On being … enthusiastic

By Ingrid Sapona

I’d rather be around people who are upbeat. Of course, I realize many people have problems and challenges that are way more difficult than I can even begin to imagine. There are lots of very real reasons someone might not be particularly upbeat, and I do understand that. But there are also people who have comfortable lives who rarely smile or show excitement about anything. I’m not talking about folks who are certifiable grouches or curmudgeons – I’m talking about otherwise normal folks who seldom have a smile to share and who rarely let on about having a good time.

Lately I’ve noticed an even more puzzling behaviour: people who seem to feel the need to purposely act unenthusiastic. Here’s an example: the other day I was speaking with someone who just returned from a short holiday to England. When I asked how his trip was, in a fairly serious tone he said, “Oh, it was awful”. Taken aback, I asked what had happened. His explanation was that they had had terrible weather every day but the last day. I teased him and said I thought he should have expected that, given the time of year and the destination.

Then I asked more about the trip and once he realized I truly was interested, he elaborated. As it turns out, he and his wife had gone over for a relative’s wedding and it was one of the most lavish affairs they’ve ever been to – complete with a lengthy private fireworks display. As he spoke about the trip, eventually he let his guard down enough to admit how good a time they had. Afterward I wondered (to myself, of course) why he couldn’t just start off by telling about how spectacular the wedding was and that the trip was fun, despite the weather.

Long ago I realized that some people are uncomfortable showing enthusiasm. But, I’ve also noticed that if I can make them feel safe enough “to let on”, then they let a glimmer of enthusiasm shine through. When that happens, the conversation can be quite delightful. But man, it can be a heck of a lot of work to get to that point. Frankly, sometimes I just don’t have the energy.

I really don’t understand why so many people feel the need to hide their enthusiasm. I know that in high school it was considered cool to feign disinterest and to seem blasé about things, but I figured most folks would grow out of that. I guess not…

Another odd thing I’ve noticed is how some folks feel uncomfortable around even the slightest display of animation or enthusiasm. The other night there was a tribute to Carole King on PBS. She was being honoured for winning the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Price for Popular Song. The tribute, which was held at the White House, featured performances of her songs by a number of different artists. King, who was sitting next to Obama, was clearly delighted and every time they showed her she was nodding to the beat, mouthing the lyrics, and smiling.

The day after the concert, a friend who had also seen the show commented that she thought King’s behaviour seemed out-of-place. I certainly didn’t agree and I asked her to explain why she thought that. She hesitated and basically said she felt King was a bit too enthusiastic.

I saw King’s behaviour as just a manifestation of her happiness and, given the honour that was being bestowed on her, it seemed perfectly natural to me. My friend agreed that King’s behavior wasn’t over-the-top, but she criticised it and said that watching King’s reactions made her somehow uncomfortable. When I pressed her about why she found it uncomfortable, she hemmed and hawed and mumbled something about showing more decorum at the White House and being more subdued. The way I see it, what better time to express your excitement than at an event where the President is presenting you with a tremendous honour?

The struggles of daily life are very real and for many people there’s little to be enthusiastic about. But when there is something to smile about, or to take joy in, why would you expend any energy tamping down your happiness or reining in your excitement? The way I see it, even if you’re around someone who has less to be enthusiastic about, hiding or downplaying your happiness doesn’t help them – it only lessens your happiness. Indeed, I think that sharing enthusiasm can actually help spread it. 

So, even if I’ve not convinced you to always let your enthusiasm show, I hope I’ve persuaded you to at least do so around me. After all, I like being around upbeat people.

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... differently socialized?

By Ingrid Sapona

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how men and women are different, but the issue came up in a surprising way over the past couple weeks. A friend of mine (I’ll call him Henry) mentioned that his cousin (I’ll call him Ted) has been in an out-of-town hospital since Christmas with heart-related problems. During the course of the conversation I learned that though he’s concerned about him, Henry hasn’t sent Ted a get well card or anything. About all Henry’s done is ask Ted’s wife to relay his get well wishes.

