By Dr. Trey Guinn
Valentine’s Day prompts interesting conversation in my interpersonal communication class.
Students seem especially willing to discuss the highs and lows of romantic love on this holiday. On one such occasion, Katie chimed in and shared a text message she received from her best friend.
It read: “ ‘I know today must be hard for you. Just know that you are so pretty and totally deserve a boyfriend. For what it’s worth, Happy V-Day!’ ”
Katie sighed in disgust after reading the message to us.
“This is why I don’t like Valentine’s Day,” Katie said. “I am totally happy being single. Actually, I have more fun with pizza and Netflix than going on a date anyway. But it really annoys me when I get nonsense like that, especially from someone that is supposed to be my best friend.”
The response from students was telling. Most felt her pain immediately. To my great satisfaction, a few began to use concepts from class to cheer her up. By the end of class, everyone in the room could identify with Katie’s story. We all want to be understood by our friends and those close to us. Feeling in sync with others is important to our well-being. People smile big when uttering phrases such as, “I love her because she totally gets me” and “we didn’t even have to say one word because we knew exactly what the other was thinking.”
So, it can be emotionally upsetting to feel misunderstood by others, especially our best friend. Put in Katie’s situation, most people are likely to feel insulted. An initial response might be, “What?! Today is not hard for me! I am plenty happy and don’t need pity or a backhanded comment. I know that I can have a boyfriend if I want one.”
After a while of feeing insulted, annoyance may turn to sadness and confusion, with thoughts such as, “I thought my friend knew me better than that. Why would she say that? Doesn’t she know that I am perfectly happy being single?”
A week later Katie updated me on the text-message situation. She had not confronted her friend, was sort of avoiding the whole thing, and, as a result, the two had not hung out since. The whole situation struck me as sad. A day to celebrate love had been spiked with a tinge of pain.
I talked with Katie later and shared three tips I will offer here:
First, you can frame the message. Given she has a bit of sensitivity with how her close others perceive her on Valentine’s Day, Katie should get out ahead of the issue and frame the message, perhaps sending texts or posting over Facebook — something like, “Love is in the air — tonight I celebrate my love for life by ordering my favorite pizza and streaming all my favorites on Netflix. Yes, today is a lovely day!”
Second, you can remember there is difference between intent vs. impact. Odds are Katie’s friend meant one thing and Katie read another. In other words, the message sent was not the message received. Insensitivity on the part of Katie’s friend could be caused by lack of awareness, human bias, or verbal mishap. The friend is no better or worse than the rest of us. Have you ever said, “Whoa. You totally misunderstood what I was saying” or “It was just a joke” or “that came out all wrong”? We miscommunicate all the time, and the impact we have on others does not always represent our intentions. A wonderful way for us to forgive and shake it off is to recognize we all are guilty of intent vs. impact.
Finally, you can choose your reaction. Controlling the behavior of others is nearly impossible and a poor use of time. We can, however, choose how we react and respond to others. I asked Katie to read the text again and imagine what a great response would have been, something that would represent her fun and confident self.
Hers was, “True that. Getting a boyfriend is no problem at all. When I find one hotter than oven-baked pizza and more entertaining than Netflix, I might let him take me out on Valentine’s.”
No matter how you spend your Valentine’s Day, I wish you nothing but love and all the best.
Editor’s Note: “Getting Interpersonal” offers scholarly and lighthearted advice about communication and personal relationships. To send in a question, e-mail Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org