She Never Predicted My Reaction

When have you been most surprised by someones verbal response?

Did the individuals words or tone seem out of character, leaving you to wonder, who is this person?

I was an early teen when a girl in my grade challenged me to engage with her, seemingly to provoke a reaction that would make me look bad in front of her friends (and possibly mine). Instead, I said something that left them speechless. It was a good lesson for me and hopefully for them.

Unfriendly Assumptions

In middle school, when we were no longer running around a playground and not yet hanging out with boys, recess was a time for my girlfriends and me to catch up on our latest news. Many such episodes tend to blend as a single memory, but one sticks out in my mind. It began when a couple of our friends, accompanied by three other girls with whom they’d just had class, joined the rest of our usual gang. All visibly animated, they let us know the reason: it was Cindy’s birthday.

Cindy and her pals were considered acquaintances more so than friends, but in those days, kids from different friend groups easily intermingled. Further, Southern hospitality had been ingrained in my girlfriends and me since we were toddlers. Thus, everyone welcomed the visitors and chimed in with warm happy birthday wishes.

Well are not everyone. Eager for Cindy and her friends to move on, I stood on the edges of the assembly, keeping my distance and fake smiling. I was thankful to have lots of my friends surrounding her, buffering any need for me to interact with someone who didn’t like me.

In truth, Cindy and I didn’t know one another. She was new to our school, and we didn’t have any classes together. Nevertheless, each time the two of us were in the same breathing space, such as when she encountered a friend of mine, Cindy refused to say a word to me, much less return a smile or establish eye contact. I had, however, caught her giving me unpleasant looks. Since she was discreet, I doubted anyone else noticed.

No matter, I was not confrontational, so I didn’t raise the issue with her. It seemed pointless. Cindy didn’t threaten me or affect my daily life. Aside from her occasional chats at school with certain friends of mine, she and I didn’t socialize in the same circles.

Therefore, besides mumbling to the person standing next to me that Cindy doesn’t like me, as I remained uninvolved. One of my friends then said to Cindy, “Show everyone your necklace!”

Cindy had received a birthstone pendant from her parents. Aware of how thrilled the birthday girl would be to show off her prized gift to our group, my friend was kindly granting her an opportunity to shine. In turn, Cindy’s face lit up as she lifted the chain for all to see the semiprecious gem. Bouncing on her toes, unable to contain her glee, she announced, “It came from Rudy’s Watch Repair!” (The actual name of the business was different but had a similar ring to it!)

Immediately thereafter, Cindy sought me out to lock eyes. My parents owned the other jewelry store in town, so Rudy’s was their competition. Interestingly, the girl who had never spoken a word to me somehow knew about my family’s business and wanted me to know that her parents had not purchased that remarkable treasure from us.

Determined to maintain a positive demeanor, I smiled to convey nonchalance, but the nonverbal contest continued. After breaking her gaze at me to accept the compliments of my friends, each of whom were taking a moment to inspect her pendant, as if proceeding through a receiving line, Cindy glanced at me. With a subtle head movement, she then motioned for me to come look. I watched her go back and forth between accepting praise and signaling me a few more times.

Noticing that several of my friends, having fulfilled their duty, were regrouping in a separate pack, I had two options: join them or accept Cindy’s challenge.

Game on!

Except for a friend who was next to me, all the others had moved away by the time I got close enough to view her pendant. Cindy’s mouth was agape, indicating her surprise that I would approach her. Likewise, her friends had deer-in-headlights expressions.

What did they imagine I would say?

Pausing, finally seeing her necklace up close, I had three distinct thoughts:
1. That’s a pretty necklace.

2. Mr. Rudy has nice merchandise.

3. I wouldn’t mind having a necklace like that.

Accordingly, I sincerely and enthusiastically said, “That’s pretty!”

Greater Expectations

I anticipated a thank you from the girl who could finally see I was not some snob because my parents had a nice store. (By the way, running that business was not easy; my mom and dad rarely took time off.) Cindy, however, said nothing, making me wonder if the little jewelry expert (referring to myself) needed to be more convincing. To note, my mental deliberation transpired over seconds, so I rapidly followed “That’s pretty!” with “It really is!”

Although my second pronouncement was even more emphatic, no one responded. Cindy and her friends faces remained frozen.

If she wasn’t going to say thanks, I thought, where was her snarky remark?

Another heartbeat of silence ensued, so with nothing else to say, I smiled and turned to be with my friends. Yes, I had complimented Cindy’s necklace and Mr. Rudy by association, but I’d truly praised my parents for raising me to speak favorably of our competition, a friendly competitor—something Cindy had no way of knowing because she didn’t know me or the character of my parents.

Who Is This Person?

Cindy had ideas about me, and I had thoughts about her, but our assumptions, prompting us to anticipate how the other would react in a defining moment, amounted to useless speculation. Neither a face-off nor a friendly association resulted.

Considering how little Cindy and I knew about each other, despite our prior interactions, I offer this thought to ponder:

Why are we so often shocked by the sentiments of strangers or people we know only in certain contexts?

If we’re surprised to the point of wondering, who is this person, then we must admit we never really knew the individual well enough in the first place to presume any kind of reaction. It’s then up to us to determine if a meaningful purpose exists in pursuing the answer.

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

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