There's someone in my program who I do feel kind of bad for. We worked together on a project last spring, when she was pretty isolated and lonely and I was believing my depression too much about how I didn't fit in here and no one liked me. So we were negative together and she seemed to come to the conclusion that we were best friends. Even though I found her really, really irritating. She was so needy and seemed to have no conception of boundaries or body language or social cues, and needed everything I said to her explained and justified. If I opened my email while we were in the computer lab, she would lean over in front of my computer as fast as she could to start reading it. When I asked her hey, could you not do that, all it did was start her giving me really passive-aggressive apologies about how she didn't mean to make me mad, she was just curious what I was doing, or thought that I was doing something related to the project and was confused.
This term she's in two of my three classes.
The first day she chased me down the hall after class because she wanted to ask me all about my Dana, the little word processor I take notes on. She'd already spent the first few minutes before class started peppering me with questions about why I'm still here when she thought I'd transferred.
The second day I ran into a friend of mine in the bathroom at break. We started chatting, and my wanna-be friend came in right as I was talking about how I just moved that past Monday. As soon as she heard, she exclaimed, "you moved again?" in the same tone of voice as if I'd said I had moved for the seventh time that past Monday, and immediately derailed the conversation I was already having because she needed the history of where I've lived explained to her.
After class, while I was waiting to talk to the professor, I happened to stand next to where this same lady was sitting. She saw me messing with my phone, so she basically interrogated me about my phone. I used to have a different phone, what happened to it? What kind is this one? When did I get this phone? What does it do? Why did I want a different phone? "I wanted one where I could read my email when I'm not near my computer," what, like when I'm on campus?
Then I was killing time in the computer lab with another friend while we waited for a meeting that didn't start until about an hour after class. About the time we started chatting about social networking sites we both use and the knitting groups here (since I knew this friend from knitting before I knew she was in my program), she came in and sat down next to us, and basically wanted to be caught up on and included in the conversation we were having. What? What are you guys talking about? What forums? I don't understand, what do you mean by [web community slang]? Pattern for what? Explain to me this really complicated site game you're talking about! Even when I would say, "we're just talking about a website we're both on," she still wanted it explained in detail so that she could tell us she doesn't knit. That turned into demanding to know all about what I knit.
I mean, I feel bad for being mean about her. She's sort of awkward and seems both very sheltered (last year I had to explain to her what LGBT stands for) and like she has trouble relating to other adults who didn't grow up the way she did. She's lonely and trying to make social connections; I can relate to that. And well, if she doesn't know I don't like her, I can't blame her for assuming I do. I keep going "...sure, yeah, we should get together sometime" because she needs someone to be kind to her and I'd rather be annoyed than be cruel. But my heart sank when I saw that she's in the class I picked up late, since now I have class with her every day I'm on campus. She stresses me out so bad, because I'm an intensely private person. My personal documents and my decisions and my interactions with other people are my own business, and having someone try to wring them out of me is really unpleasant for me.
To be fair, it isn't just her I have a problem with. I don't like telling people things about myself other than what I want them to know. It's none of their business. I get really touchy about people thinking they have the right to know about things I don't want to talk to them about. The doctor I was assigned to at the health center wanted to know all about the really mild and quickly treated cancer I'd had almost a year before I went there, and I kind of resented having to have the oncologist's records sent to her because I didn't think it was any of her damn business. I'm aromantic, but a big part of that is that I look at being in a romantic relationship with someone, and I see a relationship where I'm expected to tell someone about all my medical conditions and my personal secrets, and keep them updated as to all my plans and schedules for every minute of every day, and ... ugh. Nnnnooo thank you! I even ventured onto Facebook quite reluctantly because their "share everything with everyone! What do you have to hide?" attitude rubbed me the wrong way. I mean, I'm embarrassed for my Facebook friends to even know that I play Jurassic Park Builder.
In fact, I suppose the very way that our culture now sees sharing everything with anyone who wants to know because they want to know it as the normal thing to do stresses me out. The way that "that really isn't any of your business" is seen as a hostile statement stresses me out. It's nothing personal when I don't want to tell someone something about myself. I just want to be the one to choose what I let people know about myself. There's no angry or "I don't like you" involved most of the time. Mostly... I just play my cards very close to my chest. Because that's what I feel most comfortable doing. That's all it is. But there doesn't seem to be any socially acceptable way to say "I don't feel comfortable sharing that." At best it's going to lead into a conversation where I have to justify my discomfort, which really isn't any better. At worst I'm going to piss someone off or hurt someone's feelings, because people don't like it when you enforce boundaries on them, but "none of your business" or "why do you want to know?" seem to be taken as especially rude and personal. So the best I can do is try to give them really vague answers and try to be polite.
