Social Discomfort

A couple of years ago I had a realization. As I sat with several friends, on multiple occasions, we’d arrive in a situation where they were uncomfortable. Before long, they’d get antsy, and comments would start to flow. Often it was about the people present or aspects of the venue. Perhaps the people were too young, or too naive, or acting too embarrassingly American (in several instances it was young college students on their first exchange). In other situations, the beer was too warm, or the venue had failed in some utterly trivial and minor but nevertheless comment-worthy way. Visualize the hipster that ends up in a trendy club and is utterly out of place or the polished model who regularly is at ease and comfortable in fancy cocktail bars ending up in a grungy little bodega that only serves beer and bitters.

In these instances, their comments were often somewhat embarrassing, in no small part because they’re typically made fairly loudly or at the expense of those nearby. That sense of surprise though also got me to monitor my own behavior and, sure enough, I started to discover I had the same coping strategy. I also suspect it’s a mechanism that is particularly prevalent in academics as it’s often the easiest and safest defense to alleviate discomfort. In these instances, the academic retreats to their space of comfort and control academic topics where they have mastery and experience shaping the narrative.

Social Discomfort Photo Gallery

Ultimately though, it’s also something all of us do and on a fairly regular basis. Those that are best at conquering the impulse are those that also seem to be exceptional at integrating into foreign cultures such as the photographer who magically connects with locals or the social butterfly that drifts effortlessly from group to group.

As I reflected on the impulse, I became even more aware of when friends engaged it and when I started to reach for it. In many ways, it’s an extension of our fight or flight response. We differentiate ourselves from those around, based on our discomfort, as a social justification for leaving or for engaging in some mild conflict which in turn allows for our departure. In a complex social society where simply departing or casually integrating is rarely a purely unencumbered and simple action, it is an unfortunately resilient tool we are apt to fall back on.

Which is not to say that sometimes these complaints are less from discomfort and more genuinely from dislike or casual observation. If I were to somehow end up at a party, only to realize that it was in actuality largely populated by racist neo-Nazis, disdainful commentary and a desire to relocate as promptly as possible would be completely justified. And yet, even there, such commentary might lead to missed opportunities to learn though only through brief and limited conversation.

One of the life lessons travel has taught me is the value and power of accepting people in whatever context they exist, and then working to converse and engage with them at that level. It may not be at a level I find overly intellectually stimulating. They may not be people I otherwise respect. But, in even these most disparate of situations, there are often unusual gems which you can learn from and walk away with. There are opportunities to accept the context of the situation and to learn about what is important to that person.

Or alternatively, to let your sense of discomfort float, swallow your pride, and then engage in whatever the activity or venue is that has left you uncomfortable. Are you grossly out of place at a wine tasting? Stick it out, perhaps confess your ignorance, and seek to connect with the people around you instead of building walls and sending signals that create barriers. The same upon arrival in a dingy dive bar. Trade in your fancy cocktail for the low-quality beer on special, squeeze into a crowded booth and embrace the chaos, grunge, and simple charm of the moment. Ultimately you are the factor that decides if its a positive or negative experience and if you enjoy yourself or make yourself miserable. You, and only you.

When we do this, all along the spectrum, we avoid doing unnecessary harm to those around us who are either happily going about their own business, or who have opened up elements of their lives to us. We also push ourselves to expand our boundaries in a positive way.

When I do this, time and time again, I learn amazing new skills, meet new people with fascinating stories, gain insights otherwise impossible to reach, and often have a damn good time realizing how badly my defensive attempts at compensation led me to misjudge the situation. So what if I find myself in a college bar surrounded by freshly arrived, utterly naive, and somewhat obnoxious drunken international students? I’ll work to remind myself that perhaps that was me back in 2004 when I first came abroad. I’ll work to smile, to engage, not to grandpa them, or to make snide comments. Instead, I’ll work to recapture some of that naivete, to embrace the moment and to rekindle some of it in myself.

It is so, so, fundamentally easy for us to ruin moment after moment in our lives. We are constantly in control of how we experience life, the way we shape how events transpire, and whether we enjoy ourselves or not. So, instead of choosing to be uncomfortable, fearful, or aloof, often with little-to-no actual foundation, choose to embrace and immerse yourself in the moment. Accept that the trivial annoyances you’ve likely fallen back on as your defense mechanism are just that, and ultimately likely to reflect far more poorly on you than on whatever has you feeling uncertain.

Of course, this only works if you set boundaries and you know where yours are. There are times where disdain, dislike, or aloofness are justified. These, in particular, are when the situation brushes up against our boundaries or our ethics. While some boundaries are fantastic to push and expand, others are more fundamental to who we are and tied to our ethics something that should always be uncompromising and have the final say. But, to properly be able to use these as a litmus test, it’s important to clear away the coping mechanisms that otherwise obscure and limit us.

So now that a few years have passed, that I’m aware of this challenge and have actively worked to overcome it, how am I doing? Better. I wish I could say I’d abolished the behavior completely. The reality is, it’s still there and in instances where I’m far outside my comfort zone or mirroring the rest of the group I’m attached to, I will, at times, revert. It’s only human nature, and yet, I notice it when it happens and I am acutely annoyed by it. Not only because of my own personal failing to overcome it but because I know that I’m very likely doing unnecessary harm to those around me, shortchanging myself, and missing out on rich experiences.

All of this eventually boils down to that age-old adage be in the moment.

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