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Faking it.
November 15, 2012 10:34 PM   Subscribe

If it's true that deep down, most people feel lonely, bored, languid, unsure and/or sad -- and that most people know this -- then why is expressing these feelings, either intermittently or habitually, such a faux pas, taken by others as distasteful, unfriendly and even pathetic?

I don't mean people acting grumpy and uncooperative, or standing around complaining to one another, but rather just exhibiting a sort of melancholy. Yes, I know that in order for the world to work there has to be some sort of energetic collective spiritedness, even if it requires "faking it" on the part of most. But the degree to which and frequency with which people are expected to be merry, to be "on," seems excessive. Imagine a party, or any sort of social situation where you're among people that aren't close to you, even a non-social event like the office: you feel compelled to act happy, to impress to have things "together," do you not? Couldn't the business and intercourse of the world still be achieved while allowing more genuine social presentation? Can't one still be "friendly" without smiling so much?
posted by frankly mister to Human Relations (36 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, according to this about 20 million Americans are depressed. Furthermore, there are introverts and extroverts. Extroverts seem to be "on" pretty much non-stop though of course they feel sad, can be depressed, melancholy, have their off days, etc.

You can be polite and friendly without smiling.

It sounds like you had a bad experience (or many) and are projecting it onto humanity in general. Based on your previous question about depression, I'm putting money on this. It's fine, don't worry so much. Act however you want, dude. It is other people's problem how they interpret it.

Let go of your baggage about other people smiling or holding yourself to some outside standard. Almost all of my social interactions in the world range from pleasant "hello" to a more neutral "hello".

Note: THERE IS A HUGE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NOT CONSTANTLY SMILING AND FROWNING. I've known people whose default expression is a scowl, and I've known people who intentionally scowl all the time.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:41 PM on November 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think everyone feels that way sometimes, but if you are always, in the depths of your soul (or whatever) feeling sad, then something is wrong, and you can work on it in myriad ways -- exercise, hobbies, diet, therapy, etc. -- so that you do not have to feel that way always. I'd venture to say that most people function on "I am going to make the best of this situation, no matter what it is" because anything short of that leads to, well, the melancholy you describe. Now I'm not a social scientist, but I've definitely spent a considerable amount of time around people with shitty (or even simply unexceptional) lives to confirm that to my own satisfaction.

I am never merry at someone else's expectation. If I do not want to go somewhere and have fun because I am in a funk, I stay home and keep my funk to myself. This is a good idea for me -- I know for a fact that I will snap out of any bad mood --but not necessarily for everyone. Some people go to parties and force themselves to be merry to get the inertia going to actually be merry.

Finally, a lot of complaints I hear about people being "fake" or "non-genuine" or whatever stem from the fact that people do not want to hear people complain, unless they're already good friends. There are very few people to whom I would lay my problems on because I sure as shit would not want them to lay their problems on me. I have enough of my own and my friends' at this point in my life. Of course, there are always new friends to be made, but generalply, the right answer to "how are you" is "fine, and you?"
posted by griphus at 10:46 PM on November 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


You might want to take a look at this thread and some of the books mentioned therein - Barbara Ehrenreich has now written two books about the "culture of optimism" in America. Bright-Sided specifically covers its origins and some of the places it's particularly pervasive.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:47 PM on November 15, 2012 [12 favorites]


Oh and I am absolutely not compelled to be happy at the office. I am compelled to be professional, which means being pleasant and inoffensive. Happiness does not enter the picture.
posted by griphus at 10:48 PM on November 15, 2012 [12 favorites]


I think everyone feels that way sometimes, but if you are always, in the depths of your soul (or whatever) feeling sad

I agree with this. Depression is a consistent feeling of otherness in addition to the guilt/shame/etc. It's not really sad, I've found. The way you're feeling does sound like how I've felt a lot of times when depressed.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:49 PM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, "sad" is the wrong word (or at least the easy one that doesn't do justice to what you, OP, are describing, which sounds like depression.)
posted by griphus at 10:52 PM on November 15, 2012


Can't one still be "friendly" without smiling so much?