When I think about it, I'm not even sure of why I don't like telling people things I don't choose to tell them. There's no one single thing I can point to and say AND THAT IS WHY YOU DON'T DO THAT SHIT. Answering people's unwelcome questions makes me feel very exposed and self-conscious. The depression/anxiety cloud that everything filters through always makes me suspect that my answer will make me sound like some kind of bizarre/horrible/stupid person and will make people who hear it get upset at/think things about/laugh at/gossip about/pity/judge me. Maybe I don't like the way that people who ask all these questions my brain reads as nosy are trying to force their way into a more intimate relationship than I want with them. I don't mind telling people about myself when I trust them enough. By demanding that I tell them things I wouldn't otherwise, people are also demanding the trust that they won't abuse the knowledge, or that people they might tell it to won't. There might be a little bit of control freak at work; they're taking my control over who gets access to whatever they want to know about me out of my hands and I don't like it. Then, too, well, once bitten, twice shy. When people start asking me questions that have led to bad places with other people in the past--even things that seem innocuous like "what church do you go to?" or "do you have a boyfriend?"--I automatically get wary. Having "no, I'm not seeing anyone now" turn into probing questions about the very personal details of my flavor of QUILTBAG because they just want to understand (or about why I don't want to go out with their awful friend who happens to also be single) isn't something I feel like doing more often than I have to. And then there's just the thing where it's my time and if I don't want to spend it telling someone everything the Samsung Galaxy III does, I shouldn't have to.
One of the other things that bugs me being so private is the way people conflate being willing to share private things with caring about people or being friendly. If I don't tell someone something, it's not because I don't care about them. Being willing to share private information with someone doesn't have much to do with whether or not I want to be friends with them. Most of the parties I go to here are either hosted by friends from the knitting group or the NaNoWriMo group, and the vast majority of things I talk about with them is just nerd chatter. I've told the writing folks barely anything about myself beyond what I write and what I'm studying, really, and I still like them a lot. I got so pissed off at Mom during the whole mild cancer thing because she wanted to tell everyone she knew about it, and I didn't think that pretty much anyone except her, Dad, and the doctors needed to know. Whenever I would hear her chattering to someone on the phone about the gory details of the diagnosis and go "Jesus Christ, Mom, don't tell people that! Who are you even talking to?" her answer was always "but [such and so] cares about you!" That's fine. They're perfectly welcome to care. My naked body parts are still none of their business. It doesn't mean that I don't care about them if I don't want them to know the whole store, it means... my naked body parts are none of their business. "Caring" is not an all-access pass to everything someone wants to know.
But I don't want this to all just be a bunch of bitching. So these are the things I wish that people would think about before they started trying to drag information out of people who don't want to share it with them:
Think about how much you have to know the thing you have to know.
This is a little different class of questions than what I've been talking about. One of the things I dislike about writing on the Alphasmarts I've had is that about three out of five times I go write in public, someone is going to come up and interrupt me because they just have to know what that thing is I'm writing on. Seriously, Alphasmart should pay me a sales commission. They're usually not satisfied with "it's a word processor," either. They have lots of questions about how it works and why I use it. It happens a lot when I'm knitting, too. Meanwhile, I just want to get back to the project I'm working on. The way the interruption is usually phrased is something like "I'm sorry, I saw you and I just had to ask..." No, no you didn't. Their lives will continue whether they know about the Alphasmart or not. Meanwhile, I've been jerked out of the train of thought I had for whatever I wast writing or editing, or maybe stitches I was counting, or a chart I was trying to read. Depending on how complicated it was, it might take me a little bit to figure out where I was and get back into it. The professor I'm waiting to talk to might leave in the time I'm talking to you about my phone. If someone looks like they have something they're already doing, leave them alone. If you really, really want to know, Google is your friend. "Because I want to know/I'm curious" is not a good enough reason to try to make someone talk to you when they don't want to. Even if you're fascinated and want to know all the details, they still get to choose how much they want to share with you.
Likewise, what difference does it make whether or not you "understand" what they're talking about. It's one thing if they're speaking complete gibberish and you have to ask them to rephrase. But if they're talking about something that's outside your frame of reference, is it really important that this person be the one to make it all clear for you? You can be curious about something without needing someone to be your personal 101 course in it. If you're asking a lot of "why/how did you...?" and "what do you mean by thing-you-just-said?" questions, you could be edging up on sensitive territory (or just plain getting annoying). It's one thing if they're telling you a wacky story about some exceptional hijinks that happened; people tend to expect to be asked questions about things like that. But if it's just "well, I haven't talked to my mom in a while" or "I moved here about six months ago" or mundane things like that, you don't need all the details.
Let them lead.
The thing about being private? It doesn't mean I don't want to talk to anyone about anything. It doesn't even mean I don't want to talk about fairly personal things. I'm perfectly willing to tell people that I'm queer. I'm perfectly willing to tell other non-straight people that by "queer" I mean bisexual and genderqueer. I'll tell friends of mine who are interested (and, well, the Internet now) that I identify more as male than female.
