KLUTZ (noun, slang): A clumsy, awkward, or foolish person; uncoordinated.
Years ago, when I bought a house in a new housing development in a San Diego suburb, I had a perfect opportunity to make new friends. Everybody was new. Everybody was at least cordial and many were friendly.
We all needed to landscape our back yards and I chose to plant no grass. Instead, I would have a mixture of flowers and vegetables, with footpaths to give easy access as well as divide it into rooms. It would have drip irrigation to conserve water. Soon, it would be an oasis in a concrete desert.
Before long, I had more veggies than I could eat. I learned that the neighbor across the street had a fondness for beets and beet greens. The teenage boy who lived on the other side of the back fence did not recognize leaf lettuce and asked what it was. I gave away excess produce to my neighbors, that they could share in the bounty and understand why I did not have a sprinkler system and lush green grass.
One evening, as I puttered in my garden, the neighbor to one side popped his head over the fence and said something to me. He had very little English; might have been Filipino, I’m not sure. Anyway, he said something to me and I smiled back. Then he extended a plate of food over the fence toward me. I had just eaten dinner and so I said something to that effect and shook my head and smiled.
It occurred to me a week or so later that I should have responded in an entirely different manner. I should have accepted the plate of food. I should have eaten it, hungry or not. I should have complimented the cook. I should have said and done so many things differently than I had. At the time, I just didn’t realize these friendly people were trying to return the favor of the produce I had given them. And perhaps… Just maybe… I had missed an opportunity to make some new friends.
For an intelligent woman, I can be really dense sometimes. Probably more often than I realize. You see, that was not an isolated incident. I look back on my life and wonder how many friends I missed getting to know because I failed to see the opportunity. At the same time, I recall how many times I have felt so lonely, so hungry for acceptance, so needy of friendship that I would have done anything to change that.
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I was nearly 7 when I started 1st grade. I grew up on a farm and the only other children I knew prior to entering 1st grade were my cousins, whom I saw only on holidays. Suddenly, I was one of 30 in a classroom and at least 25 of them already knew each other from kindergarten. It made me feel like an outsider. Of course, being the tallest kid in class didn’t help. Nor did the fact that I already knew the alphabet and numbers.
I wanted friends like the other kids had, but being a misfit, I didn’t know how to go about it. My first clue came one day, after eating my lunch, when I spent a dime of my allowance to buy an ice cream bar. Another kid asked if she could have one, too. I had an extra dime, so I gave it to her. She sat with me and we enjoyed our treat together. After that, I started trying to buy friends for the price of an ice cream bar. One thing lead to another and I took to stealing the spare change Dad sometimes left on his chest of drawers. Of course, I got caught at that before too long, but by that time, I had learned how to let others see my test quiz papers so they could copy my answers.
I didn’t really begin to understand any of this until I was in my 30s, which was in the 1980s. At that time, self-help books were all the rage and I read my share of them. By that age, too, I like to think I had reached a stage of mental maturity that allowed me to start to understand human nature in general, and myself in particular, a lot better than I ever had before. I got pretty good at recognizing insecurities and over-compensations that others made and that helped me to understand my own.
By the time I was 40, I had gotten pretty good at fitting in to society and the workplace, looking and acting much like everyone else. Well, not entirely, because I still have no fashion sense or interest, but that is another story. Anyway, I had learned to fit in well enough to be promoted multiple times, but I was also painfully aware that I simply never would pick up on the subtleties of conversation and interaction that came natural to everyone else. Only after the fact would I realize what had been meant or implied and how I should have reacted. In other words, I flunked at office politics.
Oh well. All that did was to eventually lead me into self-employment, where office politics became a non-issue. More than one way to deal with a problem. Right?
Except that I still find myself realizing too late that I have missed an opportunity to make a new friend or to deepen an existing friendship into something special.
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Now, I am of the opinion that there are crucial stages in human socialization just as there are with kittens and puppies. If a kitten is not socialized to be friendly with humans in the first six weeks of life, it becomes difficult — if not impossible — to “tame” them later. If the kitten is socialized, it stands a good chance of finding a friend for life.
As a young child, I was taught to “be seen and not heard” when in the company of adults. And since the only time I was around anyone other than an adult was at holiday family gatherings, I learned how to sit still and listen and enjoy it, but not how to interact with others. My mother taught me so much, but being socially challenged herself, she couldn’t teach me how to get along with others or how to understand social subtleties. By the time I started 1st grade at three months shy of my 7th birthday, apparently, I had missed the window of opportunity and was forever stuck in the social ineptitude sphere.
And that brings us to Point #1 of my discourse about being socially inept. It seems to me that many children today are not getting the socialization they will need as adults. Their helicopter parents hover protectively over them, keeping them indoors except when a parent can accompany them outdoors. Young people’s social life seems to exist more on the internet than it does in the real world. Computer skills are vital work skills and will become more so in the future, but what about people skills? Are Americans raising up a generation of people who will not know how to interact with each other and the world around them? It would be wonderful if parents would not only allow but encourage their children to go outside, ride their bikes to the park, play with other kids, even at the risk of a skinned knee or broken arm. Yes, bad things do happen, but the benefits far outweigh the hazards, especially if you teach your children to be alert and pay attention to their surroundings.
Those of you who, like me, never mastered Human Socialization 101, can still have a life. It might take a bit more effort than it does for others. At the very least, it takes a different skill set. The best advice I can give, using my 20-20 hindsight, is to: 1) find a way of making a living where your social klutziness isn’t too much of a handicap and; 2) develop the habit of taking a few minutes at the end of each day to review your interactions and learn to recognize any social blunders you might have made. You can learn from those mistakes and teach yourself to respond in a different way the next time that sort of thing happens. It’s a long process. It won’t ever come natural. But behaviors can be learned. And sometimes, you can find or make an opportunity to go back to someone the next day and “make it right” by explaining that you were a bit slow to pick up on what was said or done. Which brings us to Point #2: you can, indeed, make some friends if you are willing to work at it.
Okay, time to get off my soapbox and go interact with some friends. I still need to remind myself to do that and sometimes it is hard to get started, but once I do, it’s almost always fun. And it sure beats a case of the lonelies.