Yes, and it's the single biggest thing I miss about living in Germany. Eastern Europe as a whole seems to understand this much better than the rest of Western Society. Maybe you just need a vacation....
posted by mannequito at 11:04 PM on November 15, 2012 [13 favorites]


If it's true that deep down, most people feel lonely, bored, languid, unsure and/or sad -- and that most people know this -- then why is expressing these feelings, either intermittently or habitually, such a faux pas, taken by others as distasteful, unfriendly and even pathetic?

If you are suggesting that 'most people' feel lonely / bored / languid etc. as their base-state then I think your premise is flawed. I have been through clinical depression and even I do not feel that way all the time. Certainly in certain situations...but I tend to find that emotions and feelings are like the weather. Sometimes it's sunny, sometimes it's hazy, sometimes it storms. Ultimately it all passes by. If it storms all the time this is a problem and is not normal.

even a non-social event like the office: you feel compelled to act happy, to impress to have things "together," do you not?

No I do not. I feel compelled only to act in such a way as to not get fired because I live in a non subsistence-farming culture and need a paycheck to pay for lodging, food and thrills. Not getting fired often does mean "faking it" to the degree that I unbegrudgingly accept and complete tasks given to me when I'd rather be at home working on my own projects...but this does not mean I have to act happy or impress people - just that I need to fairly reliably do the job I am paid to do. If I get fired for "not acting happy" or for not impressing the right people...then that is a favor to me as I don't want to work with those sorts of people.

You might feel compelled to act happy, and I think you are projecting.

why is expressing these feelings, either intermittently or habitually, such a faux pas, taken by others as distasteful, unfriendly and even pathetic?

Expressing these feelings intermittently is not a problem for most normal people. If it is a problem where you are you are either misinterpreting things due to your own internal warped thoughts or you are surrounded by horrible horrible people.

If you express these feelings habitually I'll just lay it on you...no one likes a constantly down person. Most people, as social apes saddled with the burden of consciousness, spend enough time with their own personal storm clouds and would rather be distracted by someone elses sunshine. Being social creatures, our mental states are often contagious. We'd rather soak up some happy than some sad. We are all aware of the bullshit of life...sometimes smiling through it is not so much 'faking it' as it is an adaptive measure to help get through it.
posted by jnnla at 11:31 PM on November 15, 2012 [14 favorites]


This is definitely cultural. In Britain the compulsory upbeatness you describe is Very Much Not A Thing. If anything's compulsory, it's having a little moan/being self deprecating/expressing pessimism about the future.
posted by Acheman at 12:53 AM on November 16, 2012 [15 favorites]


There's a purpose in some contexts to what you're describing. Imagine going on a camping trip with about 8 people. It starts to rain. Say 6 out of the 8 mentally fortifying themselves to persevere, when the other 2 people's mood take a nosedive.

It's very possible that the 2 downers will ruin the mood of the entire group and tear their morale to shreds.

This is true in normal society to varying degrees; if you're happy, and someone else is outputting their sadness, you have to expend energy to combat that and preserve your mood. Your mood might dip, too. And it shouldn't necessarily be your responsibility to have to deal with that.
posted by victory_laser at 1:18 AM on November 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


I question the premise of your question, but expected dispositions, to the degree that they exist, are cultural. Why? Because that's part of what culture does, similar to expected knowledge being referred to as "common sense."
posted by rhizome at 2:02 AM on November 16, 2012


[A couple of comments deleted. This is a bit of a borderline post, but we need to concentrate on answering the actual question rather than chatting about the subject generally or expressing our own personal frustrations. Thanks.]
posted by taz at 2:15 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Feeling obliged to 'be merry' and 'act happy' in any given social gathering is, like others have said, largely a cultural thing. I'm also British and it's not such a thing here, for which I'm glad.

But - that doesn't mean it's true that 'deep down, most people feel lonely, bored, languid, unsure and/or sad', as a basic truth about their being. Everyone has those feelings from time to time, of course, but they are not the default state of humanity. There's a big, big gap between 'peppy optimistic extrovert' and 'miserable'. The UN's World Happiness Report (PDF link) goes into a lot more detail on the general happiness levels of the world.

