They’re everywhere, I tell you, misunderstood geniuses and wolves in sheep’s clothing. The former, naturally, are a self-identifying group and the latter generally people who pose as, and more often than not, sincerely believe themselves to be, benign when they are in reality malignant. And it amazes me yet more profoundly to note how many humans manage to occupy the intersecting subset. A veritable embarrassment of riches, I say.The Misunderstood Genius [MG] sorts I have known range from those with certifiably stratospheric IQs to folk I would deem more simply ‘certifiable‘, yet the number fitting into the truly brilliant bunch continually astonish me with their ability to be fantastically endowed with intelligence and ignorant or downright stupid in perfect simultaneity. The clear and incessantly demonstrated fact is that a high IQ has nothing to do with self-awareness, social skills, political acumen or just plain being right. While MGs are busy nursing their indignation over being ignored and repressed, made the scapegoat, under-appreciated, envied, maltreated and squelched by their personal versions of The Man, and muttering imprecations into their shiny academic loving-cups, their supposed inferiors are burnishing less impressive tools to get something real accomplished or merely live life.Meanwhile, since the universe would so clearly be better (!) if it accepted MGs’ greatness, these people tend to see themselves as benefactors of the universe, if not its modest deities. Being misapprehended and under-admired is not proof, after all, that one isn’t fabulous. This is where the intersection of neglected magnificence and false-faced kindliness is nurtured. While there is a whole range of persons who present themselves as sweet and cuddly and kindhearted and are anything-but, right on up to full-blown sociopaths, there is this weird zone within it that is the dwelling place of those who think themselves unfairly ostracized or disliked. Whether they do so consciously or not, it seems to me that many MGs also build up quite a repertoire of acts wherein they play at sympathetic and philanthropic and other deliciously, invitingly admirable roles, all the while keeping a hand free to check on the availability of their ‘concealed carry’. It’s not only the guy in the clock tower that’s picking off passersby with his rifle but, more often, the one armed only with attitude that picks off everyone around, one chip of the communal atmosphere of support and collegiality and congeniality at a time.
Adjusting the Balance of Powers
I make no pretense of refinement,
Charm-school graces, savoir-faire—
I’m no more mannered than a monkey
Picking cooties from its hair—
In fact, I’d never boast of
Attributes I’d likely waste,
Having little use or need for
Proving further I’ve great taste
Than I did when I selected
You as partner, lover, mate;
All alone, that one maneuver
Proved my social skills are great,
Even if the sorry outcome
On your side is to undo
Any special social standing
it often seems their taste’s opined
as front-ular or back-ular,
and chicks who eye them back with leers
and rudeness too vernacular,
also choose looks, though dudes’ hearts bite
as badly as though Dracula-r.
How can they stand their standards thus
and stoop to stupid gravity
that pulls them down to lower lows
of foolishness, depravity
and such devotion to slick looks
that any cranial cavity‘s
acceptable, as long as ‘hot’
and needs no jot of suavity?
Must we accept only the slinky,
cute, or babe-a-licious?
Such flimsy taste is quite a waste,
and creepingly pernicious
when all the future of mankind
becomes so superstitious
as to attach to looks and limbs
Mom has taught me a whole lot of things. One of the most useful is how to turn one of my most frustrating shortcomings into a strength. It’s a skill I’ll still spend the rest of my life polishing, but having been taught the basics, I know what I need to practice, and that is a tremendous boost.
My lifelong shyness and social anxiety rose to a not-at-all-surprising high level when I started college. The small university I attended was hardly an unknown element to me, as my parents and a couple of other relatives, as well as some friends, had attended there and my older sister was already starting her junior year there when I arrived. But being predisposed to fear and intimidation as my responses to all social situations, I was guaranteed to struggle with extra doses of my old hauntings by the terrors of interpersonal experience in the new to me surroundings, with a roommate I met the day we moved in to our shared dormitory space, all new classmates, new teachers and administrators and a neighborhood where I’d never more than visited briefly before.
For the most part, I muddled through just as I’d done since I was old enough to know how to be afraid of new people and situations, and even had, as always, plenty of the enjoyment I was capable of having. I did acquire a number of grand new friends, including my roommate, who turned out to be a fantastic companion and like-minded girl. I took classes that challenged and intrigued me and I dragged up enough courage to participate in some events and extracurricular activities that broadened my scope significantly. I was surrounded in my living quarters in an all-female dorm by a cadre of terrific young women who bolstered my puny sense of self and cheered me on like the best of good neighbors.
But one day, as the first year progressed, I was visiting informally with a handful of those girls and we got into a discussion (as college coeds still often do, from what I’ve seen) about First Impressions. One of the girls, to whom I will be eternally grateful, let it slip that on first meeting me she had thought, and had since learned that others had too, that I was Stuck Up. That’s the simple classification among my tribe of someone who thinks herself superior to others and disdains and dismisses them. I was dumbstruck.
