I Try Smiling
“You get what you expect,” the instructor says.
It’s my first day of community college. We’re sitting in a small room with desks that are at least 30 years old. Mine has vaguely letter-like shapes carved into it. What it says is illegible. It’s a pity, really. I want somewhere to put my eyes because my anxiety is in rare form. The desks are pushed into a square configuration so that you’re always looking directly at another person, no matter what. And people’s eyes have too much ambiguity in them. Smart phones won’t be around for another 5 years.
You get what you expect, I repeat in my mind, imagining the sounds of the words, over and over. It distracts me from the awkwardness of the silences as the instructor looks around the room. As she hesitates and thinks. You get what you expect. It becomes a sort of self-chant, white noise to get me from one second to the next.
I write it in my notebook. You get what you expect.
“I’ve been a social worker for over 30 years, and it’s been the one truth that has emerged over and over again. If you’re a miserable person, you get misery. If you’re a positive person, well, things go much better.”
I force a smile at her. We lock eyes. She smiles back. I realize that she’s nervous, too, and it makes me feel better. I decide for the rest of this class, Human Relations, that I’ll focus on her, on making her feel less nervous.
It works great. Maybe it has nothing to do with me. But she gives a good lecture, and I feel like maybe going back to college won’t be as terrifying as I worried. Maybe I can do this.
I decide that I’m going to do this with all my instructors. Smile at them and try to help them with their nerves by paying close attention. Sometimes it works great. Other times it’s super weird and backfires.
My Proofreading and Editing instructor is stunned when I first speak to her and have something insightful to contribute to the class discussion. She later admits that she assumed I was slow because I am always smiling, and she has never met someone intelligent who smiles so much.
I ponder the implications of this. What kind of world do we live in that the person who smiles is considered a fool?
I and You, Sender and Receiver
In Human Relations, we learn “I” and “you” statements. Good sender and receiver communication form.
I get excited. Things have been pretty rocky with my boyfriend Seth, and I’m always looking for more ways to reach him. To let him know that I’m not his enemy. But Seth is still fighting boys who insulted him in middle school, shoved him into lockers, grabbed his junk and called him “gay,” that frequent paradox young boys seem prone to(see also: reaction formation, more on that later). He’s upset with them and not me. We both know this consciously, but I don’t know how to help him.
And I’m fighting battles of my own against long-vanquished, or at least exiled, enemies.
Sender and receiver statements are a chance at a truce.
“Okay,” my Human Relations instructor asks, “Can anybody tell me how we can rewrite the statement on the board from a “you” statement to an “I” one?
You never pick up after yourself!
I perk up. “I feel overwhelmed with all the chores I need to do. I’m so stressed out. Is there some way we can make this better?”
“Very good,” she says. “But someone else next time.”
We Never Got to “Receiver”
“Hey, you look down,” Seth says.
I’m sitting on the couch doing homework. Or at least I was. I realize I’ve drifted off into space and have been staring out our apartment window at the courtyard. I don’t know for how long.
Am I down? I wonder.
“What’s up?” he asks.
I look around the apartment at the disarray. I’m no neat freak, but I swear I’ve just cleaned, and here we are again. I nearly cut my foot that morning on a CD that I stepped on, concealed beneath a pair of boxer shorts on our bedroom floor. “I feel overwhelmed with all the chores I need to do. I’m so stressed out. Is there some way we can make this better?”
Seth sighs. “For fuck’s sake, you’re so melodramatic. You sound like you’re speaking lines from a bad play.”
I cringe. “Oh.”
Seth frowns. “Page, I’m not saying that your plays are bad. You’re a good writer. Just not what I like to read. Jesus.”
“That’s not what I–”
He storms into the bathroom. Slams the door. It’s kind of a shitty door, the kind that tells you they built the apartment complex really fast, knowing that people living there wouldn’t care about craftsmanship. I sure don’t. Not until later, when it won’t close all the way, and I worry friends will stop visiting us, squicked from lack of privacy.
I keep on practicing the sender and receiver skills, even so. I realize how basic they are. But I’m desperate for tools. So I do my best to get the hang of it, to make it more natural.
And it does work. With my sister. With friends. With classmates. It makes a group project in Sociology go a lot more smoothly.
But Seth? He’s still suspicious.
“You’re so manipulative! What are you up to?” he says.
“Honey, I’m not up to anything,” I say. “I love you. I’m gonna be here for you. I’m just trying to talk to you. And we didn’t talk about hard things in my house growing up, so I’m trying to learn how.”
