needs to be told that "I'm trying to understand your point of view," because that's why I'm listening to them in the first place.  I assume that people will start with the premise that I mean them no ill, because I do wish them well.  I may not want everything that they want, but I hope to make them happy.  That's always been my mission in life. 

So in the early days, when we were still trying to work things out, when she had the courage to tell me what she thought of me, many things about what her view of my attitude came as a shock to me.  My thought was always "Why on earth would she think I meant that?"  Why would she think I was taking someone else's side?  Why would she think I was trying to tell her she was doing something wrong?  I wasn't!  Why would she think I would punish her in some way?  For what?  The worst I had ever done was explain what I thought could be done differently, a couple of words here, a joke there, a question about what she thought ... and here she was talking about the most severe penalties she could think of, options that weren't even available to me.  It just seemed incomprehensible to me, that she (and her friends) could be afraid of what I would do, when I felt I had never done anything to earn that kind of mistrust.  And it hurt.

Not only did it hurt, but it was impossible to second-guess.  I don't know what kind of a life she's had, maybe she's used to people backstabbing her and treating her badly.  When I think of it now, maybe she thought she could hear me saying "I'm angry with you/I'm disappointed/You're a bad person/You deserve to be punished". But I didn't know how to make it clear to her that "That's not what I meant - I would never say that - I would never do that! - that's not who I am" because I had no idea what she was thinking.  And despite the fact that every other person I speak to eventually understands that I see them in a friendly way - and the fact that she and I were once friends - she seemed to think I was actively working against her.

She once told me she felt I spoke to her as if I was "walking on eggshells"; as if I were very careful only to say only certain things, and to leave out other things, as if I was afraid for her to hear them.  So it was left for her to imagine what those things were.  And one thing she does have is a vivid imagination.

What could I possibly have to say, that I would be afraid to tell her?  The answer is, nothing.  I say what I mean, and if I don't say something, that's because the thought didn't even cross my mind.  I do try to be precise with my words, to say exactly what I mean in the hope that most people will understand it ... So I don't mince words.  As a result, in a conversation I will usually say very little, and listen as much as possible. 

So when I spoke to her, I assumed she would understand my subtext of meaning her well, of actively trying to help her.  And instead she heard something completely different, so different I couldn't understand it.  Every time we tried to clarify things, it was painful ... because it struck at the heart of the way I saw myself.  And I can't help wondering if the same process was happening in reverse.

I do know that I pored over her words, again and again ... I looked at the things she was saying about me, and I wondered what else she meant.  What was she telling her friends about me?  Did they agree with her?  It's possible I was also reading things into what she said, that were never there.  Who knows ... Well, I certainly didn't. 

In the end, though, I decided it was enough.  It would take too much effort, too much time spent painfully clarifying everything, too much worry and personal distress, to make things right.  I didn't understand at the time why it wasn't working - I just knew that I couldn't keep working at it, or I'd end up jumping from something tall.  So I left.

And in the end ... it's not her fault.  It's not entirely my fault, either, although I guess there are things I could have done differently.  It's just that the way I see things - including myself - and the way she sees things are so different, that we go through misunderstanding with every single word.  And that makes any kind of communication ... pretty much impossible.

Earlier this year I had a message relayed by another mutual friend, that "I know you probably hate me".  It brought up all the old pain, but by then I knew what was happening between us, because I was seeing it happeng between two of my other friends.  Constant misunderstanding.  I can't hate her, I can't even blame her - but I can't blame myself either.  It just is the way it is.

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the angel Jean