She went on, hastily, to add that on getting to know me she had realized that the reason I often refused invitations, that I didn’t look people in the eye, and that I evaded interactions and conversations instead expressed a defensive retreat into my giant ossified shell of shyness and my fear of all things new and unknown and that, in fact, she and others really enjoyed my company. That was some consolation, but realizing through her honesty that I projected an image far less benign and far more distancing than I guessed, I knew I’d have to somehow wrest my way out of the armor I’d built around myself and at the very least learn to act the part of someone with social skills even if I didn’t have them.
Naturally, I went whimpering off to Mom. And she surprised me by going beyond the sympathetic and consoling mother needed in the conversation. I’d never imagined that this person I’d always known as having not only a mother’s authority but a certain status as both the recognized Favorite Mom among all of my friends over the years and a kind of built-in First Lady of all of the organizations in which she participated, not least of all as the pastor’s wife–that she had another side, one not so entirely different from my own. That she had been deeply intimidated by being expected to play the roles of guide, hostess, chief female church member, community do-gooder and cheerleader, and all of the other philanthropic and social leadership parts inherently assumed by others to be part of her place in the world. And that, when Dad was busy being the speaker, preacher, chairman, boss and whatever his role of the moment happened to be, she was stuck in meetings and receptions and services and classes full of strangers who expected her to carry not only her own weight but that of whatever they thought was required for the occasion.
I almost wilted, thinking of what it must have been like for her.
But then she imparted the piece of wisdom that ‘cracked the case’ for me. I got the MacGuffin: social anxiety and extreme shyness assume that I am the center of the universe. That the rest of the world is watching me and is dependent on my doing or being certain things for its success and happiness. And that I am suffering the most for the cause. She put it in much more tactful terms, I’m quite certain, given that I was a flimsy excuse for an ego, a fragile not yet twenty year old still unable to see my path in everyday life clearly.
I think what she really told me (from which I extrapolated the above) was the incredibly handy ‘trick’ she’d learned for coping with all of these unreasonable social and activist demands. When you arrive, immediately look for the one person in the room more uncomfortable and more out of place than you. Even when you’re absolutely sure it’s not possible, there’s always someone more scared, more intimidated, more inexperienced or at the very least, who thinks that they are. It’s true, by the way; I’ve seen it proven over and over since. Go and gently introduce yourself and ask this person about him- or herself. Make this person the most interesting part of your life while you’re there.
That’s it, really. Suddenly, it’s not my job to be perfect or achieve the goals of the event or even to be interesting or brave; it’s my job to make another scared person feel more welcome and at ease. I don’t have to spend any energy on worrying about how I look to others or whether I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, because nobody with an ounce of sense is going to argue that taking care of someone in need isn’t what we’re all supposed to be doing, that recognizing that there’s someone whose need is greater than our own isn’t precisely the most attractive thing we can accomplish, and that a friendly smile isn’t the most fashionable item anyone can wear for any occasion.
I fall down on this effort often enough, still, and do my well practiced imitation of an additional pillar holding up the dimmest corner of the room. I haven’t Saved anyone else from the brink of doom through my heroic attempts to cheer them up for a half hour. I still have impressive dramatic skills in making faux pas and pratfalling my way through the day and then doing my best to make the earth swallow me whole.
But afterward, I remember to quit imagining myself the cynosure of Creation, let go of my need to be correct and impressive and likable and spend my energies on helping someone who doesn’t know Mom’s useful little technique to feel more correct and impressive and likable. I will put on my shiny smile and play the role of somebody better than me and hope that someday, if I practice it hard enough, it will become second nature and I won’t even have to work at it at all. It makes me smile just thinking about it.
If you happen to be headed to yet another office holiday party or first-of-the-year reception any time soon, you can test this theory yourself. Thank my mom. Or, if you happen to subscribe to a certain story that is commemorated on this very night, thank the Person who became most vulnerable of all in order to protect and rescue everybody weaker.
Mediocre former students and coworkers asking you for letters of reference; children accustomed to getting high-fives and stickers just for showing up; performers fishing for compliments on their less than stellar performance; the doctor with a hideous bedside manner who did your lifesaving surgery; that overeager blind date who thought you’d made a Love Connection. You’ve met ‘em. There are times in all of our lives when we’re called upon to pass judgement that’s expected to be complimentary (if not worshipful) and what we truly want to say is, well, the truth.
So I’m thinking one needs a handy resource, a nice innocuous sounding collection of pseudo-affirmative responses that allows for not clamming up in refusal to respond when asked the fateful question–but without having to resort to full disclosure. Sense that you’re about to be hit up? Whip out that magic list and take your pick of pretend-affirmations and you’re home free. You can smile sweetly, pronounce your kindly evasion, and skate off smoothly before anyone knows what’s hit him. Life should be so sanitary.
