Compared to me, my mom is wildly gregarious. For example, we went for brunch on Sunday. We needed to be somewhere close at 3:30, so at 3:15, I started moving her toward the door. It was one of those places where the servers bring you your check, but you need to pay up front. She hates that, so she dawdled at the table until I said, as gently as I knew how, “they’re not going to come take that up for you, we need to pay up front.” I had to say it a couple of times.
So we went up front. She got to chit-chatting with the cashier. It’s now 3:25. Our destination is only a couple of miles away, but we’re now definitely going to be late. I’m standing at the door holding it for some other patrons. The lady who passes through the door unaccountably says “My father” (ostensibly the elderly man following her) “is 94! Can you believe it?!” I say that I can’t and smile. My mother finally, finally comes out the door, and the lady says it again. My mom starts talking with her. I smile and wave and go to the car. My mom finally gets in the car at 3:32.
It’s not that I’m unfriendly. I smiled at the cashier, I held the door for and smiled at the lady and her father. But we had somewhere to be, so I didn’t stop and chat. Well, to be honest, I seldom stop and chat. I’m not a chatter. Occasionally, I’m chatty, but seldom with strangers and I often have to warm up to it, because I spend a lot of time in my own head. I smile, I make eye contact, I might even make polite “Nice day, isn’t it?” small talk, but a lot of time, especially with strangers, I’m looking to keep it light and fairly superficial. I’m seldom looking for life stories.
Don’t get me wrong— if I saw you sobbing or in trouble, I’d stop and help you. If we were at a social event and you were sitting by yourself, I’d very likely be the one who came and tried to engage with you. As we’ve established, I give lots of time and energy to the people (and animals… and causes…) in my community.
The problem is not (as has been suggested by mom) that I am cold— I’ve always tended to be a little too sensitive. The problem is that I’ve had to learn to set boundaries to keep me… whatever. On-time. From getting in too deep with relationships that are not reciprocal to that level. From emptying out my introverted energy banks before I’ve done what needs doing/in ways that leave me depleted and sometimes sick. From getting inundated with unrequested advice, which is a pet peeve of mine. From getting stuck in conversations from which there is no way to gracefully extricate myself.
Part of me feels like that’s not unreasonable or selfish. None of us have infinite time, and if I want to keep my perennially late self running anywhere close to on-time (something I’m really striving for), then I need to limit how deeply I engage with strangers. I don’t choose to pop in frequently on coworkers because I know we’re all working harder and longer than we want to be, and a 20-minute gabfest can mean you’re 30 or 45 minutes late getting back to your real life.
And there are people, chatty people who never ask anything about you, that I avoid because those relationships drain me in ways that I try to be aware of. I’m so open with my friends that I easily get sucked in and used. For example, a friend of mine seldom contacts me unless he wants me to do him a favor. So when he contacts me, he always cloaks it with a lot of warmth— “hey, how are you? Doing anything fun? Hey, by the way…” For years, he’d contact me, I’d think he wanted to talk, I’d start actually answering his questions and asking my own, and he’d cut me off and get to the kicker. He contacted me today and I was on the way out of the office with a coworker. I cut to the chase and it came off pretty cold. It all worked out, he got his favor, I wangled a reciprocating favor, I did the polite chit-chat thing a little when I was back in the office, but if our friendship is primarily transactional in a friendly way, let’s not cloak it. As long as we’re both clear about it, benefiting from it, and okay with it, let’s just call it what it is.
And I’d also say that what my mom does stops us from engaging with what we should be engaged with. She knowingly made me late to a commitment. We’re trying to make plans to visit the newest great-niece, and her inability to stay engaged in a conversation with me about it is affecting my ability to (1) tell my niece when we’re coming so she can arrange housing, (2) get time off from work, (3) set things up for pet care and with the rescue I’m working with about the dog, (4) notify my/our volunteer commitments… and on and on.
Part of her chatting is her passive-aggressive attempt to slow me down and make me go at her pace. Every person who takes my mom places complains about how long she takes to do things (and this is not an age thing— this has been going on for my entire natural life, and I’ve been here for a good solid while.) And few people continue to be willing to take my mom places, over time, because the smallest errand always takes all day. Although some waitstaff enjoy her banter, others have other responsibilities, and they avoid our table because everything’s a production.
I’ve fought back by being clear about what I need, but also giving her some freedom to go at her own pace when I can. I told her last night that I need our mid-week dinner out to be less of a two-hour thing (we sit. She spends 15 minutes with the wine list. She says “oh, I can’t decide!” and samples some things. She finally turns her attention to the menu. “Oh, too many delicious things!”-banter-and chitchat-with-the-waitstaff. We order 25 minutes in. She eats slowly. We think about dessert. Every stinking time, no matter how often we go to a restaurant or how well she knows the menu. And we go out to eat at least twice a week and I cook for her at least one day a week) and more of a quick bite (honestly, anything under an hour works for me), because we do it after the class we teach and before grocery shopping, and I’m not getting home at a decent hour. When I do get home I have pet care things to do before I can go to bed and groceries to put away, and I have an extremely early morning the next day. She made a face.
But part of me looks at how my mom engages with people and says I’m doing it wrong and letting the pressures of time and my tendency to stay overscheduled drive me in ways that make me brusque and unfriendly. My mom has stopped describing me as “cold” but often uses “businesslike.”
So what do we think? Have I overcorrected? Am I kidding myself to think I’m not being unfriendly? How should I take this?