I couldn’t believe it. Henry’s always struck me as pretty compassionate – the fact he mentioned Ted’s illness makes me think he’s been thinking about Ted. But not so much as a card? By the end of our conversation I had convinced Henry to drop Ted a note. Naturally, the next time we spoke, I asked whether he had. Henry admitted he hadn’t, but claimed it’s because he couldn’t find a good get well card. That struck me as bull, so I said I’d find him one.

After looking in a few nice card shops, I had to admit the selection of get well cards was pretty limited. And, given that Ted’s been in the hospital nearly six months, cards that talk about following doctor’s orders seem somewhat insulting and cheery sentiments about a quick recovery seem a bit late. So, I shifted gears and started looking for a little something Henry could send to brighten up the day of a guy in the hospital – or at least give Ted and his wife something new to chat about. (If you’ve ever visited anyone daily in the hospital, you know how nice it is to have something different to say for a change!)

Because it was just before Mother’s Day, nearly every gift shop display table and counter was full to the brim with gifts for women. The assortment and variety was astounding. The amount of creative and marketing energy directed at gifts in the $10-$20 range for mothers is impressive.

In one store I did manage to find a table with tchotchkes clearly meant for guys. There were a few dominant themes: golf, poker, and items related to bartending. Underwhelmed with the choices, I decided to wait to check out Father’s Day displays. Sure enough, earlier this week I found lots of them. To my frustration, however, the selection was not much better than the items I came across earlier. About the only new things out were barbecuing tools and accessories. For obvious reasons, none of these things seemed right for someone in the hospital.  

Eventually I found something I thought would fit the bill: a pair of wood pencils in the shape of drumsticks. Obviously, I don’t know if Ted is a frustrated drummer, but I figured most folks at one time or another fidget with their pen or pencil and so the idea of doing so with pencils that are the size and shape of drumsticks seems fun. Besides, if nothing else, Ted could use them to do a Sudoku with or even just to play tic-tack-toe with a visitor. So, I bought them.

The great disparity in terms of the nature and variety of small gift items available for women versus those for men got me thinking. If I was shopping for a gift for a woman in the hospital whom I’d never met, I’d have had no problem finding something that would fit the bill in terms of a cheery pick-me-up. Hell, if I were given a couple specifics – like a favourite colour and whether she does or doesn’t like scents – I’m sure I could find something she’d really appreciate and enjoy – whether it’s a scarf or costume jewellery; a lotion, soap or bubble bath; or gourmet goodies like tea, coffee, chocolates or cookies (not to mention flowers). Though most of the Mother’s Day gift items were things women wouldn’t necessarily buy for themselves, it’s clear that there’s a market for them.

I can’t help wonder whether the fact that there’s a more limited selection of small gift items for men reflects an inherent difference in what men and women appreciate? Do women appreciate small tokens more than men? If so, why is that? Is it something in our nature that helps us take pleasure in small things or see beauty in small things? Or are we more welcoming of small things because we’ve learned to settle for small tokens of appreciation? Or maybe the tremendous selection of gifts created for women is a reflection of the fact that gestures of appreciation and compassion are important to women. (That might explain why Henry hadn’t thought to send a card or note to Ted earlier.) 

Anyway, as for the drumsticks I got for Ted – I ended up returning them. After explaining to Henry why a get well card no longer seems appropriate but that it would be nice of him to send a little something so Ted knows Henry’s thinking of him, Henry agreed. And, as we talked more about it, Henry came up with the idea of a book, which I thought was terrific. The very next day Henry phoned to tell me the title of the book he just mailed to Ted. So, I happily took the drumsticks back.

I don’t know whether my cajoling made enough of an impression on Henry to convince him of the importance of such gestures in general, but in any event, I’m glad he at least made the effort with Ted.

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona