Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Life Is Not a Popularity Contest!

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever been given wasn't intended as advice or worded as such. It was a comeback that my big brother Alexi made during an argument. I was in my terrible tweens, and we were fighting over something I've long since forgotten all about. I made a low, clumsy blow, something about how he didn't have any friends, and although I didn't let on at the time, when Alexi swung back, his response hit its mark, leaving a permanent impression in my brain.

"Life is not a popularity contest."

Can I get an amen to that?

I've carried those six words, the ones my brother has probably forgotten he ever uttered, around with me for decades, not always heeding them, but always remembering them.

One of the things I admire most about my brother is the way he never caves in to public opinion. I imagine that, like everyone else, he wants to be loved and even to be liked, but right or wrong, it's never stopped him from being who he is and owning his actions and his character.

Yesterday, I got confirmation that this is the only way to live when, within the space of a few hours, I incited completely opposite reactions in two people without even attempting to elicit a response of any kind.

The first was from a guy who has been trying to get me to go out with him since he spotted me out with my friend Roberto at Sitges on my first Friday night back in Buenos Aires five and a half weeks ago. I did that thing I've always done too well because I have such a hard time saying no -- according to my former therapist's bullseye diagnosis nine years ago, I'm a prime people pleaser. I wasn't really interested, but I didn't turn him down, and in not doing so, I possibly inadvertently encouraged him.

It had been a couple of weeks since I'd heard from him when he messaged me yesterday.


"Hola." I responded.

His next message took me completely off-guard. (No "Como estas?"?) It was probably the most interesting thing he'd ever said, but it seemed to come out of nowhere and was so way off base. He said, in Spanish, that I express myself in a negative way, like I don't like people.

"...como no te gusta gente"? I repeated his final words in my head. I was intrigued. I asked him, in English, to explain himself. Since he doesn't know me, and he was basing his review on very little knowlegde about me -- unless unbeknownst to me, he's been reading this blog -- I had no idea where he was coming from or why he was approaching from that direction.

"Maybe you don't like people. Maybe people don't like you.... You seem like someone who holds a grudge."

I told him that I wasn't sure why he woke up and decided to pick on me. Clearly he didn't have a problem with how I express myself a few minutes earlier, or he wouldn't have sent me that enthusiastic "Hola!" Perhaps he was put off by the tone of my "Hola" response. As I've said before (here), exclamation points -- and the lack thereof -- say so so much!!!

After a bit of back and forth, I told him that he was being passive aggressive, carefully choosing my words so as not to come off as being as much of a jerk as he was revealing himself to be, and to not make him right by coming across as being negative. Ultimately, I dismissed him, but I didn't dismiss his words. I was still considering them a few hours later when I walked into the local panaderia.

After I made my selections and approached the counter, I noticed that the ladies behind it were being more animated than usual. They were giggling, whispering and looking at me. Clearly I was the topic of their conversation. The ringleader, who was a little older and not at all the giggly type, the one who made sweet small talk with me whenever I came in, spoke up.

"You are always smiling," she said, first in Spanish and then in English. Then after a dramatic, pregnant pause, continued. "That's good."

Now I knew how Mariah Carey feels, such mixed reviews in one day. I went home and updated my Facebook status:

"Here's another reason why you shouldn't care too much about what other people think of you: Today, within the space of a few hours, I was told by one person that I express myself negatively and by another that I'm always smiling ("That's good," she added). Neither comment is going to change my life, but it was interesting to receive such mixed reviews. I think the reality probably lies somewhere in the middle."

I got some interesting responses. One of the first ones came from Alexi:

"What other people think of you is very important but it is not the whole picture. One must weigh the opinions of other people with all the rest of the data that is available."

Then my cousin Patricia weighed in:

"Can't be swayed by people's opinion of you but you will take the information apply the truth you need in seasons and things you don't apply you don't have to."

Then Connie, my former high-school classmate:

"is it that your negative or a realist? People generally want things sugarcoated and rolled in sprinkles before you feed it to them, but sometimes plain is just what they need!!!"

More from Patricia: 

"Negativity and TRUTH are two different things... Negativity gives you no WAY out to IMPROVE yourself or HOPE of improving yourself.. TRUTH and REALITY assist you in a way out by saying things not out of HURT or CONTROL but genuine LOVE for someone.. I can't RESPECT someone's opinion or implement it if I don't feel the VIBES of their genuine concern for me.. I will LISTEN if it is appropriate other wise I will just BLOCK THE NOISE and have them DROWN in the Red Sea... But for someone who is a stranger when they have an OPINION I will listen and file accordingly depending on my MOOD and SEASONS.... Words are spirit and they are LIFE and you have to be very careful about opinions you allow in your SPHERE OF INFLUENCE....."

And finally, my close friend and former colleague Cara:

"The type of person who is going to offer unsolicited criticism and tell you that you always express yourself negatively is likely the kind of person that inspires that reaction."

Another bullseye!

It's like those people who are always offering unsolicited critiques. They put you on the defensive by offering something offensive, and when you try to defend yourself, they say, "Don't get defensive!" Of course, that makes me even more so. In the end, I always give up. I only have so much control over what people think of me anyway, so the best thing I can do is just act naturally (as Buck Owens sang in one of my favorite childhood songs, which was once covered by The Beatles).

I'm probably somewhere in the middle of where yesterday's two critiques placed me. I'm not always smiling, but in that panaderia, it's hard not to when I'm surrounded by all those sweets and sweet-natured people. And there's probably no more negativity in the way I express myself than in the way the average person does, but if someone is going to make harsh, unprovoked character judgements about me -- which are nothing if not negative -- how would I be expected to react?

In the end, I decided to dismiss that guy's comments, too. I'm not interested in spreading phony cheer. Life is not a popularity contest. And if it were, I'd have no desire to be crowned the winner.

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