So - if you feel like "it's annoying to have to fake like I'm a bubbly extrovert, when lots of us aren't bubbly extroverts", you're likely right. But if you feel like "it's annoying to have to fake like I'm a bubbly extrovert, when deep-down everybody is unhappy but we're not allowed to admit it so we all have to pretend otherwise, even though smiling and being cheerful is really all just a pretence," then that's much more likely to be depression speaking than anything else.
posted by Catseye at 2:50 AM on November 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think everyone feels that way sometimes, but if you are always, in the depths of your soul (or whatever) feeling sad

I agree with this. Depression is a consistent feeling of otherness in addition to the guilt/shame/etc.


This is true and I think why it becomes socially unacceptable to express feelings of depression-- not only is this sunshiney America, but being depressed makes you feel uniquely isolated and suffering and can be a very self-centered state of being. I don't say this to depress you further; I deal with depression and it's become a very optimistic thought that when my depression is treated I feel much less solipsistic and become one with the world, don't want to talk about my feelings with everyone, &c. People sense a kind of self-centered neediness and do not forecast fun in the future, whereas just being like "ughhhh my life right now lately I am bored out of my mind and I cannot stand my job" is fine (in doses) because people don't think you're going to dwell on it and insist on your victimization by the universe. The "ughhh" thing leads to commiseration and bonding and everything.

I've never traveled outside the States so I don't have much perspective on how this plays out internationally, but it does amuse me how American my boyfriend is in his essential being, after reading some of these answers.

'deep down, most people feel lonely, bored, languid, unsure and/or sad'


When my depression is treated this is not how I "feel." I may acknowledge that there are sad realities I'm not facing or have a pang of regret or guilt within the course of my day, but I'm mostly focused on my relationships, my goals, things that are happening to me. If you really feel this kind of deep pain, it can get better, and you should look for help.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:55 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am not aware of an explicit social norm that requires people to not act gloomy, however such a convention actually seems pretty understandable. The expressions of others affect not only themselves, but those who observe them. By acting gloomy, a person can actually impart that gloominess upon those that they interact with. It's odd to think about, but being recognizably down is actually kind of a jerk thing to do since it actively lessens the quality of life for those around you.

Of course this isn't totally consistent, there are also some times when seeing the displeasure of others actually makes people feel good. "If participants focus on similarities, this results in a concordant affective state. If they focus on dissimilarities, the result is a discordant affective state."

Read all about it
posted by Winnemac at 3:53 AM on November 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Everything everyone's said about not wanting to be burdened by other people's problems, but also managing our mood for others us is a way of showing respect, friendliness and consideration for their own struggles. (Because no matter what their particular struggles are, they're always huge to the person in question).

Re: the 'pathetic' thing - people hate seeing in others the weaknesses they're most ashamed of in themselves. Being openly 'weak' can remind people of their own failings, and the feelings of insecurity that arise from that might result in anything from callous dismissal to vicious lashing out.

There might also be a bit of resentment, i.e. 'I have to swallow all the crap that's happened to me and no one gives a shit, so why should she get a shoulder to cry on?'.

Having had four friends commit suicide within the past two years, I too would love it if the world was a warmer, more caring place where people naturally received sympathy and help and there was no shame attached to reaching out. I really do. Perhaps then even one of those people might still be alive (?) But in this imperfect world, humans, while great and altruistic and surprising and kind... are also cold, selfish and nasty in attempts to protect themselves from hurt.

Finally, knowing how to listen to someone in pain and give the right support is hard. If you want to work on the helplines for MIND or The Samaritans in the UK, they teach you how to actively listen/give feedback/make suggestions. And even then, sometimes it doesn't go right. Have you ever felt panic when faced with someone recently bereaved over what you should/shouldn't say? I have. And I don't think I'm a terrible person. But it's so easy to misjudge and upset someone more.

