A few weeks ago as I was walking out of an office I heard one woman tell another that I was “paranoid”. The woman who described me as such is a serial liar who shifts blame onto others. If I have any sort of dealings with her I never know if she’s lying outright to me, telling just enough to answer a question but not enough to provide helpful information, or is allowing mistakes that others have made become my problem. One can usually tell that she’s being less than forthcoming when she shifts into vague language and uses professional jargon in impenetrable, multiple clause sentences. Another warning that she’s desperately trying to avoid saying anything true or useful comes when she narrows her eyes slightly, tilts her chin up a few degrees and talks in a bored tone of voice. She asserts her superior position while also conveying that she’s trying to be patient with another one of my stupid inquiries. Her goal is to drive me away before I ask a question too direct for her sidestep.
I avoid her whenever possible as I get frustrated trying to thread my way through her maze of self-serving obfuscation. I am concerned that she may try, or has already tried, to spread lies about me, but I take nothing she says or does personally any more. Expecting respect and honesty from her is like expecting a giraffe to walk on a tight rope. And her insights about my character are hardly worth considering.
I take other people’s opinions of me much more seriously, but I’m aware that some assume a lot based on little information. Personal biases filter their perceptions, a few of my actions fit into their ready made preconceptions, and I’m labeled accordingly. It’s useless to try to alter my behavior in hope of changing their minds: everything said or done will be bent and twisted to fit into the set pattern of their opinion of me.
Of course I’m aware that I’m guilty of putting people into pigeonholes constructed from my biases. It’s a defense against uncertainty. The world seems much easier to navigate if I can read personalities, recognize intentions and anticipate actions. I learned this as a little kid when dealing with unpredictable adults. It was much safer to keep a low profile when seated next to a man who scowled as he read his newspaper. Tugging on his sleeve and making a request was an invitation to him to vent his frustrations on me.
The difficulty for a well meaning adult is to choose when to listen to his or her defensive preconceptions and when to reserve judgment. I’ve learned that in most, nonthreatening situations it’s better to wait until a lot of evidence comes in. An imperious student who snaps at everything I say may just be having a bad day. He could turn out to be an easy going fellow when his personal life isn’t in panic mode. Or he may be an arrogant prick. Time usually tells.
The woman who called me paranoid doesn’t deserve any more effort on my part. My opinion is based on years of bad experiences with her. But I imagine that even she has moments when she’s a good friend, wife and mother, and that others who know her in a different context might describe her as a funny, smart woman who is a consummate professional. Maybe she bakes cookies at Christmas and hands them out at a food bank. She’s probably kind to puppies. Who knows, and who am I, in the end, to judge her?
But I don’t want to try to get closer to her to find out whether she has a softer, truer side to her personality. We’re never going to be buddies, and I think that we both prefer it that way.