Wednesday, March 1, 2023

I don’t remember how to talk to people

It’s been three years since the country went into lockdown, and long since we resumed “normal” life, but I seem to have forgotten how to talk to my fellow humans. Part of it is self-consciousness. Isolation messed with my antenna. Worse, I’m a middle-aged white woman with resting librarian face—a Karen, one might assume. (Apologies to my cousin Karen, who is a lovely soul and doesn’t deserve the grief attached to that name.) I have to work extra hard to dispel the notion that I’m rude or entitled, which probably comes off as “too nice,” or fake, or patronizing. A trip to the store is exhausting. No one can see me smile behind my mask, anyway.

Yes, I still wear a mask to the store, and the airport. It seems like the least I can do, literally. Leaving the house, I’m mentally prepared for the moment when some red-faced stranger challenges my right to protect my own health. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m always ready for a fight.

Therein lies the problem. My perception of reality has been warped. The folks at my local grocery store are never anything but nice. Still, after dozens of videos of people fighting on planes and in check-out lines, it feels like we’re all about to be pummeled.

Or shot. The other thing I do at the store is rehearse what to do when the shooting starts. Being in any public venue—church, movie theater, concert hall—means checking exits and calculating run times. Let’s be real: my sprint was laughable fifty years ago. I imagine trying to talk the shooter out of killing me. My guess is he won’t look favorably on my views about gun control.

Any conversation feels dangerous these days. What aren’t we angry about? There’s no such thing as “small talk,” because you never know what will set someone off. I learned the hard way that trying to have an honest debate about a difficult subject can end a relationship. Here’s a partial list of hand grenades:

  • Covid
  • Vaccines
  • Science
  • History
  • Healthcare
  • Education
  • Names of schools and sports teams
  • Immigration
  • Student loans
  • Voting
  • Statues
  • Adjectives and pronouns
  • The unnamed state where I live

And that old standby, the weather? It’s the most dangerous subject of all. We can’t go anywhere near the fact that the planet might be melting. Add polar bears and icecaps to the list.

Are other people out there having authentic discussions, and it’s just me taking deep breaths and changing the subject? A YouTube psychologist advises that, when your aunt gets going at the family reunion, simply gesture into the distance, say “I’ll be right back,” and never return.

It’s the coward’s way out, but a “meeting of the minds” seems like a hopeless pursuit. Discretion is the better part of valor, as they say. I used to love finding out what other people thought. Now, nine times out of ten, it’s alarming. While working on a crown, my dentist of 30 years confessed that he doesn’t believe in vaccines. Any of them. I couldn’t excuse myself and run to the bathroom—he had his hands in my mouth. The other day, I joked to a friend about the moon landings being faked, only to realize he wasn’t laughing. “I’ll be right back,” I said. 

Our versions of reality are drifting so far apart, it’s almost as if we’re speaking different languages. Which brings me back to my original issue. How do we talk about—and fix—the very real problems facing our world if we can’t even agree on what they are? We’re fighting on deck while the Titanic sinks. Meanwhile, I’m just running from one side of the ship to the other. My husband, who survived a brain injury, still believes in things like kindness, patience, decency, respect. He’s silly that way. And strangely, I can talk to him. (He does most of the talking, but you know what I mean.) As for everybody else, well—I’m trying. Maybe one day, before it’s too late, we’ll figure out a way to sit down and hash out our differences, like adults. We used to know how to do that, right?