Also, no most people aren't feeling the things you're feeling as a default setting. I know it's hard but please think about giving someone a call or going to the doctor and asking for help. At worst, you will talk about your problems to someone who will listen. Take care.
posted by everydayanewday at 3:56 AM on November 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


...expressing these feelings, either intermittently or habitually, such a faux pas, taken by others as distasteful, unfriendly and even pathetic...

First, how this plays out is different in different cultures*, and has been very different over time. Compare European Romanticism with Post-modern Cool, for (one slapdash) example.

That said, most people do not like to be confronted with their own weaknesses in the mirror of other's behavior. So assuming the claim that "deep down, most people feel lonely, bored, languid, unsure and/or sad" to be true, and supposing that a significant sub-group among this larger group is covertly unhappy with being covertly unhappy, another sub-group among these doubly-unhappy people can be predicted to act openly ungraceful when confronted with anyone belonging to any section of the entire group of unhappy "most people", who for any kind of reason openly displays her or his unhappiness.

There are other models and levels to explain what you're trying to get at. In some contexts, to show one's weakness is banned as a sign of a bad character. It's part of many cultures' education (perhaps partly because of the first reason stated) and is often being planted in kids' minds before they even can crawl. This isn't always just silly or primeval or whatnot: Sometimes not showing one's weakness is a prerequisite for survival, or in any case more deeply rooted in human instinct than some modern social quirk. So it may be literally "natural" that others are being judged according to their adhering to the ruling conventions and expectations no matter how everyone feels deep inside.

Taken as "unfriendly," on the other hand, often is a mis-interpretation because openly unhappy people fail to observe the niceties that their interlocutors crave in order to feel comfortable. Uncomfortable--> look for a cause. Grumpy guy made me uncomfortable, so he's "bad."

I don't know about "faux pas" (meaning a momentary action that is considered unfitting for the situation at hand), but assume that there can be scenarios, where showing one's underlying depression in such single actions, in social situations not fit for this, could indeed be construed as a faux pas. But that's a little far beyond analyzing underlying reasons, too much tied in with specific (unknown) social expectations (which is why I made the comment about "cultures" at the beginning)

"Pathetic" finally: doesn't the word in its array of possible meanings describe very accurately the situation you're addressing? Lonely, bored, languid, unsure and/or sad? So that's just a recognition of facts, right?

*Even after 22 years in Sweden, for instance, I haven't gotten used to the accepted level of complaining about pretty much everything here.
posted by Namlit at 4:04 AM on November 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


I have moments when I'm wangsting about something and wondering "what to do, what to do?" that I realize that I literally have the option of deciding to be happy about it and that that's actually the best choice.

Obviously it's not the best choice if I'm wangsting about being in a job I really hate. In that case the solution would be to aggressively look for a better job. Or if I really do have troubling negative feelings about a situation that I can't usefully take action about, it would be stupid to think I could just wish those feelings away. It would be better to work through them.

But there are other situations where I'm just wangsting over them out of habit and because it's easier. Sometimes I don't even have any strong negative feelings about stuff, and it literally is just a switch I can flick as soon as I consciously realize the switch is there. Other times it takes more effort to see the positive, but the positive view is no less true than the negative.

This is where it's easy and natural to focus on the negative, but the harder choice to see the positive will be more rewarding and lead to more positive outward behaviour and in turn, a slightly better world for me and others.

In this case, I get irritated with people I think are being *unnecessarily* melancholy because it feels like they're trying to drag me down to their level where I agree that everything sucks. Well, where it's a matter of opinion, it's important to me that I not be influenced by someone else's bad opinion.
posted by tel3path at 4:45 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, and one more thing. There's a couple in my church who, as someone described it to me "seem to think it's rude to express anything less than cheerful enthusiasm at all times".

I can't tell you how creepy and dissonant it was to see them act cheerful at the funeral. (Of a 20-year-old, just to be clear that it wasn't one of those "routine" deaths.) It gave me the fucking CREEPS. I doubt I was the only one to feel that way. So, claiming that mad cheerfulness is a cultural norm always and everywhere... kinda overstating things.
posted by tel3path at 4:48 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've dealt with my own issues of depression, etc. So I'm not unsympathetic to the issue. But disclosing personal feelings is like taking off clothes - plus it can be contagious and very difficult for the listener. It's fine for certain times and places. In others it's not really ok.

