I think that I do such a good job of superficial social fakery that people don’t really understand the extent of my disability. I think they assume that they themselves are in an outer level of my social circle but that I have plenty of other people who are on more inner levels. But that really isn’t true.
Are you familiar with the social circle concept? I prefer the diagram in this post over the more common ones, which have the innermost circle as “family,” followed by “friends,” “acquaintances,” “service encounters,” and then “strangers” in the outermost ring. That one makes the assumption that your family relationships are the most intimate, and I know that I’m by far not the only case where this isn’t entirely true.
I have learned how to do the outer level, though even that had a steep learning curve for me. I can now have exchanges with wait staff, cashiers, and other service workers and appear pretty much normal. Since men are not expected to be friendly, chatty, and expressive by default, I am able to function on this level with the appearance that I’m just any random guy. Women seem to have to put in extra effort here because they are expected to be those things by default.
But this outer circle is where my ability to fake it ends. Normally, when you meet someone who you will see regularly, they move from the outer circle, Exchange, at the initial meeting to the next circle, Participation. This is because when you see someone regularly, you learn more and more about each other through interaction, and even if you do not connect with someone on the level where you might become friends, there is more intimacy than you have with someone who bags your groceries.
The only way I can function on this level–that is, to actively participate in non-scripted conversation with a person–is if I’m with one and only one other person. If there are two other people present, I cannot participate, because the conversation outpaces my ability to process what’s being said and formulate responses in time. By the time I’ve formulated a response in a conversation with more than one other person, it has moved on to other topics. So I just give up on participating and I either just listen or I focus on something else entirely. This is where I start to get the annoying, “You don’t talk much, do you?” comments.
Likewise, the only way I can function on the Friendship level–the third circle–is if I’ve had a long period of time during which I can interact with one person alone. Since this doesn’t generally happen, most of my friendships have originated online. The internet makes it easy to interact with another person where any mental processing delays aren’t noticeable. I have honestly never had a true friendship that didn’t originate online. The ones that originated offline are far more superficial and are simply due to having to be in the same place with another person for an extended period of time (such as school, dormitories, or work).
The number of people I have ever had in the innermost circle, Intimacy, I could count on my fingers. These include my mom, my grandma, my current partner, and a couple close friends. To get to this level requires an incredible amount of trust. This trust is hard to come by, because it’s difficult for me to tell if someone is sincere or if they are using me for some ulterior motive. It’s also difficult to gauge whether someone will make fun of me or dislike me for being myself, so I don’t relax into it most of the time.
When we were younger, I had a good relationship with my brothers, who are a decade younger than me. Over the years, though I still love them dearly and always will, we have drifted apart. This makes me sad, and I wonder if they think that I don’t care about them.
The reality is that I only ever see them during family gatherings. That means that I can’t ever engage with them one-on-one. It’s always in an environment where the entire extended family are present, there are several conversations going on at once, and generally the TV is on in the background as well. I’m lucky if I can even hear anything, let alone be able to process verbal conversation.
I think the assumption is that, like most people, when I go to a family gathering, I talk to people. But I don’t. Family gatherings, to me, involve me sitting there silently, completely unable to participate in much of anything besides eating. (And I don’t really care for eating with other people.)
On holidays, the tradition is that I am the last one to leave, because after everyone has left and my step-father has gone to bed, my mom and I are able to actually talk to each other. It’s literally the only interaction I have on those days beyond initial greetings.
When I am invited to a gathering, I know that, except when it’s my mom, it’s not because people actually want to see me. It’s simply because it would be rude not to invite me. No one actually invites me because they enjoy my company.
Now that I have learned to recognize depression, this sounds like a depressive thought. But it’s not. It’s simply a fact, and I’m not sad about it. It’s actually liberating, because I can decline without feeling overly guilty about it. I’d much rather stay at home by myself and work on my projects than sit silently with a group of people, feeling uncomfortable and making them feel uncomfortable.