Helping Seth with His Homework
Once I’ve graduated community college and start working for the hospital, Seth goes back to study at the same school. Since Human Relations is required for all attendees, he takes it, too.
“Oh, this is that shit you were doing,” he says.
And I smile, thinking that at last he’ll get what it’s all about. He’ll trust me.
I’m thrilled when he asks me for help with his papers. We talk over the paradigm, differentiating between good examples and answers that are just phoning in. Adhering to the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law.
“So why isn’t this a good answer again?” he asks.
“Oh!” I say. “Well, you can’t just tack on ‘I feel that’ before a You statement.”
I point at the example: You never listen to me.
“‘I feel that you never listen to me’ isn’t really that different,” I explain.
“Ah okay, how about this one?”
He writes I hate it when you don’t listen to me.
“Well, that’s a little better maybe,” I say. “But I bet we can do even better.”
“You don’t like the answer?”
“Well, ‘hate’ is pretty strong. It’s kinda negative,” I say.
“But it’s honest. I do hate it when people don’t listen to me,” he says.
“And that’s fair,” I say. “But how does it make you feel?”
I don’t realize I’ve said a joke-y cliche until it’s out of my mouth.
“Oh Jesus, Page, you take 2 classes at a shitty community college, and now you’re my fucking therapist.”
I apologize. We eat ice cream. Finish his paper together.
I Expect Great Things Out of Us
He gets an A in the course. “Well, I’m glad that’s over,” he says. “What a boring class.”
And I get it. I know I zoned out completely plenty of times when I took it, especially towards the end of the semester. And a lot of my classmates clearly didn’t want to be there.
But I’m hopeful that we can keep on practicing together. Use it to communicate. Fight less. And more civilly.
After all, we get what we expect, I remind myself. So I’m going to expect great things out of him. Out of us.
I keep on smiling.
When My Smile Breaks, I Cry
When my smile breaks, I cry. I apologize. He tells me that my apologies are fake.
“No, I’m actually sorry,” I say. “I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
“You’re just sorry I called you on your bullshit,” he says.
“I don’t like the way you describe me, but maybe there’s some truth to it. How can I do better? What can I do for you?”
“Why does this have to be about me changing? Why am I always the one who has to change, huh, Page?”
“I’ve changed, too.”
“Like hell you have!”
Hours later, we make up. I’m exhausted and so confused. But I’m happy we’re not fighting anymore. I tell him it’s okay and try to believe it. And I put my smile back on.
Because we get what we expect and I want good things. I put my smile back on every time he wounds me, after I’m done crying.
When he tells me I don’t care about him.
That I always need to be right and to hell with his feelings.
When he tells me that my friends only like me because they don’t really know me and that anybody who gets close to me will see what a monster I am.
That I actually want to fight and I just don’t know it.
When he tells me that he used to love me before I became such a bitch.
You Can’t Smile a Person into What You Hope They Will Be
One of the most valuable things that Seth taught me over the 10 years that we were together?
The true meaning of that day 1 lesson from my Human Resources instructor: You get what you expect.
I took it very simplistically, at face value. Be positive, I thought. Your life will surely go well.
But thing is?
It’s a little more complicated than it first seems. As Stephen Chbosky famously wrote, “We get the love we think we deserve.”
I thought I expected good things, but by staying in the situation I was, by tolerating behaviors I found intolerable, well… my actions were telling a different story.
I didn’t expect very much. I didn’t expect to be loved.
Assuming Positive Intent is Generally a Good Thing
Now, it’s good to be positive. Especially upfront, when you’re first meeting people. When people are new, or the situation is unclear, assume positive intent. It did Seth no favors to see attacks where there were none.
But Acknowledge Reality
But don’t be like me either. Pay attention. Acknowledge reality.
And while our expectations can totally shape our reality, we are not all-powerful. There are situations, there are relationships, where you can’t simply wish them positive. You are not going to smile anyone into what you hope they will become.
The last year of my relationship with Seth was extraordinarily painful, as we both came to terms with how fantastically incompatible we were on a fundamental level. I tried everything I could think of. Indulging him, challenging him, recruiting other people to help, relocating. Everything just made it worse. I told him we had to go to counseling together, or I couldn’t deal with it anymore. He said he would go but then backed out when I made the appointment.
The good news is that we’re both happy now, much happier than when we were together. Seth knows (and has known) I write about him but still doesn’t read it — he prefers existential writers and film. Although we both like Hegel. We’ll always have Hegel.