I've definitely gotten uncomfortable or even annoyed when people have brought up their depression / unhappiness in social settings, and here's my attempt to explain:

1) Confessions of this sort seem to require sympathy or a round of "ain't it awful" (see Games People Play). It's not like a comment about the weather, where it's acceptable to murmur "yes, very rainy this week" and wander off. It's a way of making demands that others pay attention in a certain way.

2) If I am already trying to keep myself from slipping into a depressive phase, it's hard to deal with someone else's funk. I'm trying to have a nice time and NOT think about my troubles for a while, which is part of me dealing with my depression. If another party wants to talk about their troubles, my nice time is pretty much down the tubes if I can't get away from them.

3) I've worked HARD on dealing with depression. One of the ways I do this is by not entertaining my dark thoughts and making an effort to practice gratitude and positivity. I don't want to participate in complaining because that state of mind takes me nowhere good.

4) If you personally have brought up feeling bored or sad at a party, and gotten a chilly response, that was the group letting you know without words "This is not what we are here for. We aren't going to be responsive to that because we don't want this to be the way our night goes." They are trying to set a boundary.

So, this is a sort of confession you would make one-on-one, to a close friend. It's better if you can keep it short, thank them for listening, let them know if there is anything concrete they can do to help you, and then change the conversation to something more pleasant.

You know the thing about the drowning person who in their panic will cause their rescuer to drown with them? It's like that. The "rescuer" is vulnerable too.
posted by bunderful at 5:18 AM on November 16, 2012 [14 favorites]


I am interpreting your question as this:

"I am frequently in social situations where it is expected that I smile, make pleasant chit-chat, and have generally shallow but upbeat conversations. 'How are you?' 'Fine, lovely weather this weekend, wasn't it?' 'Oh yes, Saturday was just gorgeous.' etc. Why is that conversation considered polite, but more negative (perhaps more 'real') conversation is considered impolite or even impossible? Don't we all have sad and lonely weekends from time to time?"

I'm an introvert who can overthink a plate of beans until they're scarcely recognizable, so I have thought a lot about this. I am finally, at 31, becoming passably decent at shallow conversation and chit-chat. I am finally learning why this is a useful skill, and a good use of my time, despite my constant desire to veer straight into more complicated topics of conversation.

I've come to think of lunch-room hey-how-are-ya conversations as the verbal equivalent of a handshake or even as a non-contact way to do what apes do when they groom each other. They are a way of greeting one another, of maintaining contact. The message is "I see you, I greet you, we are in the same group" without being intrusive.

When we veer into deeper conversations (e.g. about feeling desperately lonely or terrifyingly unsure what to do with your life), it's the equivalent of receiving a handshake and then pulling them in for a loooooong hug. Too much contact! Whoa! This is not to say that deeper conversations or long hugs are bad. They're just not the same activity as a handshake or chit-chat.

In the shallow conversation, both interlocutors maintain their privacy. We're together, but we are also separate. Ideally, it means the break-room at work is a drama-free zone where you can actually take a break.

At the party full of strangers, you don't know much about the strangers you're meeting. You need a way of slowly building familiarity and contact among you — the handshake is appropriate and safe, the long hug is not. Not yet. The handshake conversation contains hints about who you might want to get into the deeper conversation with, and who you might have fierce conflict with.

"How about that local sports team?" is a way of bonding on a shared experience that is fairly neutral, allowing you to build a connection with NO information about the other person. It helps you gauge the room before making a horrible faux-pas, like dropping a Mittens joke in a room full of Republicans.

By the way, negative chit-chat can also work well for this purpose, so long as the leading premise is "we're in this together" and you still maintain privacy. Examples: Negative topics are tricky though, and you might be getting pressure to back off on them because the ones you're choosing are "long hug" conversations.
posted by heatherann at 6:18 AM on November 16, 2012 [19 favorites]


What heatherann said about many social conversations not actually being about the substance of the words said is spot on (and I love the comparison with other primates' social grooming!) The linguist Roman Jakobson famously wrote about this in the early 20th century.

