Maggie: I have been thinking a lot about our previous discussion on the different categories of loneliness. I can’t get that conversation out of my head.
John: What have you been thinking about the most?
Maggie: All of us are really two people. Two different people.
John: I think I know where you are going with this, but can you give me a little more detail?
Maggie: People act one way but feel a different way. They act like everything is going well, but inside they are lonely and depressed.
John: I agree. We hide what is inside of us from the people around us. Our public face does not usually represent our private thoughts and feelings.
Maggie: But that just teaches us to hide what we are feeling, to not talk about what we are going through inside.
John: I think you are partially correct. But let’s think about it a bit more deeply. Okay?
Maggie: Of course. Where do we start?
John: Let’s start with this question: Do we have different public faces that we present to different people in different situations? But don’t answer the question generally; tell me about your personal experiences.
Maggie: Are you asking me whether I act differently when I am around different people?
John: Yes. That is a better way to state the question. I was borrowing too much from T.S. Eliot in my phrasing: “there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet[.]”
Maggie [silently ignoring John’s incessant quoting of Eliot]: Of course I do. I act differently when I am with you than when I am with a close friend. I act differently when I am talking to grandma than when I am talking to a teacher.
It’s weird, but we all act differently in different situations. Even you. When you talk to older people you always soften your voice and say “yes sir” or “yes ma’am.” And you never call them “pickle-weasel” like you do me.
John: It’s an endearing term and a little funny, but I don’t think strangers would find it so. But we’re off-track, so let’s get back to work!
Maggie: Why do we act differently around different people?
John: Context. We moderate and modify our behavior based on the context we are in at the time. Think about these examples. At work, employees act according to a work code. The same is true for students at school. But at home, a person is a bit more free and relaxed, so both her language and her behavior becomes a bit looser.
There are behavioral codes (also called behavioral mores) for weddings, funerals, business meetings, classrooms, family gatherings, friendly outings, and baseball games, and we adjust our language and behavior for each context. We act differently at a Broncos game than we do at a niece’s peewee soccer game, or at least I hope we do.
Maggie: What about people who say that they act the same wherever they go. I heard one lady say, “I never change for anyone. I just tell it like it is.”
John: Well, even the Dalai Lama (possibly the most morally virtuous person living) changes depending on the context he is in. I understand that he is quite a prankster and jokester with his friend, Bishop Desmond Tutu. But he doesn’t kid around when he is negotiating for the freedom of his people in Tibet. Being a good and virtuous person requires that we modify our actions in different contexts.
And have you ever noticed that people who make these types of comments usually do so to justify mean or inappropriate behavior? I don’t know a single virtuous person who holds this position. But it is possible I am wrong on this.
Maggie: So what is your overall point?
John: We all exist in different contexts, and those different contexts require different behaviors. Most of the contexts in which we live, work, and recreate do not allow us to share our innermost thoughts and feelings. So in those contexts, it shouldn’t surprise you that our public faces and private thoughts and feelings are very different.
On the other hand, many of us have opportunities in which we can share our feelings and inner thoughts: dinner with a friend; walks with a spouse; or sessions with a counselor. In these contexts, our public face and private feelings merge.
The problem arises when we do not have the proper context or opportunities to share our private worlds. Many don’t have this.
And it is not enough to simply have a good context for sharing. I am sure you have guessed it by now, but what else do we need?
Maggie: Someone to share our feelings with.
John: Again, you are right. We also need people in our lives with whom to share our private worlds.
It is not enough to have coworkers, or acquaintances, or pleasure friends, or family members, or doctors, or roommates. We need the right friend in the right context in order to have the freedom to share.
For example, I have a good friend with whom I can share my thoughts and feelings. This is the right person. But I also need the right context. I wouldn’t share my feelings with this person at a Seahawks game, but I would over a glass of scotch in an Irish pub. I wouldn’t share my inner thoughts when coworkers are around, but I would while sitting on a beach on Oahu.
Do you understand?
Maggie: I think so. It is easy to say that people who are lonely should share their feelings. But that is actually a very hard thing to do. We need the right friend in the right context at the right time to do so.
And many people don’t have either the right people or the right contexts to share their feelings and thoughts.
John: I think that is correct. It is easy to tell people to simply talk to someone or to call a hotline. And I certainly support such advice. Hotlines have an important role to play; the person on the end of a hotline may just be the right person in the right context at the right time for someone overcome with loneliness. But for many people, talking to an anonymous person is actually hard to do.
And there is a better solution. Which brings us back to one of our early dialogues on the importance of friendship. How do you think friendship plays into our discussion?
Maggie: It is important to have friends to talk to about our feelings and thoughts, but also the right context in which to share our feelings.
John: There is the flip side of that though. What about being a friend?
Maggie: I think that is even more important. We need to be a friend to people who need a friend. But we also need to make sure we have the right contexts for sharing so our friend feels comfortable doing so.
John: You are learning, which makes me happy. Next time let’s chat about what else we can do to help ourselves overcome loneliness, but also to help others with the same problem.