By Nadine Briggs and Donna Shea
Reading the intent of another person during social interaction can be tricky. The children, teens, and young adults who attend our centers have a tough time understanding interactions. The most innocuous conversations can feel like exclusion. Awkward moments cab lead to more awkward moments to such a degree that peers, who might otherwise be friends, are just too confused by the actions of the other.
This past week, we had a few revelations that highlight this challenge. One teen felt that if people at the lunch table were talking about a topic, they knew he wasn’t interested in that they were excluding him. The result was him huffing off and the other teens at the table being confused as to why he left. Just because the rest of the group is talking about something that one person has no interest in, it does not mean that they are deliberately excluding that person. In this case, it was likely innocent, and his reaction was over the top and confusing to the group. I didn’t observe this personally, so there was a possibility that there may have been exclusion happening, but I doubt it.
In another instance, a tween loaned something to another tween at school. If someone loans out a pen to a person, that person expects to have use of that pen for the day. In this case, the loaner asked for the item back at a random part of the day. The reaction of the person who needed the pen was surprise and confusion, which was then interpreted by the loaner as selfish behavior. Maybe the person was truly mad, I can’t say for sure since I wasn’t there but the interaction was likely awkward.
Another teen felt as though he had to put on a different persona, depending on where he was. His perception was that he needed to be a certain way in specific settings to be accepted. The result, though, was feeling exhausted by trying to be someone he is not. It’s also possible that this teen’s peers don’t feel like they know the real person.
When we hear these stories, it can get messy since we don’t know the intent of the other person. We can only help them to decipher based on history with the people involved and the expression and tone of voice as reported by the possible “misperceiver.” It’s a messy situation that can be further complicated by the “misperceiver,” insisting that there is only one way to read the interaction.
The bottom line is that those who accuse others inaccurately of being unkind or even mean are going to lose the opportunity to be friends with those people. Being genuine, giving others the benefit of the doubt, and considering that there are many ways to interpret interactions can help to clear up the messiness.