Carefulness

March 29, 2012

in Friendship, Personal, Two of us

The best relationship in the world has to be one where I don’t feel any need to be careful. No need to be checking before I speak, wondering what will this person think of me saying that? Will it upset them? Will they understand me? Will I sound stupid?

Even in the best relationship in the world (ahem…) this possibility of not having to think twice before opening my mouth may change from day to day. Sometimes there are ‘I am a bit irritable’ signals around, and then I get careful.

With friends it’s easier in some ways but harder in others. My friends don’t generally tend to be bad tempered or irritable when I’m there, but they will just naturally be more inclined to be careful than Charles is, because they know me a bit less well and, maybe, we feel a little less sure of each other. And we’re polite. Ish.

And then friends shade into acquaintances, where even more politeness compels an even greater degree of carefulness. Though strangely it can be easy to be quite carefree with a stranger – perhaps because the parameters are so clear and repercussions unlikely (unless you say quite bonkers things, of course, or make jokes in airports). There are very few appropriate topics of conversation with the person selling you cheese, so it’s easy to riff a bit, and you’re not usually going to be terribly personal.

Careful is another one of those behaviours which drags the other person in, inevitably. So you both end up tip-toeing round. This can be fine or totally crippling, depending on the degree. Alcohol nearly always helps un tip-toe and is one reason why my heart can sink a little sometimes if someone new to me doesn’t drink, or I meet them at a non drinking time – which for me is generally before 6pm.

Perhaps carefulness is one of the reasons why people can seem so different to different people. With someone who doesn’t press any of my ‘careful’ buttons I am going to seem quite a different person than I do to those who intimidate me or who are being tight themselves. Bliss to meet anyone who is just open, easy and friendly.

But isn’t this sometimes accompanied by a degree of insensitivity?

Office wall, painted and pictured by Anne Wareham


Sally April 7, 2012 at 6:09 pm

There must be many factors involved as to why a lot of us are careful what we say around others… When it comes to personality, I think this is about how fundamentally agreeable (or not) you are (The Big Five personality test). I score highly on this, as I can be a bit of a people-pleaser. Consequently I’m attracted to those who are less amenable, as I perceive them to be unafraid to be true to themselves. But the chamaleon-like qualities of people-pleasers can be useful and endearing.

Also, I guess we have no choice but to care what others think of us to certain extent – as it’s how we survive. If we all just said exactly what we thought, and deviated from social norms, we’d end up as lonely people on the margins of society – or have frequent black eyes!

But I know what you mean, it can be exhausting having to watch what you say to certain people, or trying to read them to gauge how far you can go with the conversation. When I meet someone new, especially if there’s a glass of wine in tow, I can be outrageous, with my personality in full throttle! I guess it’s partly the excitement of discovering someone new together with not caring what they think of you because there’s nothing to lose at that stage. You could just walk away. It’s the next couple of times when we meet that I can suddenly do a U-turn and become very inhibited, as there’s more at stake! I find it’s the same in romantic relationships, initially it seems easier to be open about feelings, but the further you get into the relationship, it can become more difficult to say what you really think, or you end up editing or measuring what you say. Again, I guess the more there is to lose with any relationship, the more you care about what you say.

I guess there must be healthy balance somewhere – if you lose control, have no boundaries and go around causing pain to others, that’s not good. Nor is it any better to bottle things up and cause pain to yourself. The middle ground is assertiveness. I think it could be a cultural thing too, the English ‘dis-ease’ with social interaction…

anne April 7, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Have never come across the Big Five Personality test – must look it up.

I see that it is rational to be more open where less is invested, but I find I love the gradual change and increasing easiness that comes, for me, with discovering that I’m being accepted as a relationship grows. So I would say, for me, that the more solid a relationship feels the greater the risks that feel – and are – possible.

And, yes, it’s all within an acceptable middle ground that represents our sanity as well as our cultural norms?

Bridget April 1, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Is carefulness something also to do with caring? And maybe also something to do with fear and power.
If I care about something I take care with it, and about it. I watch to see whether I am doing it right. If the something is a person that I care about, then surely I should be careful to get it right – to say what I mean, not to say what I don’t mean and to use a language that engages them. I think it is completely wrong and insensitive to say that ‘I am always myself’ because that implies it is up to the other chap to put in the effort to understand what I mean and why I am saying something. I think a lot about how to be clear, not just in relationships but in everything. Being understood takes effort. Understanding how someone else understands you also takes effort and if you want to be understood, then make the effort.
Of course, if you don’t really care about the subject or the person, then you can say what you like and be whom you like. You might be called honest – but you might also be called uncaring!
There is another kind of carefulness which is rather different. This is the carefulness which goes with fear, and fear of power. Being scared of not saying the right thing is not the care that goes with being understood and understanding but the care not to be punished. The care that clenches the stomach. Many of us do the pussy footing which keeps the boss happy or the partner contented. But this kind of carefulness can be destructive and generate resentment and anger.
Creating the courage to produce the honesty and take the flak under these circumstances is hard. I know because I am trying. I hate arguments!
Equally, there is a moment when one kind of carefulness blends into the other. You start by caring, wanting to be understood, being careful to meet the other half way. If the other wants to be met, that is great. But if the other sees this as a sign of weakness, or of willingness to be told, then it can blend into the carefulness which is about not overstepping the mark or getting into trouble. Stopping this is hard. Indeed I have failed twice in long term relationships to stop one kind turning into the other. And once carefulness has turned to fear then you are basically stuffed. Time to move on.

anne April 1, 2012 at 3:26 pm

You should be writing this blog, Bridget – you do a great job!

