The Young Adult Section: People and fear

Opinion by Nina M. Chung
Nov. 8, 2011, 12:28 a.m.

The Young Adult Section: People and fearI think people are afraid of people. It sounds weird only because we don’t typically diagnose it as fear. But if we take some of our greatest ones — bad first impressions, feeling out of place, being judged — it all comes down to this strange, unacknowledged fear of other people. Perhaps with all the unknowns in this universe and beyond, the ones inside ourselves are the scariest.

Starting in freshman year of high school, as I stood with chatty teammates in tennis skirts on the courts, I used to feel completely trapped in my own head. You know the feeling. It’s a unique combination of being lost for words, conscious of correct laughter cues, aware of how involved you are in the conversation and stressed that the others are creeped out that you might not be. In this situation, you don’t want to say anything wrong. So you think about everything before you say it. And, as we all know, doing that can make anything sound weird. Ultimately, I never felt effortless or comfortable amidst these girls and their conversation (or gossip and complaints, more accurately). I spent about two years of practices and matches in private fits, thinking I was toeing a thin line between “insider” and “outsider.” I then quit, joined broadcast journalism (which rocked my remaining high school career) and realized I had legitimately very little in common with most of my former teammates. I had been so self-conscious, so afraid of my social status with those girls. Why?

For most people, that situation has become so normal that it’s taken for granted. Imagine sitting at lunch with a group of people. And no matter how beautiful it is outside, how great the food is, how friendly the people are (and even more so if they’re not), we somehow become acutely sensitive to the moment. Suddenly, everything we would normally have said outright demands a second guess. Will they get this joke? Does this comment fit? When should I say it? Now? Too late? Do I laugh now? Maybe I’ll agree to everything. Is it weird I’m wearing this jacket when it’s this nice out…Oh my goodness.

For me, this kind of hesitancy in speech is a major alarm that some unnaturalness is going on. Internal head-games, my friend — they’re unbelievably exhausting. And even in some of my closest friends, I can almost literally see thoughts marinating or speeches being mentally perfected for so long that they never get said. Then, with emotions bottled up, people either blow up at someone or resort to passive-aggressiveness — two reactions that are frustratingly hard to engage with. The biggest irony is that when we lose ourselves in over-analysis of our image, we also lose the opportunity to talk for real. And at that point, what they think of us will be an artificial idea anyway.

Of all the fears that sink to the pits of our stomachs and tie knots there, our fear of other people might be the most powerful one. It pervades the simplest, most everyday moments — especially the fleeting ones that seem the least important. There’s definitely an escape route, though, in making this fear useful. After all, the fear tells us exactly who we’re defining as important and how much we’re glorifying them. If we decide that we’re paying our worry and time to someone who deserves our precious energy, fine. (For example, if we get a bloody nose in a shark-infested ocean, fear for our lives with respect to a man-eating fish is logical.) But if we realize we’re putting another person and their random opinions on a pedestal, we might also realize how ridiculous it actually is.

At this school, so many of us pursue lofty standards and achieve unimaginable accomplishments in research, government policies and public service…and it’s amazing. Yet when it comes down to our most basic relations with our peers, we still fall victim to this fear of seeming weird. Or wrong. Or offensive. Or whatever.

I choose to believe in a few things that truly deserve fear, respect and deference. However, how we’re considered by another human person is seriously not one of them. The thought strikes so much more fear into people than it has the legitimate authority to. People are people: imperfect, completely different, keepers of stories that can’t be read on faces. So why are we so afraid of seeming otherwise?

It’s okay. Just do it. Just say it. Especially when hesitation hits.

What will Nina think if you email her in response? It doesn’t matter. (For the record, she would really love to hear that you read the column at all.) Simply address it to ninamc “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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