For those of you who read this (approximately five of you), and know me personally (approximately four of you), you know that I can be a bit of an ‘acquired taste’ – I don’t always correctly follow social norms, I’m not the greatest at smalltalk, and my qualifications for the clothing I wear when I walk out the door is ‘basically fitting’ and ‘clean’. My “meta-perception” (i.e. ‘my perception of how other people perceive me’) is basically that most people can deal with my idiosyncrasies in small doses, and just ‘let me talk’ when I attempt to explain technical things, especially in a social context, retaining basically-none of it. When it comes to expressing empathy and other emotions, it can feel like it is, at best, a ‘learned skill’, where I’m attempting to mimic the things that other people do to express concern and compassion, but for me, it’s not a natural skill…and I generally feel that I have a tendency to make things worse when I attempt it.
This weekend, something happened.
Under very different sets of circumstances, three different people independently volunteered that I made them feel better and/or comfortable amidst uncomfortable situations. To say “it didn’t make any sense” is like saying, “platinum is a bit difficult to come by”. How could I, the acquired-taste computer tech who is terrible at expressing empathy, make other people feel better? Then, it hit me.
We live a world that thrives on optimization. Your cell phone is faster than your last one. Your car probably gets better gas mileage than the one you had before it. Your dryer is more energy efficient. Our soda cans have undergone a mesmerizing amount of optimization since their inception. Written messages went from ‘letters’ to ‘tweets’; the phrase “tl;dr” exists. You probably have to consciously think about the last picture you saw that wasn’t filtered or Photoshopped, or don’t have to because you’re thinking of a physical photo album whose contents predate digital imaging. Movies and TV compress a whole lot of human interaction to fit a 22m/44m/96m runtime, and thus, scripts are also heavily optimized – I myself am guilty of saying “too long; didn’t watch” for It’s a Wonderful Life, yet its depiction of human interaction is at a much more realistic pace than…basically any other movie involving a love story that’s been made in the last decade or so.
We live in a world so filled with optimization that imperfection stands out. An unretouched photo looks strange at first, but its genuine nature is itself notable.
When I attempted to express myself to these people, under these circumstances, in my mostly-awkward way, it was notable to them for being genuine – and their response, unexpected as it was, was a response to genuineness amidst a sea of highly optimized emotional expression. I owe the fact that, for a weekend, I was more-understood than I was attempting to be, to a culture where realness is derived from imperfection, because we are the first generation where perfection is the norm.