During my graduate training, I interned at a college counseling office. Many students sought counseling because they found they were having trouble “finding their people.” That is to say, they found campus culture to be weird and alienating, they weren’t making friends, and they experienced a good deal of discomfort in trying to connect with others. One student summed this sentiment up pretty perfectly when he said, “These people suck.” This struck me as the perfect expression to capture an all-too-common experience. We’ve all thought it at some point, although maybe not always in those exact words. Whether it be starting a new job, moving to a new neighborhood, or meeting our partner’s family for the first time, we’ve all come into contact with people who behave in ways unfamiliar to us, with whom we're not quite sure how to interact. This can be incredibly frustrating and disappointing. Those feelings are legitimate. We’re allowed to be annoyed when we’re surrounded by people we have trouble connecting with. Unfortunately, that initial annoyance can transform into harsh and often unfair judgements. The question is, where do we go from “These people suck?” How do we make these situations work for us?
What do we really mean by “These People Suck?”
Sometimes, we mean “I cannot tolerate this behavior.” That’s a valid and important recognition that a real conflict exists between our personal values and the actions of our peers. Perhaps they engage in some activity that runs counter to our deeply held beliefs, or something that they do just doesn’t feel right to us. In such instances, we may be able to find a compromise. For example, expressing that the offending action is “something I don’t do,” and simply abstaining from the activity, while continuing to interact with our peers and engaging in less divisive pursuits. Unfortunately, compromise is not always an option. In some instances, we may need to invest our social energy in finding alternative ways to meet our social needs, such as cultural institutions, clubs or groups dedicated to specific interests, or organizations meant to foster community.
Often, however, “these people suck” means “they’re hard to make conversation with,” “I don’t feel understood,” “our sensibilities differ,” or “I don’t want to have to be like them.” Truthfully, feeling this way about a few people isn’t likely to cause us much trouble, but when it’s how we feel about everyone in a setting where we find ourselves spending a lot of time (i.e., school, work, etc.) this outlook probably isn’t doing us any favors. So what can we do instead?
Be a Tourist
We don’t fit in, we’re having trouble relating, and we feel frustrated. But, what if we got rid of the expectation that we’d automatically fit in or be able to relate? After all, people pay thousands of dollars to visit far off countries where they don’t fit in or immediately understand the customs. Perhaps, we can approach our co-workers, classmates, neighbors, or in-laws with the same curiosity and appreciation we would have toward the culture of a place we were visiting. These people are different from what we know—is there anything cool or interesting about that? What could we potentially learn from one another? By embracing our outsider status, we can fret less about how we are perceived or the interpersonal hiccups that occur when navigating unfamiliar social terrain, and we can more fully appreciate the unique qualities of the people with whom we find ourselves. Often, before we know it, we are comfortable enough to let go of our tourist identity and to start acting more like a local. But, if not? No harm done, and we can move on to greener pastures.
Don’t be a Contortionist
When we’re having difficulty connecting with people, we sometimes bend ourselves out of shape trying to present more acceptable versions of ourselves. Is this ever successful? The short answer is, sometimes. The problem is, it’s a lot of effort, and will often be perceived as awkward or unnatural. In short, inauthenticity is uncomfortable for all parties. What’s more, it’s kind of pointless. Let’s say we actually did impress people by altering our usual way of being—who are we trying to impress? We haven’t bonded with the person on any legitimately shared values, sensibilities, or interests. We may have made ourselves acceptable to them, but to what gain? On the other hand, when we behave authentically, we are sending out a signal to others with whom we might share common ground. We’ll never know if we truly have anything in common if we never reveal our true selves.
Engaging with people authentically and with sincere intentions costs nothing. If the people in question do indeed suck, now we know—and we haven’t lost anything by giving them the benefit of the doubt. Conversely, if they don’t (and the odds are good that they don’t!), we may make connections that allow an otherwise alienating environment to become a space we enjoy.
Thomas Shooman is a mental health counselor practicing at Resolution Psychotherapy in Poughkeepsie, New York. Thomas’ clients include individuals dealing with anxiety, grief, and obsessive thinking. He enjoys helping people navigate uncomfortable circumstances and find solutions that are in line with their personal style. Thomas is a member of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science and the International OCD Foundation, and he is currently accepting new clients. For more information or to schedule a session with Thomas, please visit www.resolutionpsychotherapy.com or e-mail email@example.com.