When Connection is… Awkward

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Between Black History Month and Valentine’s Day, February encourages us to think about both the past and the present, separation and connection. Each of these events have associations both positive and negative; we should, of course, celebrate the incredible contribution of African Americans year-round, instead of needing to be reminded and show our love and appreciation to others, daily, rather than having a manufactured holiday. The seemingly contrary aspects of these (and many other) events represents a tension we don’t always know how to navigate.

Dictionary.com defines dichotomy as “a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being entirely different.” Taking a tiny bit of liberty with the definition, I have noticed that there is a natural dichotomy in most things; nothing is all good or all bad, but inevitably a mix of both.

This makes me think about the relationships I have and even my own patterns with communication and connection. Of the most constant is my girl, Quinn. Her communication is primarily nonverbal and really evident when we are out for walks. When she wants to connect, she will stop and hop up for what we lovingly call “huggies.” As the name implies, she puts her front legs up on my shoulders and wants me to embrace and snuggle her. This often happens when we first start the walk, or when we are headed home. When she wants to let me know she doesn’t care for the direction we are going, she does something we refer to as “perching.” This is when she puts her feet on my back or on my arm. When she wants reassurance, she does “leanies.” This is when she begins to walk really closely and leans into me, expecting face, neck and back scratchies.

While I respect what she’s trying to convey with each of these actions, they can be quite ill timed or even flat out awkward. She has literally stopped in the middle of the street for huggies and can get so insistent about perching that she becomes the equivalent of a 65-pound parrot, talons and all. Additionally, most of these movements come with a lot of flailing feet action; my air pods have been knocked out of my ears, I have received scratches on my face, and she has leaned into me unexpectedly, resulting in my being thrown a bit off balance, right into a blackberry bush.

As you read the previous paragraph, you may wonder if I find these things annoying. I do not. These are the tools she has, and I understand the messages she is attempting to send. Most of the time, I think her methods are clever and adorable. It’s only when she and I don’t seem to be in sync that I find them frustrating.

When thinking about the other people in my life (and myself!) I can identify variations of each of the patterns that Quinn exhibits. We each want to connect with others, offer communication and correction (or at least indicate we don’t like the direction things are headed) or even want reassurance. And just like Quinn, the attempts can range from clever and adorable to head scratching and wildly unclear.

Consider the colleague whose every text is basically a short novel about everything that is currently wrong in their life. This is the literal equivalent of flailing feet; they don’t like what is happening but may not know how to communicate more effectively. It’s easy to be annoyed, but perhaps a better strategy would be to offer a combination of leanies and huggies; letting them know they are not alone, and things are tough, but tomorrow is another day and their heart is always safe with you.

Or the acquaintance who asks weirdly invasive questions. It’s likely that their goal is simply to connect (huggies) but their methods are well… awkward. Since this can feel too aggressive, you might end up feeling (emotionally) scratched. Your first instinct might be to push them away as firmly as you can, but what about adjusting their (metaphorical) paws so the interaction feels loving and not off putting and weird.

In all our interactions, it’s incredibly easy to find fault with the dichotomy of humanity, but the truth is, we are all a mix of weird and wonderful. At the heart of it all, I love walking with Quinn and the other people in my life and I want them to love walking with me, even when my feet flail or I inadvertently push them into a blackberry bush.