Ye ballroom dance instructor has inadvertently made me re-think an awful lot of things. I suppose this is karma coming back to bite me. I have the occasional, baffling week where all the random shit that falls out of my mouth somehow results in me being the Epiphany Fairy for everyone I meet. I imagine my turn has been a long time coming.

Believe it or not, this is the first time I've ever had to figure out what to do when someone I've resolved not to bother with my weird people-dowsing has turned around and decided they needed to be friends with me. On top of that, while I correctly predicted that the inside of his head was an interesting place, I completely whiffed almost everything else I guessed. I am seldom that wrong about that many things, and usually discovering the truth is a much more disappointing process.

Inasmuch as nobody I have decided to Not Bother has ever turned around and decided to try Bothering me back, I have no procedure for this. This near-total lack of context gave me conniption fits for a while. What the hell am I supposed to do now? Eventually, I got fed up with my own neurotic waffling and decided I could probably do whatever the hell I wanted, as long as I was consistent.

In the culture of performing arts, greeting and parting with a hug is a Thing. I've taken to doing that to him, every time I see him. I asked the first time -- like with actual words wot came audibly from my mouth -- and thereafter just took to telegraphing very broadly. It's a process. Hat pins come out, preposterous summer picture hat comes off so I don't nail him in the face with the brim, and I step out from behind the desk, which is usually where I am when he comes in. I do keep a weather eye out for signs that this is Not The Time, but I've not been dodged yet. He will even juggle an armload of crap to get a hand free, if he has to.

I tend to categorize this stuff as Things Arabella Is Allowed To Get Away With. I ask because it's something I want, and when I get it, I assume it's because the person I'm asking doesn't have any real objections. If I quit asking one day, all they'd really notice is one fewer interruption to whatever it else it is they use that arm for. Some people just tolerate me gracefully.

The last time he caught me at the desk, I was interrupted early in the Hat Removal Process by a patron asking a question. It happens when you're the receptionist on duty. I didn't really expect him to still be standing at the corner of the desk when I was done doing my job, but he was, so I finished with the hat and got on with my usual greeting, and then we both went back to work.

It didn't occur to me until much later that this might have been what he was waiting for. Habits are much like opinions, in that nobody cares what yours are unless they find them distasteful. Catching him when he appears has become my habit, and if I hadn't managed to get a hug before one of us left, I'd have been vaguely disgruntled, in that way that happens circumstances force you to leave a task uncompleted. I've been assuming my pattern of behavior plays no role in his decision-making process, mainly because I've been assuming he doesn't know it exists. Most people would not recognize a pattern of behavior if it jumped up, chomped them right on the nose, and hung on like a cartoon piranha. I've continued to assume this even after discovering he's terrifyingly observant when he decides to pay attention. And at some point, I managed to forget that it was just an assumption.

One of the most difficult things to learn when I started deconstructing people was that being wrong is part of the process. It's not a single equation to solve; it's an iterative algorithm, like finding the roots of a function with Newton's method. You are never going to know exactly how someone else ticks, so the aim is to make a series of guesses about the way they think that are progressively less and less inaccurate, until you arrive at a model whose error bars are, as Moggie used to say, 'good enough for government work'. You guesses are based on the information you have -- and when that information changes, your guess should also change. It's not a disaster to guess something wrong, as long as you remember to let go of your wrong guess later when you learn better.

There is no way to nail all of your guesses on the first try. People are too different. This is why all those magazine articles on '5 Signs She's Into You' drive me bonkers. For every five things they cite, maybe three of them will be true for any given person, one will be irrelevant, and one will be so wrong they're insulted you thought that -- and there is no way to know which things are which without interacting with them for a bit. On the other hand, Newton's method requires you to plug a previous guess into the equation to come up with your new guess, so you have to start somewhere. With numbers, it's customary to make the first guess zero, for ease of calculation; with people, you have to begin by making some preliminary assumptions based on previous experience. The more experience you have, the more accurate your guess is likely to be, but that's probability, not a guarantee.

I start by assuming that people who don't start huggy sorts of things aren't all that keen on them. I know that this is wrong for some people, because it's wrong for me; I am keen on hugging people, but I am also fussy. It's only certain specific people, and only when the stars align correctly. (I actually don't know what makes the difference between 'person I like a lot' and 'person I like a lot and want to hug all the time'. It drives me a bit bats sometimes. It's probably behavioral, but I never have identified all of the cues.) It's a significant gesture from me, but I imagine nobody knows this, because I don't tell them, because that conversation is about 400% weirder than I normally want to get.

