How To Deal With People You Can’T Stand
I had just finished my morning run when I saw the man who was waiting for me at the bus stop. We made eye contact, and he smiled. For some reason, I felt an immediate pang of discomfort. He walked towards me and we stood there awkwardly until the next bus came along.
The feeling didn’t go away after the ride. It lingered as I rode back home on the subway. In fact, it got worse. When I got off the train, I found myself walking in his direction. I wanted to avoid him, but somehow I knew if I turned around now I would see him again. So I did something completely out of character: I decided not to walk past him at all. Instead I waited for the next train to come so I wouldn’t have to make eye contact with him.
When I got on the train, the feeling intensified tenfold. I couldn’t shake the thought that I should turn around and face him. It wasn’t because I really disliked this person. This guy is actually very nice—a little eccentric, maybe even quirky, which can be endearing. But sometimes people like this rub me the wrong way for reasons unknown. The thing is, I don’t know what makes them tick. They might be shy or they might be socially awkward, but neither option excuses their behavior. If someone doesn’t want to talk to you, why do you keep pursuing them? Why do you feel compelled to engage with them?
I finally accepted that I needed to confront this situation head on. I had to find out what was going on so I could deal with it. And the only way to do that was to get right up close and personal.
So I forced myself to approach him and introduce myself. He said hello and asked how I liked living in New York. A few minutes later, we were talking about everything from politics to movies. He told me he was originally from Chicago and moved to New York when he was 20 years old. As we talked, I noticed that he seemed distracted. Occasionally, he looked down at his shoes or fiddled with his hands. After about 10 minutes, I realized he hadn’t heard any part of the conversation besides “hello” and “goodbye.”
There was no mistaking that he was uncomfortable. I immediately stopped talking and gave him space. My first instinct was to apologize for making him feel that way, but that would probably make things worse. Instead, I decided to wait for the moment when he would ask me questions. Sure enough, after another minute passed, he spoke up.
“You seem really comfortable here in New York,” he said. “Do you live near Central Park? Does it take long to get anywhere?” His eyes darted around the station before landing on mine. I responded by telling him yes, I lived near Central Park and getting somewhere takes less than 15 minutes. Then he began asking me more detailed questions about my neighborhood and where I went to school.
At one point, I mentioned that I was thinking about applying for a job at Google. He perked up and asked me to explain exactly what kind of position I was interested in. I explained that I was looking for work in marketing. He started rambling about himself being a marketer too. I cut him off mid-sentence and said, “That’s great! Do you still need help with anything specific?” He paused and then replied, “Yes, I do.”
He shared that he wanted to start a business and sell products online. I was curious about what type of product he planned to launch, so I asked. He said it involved selling vitamins. He also mentioned that he had been trying to raise money through AngelList, a crowdfunding platform for entrepreneurs.
After our chat ended, I stepped outside the station and continued running. I was glad it happened during my workout. I tried to stay objective throughout the encounter. While I never met this man personally, I knew that he was struggling emotionally.
A few days later, I received an email from him. It read, “Hi, I hope you don’t mind me contacting you via email. I was hoping to connect with you. I’m sorry I was rude yesterday. I’ve been having a lot of stress lately.” I wrote back saying I understood and that he shouldn’t have acted that way. Our interaction helped me learn something valuable: It’s totally normal to feel uncomfortable when meeting someone new. There aren’t many rules set in stone for these situations, especially ones involving men.
I eventually learned that he was a therapist based in Brooklyn. Through mutual friends, I discovered that he often has trouble connecting with people. Maybe he’s naturally introverted. Or maybe he’s dealing with mental health issues. Whatever the case may be, I’ve always respected therapists for their ability to help others navigate difficult emotional terrain. Because of that, I’ve sought therapy for most of my life.
Now whenever I meet someone new, I try to remember what that experience taught me. First, I remind myself that everyone feels awkward at times. Even though I hate confrontation, I practice it anyway. Second, I acknowledge that it’s natural to feel uneasy when meeting someone new. Third, I accept that my feelings will change over time. Fourth, I focus on what matters most: How am I treating other people? Finally, I use whatever information I gather to figure out whether or not I want to pursue further contact with this individual.
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