How could I go about this, I wonder. Let’s see, we could start with the easy answer-with-a-non-answer method, you know, the one where you go backstage and forestall the request for details with “I’ve never heard anything like that before!”, which if said with a gleaming flash of every tooth in your head in the credible imitation of an awestruck smile has a certain impenetrable nearness to a compliment. The cool thing with this one is, should guilt try to sneak in on your conscience, you can remind yourself that you are truly in awe (as long as you, hopefully, are never called upon to say of what). While I’m mentioning credibility, there’s that classic “critique” where all you say with that glorious grin is “Incredible!”–scrupulously true without your having to commit aloud to what lacked credibility.
But really, shouldn’t there be an opportunity here for a few style points? I must cogitate upon it. Feel free to chip in to the cause if you have some outstanding face-savers for such occasions.
“Gentlemen, I cannot recommend this student highly enough to your program.” Really, I can’t.
“Her performance in my class was absolutely unique in my twenty years of teaching experience.” I’ve never had anyone else stay so well below the bottom possible marks so much of the time.
“I’ve never worked with anyone else that operated the office microwave so flawlessly.” The complete sleight-of-hand or misdirect is probably the only safe route when there is no possible positive performance-related thing to be said about the person in question. On that note, I do know that it’s at least as much about what’s unsaid as what’s said that makes any of these interchanges work.
For example, “I’ve been on pins and needles for ages waiting for the opportunity to tell someone what an amazing person she is and how worthy of your hiring!” Why muddy that up with the purely optional clarification that you’ve been dying for the opportunity to offload this human piece of debris on some other unwary employer? Or the fateful replacement of “how” with “not”, which, while equally true, would only be likely to cloud the issue, n’est-ce pas?
Children generally have frighteningly sensitive crap-o-meters, so one does have to tread carefully when asked for upbeat commentary by a kid. Perhaps one can evade the issue with bold diversionary tactics, particularly those involving a high sugar content or permission to play video games obsessively for an hour. If that’s not feasible, it’s best to find some way to put a positive spin on a bit of the act or art in question, no matter how miniscule the opening offered. “Honey, that is unquestionably the hugest green thing I have ever seen you draw. And without a crayon, too!” On this occasion, it’s probably a good idea to make sure you get the rest of the artistic medium blown out of the young artist’s left nostril while offering the affirmation, so as not to have the artwork become part of an ongoing series.
With older artists, one might be safer heading off the complimentary fishing expedition with the introduction of a competing topic the artist can love, such as his distinctive artistic process. It’s probably not polite, unless you and present-company are pretty darn familiar with each other (and then I’d just ask why prevarication is required anyway) what he was smoking, or whether he feels his current meds influence his work significantly. “How do you come up with your ideas?” has been done to death, but maybe a good twist on it can work. Let’s see: “Do you find that visual or tactile influences play a larger role in your practice?” By avoiding the obvious sensory connections yet remaining in a satisfyingly subjective realm, you open the door for all kinds of rambling through the meadows of self-examination and evaluation. You could be out of danger by now.
But wait! Here comes Dr. Beastly to collect your fawning kudos on his stellar work despite his having browbeat you within an inch of your life through the entire process leading up to your surgery and then proceeded to terrorize both you and your caregivers right through the recovery room and into the exiting wheelchair. I realize that in this instance there is an almost overwhelming temptation to save your savagery for his bank account, considering that it’s yet one more area in which he abused you highly, or perhaps to just let fly on the spot with a fusillade of foreign terms best used for different kinds of bodily reference. But in your heart (which he might have just helped fix) you know that there’s a slight chance you might have to call on him for further tuneups. So if a simple “I appreciate your not having killed me” won’t do, perhaps you could try “I will make sure everyone I know hears about what you’ve done here.” For me, to me, whatever. They will be hearing all about you!
Very few are the happy folk that have never suffered through a blind date or one that made them wish they were blind, deaf, and completely insensate. The worst are the sort of dates where it’s clear at the end of the expedition that the person you’re with had such a different view of the occasion that you are fairly certain you were in separate dimensions at the time. How to let Desmond Delusional down gently–while still assuring that he understands the finality of this transaction? Delusions do die hard, you know. Being too nice leaves room for persistence. Feigning one’s own death has often proven awkward in its complications.
I tend to prefer actual tact in this instance, because I am beyond certain that I was the not-so-dreamy date in question at least somewhere along the line in my dating career. Odds on it. So when I came up against an over-enthusiastic would-be suitor myself, I chose to find wriggle room for second date escaping in as realistic a way as possible each time. I didn’t date much altogether, unsurprisingly–but I congratulate myself that it was because I had a pretty good idea of what I was and wasn’t looking for in a date and didn’t care to settle: when the right guy appeared on my doorstep I got right in gear and bulldozed on into his life. I’d tell you to ask him how to fend off unwanted advances from a lunatic lover, but he’s clearly not the guy for the job, since he married me.
Sometimes it’s nice to actually be nice. Just in case.
What, you think just because I spend inordinate time hunting for ways to get away with saying unsavory things to unsuspecting people, I’m not just a sweetie underneath the hard crust?