A basic distinction in humans is between those who are simple and straightforward to deal with – and those who are – as we tend to be reminded when we interact with them – repeatedly tricky or complicated to handle.
What makes straightforward people gratifying to be around isn’t so much that their positions and intentions are always inherently unproblematic, it’s that we happen to know exactly what the issues are from the start. There is therefore no need to guess, infer, decode, untangle, unscramble or translate. There are no sudden surprises or revolutions in perspective. If these straightforward types don’t want to do something, they will, politely and in good time, explain that it’s really not for them. If they’re unhappy with our behaviour, they won’t smile sweetly while developing noxious stores of envy or hatred in the recesses of their minds; they will immediately provide a gentle but accurate statement of how we are frustrating them. If they are worried a project is going awry, they won’t pretend that all is well until a catastrophe can no longer be denied. If they are attracted to someone, they will find charming, kind and inoffensive ways of making their feelings clear.
The problem with complicated people is that they are painfully unsure about the legitimacy of their own desires – which renders them unable to let the world know what they truly want and feel. They may appear to agree with everything we’re saying but it emerges – very far down the line – that they had a host of reservations that require an age to uncover and resolve. They will ask you if you’d like another slice of cake when it turns out they are pining for one. They will swear that they want to join you for the dinner you had suggested, when in reality, they had been aching for an early night. They will give every impression of being happy with you while crying inside. They will say sorry when they want you to apologise. They feel overlooked but won’t ever push themselves forward or raise a complaint. They are longing to be understood but never speak. When they are attracted to someone, the only outward evidence might be a few sarcastic comments – leaving the object of their affections bemused or unimpressed.
What could explain such confusing complexity? The root cause is poignant; it springs not from evil or inherent manipulativeness but from fear; the fear of how an audience might respond were one’s true intentions to be known.
There is, as ever, likely to be a childhood origin to this pattern of behaviour. A child becomes complicated – that is, underhand, roundabout or even deceitful – when it is given the impression by its earliest caregivers that there is no room for its honesty. One imagines a child whose needs (for another biscuit, for a run around the garden, for help with homework or for a chance not to see granny) might have been received with evident irritation or open anger. It never quite knew when its parent would get annoyed or explode or why. Or else a child might have sensed that a parent would be unbearably saddened if it revealed too many of its authentic aspirations. Why would one directly say how one felt or what one wanted, if the result were to be shouting, tears, or a complaint from a loved but fragile grown up that this was a betrayal or all simply too much?
And so the child grew into an adult expert at speaking in emotional code, they became someone who prefers always to imply rather than state, who planes the edge off every truth, who hedges their ideas, who has given up trying to say anything that its audience might not already want to hear; someone who lacks any courage to articulate their own convictions or to make any even slightly risky bid for the affection of another person.
Fortunately, none of us are fated to be eternally complicated. We can untangle ourselves by noticing and growing curious about the origins of our habitual evasiveness and reluctant slyness. We can register how little of our truth was originally acceptable to those who brought us into the world. Simultaneously, we can remind ourselves that our circumstances have changed. The dangers that gave birth to our coded manner of communicating have passed: no one is now going to shout at us, or feel so inexplicably hurt, like they once did. Or if they do, we have agency. We can, as a last but crucial resort, walk away. We can use the freedoms of adulthood to dare to own up to more of who we actually are.
We can also recognise that our complicated behaviour doesn’t in fact please people as we might have hoped. Most of the people we deal with would far rather be frustrated head on than sold a fine tale and then have to suffer disappointment in gradual doses.
Human interaction is inherently filled with a risk of conflict: we are never far from misaligned goals and divergent desires. The simple and straightforward ones among us have known enough love and acceptance early on to be able to bear the danger of ruffling a few feathers; they invest their energies in trying to deliver their truths with thoughtful diplomacy rather than in burying them badly beneath temporary and saccharine smiles. We discover simple communication when we can accept that what we want is almost never impossible for others to bear; it’s the cover-up that maddens and pains.
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