TRUE STORIES: A word about empty gestures

J.T. Knoll

Some of you may have seen the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode in which Larry David offers to help a good friend with his sister who’s having mental health problems. When the friend responds that he could, in fact, help by coming over that afternoon to talk to her, the following dialogue ensues:

“What, are you kidding?”

“Why? You didn’t mean it?”

“Of course not.”

“Why did you say it then?”

“Uhh … you know. It was an empty gesture.”

Ah yes, the empty gesture. Something we’ve all been guilty of using with acquaintances, family and friends at one time or another.

Why would we do such a rude thing? Especially with the people we truly care about? Most likely for one or more of three reasons: 1) We want to be liked; 2) We don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings; 3) We have inadequate communication skills.

That’s not to say that we don’t all know someone who are just full of ‘empty gestures,’ and mindlessly spouts all manner of vacuous promises and insipid claims on any given day.

Still, with things beginning to open back up due to the Covid vaccines, many good citizens are finding gestures made during the time of social distancing are now making them squirm a little. One’s like, “Sorry, I’d like to get together but, you know, the pandemic protocols say we shouldn’t. We’ll do it when it’s safe.”

To put it bluntly, there are some people and gatherings a lot of us were happy we had an excuse to miss.

Or we discovered we didn’t know how anxious, depressed and uncomfortable being with certain people or attending certain activities were making us until we didn’t have to do it any more.

So I’m thinking we’re all going to need a little tune up on setting healthy boundaries (how close you can come to me) and limits (how close I want to get to you).

Think of a person who understands when you don’t want to go to the party, concert or ballgame — or respects that you don’t want them to come over to visit on any given day.

On the other hand, think of someone who tries to guilt you for not hanging with them or shows up at your house even when you’ve told them you need some solitude.

You get the picture.

When it comes to resetting social boundaries and limits it’s important to start with knowing yourself: are you an extrovert (draw most of your life energy from being around others), introvert (draw most of your life energy from being alone), or ambivert (a combination of both).

Next, look around at your family, friends, neighbors, work colleagues, etc. Consider the ones that raise your stress level and the ones in whose presence you feel comfortable. And, within those, what subjects are off limits for you (childhood, income, divorce, illness) in certain company. Decide ahead of time a response to someone whose crossing a boundary, maybe something like, “You know, I don’t feel comfortable talking about that"

Then you have to be assertive (which can be scary for some of the same reasons mentioned above that we use empty gestures). In most cases, setting a clear boundary and wanting to be liked for it are contradictory. But being direct pays off in the long run. And the more you do it, the easier it gets. Remember, being assertive does not mean you’re being unkind but rather fair and honest.

To be sure it’s not a black and white issue. Which is to say, there are times we are called upon to be civil with people we don’t like; or decide, as an act of kindness, to visit a sick friend or relative; or attend a family gathering we’d really rather not. But it’s important to remember we are making the decision to be there and have the right to keep clear boundaries during the visit.

I’ve found it’s helpful to use ‘bookending’ when facing an especially daunting person with whom I have to set a boundary. This means visiting with an understanding friend (or counselor) before making a phone call or visiting with the intimidating family member, co-worker, or friend. And then calling them back to process how it went after setting the boundary.

Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that no one has the right to make me feel uncomfortable or take away my personal space. If I’ve asserted myself and made it clear to another person what my boundaries and limits are — and they continue to disrespect them — I move on (with as much kindness as I can muster) and cultivate my relationships with the people who respect my choices.

And, of course, be mindful that, even with the closest of friends and family, I will sometimes have to bite my tongue — lest I blurt out an empty gesture.

J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-704-1309 or jtknoll@swbell.net