I hear this when you say that

It seems I’ve been in a lot of fruitless arguments lately about terms.  Sometimes these are turns of phrase, but more often they are technical terms that escaped into general use, and are contested territory, at least to some.  Names for social movements, psychological diagnostic terms, things like that.  Lately I’ve been more quibbler than quibblee, but it amazes me on reflection how much time is taken up by what are often misunderstandings.  I don’t think there is much I can do about it except change myself, that is, remind myself not to be caught up in it.  Just adapt to people’s use of language, be prepared at a moment’s notice to change terminology myself, even if the term I was using was precious to me, and check always the impulse to react emotionally to word choice as if it were intended, unless it obviously was and perhaps even then.  It seems this capacity to use many ways of saying whatever I would say is something a writer ought to be able to do and take pride in doing.

Nonetheless, the problem of malice raises its head constantly.  “How can that not be meanly meant?” is my reflex.  Part of my problem is with the social dynamic of needling.  I realize that I just detest it; I always associate it with bullying and with the abuse of power or privilege.  Now, huge numbers of people do not have this association at all, or feel the threshold, where it goes over the line into bullying, is a lot higher than where I would put it–on the floor.  Such people are confused and taken aback by my reactions, by my rather sudden hostility, because incredible though it seems to me, they actually mean to express familiarity and affection by it.  They are aware of boundaries, of course.  Relatively few people needle constantly and casually, without regard to whom they’re talking to; the more usual occurrence is that someone gets familiar with me, senses that we seem to have enough in common, values and knowledge, that we might become familiar.  Seen from that point of view, it’s an overture of affection.  It amazes and depresses me just to reflect on that.  I must have rebuffed hundreds of people in my life, just because of this basic misunderstanding.  From their point of view, it must look like I’m signaling that I prefer a more formal relation, that I’m rejecting, probably with personal animus, a closer bond with them.  Au Contraire!  The degree to which I hunger for affection and companionship, from most people I have much in common with, would be hard to exaggerate.

Yet I wonder.  I obviously enjoy satire, wit, jokes often at my own expense.  I have had exactly the kind of intimacy I’m always searching for, from people who seem to have no trouble not doing this thing that gets to me.  From this I infer that it shouldn’t be hard at all, that I’m unlikely to be the only person sensitive to this that people have ever met, that in fact my feelings are rather common.  So what’s left? where do I think the problem lies?  There appear to be lots of people for whom real camaraderie requires this needling, or is greatly facilitated by it.  Men particularly appear to often have a special need for such memberships, for at least one group characterized by this style of discourse.  There do seem to be many activities and occupations where not just tolerance, but fondness for this style is a virtual prerequisite.  Of all of that, of the apparent real affection for which it is the normal means of expression, I appear to be utterly disabled, and instinctively, destructively hostile.

7 Responses to “I hear this when you say that”

  1. Di Kotimy Says:

    This is a really thought provoking post — this needling of which you speak is so instinctively my “familiar” style. I catch myselsf thinking at times — as your post here reinforces! — that maybe I need to tone it down a bit. But then, plenty of of people seem to respond favorably. Perhaps most notably people in positions of superiorty, which is rather perplexing…

  2. idontpay Says:


    Family style is an important origin of it. My family, and my wife’s are very jokey and facetious, given to leg-pulling and the spinning of improbable but authoritative and plausible-sounding explanations for things. But neither of us can stand what I’m talking about here. It’s what seems to me to be the “taking down a peg,” the kidding about the personal, that I’ve not ever been able not to, well, hate. As I hope I convey here, many people are just different about this, and easily joke about each other’s courage, or honesty, or their private parts. If you had tried that with me, the best will in the world would still not be able to recover to where I thought we were before it.

    Did you grow up doing this? Did you do it with your brothers and sisters? How does one know, from the earliest age, not to take this seriously, in fact to hear almost the opposite of what’s said, or at the very least, be in no obvious way hurt by it? I honestly don’t know.

    And what you say about people responding favorably exactly mirrors my experience of people responding favorably to my style. What it hurts to think is that both of us are miscommunicating, even insulting people who might be our friends.

  3. idontpay Says:

    Di: Can you send me an email?

  4. Di Kotimy Says:

    I’ll show you mine if you show me yours… E-mail that is. I hate to post an address on the net for all the world. My absurdly paranoid side…

    I agree, family style is a big factor. There are plenty of others. I think certain people in positions of authority tend to respond favorably when I get my wise-ass hat on because (1) they probably get tired of all the people who think they are scary doing the hard core ass-kissing thing all the time, (2) it gives them the assurance/illusion that they haven’t lost touch with the little people in thier rise to power. It’s, of course, most well-received when it’s clearly in jest — ribbing the guy who puts in 80+ a week for being a slacker is a nice, non-suck-up way of, uh, sucking up.

    I will confess — I do slip into the bringing down a peg humor from time to time, too. I think there are two variants. One, “picking on” a personal quirk as a means of saying, “You really don’t need to be so concerned by this.” Example, a friend who obsessively counts calories/fat/carbs/points. Works out, exercises, is generally in good (if not perfect) shape. So I’ll “pick on” the healthy eating as a way of saying, “You’re not fat, you don’t need to be so worried about your body image.” So that variant of needling is indeed a gesture of affection, an effort to help someone take their own insecurities a little less seriously and feel more comfortable with themselves. (Not sure this is an effective strategy — this is really the first time I’ve given it conscious thought!)

    The other side is probably the side you are talking about, and I can see why it would make you crazy — “joking” in a manner that is really a passive-aggressive means of taking shots. A big part of that is exactly what you pointed to — family style. In my family of origin, we didn’t discuss our issues with one another (and those of us who may have foolishly attempted to do so from time to time were dismissed as oversensitive and subjected to enough ridicule for that to put an end to future attempts); instead, if someone did something hurtful, we’d open the can of sarcasm and administer a sufficiient dose until the proper equilibrium was restored. It’s stiill my instinctive response to interpersonal conflict.

    So, say someone does something I find hurtful. If it’s someone I feel I can trust to listen sensitively and non-defensively when I say, “Hey, that hurt,” then that’s what I’ll do. But if it’s someone who I think is going to dismiss me/my concern out of hand, and make me feel even worse, then I tend to resort to “needling.” Again, I suppose it’s a gesture of affection in a way. After all, people I don’t give a crap at all about are never going to have enough effect to elicit that response. Mostly, though, it’s a warped form of emotional self-defense.

    (How’s that for excessive, New Year’s Eve inspired self-disclosure!)

    Either way, I suppose, I’d recommend to you that you not respond with instant hostility to needling, if it’s from someone you might otherwise like as a person — I suspect it’s often worth exploring the source of the needling a little further before letting it piss you off.

  5. idontpay Says:

    Sounds as if we’d be ok. I’m only going on tendencies, things that might happen if we’re not paying attention. I’ve gotten along with a wide variety of folks. idontpayy@gmail.com —note the second “y”

  6. joeo Says:

    I also grew up with a teasing style of interaction. I never minded it. Now, I tease my kids but I am a little worried that it is bad for them.

  7. idontpay Says:

    My point is that not knowing how to deal with this, and “give as good as you get” is a kind of social disability.

    Are you related to the Modesto Kid?

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