Social vulnerability, à la Amy = allowing yourself to participate in social situations in full knowledge that you may make a mistake and/or totally make a mug of yourself.
Recently, a French friend from one of my classes asked me what I had done over the weekend. I proceeded to tell him, in French, that I had been to see the ice hockey. ‘Quoi?’ he asked. The hockey. ‘Quoi?’ The hockey… ‘Quoi?!’ You know, hockey, at the ice rink… ‘Ahhhhh, hockeeey’ he finally exclaimed, pronouncing the word with an ever so slightly different accent to the one I had used. Having repeated my answer several times and having drawn a slightly amused crowd, I turned bright red, mumbled something under my breath and prayed for the building’s asbestos-filled flooring to give way and swallow me up.
Social vulnerability (in this case, awkwardly persevering in repeating the same word over and over again) is hard work and I suck at it. This blog is going to run through why social vulnerability is so important and how I’ve tried really hard to improve it in my own life.
Why can’t I be socially vulnerable?!
I’ve self-reflected on this point a lot, and here are my most relevant reasons:
- British culture: Brits will literally do anything to avoid embarrassment. Like change direction on a street just to avoid saying hello to someone. Or getting a terrible haircut but smiling at the hairdresser and paying fifty quid for it anyway. I have never in my life felt so British as when I have to do the ‘bises’ (kisses) to randomers in France. Here is an amusing article to read in case you don’t already know what it’s like to be awkwardly British.
- Western culture: We have developed a culture that never allows us to be wrong or, more significantly, to say that we don’t know. Even though, half the time, we have no blooming clue. Saying ‘I don’t know’ makes a person very socially vulnerable and can often have negative consequences, and so we’re conditioned to avoid it.
- Personal reasons: Growing up, both at school and at home, my identity centred around being the ‘smart one’. I saw that as the thing that gave me value among my peers and my family, and therefore any challenges to it were seen as the end of the world; if I didn’t know the answer to something, people would laugh and my identity of intelligence would slip away, leaving me with (in my eyes) nothing to offer. Thus I learned to hold my tongue and to read people. I stopped asking questions in class, I started finding loopholes in every argument so that I could never be wrong. I didn’t do sport because I wasn’t good at it and I made sure never to be the centre of attention at a social event, for fear of mucking up.
The self-shaping I did as a child has haunted me into my twenties, and manifests itself in my everyday. For instance, I constantly read people so that I can gauge their reactions and thus form my responses (this makes me terrible at talking on the phone because I can’t read peoples’ body language), I’m scared of speaking French, and new social situations, where I may spill a drink or laugh-snort or say the wrong thing, fill me with instant fear.
Why be socially vulnerable?!
Seems like a lot of work right, so why is it worth improving social vulnerability?
- On a personal level: I’d really quite like to be able to talk on the phone without breaking into a nervous sweat and having to change my t-shirt.
- Personal growth: Being socially vulnerable beckons in other exciting opportunities and situations for personal growth. Going to a party allows us to meet new people and learn more about the world. My bestest Dijon friend Allegra approached a randomer on the tram because she was reading a book in English. That randomer was my friend Amée, and now we’re all best buds.
- Brené Brown: This lady will make you question our whole culture of vulnerability. When we picture ourselves being vulnerable, we’re often convinced that people will hate us, or laugh at us, or be repulsed by us. And YET, when we see examples of other people being vulnerable, we pretty much always genuinely praise them for being courageous. We perceive vulnerability in others as being endearing, a positive quality.
We are attracted to each others’ rough edges.
How have I tried to be socially vulnerable?!
- FRANCE. Oh Lord Jesus, this was not voluntary. I do not speak French fluently. My Bourgogne accent is not perfect. I do not for the life of me like giving the ‘bises’ to every single person in the group, whether I know them or not. But, gotta get stuff done in France, and I therefore am forced to be socially vulnerable every single day. It’s a whole different cultural ballgame this side of the Manche, and I have to navigate a social minefield whilst correctly pronouncing ‘nouilles’ and conjugating verbs in the subjunctive. I.e. EVERY SINGLE DAY I GET SOMETHING WRONG. And every day, someone laughs or tuts or ignores me. This is hard work and sometimes it makes me sad and tired. But it has also strengthened my resolve, helped me to empathise with people, taught me more French and made me a hell of a lot more assertive.
- Extracurricular activities: On top of France’s involuntary opportunities for vulnerability, I have also pushed myself into participating in events in which I knew I would be socially vulnerable. This means going to social events with French people, joining sports teams and also joining a knitting club (pure pleasure). Happily, I was by far the worst basketball player at the basketball club and not much better at badminton, so I have had lots of opportunities for social vulnerability growth. But there really has been some growth! My highlight was going to an external philosophy conference, at which twenty or so academics, and myself, sat around a large table and listened to the philosophical interpretations of healthcare. Afterwards, undaunted (okay, ridiculously daunted) by the roomful of smart people, I mingled and I chatted and I made friends and I made people laugh, IN FRENCH. I came away feeling 100% top.
- Being honest: I’m honest all of the time, of course. Except for when I’m not. I tried for one week to be completely honest all day erry day, and I realised that I totally lie all the time; I make up excuses, I hide my opinions, I say I understand something when I actually really don’t. Sometimes these lies were justified (depending on your moral standing) but most of the time I was using them to protect myself from social pain/ostracism/ being seen as a loser. I would say that I liked Nutella just so that the French didn’t reject me, or I’d say that I understood a Russian word even when I didn’t, because I was too scared to ask again in French. A week of actively checking myself helped to highlight instances in which I was negatively protecting myself from social vulnerability, and therefore showed me some good points for improvement.
In this self-improvement project, I identified the problem (being inhibited by fear of social vulnerability), analysed whether it was worth overcoming (there are serious downsides to being socially closed, like inability to form deep relations and missing out on exciting opportunities) and then worked out the best ways to overcome it (in this case, pretty much plunging head-first into social situations).
Being socially vulnerable has vastly improved my day to say life. I can speak French more freely, meet a wider range of people. and strengthen my friendships more than ever, because sharing personal opinions and stories helps to deepen emotional connections.
Social vulnerability is bloody hard work, but really bloody important. Throughout all of this (it is, of course, an ongoing project) I keep Brené Brown’s talk in mind. She argues that by making ourselves vulnerable we can be deeply seen, and when we are deeply seen we can be deeply loved. I don’t think I can find a better motivation than that.