Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Not understanding people

Backstory:  Over the past few months I have had a few encounters with Strange Girl.  She lives in my building and chatted with me several times as Elli and I were going in or out of the condo.  Each time this occurred she just stepped in and started talking to Elli in a fairly friendly, familiar way, and each time it felt a little strange.  More recently I witnessed her in a confrontation with the concierge and tried to avoid becoming entangled in her life when she sought my opinion during the argument.  Today as I left the apartment I saw her on the sidewalk with 5 police officers who were in the process of cuffing her and putting her into a cruiser.  A little later the concierge revealed (presumably against the rules!) that she regularly threatens to commit suicide and the police have to come and take her away.  I have no worry that she is actually a danger to anyone else but she sure seems messed up personally.

The reason I tell this story is because it illustrates an strong correlation between people who violate social norms and people who have other extreme issues with their lives.  I have seen that correlation regularly when going about the city, particularly from the homeless, those with mental problems and Strange Girl in particular.  These sorts of people tend to be very familiar and approach myself and Elli in ways that most regular people would not.  The thing I got to wondering was whether the inability to stick with social norms is correlated with other life problems or whether it is a cause.  It seems obvious that someone who lacks the ability to understand other people's expectations would tend to violate norms and that that same lack would be a strong factor in being unhappy and homeless, among other possible things.  However, it would certainly be reasonable to think that someone who is a societal outcast or perceives themselves to be would tend to be more desperate for human contact and look for it in unorthodox ways.

The other main demographic that tends to step in and talk to me/us with inappropriate familiarity is middle age to older women.  I get all kinds of comments from these folks:

"What are you doing?  You are suffocating your baby!"
-No, I am carrying her in a breathable, cotton baby sling that has big-ass holes in it.  Go away!

"You are a very lucky man."
-Yeah, she sure is cute right now, but you didn't see the screaming tantrum on the sidewalk 2 minutes ago...

"Awww, isn't she cute?"
-I suppose, but not remarkably so given the formula of child + appropriate clothing.

The random older women group seems much less inappropriate though, as they obviously draw on the idea that women (in particular mothers) have a licence to go talk to any child or caregiver any time which honestly most people seem okay with and I don't generally mind.  They usually say ridiculous or uninteresting things but I never get a sense that anything is particularly wrong with the situation.

The assumption I am going forward with is that mostly people who really can't or won't behave in normal ways are generally less happy and do have other issues in their lives.  That doesn't make them dangerous, mind you, but it seems true nonetheless.  There are obviously people like me who do things like refuse to wear shoes (or whatever your personal weirdness is) but the big difference there is I am perfectly capable of adhering to the rules and do so regularly while breaking them when it suits me.  I can fool anyone into thinking I am the sort of person who does exactly what is expected of me if I want to and that characteristic is probably a great measure of someone who can keep it all together while still acting strangely sometimes.  It is those that simply cannot manage to appear normal when necessary that have the greatest problems in their lives.  Perhaps that ability to lie and act normal is the grease that keeps the world moving smoothly.

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