I am not willing to tell curious straight people the whole "Man, Han Solo, he's fiiine as ten-year-old kids understand the concept! Princess Leia... wow, Princess Leia, I like looking at her even though I don't quite understand these feels. And then um, Parminder Nagra in "Bend It Like Beckham" and Amy Brenneman on "Judging Amy" ten or twelve years later? Yeah, I think I understand those feels now. Boy do I understand those feels now. Ha ha, family TV time just turned awwwkward!" story just because they ask. Knowing the whole How I Came Out back story makes no difference to anything and shouldn't affect how they interact with me. They don't need to know. I don't want to try to explain to them that I don't know, I've just never really felt very much like a girl or liked the things girls are supposed to like because it's hard enough for me to get my head around it right now, and I'm not their fricking learning tool or Tolerant Liberal bingo square.
Someone who is protective of their privacy generally has a good idea when they're talking to someone of how much they're willing to share with that person. They'll talk about it without anyone having to drag it out of them. That person who hasn't talked to their mom in a while or just moved here? If they want you to know it, they'll probably tell you the reason themselves. If tell you less than you want to know about a topic or they try to change the subject, let them. It's a less awkward conversation, and at least for me, I've found I tend to tell someone more when they let me contribute what I want to the conversation than when they're to pull what they want out of me. If you find yourself having to ask lots of questions to find out what you want to know, it might be time to talk about something else. If it's someone you're getting to know over time, be patient with them. They'll be more open with you the more they come to trust you, but trying to force them to talk about things they aren't comfortable sharing with everyone is not going to help matters.
Fewer, broader, questions are better. Participation is important too.
I've felt a little hypocritical the whole time I've been writing this since I'm an introvert who does a good impression of an extrovert. Awkward silences tweak my social anxiety worse than small talk, so I tend to default to "So! Tell me about you!" type questions when I've run out of things to talk about with someone I don't know. And when I do that for very long, I worry that I'm asking them too many questions about things that they don't want to talk about and making them uncomfortable.
A whole bunch of questions about yourself without the other person seeming to contribute equally about themselves can be intimidating. Conversation is give and take, not an interview.
Ask one question at a time. Give them a little time once they've answered in case they want to say something on their own instead of jumping into the next question. React to what they're saying and put yourself out there as much you're asking them to--"oh yeah, me too! This one time, I..."--instead of just moving on to the next thing you want to ask them. Don't point the topic directly at them. "You just moved here? How do you like it so far?" is a much less threatening question than "You just moved here? Where did you move from? Why?" It's not about them, really, it's about the place they live. It gives you the opportunity to talk about the things you like about where you live so that you aren't just interrogating them. Even if you are talking mostly about them, something like "What do you do? Oh, what's that like?" gives them way more leeway in choosing what they want to tell you than quizzing them about where they work.
If someone doesn't want to talk to you about what you're asking? Drop it.
Unless you're a paramedic and you're asking about the drugs they're allergic to or something like that, chances are you don't have to know the answer to your question. Those people who want to know about the Alphasmart usually first try to get my attention by standing nearby and excusing themselves. "Excuse me... Excuse me! ...excuuuuse me! Um, hello! ...Hey! Excuse me!" Some of them will come up and grab my arm or shake my shoulder because I didn't respond to them yelling at me. A lot of times I legitimately don't hear them at first, since I listen to music on headphones while I'm writing and depending on where I am, the place can be loud. But really, if someone who's working on something hasn't responded to you after the first couple attempts to get their attention, is it still that important to have your question answered? Let it go.
Likewise, it isn't that hard to tell when someone doesn't want to talk about something. If someone gives you answers with phrases like "oh... it isn't really that important, just," hesitates a lot, or simply very concise answers, they don't want to talk to you about that. Accept it and move on. "I don't like talking about this" has pretty obvious body language when you know it, too. If someone looks around a lot while you're talking to them or otherwise doesn't maintain eye contact, starts to face away from you, or their posture has gone tense and awkward, they don't want to talk to you and you're making them uncomfortable. It's time to back off. There's plenty to talk about other than things that make them squirm, even if it's just small talk. "Hey, do you watch 'Sherlock?' Have you seen Season 3 yet?", things like that. Or give them a second and see where they want to take the conversation. And if they say "well, so it was good talking to you, but..." let them go. It's not personal against you, it's that what feels like a barrage of unexpected personal questions can be off-putting or even upsetting and they might need some breathing room to get their conversational equilibrium back.
I think it boils down to being aware of people's boundaries and being willing to leave well enough alone. Other people's might be different than yours, but that isn't a value judgement on anyone. It doesn't mean someone doesn't like you if theirs are different. I think that this is one of the places where introverts and people who are very private are quite similar: Some people just have different comfort zones. Just try to respect that, and you'll get along fine.