I am a very cheerful person with severe depression, so I have an oddish take on this whole thing, but when other people are relentlessly grim, I think of the Wallace Stevens poem "Gubbinal"---


That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

That tuft of jungle feathers,
That animal eye,
Is just what you say.

That savage of fire,
That seed,
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.


Maybe the people exclaiming with delight over their cube-neighbor's child's latest finger painting are trying to squeeze some delight out of a complex and confusing world.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:20 AM on November 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Imagine a party, or any sort of social situation where you're among people that aren't close to you, even a non-social event like the office: you feel compelled to act happy, to impress to have things "together," do you not?

Not exactly. I think there's a wide range between being totally authentic the way I would with close friends and/or family, and being polite or mannerly with acquaintances or people I am having passing interactions with. And since my life is made up of both sorts of people there is a sense in which knowing when to be how with which people is a useful part of being considered socially ept. So like the way I wear pajamas around the house and get dressed to a certain level to go out to the post office and get dressed to another certain level to go to work. These levels are more or less socially constructed and being able to match them means that I am more or less aware of how my society works. So, I could go to the post office in my pajamas--there's certainly no law against it--but people would look at me as if I was considering my own comfort above the general social mores of our little community. Similarly when you start saying "Yeah I've had a super shitty week..." in response to a work acquaintances "How are you?" even though it seems like an authentic response (and it's certainly true at some level, if that's how you feel) it's not sending the right message. It's drawing someone into a level of intimacy usually reserved for close friends/family. And again, you can totally do this, it's not against the law, but it's sending the wrong message and usually turning a light interaction into a heavy one.

Shifting to the chirpy "Everything's great!" workplace and, yeah, that's just one of those 'bad fit' things. Not every workplace is like this and certainly not every place expects that sort of "smiles everyone!" behavior. I worked in a place like this once and it was really terrible because not only was the expectation some sort of upbeat smiley thing, but it also became an oppressive way to sort of harass other non-smiley people (like, say, me) in that "We all agree on this shared culture, why don't you?"" way. So I totally hear where you are coming from, this sort of thing is annoying and you don't have to deal with it everywhere. That said, it's useful to understand the messages that are being sent out with differing responses to basic social conventions to make sure that while you are in a cultural situation that doesn't seem familiar to you, that you know how to behave. Professional does not have to mean chirpy and happy, but in some workplaces it does and it's a good idea if that doesn't work for you to, over time, think about being in a different workplace.
posted by jessamyn at 7:30 AM on November 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


One more thought - as far as just facial expressions go - if someone frowns when I try to approach them, I am more likely to think they don't like me than to think they are depressed.

In fact, if I try to approach someone and they don't show me with their behavior that they are open to me and interested in interacting - and this is what comes through with a pleasant expression and chit-chat - I will think they prefer that I leave them alone.
posted by bunderful at 7:30 AM on November 16, 2012


There is a certain strain of thought that says that every action you make has to be an authentic expression of who you are, and everything else is "being fake." When you start from that premise, then all basic social graces seem like some kind of unbelievable burden.

Think of shaking someone's hand, looking him in the eye, and smiling not as some kind of false performance, but rather as a favor you do to people to make them feel comfortable, like wearing a suit to an interview or speaking French in France-- they are ways of communicating and establishing rapport. It's not "lying" to do those things.

Another thing comes to mind: there is a family friend who owns a restaurant, and she's well into her 70s by now, but she still comes in to manage the restaurant day-to-day and work as the hostess quite frequently. My mom asked her what motivates her to work so hard, and she said, "Well, the alternative would be for me to sit at home and think about my problems." What she is choosing to do is say that the problems don't own her and control her behavior. And I think that's healthy, actually. What is being more "fake"? To express sadness all the time, or to not let your problems and sadness control who you are and what you choose to do?
posted by deanc at 7:42 AM on November 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


Similarly when you start saying "Yeah I've had a super shitty week..." in response to a work acquaintances "How are you?" even though it seems like an authentic response (and it's certainly true at some level, if that's how you feel) it's not sending the right message. It's drawing someone into a level of intimacy usually reserved for close friends/family.

