It’s been decades, but I still vividly remember my old elementary school. It was a brick building. Standing outside at recess, I’d often stare at those walls, fascinated by the flaws in the blocks, the cracks and places where they were uneven. I was generally a talkative kid and often very social but occasionally I’d get overwhelmed. And in those moments, I’d find myself retreating instead to look at the bricks.
It was a strange way of self-soothing, but it worked in a way that nothing else did.
I remember standing there one recess staring at the bricks, when I caught a group of girls in my peripheral vision. Talking to one another and laughing. It seemed that they must be gossiping about something juicy. A secret I wanted to know.
And just as I was wondering what that was, one of them came up to me.
She was on a mission. She had a message to deliver. And one she delivered quickly and somewhat awkwardly: A male classmate of ours had a crush on me.
Wow, I thought. It was surprising information. He barely looked at me. And while there were some kids in our grade who would hold hands and write love notes to one another, romance was still pretty rare
“He wants to know if you like him back,” my classmate said.
I wasn’t really sure what to say. I hadn’t even really thought of him that way. At 8 years old, I was only really starting to form my own self-theories about love. I’d kissed a few boys on the bus, but that had been meaningless. Experimentation. And if I were being honest, the person I had a crush on at that time was probably my best friend Emma. I felt connected to her in a way that I didn’t with everyone else.
But here this person was asking me about a random classmate. I had no idea what the right response was. After all, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He seemed nice enough. Besides, when would I get a chance to have a boyfriend again? Opportunities like these didn’t present themselves all that often in third grade.
So I told the messenger that yes, I did like him back.
The messenger burst into laughter. Sprinted back to her friends. All of them began to taunt me. Chanting loudly that I liked this male classmate.
Of course, word quickly reached the supposed object of my affection, who commented something to the effect of, “Why would I like her? She’s a motormouth and a weirdo.”
I don’t think I’m all that unusual in this regard. Most people I’ve spoken to have a trap (or several) they walked into sometime during childhood or adolescence. When someone seemed like they were asking a question for a benevolent reason but they really weren’t.
Or when someone would be nice to you to lull you into a false sense of security and then turn on you later, when you weren’t expecting it.
It was a painful lesson to learn: People didn’t always say what they meant. Seemingly nice people could have ulterior motives.
What appeared to be good and true on the the surface could actually be a trick.
I dealt with it the same way a lot of others do: I learned to look carefully for telltale signs that someone wasn’t on the level. I observed other people’s actions and what they said and compared the two. Paid attention to any gaps between words and deeds. Stayed on the lookout for hypocrisy, dishonesty, delusion, or malice.
I listened to how they spoke about other people when they weren’t around, knowing that I could be next, the moment I fell from their good graces.
But I ran into problems as I did this. Because I found that just about everyone was inconsistent from time to time. People told white lies for privacy. Had faulty memories. Lacked self-knowledge that was obvious to others around them.
And a lot of people seemed to communicate indirectly. Rather than telling others they wanted something, they’d instead act out in other ways or say something else and hope people around them reacted in the way they wanted. I found this to be especially true in romantic relationships.
Upset about something? You weren’t supposed to tell your partner. Better to sulk and sigh passive-aggressively, getting progressively more upset with every minute that passed before they asked you what was wrong.
And once they did ask, you were supposed to tell them “I’m fine” at least once or twice, dipping the edge of the word “fine” in poison. This would be to let them know that of course you’re not fine, even though you’re saying you are.
Anyway, it isn’t like you could just tell them what’s wrong. They needed to guess. Because if they really loved you, they’d just know, right?
I quickly decided that this was a bunch of bullshit. I resolved never to do this. Maybe this would mean I was sacrificing some of my ability to manipulate partners — but I couldn’t bear being on the other side of what amounted to a social trick. I didn’t want to be the mean girls on the playground, especially not to someone I loved.
I did my best to communicate directly with partners — even when they cringed and thought it was weird of me to do so.
Like the time when we were first dating and I walked up to Justin and said, “Hey, I want attention.”
After he stopped laughing, he explained, “People just don’t say things like that.”
Why not? I thought. They certainly feel them.
“Well, I do,” I said aloud.
The Mind-Reading Diet
But my own decision to abstain exists pretty much in isolation. Sure, for the most part, I tend to prefer romantic partners who are direct communicators, and I do what I can to encourage my friends to be direct with me, but I live in the same world as anyone else.
I can’t stop other people from fishing for compliments or being passive-aggressive. And for a long time, I walked right into those traps. I frequently rewarded people’s indirect communication with what seemed to be their desired response. And by doing so, I reinforced those behaviors.
But a while back, I made the decision to go on a Mind-Reading Diet. Essentially I began to experiment with taking people at their word, not guessing the meaning behind what they’re saying, not feeding into passive-aggression, not giving fished for compliments, not anticipating unstated needs.
I’m still on that diet. Like any diet, some days I do better than others — but I’m happy to report that overall it has been a very positive change.
Have I lost some people from my life because of it? Yes, I have. I’ve lost friends, even been dumped, because of this choice.
But am I worse for it? No. It wasn’t fun to part ways with anyone, but I’m largely surrounded in my close social circle by people who don’t play exhausting emotional games.
As a result, I really do feel lighter.
Direct Communication Can Feel Oddly Subversive
I’m sitting with my girlfriend Ro in a Mexican restaurant. We’ve been talking over some disastrous social interactions I’ve had lately. Ones in which someone in my life was playing games. Punishing me for unvoiced expectations. Essentially grading me on exams they hadn’t taught for.
“I don’t know why, but sometimes it seems like a lot to ask of people that they communicate directly,” I say.
She nods. Shares stories with me of her own.
We both agree that direct communication seems rare. That it’s more alien and subversive to mainstream social norms than even BDSM or consensual non-monogamy.
“You know, I’ve spent all these years trying to figure out what gets me going. Trying everything I can think of,” I say. “But believe it or not, I think my number one kink is direct communication.”
My new book is out!
Dealing with Difficult Metamours, the first book devoted solely to metamour relationships, full of strategies to help you get along better with your partners’ other partner(s).