I have an idea that bullies hate carefulness (they feel the fear and the implication that they are frightening?) and so it promotes the bullying. Usual reactive vicious circle.

Moral also – avoid bullies? XXXXX

Paul Steer March 30, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Just read comment by John, and I am in admiration of someone who can be true to themselves. I admit that I adjust my attitude and behaviour according to the situation I am in, and am sensitive to how the other person is feeling, we can be such labile creatures sometimes depending on how life is going for us… I think this is ok though.

anne March 30, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Carefully (and sensitively) said!!

Tzipporah March 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm

That’s why I like the Internet. I can be more myself and let the other wacky friends find me. 🙂

anne March 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Liberating – yes, it is.

Nic March 29, 2012 at 9:00 pm

I too have a close friend of the persistently questioning type, like Sheila. It makes me clam up. I can never understand why she grills me so much and I dig my heels in – she can’t stop, as she becomes convinced there is something significant I’m not telling her . It’s exhausting.

anne March 29, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Maybe it’s time to stop being careful, risk the ‘friendship'(?) and tell them what you feel?

Nic March 30, 2012 at 9:07 am

You are of course quite right – but I have already had many conversations with her about it. I honestly believe she can’t help it – most of this happens on the telephone not face to face. I think this is because she can’t see reactions so she feels the need to delve further to find the truth. Convincing her there is no additional truth to find is the tiring bit. We’ve been friends for 30 years so I’m far beyond trying to change her.

anne March 30, 2012 at 9:15 am

You are right – there is never any point in trying to change people!

sheilas_perfume March 29, 2012 at 4:31 pm

I have a friend that is great – BUT she is a nightmare in as much as she wants to know everything that is going on in my life and the rest of my family – she questions everything and wont give up – so because of that I am always wary of what I do tell her and I feel I could never confide in her with anything personal which is such a shame.

anne March 29, 2012 at 5:47 pm

That’s hard. Wonder what on earth makes her do that? Must have effect of keeping everyone at arm’s length.

John March 29, 2012 at 2:22 pm

I am, and always will be, just me. That’s warts and all and whether it’s someone new or someone I’ve known for ages, I behave the same. Were I to try to be different, I’d soon let the real me out and, until I did, you could argue that I was lying by trying to present myself as something I am not. I’m comfortable with who I am and if someone doesn’t like that I respect them for being honest and telling me. Friendships only develop well if they are founded on the rock of honesty.

anne March 29, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Now, that’s a comment that makes me feel…careful….

Charles April 1, 2012 at 7:39 am

Hmm. You know I just don’t believe this person. No one presents as the same with every person. It would be weird if you did. Think job interviews or meeting the Prime Minister. Or more mundanely the difference between how you are with your parents. Or partner. Adapting how we present ourselves to others isn’t something which indicates weakness of character. It indicates social skill.

I think I get careful with Anne at times when I know through our history that we have got into difficulties in similar circumstances. Like if I ask her to do something for me. I try and be “natural” but I can feel inside that I am being a bit different.

anne April 1, 2012 at 9:54 am

I know. I hate to be asked.

I am inclined to think that perhaps people aren’t always aware of how they are being. It takes a degree of noticing.

And we get into having an investment in being the kind of people we want to be. This militates against us noticing we’re actually not the people we’d like to be. .

John April 1, 2012 at 10:30 am

What’s so difficult? I’m not insensitive to the situation or to another person’s feelings but I’m not going to put on any act. It is part of my psyche to be deferential in some situations , neutral in others and dominant in yet others; that is still being “me”. I will not be gushingly friendly to someone I dislike and would feel insulted if someone who disliked me feigned friendship.

I’ve interviewed more than been interviewed and can easily spot when a candidate is presenting themself as something they are not. So at interviews I’ll still be me. I have little respect for any politician these days and would do my best to avoid the PM altogether; otherwise I may be neutral towards him but certainly not deferential.

To use your phrase it’s “how we present ourselves” not “how we present someone that’s sort of ourselves”. A little gift wrap helps but I wouldn’t put a Cadbury’s Creme Egg in a box labelled “Faberge.”

anne April 1, 2012 at 10:34 am

I’m not sure that presentation is the issue. None of that would prevent you from being careful on occasion?

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