I really like this point.

Also, in the workplace, actual negativity (as opposed to an absence of fake chirpiness) gets to be a real problem. It's a day to day environment with a group of people you can't avoid. Throwing negativity into that is like throwing something into an aquarium, rather than a lake where people can swim on by. It sort of hangs out there.
posted by BibiRose at 9:30 AM on November 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


As a woman who can't find a part-time job because they're all asking for "bubbly, upbeat personalities," this is the question I ask myself all the time. I'm convinced that most of the whole "YOU MUST BE UPBEAT" thing is due to the fact that this is america and darn it we're all happy here! Not being happy is like a taboo here. Heck, it IS a taboo here.

By the way, negative chit-chat can also work well for this purpose, so long as the leading premise is "we're in this together" and you still maintain privacy. Examples:
"Oh my GOD, it is cold out there today! I just biked here and it was so much colder than yesterday." "I know! I walked in and my glasses fogged up — how is it that cold already??"
"Ugh, this time of year is insane, isn't it? So many deadlines at once!" "Holy crap, I know! I have 7 reports due in the next 2 weeks!" "We totally deserve a beer when we're done."
Negative topics are tricky though, and you might be getting pressure to back off on them because the ones you're choosing are "long hug" conversations.


I think that this is actually even more evidence for what the OP is saying. I can imagine this conversation, and although it might be about negative topics, it's not exactly "genuine social presentation." Even the casual 'how is it that cold already?' sounds like you are implying that you don't really mind the cold that much.

I also interpreted this question as complaining about things that weren't deathly serious...("How are you today?" "My mom has cancer." "Oh.") More like what happened to me last night:

"We thought we paid the eye doctor his $40 fee, but let's just go back and pay it because I don't have the receipt."
"I can't believe he doesn't have it in his computer. I don't think he knows what he's doing. He does this all the time."
"Oh, he's been in this business for 30 years! I think he knows what he's doing!"
"Not when he's going senile he doesn't."

That's the kind of conversation no one wants to hear, I think. (And it has nothing to do with talking about one's depression etc. like people above have mentioned.) It crosses a "boundary." So to answer the question, I don't think it's possible to not have to "act happy" and "just accepting of whatever," at least not in this country. I'm convinced it's a cultural thing.

It's also much more present in the South than it is in the Northeast, as far as I'm concerned. "Be polite! Be polite! Don't make anyone uncomfortable! Don't give your opinion!"
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 9:57 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because you don't want to have to discuss why you are sad or depressed or melancholic with people you barely know? You don't want to put a damper on the mood in the room?

I agree that it's a regional thing too.
posted by Neekee at 10:18 AM on November 16, 2012


Another thing:

a non-social event like the office: you feel compelled to act happy, to impress to have things "together," do you not?

I certainly do, because my coworkers depend on me, and while I don't have to "act happy", if I don't present myself as having things "together", they might decide that I can't be relied upon. My job is to make myself an asset, not a burden, and I can't do that by dumping my problems and unhappiness on people who aren't there to deal with it, since they obviously have their own issues and workplace obligations to deal with. Once again, that's not "faking it", it's having "self control" and "discipline."
posted by deanc at 10:32 AM on November 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Because any display of frequent or habitual melancholy beyond the usual life-sucks-sometimes moans is not actually normal. Sure, most people have experienced depression at some point or other, but depression is a state that differs from the norm. Also, I think the majority of people do not find melancholy to be distasteful or pathetic, they simply find it worrisome. If a co-worker, say, were displaying signs of sadness and ennui every day, I'd personally be worried about them and want them to feel better.

FWIW though, while I disagree with the assumption that most people are melancholy most of the time, I do believe that as a culture we need to stop being silent about depression (be it mild, acute, anxiety, whatever). It upsets me that so much behavior is described as 'incompetence' or 'rudeness' when its really a manifestation of anxiety or stress - feelings we've all had at some point.

