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What does it mean to know somebody?

How well can you know somebody?

No, seriously, think about it.  How well do you know everyone in your life?  Think of the person you consider your best friend.  Or people, if you’re one of those wierdos who has more than one best friend.

What’s their favorite color?  What was their fondest childhood memory? What were their first words?  What do they think about the fact that blue is a more soothing color than red?  Do they care about golf? Does anyone? How many instruments can they play?  Would they save a bug if they saw it drowning in a puddle?  What do they think about when they’re putting on their socks?

The point isn’t really whether or not you can answer any of the above questions or even all of them.  The point isn’t raw informative content—that’s something we get far too much of as it is in our society.

The point is, no matter whether or not you can answer the above questions, there are always more informational questions that can be asked.  Even if you spend every day with a person who continually talks about themselves, to really, completely ‘know’ somebody in an empirical sense, you would have to rehash every minute of their existence with them—which would be impossible, because only about five people in the world can remember every minute of their existence.

So we can’t really know anyone, not on a purely informational level.  Does that stop us from assuming we do? Not in the slightest.  Think about the people in your social circle.  If you’re like me, your social circle trades stories and jokes about one another, tell stories of highly complex behaviors that usually surprise no one.  If we can’t know people, speaking from the point of view of raw information, then how can we talk about them with such confidence?

One answer is in face or persona.  We all present a certain fragment of our self to the world, intentionally or not.  We give certain impressions, say things that might not perfectly mesh up with our beliefs.  We create a rapid sketch of ourselves in any social interaction, a rough web of details—what we look like, how we feel today, how we talk and the way we respond to people.  But these sketches don’t exist in a vacuum.

From the very first instant of your interaction with a person, you create your own sketch based on your impressions of them.  What they’re wearing.  What they look like.  How they talk.  How they carry themselves.  How easily they express emotional states, and how quickly they pick up on yours.  All of these details that you don’t even consciously process go into your first impression.  A few are rejected and some are confirmed in the second impression.  And though you may not interact much with the person after that, when you think about them or talk about them you are making judgments based (in part) upon the impression of them that you have both constructed.

Does this mean that we are eternally alone, wandering a cold empty void speaking to figments of our imagination, shadows of strangers that we can never know?

Fortunately not.

Because regardless of how well you know a person, unless you are a sociopath or otherwise devoid of empathy you are capable of forging an emotional connection with someone.

What does that mean?  ‘Emotional connection’ is a phrase lots of people throw around.  But what does it really signify? Can I even create a description of an emotional connection?

Well, I’m gonna try.

To make an emotional connection with a person means, among other things, that you give them your undivided attention.  Now, this is certainly not the only thing you have to do, but it is a key point.  Put down the cell phone, stop swordfighting, close the browser, whatever, and make sure they know that they are the center of your focus.  There will be a notable shift in the tone of the conversation when you engage with someone in this way—when you lean forward and listen intently without distraction.  Don’t stare glassy-eyed at them—that becomes creepy after a while.  And don’t just look at them and zone out—people can usually tell when that happens, even if it’s only on an unconscious level.

Pretend they’re a very interesting television show, and you’re trying to watch it on a small laptop, so you have to lean in to hear the sound.

All right, now that you’re only paying attention to them, observe them.  Not in a creepy way.  Stop it.  What is their facial expression?  How are they holding themselves?  How energetic do they seem to be?  Don’t bother trying to make judgments or interpretations of these things at first.  Just observe them.  The ability to interpret them will come with practice.  Or that’s what I hear, anyway.  I’m still waiting, myself.

Listen to what they’re saying.  What’s the informative content of the sentence? How are they expressing that information? Are there any oddities in their discourse?  Again, don’t try to judge, just listen, and I mean really listen.

And most importantly, don’t think about any of this.  These are guidelines to get you into an emotional connection, a process that should take about as long as it takes you to look up.  Once that conversation starts, throw all of this shit out the window and just be there.  Listen to them.  Ask them how they’re feeling.  Presumably you have an interest in them as a person, so learn about them as a person.

Get to know everyone all over again every day, because no matter how well you know them, there’s always something more.  

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2 Comments

  1. Someday you’re going to write the most fabulous novel ever to exist. And it will become a best-seller on it’s own merits, not because of advertising. And the world will read it, and understand the issues of life a little better for it.


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