There are some signs that this assumption might be wrong for ye ballroom instructor as well. I'm generally the one to reach out, but this may be a matter of inhibition on his end, rather than disinclination -- he does start it sometimes, generally after he's had a couple of drinks, or is fresh off performing, or other such state changes that are known to make the neurotic background gibbering shut the fuck up for a few minutes. It's difficult to objectively evaluate what these behaviors look like from the outside when they're directed at you, but the last time he did it, the total stranger I had been just been talking to promptly asked if we were dating.

This is all information that that I did not have -- and, in fact, could not have had -- when I made the initial assumptions, which are themselves colored by various annoying anxieties and issues that are peculiar to me.

Now, in a purely practical sense, it doesn't much matter whether I change my opinion on what I think is going on here. I can hang onto the initial guess that hugging probably bugs people more than it makes them feel loved, and that they let me do it because they're nice and they like me. If I don't tell anyone, no one will be any the wiser. The problem is that if I act like I think I'm being irritating, despite new evidence that this isn't the case, he's going to start wondering what the hell he's doing to give me that impression. If, as I am beginning to suspect, he is considerably more high-strung sometimes than he lets on, that is really going to fuck with his head. On the other hand, if he is annoyed by all this, he probably needs to know that his behavior is giving me the opposite impression, so he can change it to better communicate his feelings on the matter.

Some of my readers are probably mystified as to why I think this analysis is worth writing out. Congratulations on your reasonably normal upbringing! None of this is obvious when you grow up with someone who does not interface well with reality. The idea that the way you behave can actually affect how other people react to you is new and bewildering when your childhood was full of people who treated you according to their own highly-inaccurate, unchanging mental model of who you were supposed to be, and not according to things you actually said and did out here in the real world. I did not figure any of this out until I was like twenty, when I decided to quit listening to my mother and teach myself socialization from scratch. I am about to turn thirty-six and I am still tripping over weird shit like this. I wrote this bit up because it's a rare example of me having to pick things apart because something unexpectedly nice is going on, rather than the universe blindsiding me with some sort of insane interpersonal disaster.

Comments

  1. I guess I'm just wondering why you don't just ask, out loud in words. I know what you're doing when you make the interpersonal assumptions (hey nonny, let's all grow up with chaotic mentally ill people, what fun), but I have found that Talking Out Loud often has good results. Especially with people who are already inclined to like me, and want to spend time with me (which he does with you).

    Admittedly, it's a bit raw and open to do, but ... maybe he's waiting for you to make the first move? At some point, *someone* has to stop being the shy and careful one, right?

    (Bear in mind, I'm psychologically a very tough cookie. My personal Bad Parenting gave me a strong belief in my own Self and Self-Worth, which is unusual. Her 'reality' was so obviously not the one that I - and most of the other people I knew - was in that it was clear that her opinions of me were similarly skewed. Oddly, this has translated to me having a strong internal sense of worth, a tendency to verbally check with others to see if I'm understanding them correctly (which weirds them out a bit, but I don't care), and a willingness to *walk the fuck away* if they turn out to be less invested/nice than I thought. Even if that walking away is counter-productive.

    So - I understand that my advice and methods aren't for everyone.)

    If you're up for it, I'll hug you. (I might be moving to New Hamster by the end of the year. !!!)

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    1. Well, one of the things I'm pretty sure I whiffed on is that my starting assumption that any man who spends as much time in a dance studio as I do is probably *very* gay. It's not always true, but it's statistically faster to start there and take correction than the other way around. I know he identifies as queer, but that does the opposite of narrow things down.

      So, it took a while for that to percolate, and since then I haven't managed to catch him alone. He is distinctly different with just me than in a crowd, mainly much quieter and less likely to grin and deflect things. I don't think asking in front of a whole bunch of other people -- or via typing, where he can't read my expression -- would go over well. I actually resolved to do exactly what you're suggesting weeks ago, I just haven't gotten the chance.

      It's also not very pressing, at least on my end. The main problem when dealing with Schrödinger's Crush is that it's usually not reciprocated, and you spend ages trying to figure out how to let them down easy. I quit worrying about whether he was aiming for a date or a dance partner or an exciting new bestie or what when I realized I was just going to say yes to whatever it was anyway.

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    2. (I should probably add that I DO make a lot of these observations to his face, or in some cases, to whatever messaging app he uses on his phone. I don't generally get much in the way of words back, but the nonverbal reactions are usually pretty clear. Turning into Flower when I told him he looks like he enjoys being something beautiful was just so far the biggest and most blatantly adorable one.)

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    3. Mmm, yeah, this is certainly a one-on-one face-to-face conversation. If only because then any embarrassment or joy can be dealt with without involving other people.

      And yeah, I certainly understand (and agree with) your first assumption. It is statistically more likely. *grin*

      As an outsider, it sounds to me like he's definitely interested in more than a in-dance-studio friend. I hope you get a chance soon to figure out what and how.

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