Recently a friend of mine reached a landmark birthday and opened up about not really knowing what was going on in his social interactions with other people. He talked about feeling like everyone else had gone through a special “training class” that he had missed. I knew exactly what he meant because in my younger years, I too felt very similar in that I felt like everyone had been let in on the secret handshake, except me.
He went on to talk about how he felt like he was wearing masks, reflecting back what other people did and said, but that he really did not understand the rules or what was happening; it sometimes led to misunderstandings that baffled him too. Again, I understood. I was often baffled by the opening greeting of “How are you?” When I let people know how I really was – and why, they never really seemed to be interested in hearing it. Why were they asking me how I was if they did not want to know? Why do we include this obligatory question in our greetings if all we really expect – and want – to hear is “fine,” whether we are or not?
But it wasn’t just this. There were many social rules I did not understand, and I often found myself breaking some unspoken rule or another. I also found that people were very often indirect, and I was left to guess what they meant. Because I am not a mind-reader, I was often wrong, which led to a lot of misunderstandings. Why couldn’t people just be direct? Say what you mean! Ask for what you want!
When I was in the miltary, things were much easier to figure out. Social structure is very organized, the rules are very clear on how to behave around others of various ranks, and respect is expected of all. As a soldier, I clearly understood where I fit in, how to behave, and how to interact. The chain of command and procedures were well understood if there were any issues.
When I was discharged, I found myself confused by the civilian world. People were often jerks, chain of command did not work, and nothing I had learned in the military had translated into civilian life. I had gone from order and understanding to chaos and confusion.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to believe that no one really does know “the secret handshake,” but everyone likes to pretend that they do. We wear masks in order to “fit in.” How many times have I heard people say things like “I was born in the wrong country” or “…in the wrong time” or even “…on the wrong planet”? But none of us wants to admit openly we don’t know the secret handshake, nor do we want to remove our masks because to do so would be akin to getting caught with our pants down.
So, we keep picking up our masks, playing the games, and always wondering things like: who am I? who are these people? and what the hell just happened?!
What about you? Do you feel the same way? Or is there really a secret handshake?
...yet with my feet on the ground
I look around
and see everyone's with me
confused as can be
and yet they pretend
what they do they intend
they make it up too
it's how they get through...