So, in essence, I think we should all strive to find peace and happiness, but show more empathy for those who are struggling.

Finally, as a Brit who has worked in the US, I agree that the American sunny disposition can get too much. God, if I had a pissy day I couldn't go down the shops without other folks' pleasantries pissing me off!
posted by dumdidumdum at 10:46 AM on November 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Who says "deep down, most people feel lonely, bored, languid, unsure and/or sad"? Everyone feels some uncertainty, and everyone feels at least occasional loneliness and sadness, but to say everyone is in one or more of these states on a regular basis, which seems to be what you are implying, seems to me to be baseless. I think anyone who is bored has only himself/herself to blame. As long as you can go outside and/or can get on the internet and/or pick up a book, there's an entire world of interesting things at your disposal. I think some people might confuse or mix together boredom with other feelings such as loneliness and melancholy, and certainly those latter feelings are not something that can so easily be controlled or rectified.
posted by Dansaman at 11:40 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


And openly displaying boredom can be read as "you people are not cool enough for me, I do not find you interesting."

That may not always be the case, but I think you can imagine how people might feel about that.
posted by bunderful at 11:49 AM on November 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think that this is actually even more evidence for what the OP is saying. I can imagine this conversation, and although it might be about negative topics, it's not exactly "genuine social presentation." Even the casual 'how is it that cold already?' sounds like you are implying that you don't really mind the cold that much.
I'm Canadian. I don't really mind the cold that much. And that's exactly why it works as a Handshake Conversation even though it's negative. Plus I'm in Toronto and we get enough death-stares from the rest of the country that we know we have nothing to bitch about when it comes to cold! It's a negative topic that causes no problems.

I don't think I'm countering what the OP is saying, just trying to illustrate one of the reasons why heavy negative topics don't work well in Handshake Conversations, and why that type of chit-chat is often found in workplaces and parties.

I'm trying to say that this isn't entirely a Positive/Negative divide, and that it is largely a Light/Heavy divide. I mean, "I had the best orgasm last night!" is positive, but it ain't Handshake Conversation!

I'm also saying that the mutual bitching about the approach of winter is "genuine social presentation." It's just not about a Real Problem That Someone Needs To Solve. It's a small let's-bitch-together-about-this-inconvenience-together Handshake Conversation. A genuinely light conversation that is "about" shared experiences. A way of maintaining contact without tripping the Action Required alarm.

Your conversation about the doctor is in Handshake Conversation territory until you accuse him of fraud/disability. Your interlocutor tried a repair attempt (the "you don't really mean that" attempt to undo the harshness of your accusation) but you immediately pushed it back to Seriously Actionable Talk territory.

Neither of these conversations is good or bad. The conflict occurs when 2 people can't agree on which type of conversation they are in.
posted by heatherann at 1:56 PM on November 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks so much, everybody, for your really thoughtful answers. You guys are so generous. I'm going to take my time and read them all at some point here.
posted by frankly mister at 2:23 PM on November 16, 2012


I'll address the faux pas part by way of example: what do you do when you meet someone who smells or looks unpleasant to you? Do you point it out, or do you keep it to yourself? Society works in part because we've learned to plan for the future, treat each other nicely, and otherwise not react immediately and openly about negative things in our environment that we cannot control. We all smell bad sometimes, we all look unpleasant sometimes, and walking around pointing that out (rather than just quietly accepting it as part of life and moving on) is a faux pas. In the same way, we may each in a day spend some time unhappy, but walking around pointing that out (rather than just quietly accepting it as part of life and moving on) is a faux pas.
posted by davejay at 1:35 PM on November 17, 2012


OP - in my responses I wrote about my experiences from the other side of the conversation / social interaction.

But most of that knowledge is from more recent years. When I was younger I could have easily posted this question. I was baffled and frustrated by small talk, and often over-shared my sadness and loneliness. I want you to know you're not alone and it can get better. Lots better.
posted by bunderful at 8:19 PM on November 18, 2012


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