I follow quite a number of academics on twitter for obvious reasons. If I write about higher ed, I should know what professors are talking about that day. I particularly follow political scientists, because they’re family, but I also follow people from other fields.
Recently, a group of female, African American scholars were talking about how exhausting it is to hear middle class, white women talk about dieting and fitness. When these conversations tend to pop up on twitter, I usually tune out, particularly when they start referring to all white women as “Becky’s.” But I read the whole thread about how these academics feel alienated, when small talk turns to topics that are not usual topics in their circles.
Sometimes when I’m walking through the supermarket in town, I’ll run into a neighbor or someone from spin class. I’ll ask her what’s up and she’ll sigh and complain about her busy schedule taking her kids to birthday parties and sports events. And OMG prom dresses are so expensive. And college applications are due soon.
And here’s what I’m thinking (or used to think when things were rougher) …
My kid is never going to go to the prom. My kid is never going to go to the prom. My kid is never going to go to the prom. Deep breath. Deep breath. Don’t start crying. My kid hasn’t been invited to a birthday party in two years. My kid’s only social activities on the weekends are trips to tutors and music instructors and grandparents. My kid is never going to the prom. OMG. Now, she’s going to show me pictures. OK. I can handle this. Oh, her daughter is absolutely beautiful. That’s just awesome. I am really happy for her.
And when I rant to my childless friend, Susan, about IEP meetings and reading scores, she’s probably also ready to do a suicide scene from Airplane. But she’s my friend, so she sucks it up.
Social empathy is a good thing, and it is very much a two way street. You have to have the good sense to think of how your conversation makes the other person feel. And you have to be patient when another — presumably good-hearted — person goes on and on too much about a topic.
Yes, it does take energy to talk with people with other social experiences. It’s really nice to hang out with my group of special ed parents who don’t talk about proms or driving lessons or SAT scores. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. But that’s not real life. Every day, I talk with people from all sorts of ages, incomes, family or non-family types, and so on. And once we get past the conversations about proms, these diverse group of friends – as opposed to random acquaintances that I have to deal with in the supermarket — listen to my stories, too.