Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fragile Friends

Hello Polite Readers!

Today's letter comes from a dance friend and has some dance-related issues in it, but at its heart it's about how to deal with a very specific type of person that we've almost all encountered before. Read on:

I have a Politely Worded request: how/whether to tell someone she's being incredibly clingy. The person I'm thinking of is one of my bellydance students. She's desperately lonely and wants to make friends, but her idea of bonding is to share all the most horrible things that have ever happened to her (including telling near-strangers about being sexually abused) and text you ten times a day.

She's also paranoid about being excluded--one time, she was mistaken about the date of an event, and accused us of lying to her about the date so that we wouldn't have to invite her. On one hand, I feel bad for her; her social difficulties lie partly in the fact that she's on the autism spectrum. On the other hand, it's really very stressful to spend time with her. How can I be kind and yet avoid feeling resentful that she's trying to turn me into her mom?

Oh, and to make matter worse, she's fixated on passing the intermediate test as a sign of social acceptance, but I've been teaching her for most of a year, and she has yet to understand basic posture. wah!

Oh my oh my. Well, I have to admit that I identify with your student in one specific area. I, too, have a certain amount of insecurity about being excluded in my dance community. I once found myself crying in my car because I couldn't find the house we were supposed to have a troupe party at due to a problem with Bing maps, and no one was answering my text messages asking for directions. I convinced myself that they were ignoring me on purpose and didn't want me at the party after all. Of course, when I finally managed to pull the address up on a different map program and made my way there, everyone was happy to see me and they just hadn't heard their phones over the chatter.

When you're socially awkward, it's really easy to work yourself into a tizzy over stupid little things like that. What I've done, and what your student needs to do, is to be aware of the tendency to do that and to catch myself before I go into a death spiral. When I get stood up for a lunch date, instead of immediately thinking "Everyone hates me! Waaaa!" I think about all the more likely reasons. Maybe their car broke down, they wrote the date wrong on their calendar, there was a sudden family emergency. Because you know what? If someone really hated me, they wouldn't invite me out to lunch, so clearly there's some other more logical reason keeping them from meeting me.

You bring up three problems with your student, and each of them could be a PW column on their own, but I'll try to address each of them here.

1. Your student wants to make friends but is really bad at it, because she thinks over-sharing builds closeness when really it scares people off.

Can you meet her for coffee? If not, a nice e-mail or phone call may be necessary for talking about this and also the next issue. Be very careful and positive with your wording -- I say this not just because she's on the autism spectrum, I'd say it about someone who was just a drama queen, too. Start out focusing on her good qualities so she doesn't immediately get defensive and interrupt you. Say something like:

I just wanted to let you know that we're all really happy to have you in dance class. I love how dedicated you are to coming to class, attending events, and making new friends. I've noticed that you're really great about approaching the new students to befriend them! Can I just offer a bit of advice? I think you come on a little too strong with sharing personal details right away. Let people get to know you first! I think if you focus on talking about what you love about dance and what brought you to class and some of your other interests, it will help you and the newbies get to know each other so much more quickly.

2. Your student immediately assumes she was purposefully excluded when she has the wrong date for an event.

One way to prevent this without having to talk to her about it is to try to avoid date confusion in the future. If you don't already, make sure to provide upcoming event dates on a Google calender or in e-mail or as Facebook events. It's easier to remember a date and put it correctly in your personal calendar when you see it written down rather than hearing it. Provide several reminders as an event draws closer... Mention it in class, send out an extra e-mail, send a group text message. Maybe use different media so whatever people check most often, they see it.

Then when you do talk to her, say something like this:

I'm really sorry that you got so upset when you accidentally showed up for the hafla on the wrong day! I want you to know that we would never exclude you like that. In the future I'm going to make sure to be more clear about when things are happening, but if it happens again, please text me right away and I'll let you know what's going on.

3. Your student has unrealistic expectations about her progress in dance class.

Well, it's not unrealistic to expect to graduate to intermediate class after a year of studying, if you've been practicing hard. It is unrealistic to expect to graduate to intermediate when you don't even have your posture right (I assume this means she's also still struggling with basic moves, too). Rather than bringing this up directly with her (because I want your meeting/e-mail to be mostly positive and solution-based), I'd bring this up in class in a general sense. Say something like this:

Hey everyone, don't forget that we're starting a new intermediate session soon! I know some of you are interested in moving up. Remember that to be eligible for intermediate class you have to be comfortable cuing and leading <list of moves here>. The test will be held next Wednesday, so practice hard until then!

Edit as needed to fit your actual situation. This makes it clear that you have specific requirements to move up and that it's not about playing favorites. Of course, this means you have to stick to your requirements and not fudge them. As someone who has suffered through "intermediate" and "advanced" classes full of students asking questions about beginner moves, I strongly encourage you to stand your ground and not give in.

Your student may contact you to ask why she wasn't allowed to graduate and then you'll have to be honest with her. Point out the areas that she needs work, and then offer suggestions for what she can do. If you offer private lessons, suggest that she take one so you can more closely examine what is wrong with her posture and why she's struggling with certain moves. Suggest specific DVDs, YouTube tutorials or Datura Online videos that she can drill along with at home. Maybe suggest which students she should watch and copy in class. Mention other good teachers in the area that she can get some extra training from, if applicable.

But I suspect your problem will soon take care of itself. When she doesn't pass the intermediate test, she's probably going to either take it personally, or decide that bellydance is too hard and move on to the next would-be source of fulfillment. Of course, that could be my natural pessimism showing. I hope that for her sake and for yours that you can get through to her, and she takes this as inspiration to be a better friend and a better student, and works harder. Best of luck to you both.

Do you have an awkward situation of your own to deal with? Mail it to me at and I'll help!

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