Pictures We Paint

I’m a decent sort of fellow. Really, I am.

I mean, sure, I have my faults. And, yeah, I definitely have my moments, but, in general …

OK, I’ll warn you from the outset, this is going to be another of those rambling Obvious Things Dave’s Been Convicted of in 2009 entries. And, as tends to happen, once I become aware of it, I’m having to deal with it multiple times, from both sides.

In a conversation with one of my coworkers recently, she sheepishly revealed that her husband had, um, an interesting opinion of me. I forget now what all it entailed, but probably the closest it came to positive was that I might just be the sort of lug who meant well enough, and that my evils were more incompetence than ill intent.

I would say I was a bit surprised, except that I’m telling this story out of chronological order, and so I knew exactly how this could have happened, having been dealing with basically the same isues in otehr context already.

Basically, it’s so easy, without even realizing it, to do that to someone. You come home from work, and vent about how your coworker has annoyed you that day. You go into work, and vent about something frustrating a friend did the night before. And, over time, what you’re doing is painting a picture of that person based on only that half of the story.

And, in my coworker and her husband’s defense, I laid a lot of the foundation for that myself. While I, as aforementioned, fancy myself a pretty decent guy today (and hopefully I’m preaching to the choir here — I would like to think that the population of people actually reading this blog is generally pro-Dave), I’ve had a fair bit of growing up to do, and continue to. The early days of the two of us working together were also the final days of my marriage, and that was probably not me at my best. I was very guarded, hurting, frustrated, etc. I was still in the process of learning to control my temper, and wasn’t always in the best emotional place for doing so.

She told me recently that her initial impression of me was that I was like a Disney villian: guarded, cold, stern, nothing jovial. Of course, me being me, I love it — “Disney villian” is just too cool a description. Of course, it led into a discussion of which Disney villian I seemed most like, whether I was one of the awesome, dignified ones like Malificent, or one of the buffoonish ones. I was pleased that I was not like Gaston, a bit chagrined by a slight comparison to Ursula, unsure about a link to Cruella DeVille, but very very pleased with the primary comparison to Scar.

But all that’s beside the point. She agreed that her impression of me has changed since that time (if nothing else, I’d hope I at least seem a bit more jovial). But without regular interaction, much of her husband’s impression is still rooted in that early foundation.

Since then, however, she’s continued to build that picture, unintentionally, with things she’s said. For her, she’s just venting about things during the work day, without thinking about the image she’s creating.

And, like I said, I get that, because it had been made very obvious to me how I had done the same thing. It really bothered me a while back how two of the people closest to me seemed to have this animosity for each other, despite the fact that they’d barely met. How could they have this dislike for this person that they hardly knew? I had theories at the time, and tried to work things out, unsuccessfully, based on those theories.

But, with some help, I realized recently that they had that animosity because I told them to. I had been doing the same thing. Sure, I said some positive things about them to each other, but they were also the person I vented to when I was frustrated. And the picture I painted was that the one person was someone who frustrated and hurt someone the other person cared about.

I had some glimpse of that this summer. I was involved for a while in a somewhat, um, interesting relationship. And more than one of my confidants asked me why I was involved with this person. And what I realized was, I only talked to them about the situation when I was frustrated. And, yeah, based on the side they were hearing, it really didn’t make sense.

And that’s one of the things I’ve realized is true for me, and I suspect others — when things are going well with someone, I talk to that person. When things are going poorly, I talk to others.

My confidants didn’t hear about the great times we had this summer, because during those times, I was with her, instead of with them. I didn’t need any advice on how to endure the really pleasant times; I could handle those just fine myself, thanks.

The other thing that I’ve realized recently is that we also unintentionally paint others negatively by how we tell stories. We have, of course, a tendency to paint ourselves in a positive light, without thinking about how that portrays others. “I was just minding my own business, when they …” If you’re telling about an argument, it’s easy to, without thinking, lapse into portraying it in a version in which maybe you’re a little more right than you were in real life.

I’m personally bad about exploring issues through having debates where I take a devil’s advocate position against someone else to get them to help me question my thoughts on the matter. I did that a lot last year with these two friends, and in talking to one, would tell them what the other said. The problem was, the discussions put them into opposite extremes for the sake of examining a straw-man argument, and really misrepresented them unfairly.

I found myself on the receiving end of this yet again this week, when I talked to someone I’d had no contact with since the early part of the year. We got along well then, so I was more than a little taken aback by the amount of animosity I encountered in talking to him this time. I tried to find out where it was coming from, but he wouldn’t even talk with me. Um, OK, you know?

One, I have a hard time understanding that in general. I’m the complete opposite, to a fault. There’s nobody on this planet that I wouldn’t be willing to talk to, and there’s nobody that I wouldn’t want to heal any rifts with. Even, arguably, sometimes when I should. But, two, the last time we talked, earlier this year, we were on good terms, and now you won’t even talk to me, and we haven’t talked, there’s been no interaction, no contact in the meantime? Um, really?

But it’s the same thing. And I suspect all three of those factors came into play. Yeah, there were faults in me that served as the foundation for impressions, regardless of whether they’re still true or not. And that colors perceptions of things since then. In the meantime, he’s probably heard much more venting about me than positive. And from what he did say, it sounds like one or two stories have been told, unintentionally, in a way that paints me in a certain light, given the preconceived notions. And, you know, it’s rather unfortunate.

But, hey, things can change, and the damage can be repaired. My coworker was telling me yesterday about a conversation she’d had with her husband over the weekend, in which he basically said that I was, more or less, crazy. And this time, she stood up for me that I am not, in fact, crazy. Granted, she ended up conceding that what he was talking about was pretty crazy, but defended me that, OK, while I am isolatedly crazy in this one particular area, I’m not universally crazy.

So there’s always hope, right?

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