I have a love-hate relationship with advice columns. I love them because they prove that other people out there have the same problems I do (albeit usually in a more extreme version), but I hate them because they make me feel like I’m rubbernecking at a crash scene, somehow getting comfort or enjoyment out of the fact that I’m not the one in such dire straits. The addition of reader comments to online columns only makes this phenomenon that much more potent; now the general public can also play judge and jury to those desperate enough to write to a total stranger for advice. Sometimes it makes me nostalgic for the old days, you know, when Abby or Ann had the last word.
What makes these comment sections so insidious is that they seem to draw mostly those on polar opposites of a certain question; the vitriol and intentional misunderstanding on both sides often makes me cringe. Alas, this is also what makes them fun to read! But after taking in so many comments by wannabe advice-givers, I have to stop and remind myself that no one making these comments has the full story. They are only guessing, based on the letter writer’s account, which may be further edited by the columnist, at where the real problem lies. For that reason, I’ve stopped reading these comments as attempts at helping or admonishing the letter writer, but more as an indication of the state of that particular person’s soul. What are they reading into the story based on their own experiences that makes them so passionate about this topic?
All this was going through my head as I re-read a column written by Cary Tennis, the advice columnist on Salon.com. I had saved the link to this column, which originally ran last March, because it seemed pertinent to introvert-related discussions. The basic story is that a woman was incensed because her best friend’s husband, whom she has known for forty years, recently made some comments to her that she found highly insulting (you can read more of the details in the column). The letter writer summed up his comments as follows:
He told me that he was having a difficult time being in my company. I said that after all these years you are telling me this? After that he continued: I make noises and cackle, I laugh too loud, I’m offensive, I’m too boisterous, and maybe I should walk around with a microphone to hear myself. And to add more insult, as if this were not enough, he noted that friends of theirs also have difficulty in my company.
All in all, written from her perspective, these comments seem very hurtful and not very constructive. However, going with my theory that the reader isn’t getting the full story, I wonder how the situation felt to the man who made the comments. I have to say, being an introvert, and having known many people who seem to suck the air out of a room without realizing the effect they are having on other people (only a small subset of extroverts by the way), my sympathies naturally lie with the best friend’s husband. And as to her question about why it’s taken him so long to express his discomfort, I can easily understand why he might have been hesitant to mention anything to her. As most introverts know, it just isn’t done. You don’t get to call someone on their “boisterous” behavior, no matter its effect on you, because you might hurt that person’s feelings when they are only “expressing their personality.” If you do, you risk having your own preferences questioned and belittled, as many of the comments on this column went on to illustrate.
Not knowing either of the people involved, the majority of the commenters (apart from a few brave souls who expressed sympathy for the possibly introverted man) felt free to make harsh judgments about this woman’s “tormentor,” insinuating that he is insensitive, has a problem with women, is anti-social, leads a pitiful little life, even going so far as to imply that his mental faculties are eroding as he gets older. Even Cary Tennis, the columnist, gets in on the act of bashing this man for his behavior. Maybe he knows something we don’t, but based on what was available, I don’t think all this vociferousness was justified. I don’t agree with the manner in which this man made his comments, but I can identify with the level of frustration he may have been feeling. As one of the more thoughtful commenters noted, if it was insensitive for him to bring up his grievances after all these years, she was equally insensitive in not realizing the effect her behavior had on him for the same number of years.
As I said earlier, I believe that we bring to these modern fables our own experiences which color our reactions. I will admit up front that I am usually more sympathetic to the introvert in these types of situations (within limits of course). But I don’t yet know how to answer the bigger question this raises: how do we as introverts make space for ourselves without lashing out in frustration (as this man seemed to do)? Is there a constructive way to tell someone they’re bothering you?