LIKABLE? WHO CARES!
Two years ago, after suffering a string of losses, the most devastating of which was the death of my beloved father, I enrolled in a memoir-writing class. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about but I was still hurting from grief and hoped the experience would be cathartic and healing.
Cue, reality: The instructor, a TV news producer turned stand-up comic, seemed visibly uneasy after I read aloud the decidedly non-humorous details of a year spent deep in the throes of torment. To put it mildly, I was not a bucket of laughs.
“Interesting, Iris,” the teacher said after I finished my saga of distress. She paused, seeming to mull something over. “But is there any way you can make yourself…um, more likable? That’s very important if you are serious about becoming a memoir writer.”
Confused, I immediately replied: “I’m trying to be honest. Didn’t you say in the first class that it’s important to be truthful and in sync with your emotions?”
“Yes,” she said. “But the audience has to like you—that is if you want your work to sell.”
I furrowed my brows in distress. Her comment made me think of a meeting I had years ago with a casting director, back when I was a struggling actress. He told me I had good comic timing and could improve my odds of getting a part on a sitcom if I became more “likable.” I didn’t know what he meant then and I still don’t.
It’s not like I’m a mean-spirited person or spend my days abusing little children, the elderly or defenseless animals.
But because I’ve heard this before, and usually at times when I’m not exactly bursting with joy and rapture, it does seem to be a recurring theme that I find unsettling, my vehement protestations of indifference notwithstanding.
“Iris, I have a running bet to see if you can smile once today,” teased a co-worker to me a few years ago, at a previous job where I was juggling multiple tasks under a tight deadline. This seemed to be a running gag of hers, referencing what she called my perpetual frown. Although I did respect her professionally (and she vice versa), I had no patience for her ribbing that day so I cut her short.
“Sorry, you lose,” I answered, my face immobile as I strode up to the printer by her desk to collect documents I needed for a project.
“Happiness is a choice,” she said knowingly and without missing a beat as she flashed her pearly whites before gaily jerking her head back to her computer. It was a mantra she often repeated to me during our conversations and it bewildered me. Unless I was imbibing a cocktail of artificial stimulants, how could happiness ever be a conscious choice, particularly when I was dealing with the demands of a passive-aggressive boss and a job that was stressing me out on a daily basis, inducing insomnia, anxiety and little peace of mind?
I went back to my desk and seethed.
“The problem with you,” my dad once said as I relayed the unpalatable details of a miserable date, “is that you’re too honest.”
I was telling him about the second date I had with someone I had met online. The guy, a fortysomething executive in the finance industry, had asked me point blank where I saw “our relationship” progressing.
“I have dated women all over the world and I have no idea if you even like me,” he said.
“Shouldn’t we get to know each other first before we declare we’re in a relationship?” I replied.
And the week before that, I went on a third date with someone who after he cracked a joke and I didn’t laugh, reminded me he was telling a joke.
“It wasn’t funny,” I answered, shrugging my shoulders. I never heard from him again.
“But didn’t you and ma always stress the importance of being honest and letting others know how you feel?”
“To a point, Iris,” he continued. “But it’s not good to always show people what you’re feeling. And it wouldn’t kill you to smile once in a while. And maybe…giggle.”
Incredulous, I cried back: “But how I can laugh and smile when there’s no cause to?”
Not that I haven’t tried to join the happiness cult and partake in its glittery trappings. However, with each elixir I’d take hoping it would bring me closer to the quintessence of likability—be it chanting, therapy, creative visualization or even antidepressants (which left me feeling like a zombie)—I’d attain nirvana only to crash when I didn’t get a coveted job, or another relationship went bust.
This doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed my life or attained professional goals: I got a degree from my dream grad school, have written hundreds of bylined articles, taught at a university level and even authored a book. And yet I’ve always felt a bit conflicted in my personal life: On one level, I revel in my independence, but then I see my friends and relatives getting married and having children and wonder, if I made the right choices?
Although I’ve never wanted to live a life governed by the need for approval or validation, as a fallible human prone to sporadic episodes of self-doubt, I have sometimes craved for or at least fantasized about the comforting continuum of a traditional life, represented by marriage and children. Then again, I think my habit of choosing partners who are either unavailable or irresponsible has been a subconscious, sabotaging move fed by an inner fire to be free, as well as a fear of intimacy. Perhaps my being unlikable is a buffer that protects me from others who may not only want to hurt me with their insensitivity and cruelty but usurp that freedom I’ve always enjoyed as uniquely and indigenously my own.
Except, if I’m so darn unlikable then why am I still friends with people I’ve known since grade school? For every chapter in my life, from elementary school to college to acting to journalism school to work, I’ve always forged a solid, lasting bond or two. Doesn’t that count for something? Maybe being likable is overrated.
When I was in my early 20s, I used to walk past construction sites near where I worked and invariably get accosted by predatory packs of troglodytes who would yell at me to smile every time I ambled by. I wanted to yell back: “Why don’t YOU smile asshole? Leave me the fuck alone.”
I wondered if strange men urging me to smile had something to do with their needing me to appear less threatening and more docile. In the dynamics of sexual politics, was smiling some kind of gesture of surrender and frowning a staunchly feminist stance?
Unless I really am unlikable, a cranky curmudgeon, an innate misanthrope who derives tremendous Schadenfreude from the misfortunes of foes and ex-friends? What then?
For example, recently I couldn’t help but chortle with delight when I learned (okay I googled him) that an ex boyfriend, who had received numerous awards for his academic and literary exploits while we were both in college, had never fulfilled the lofty expectation he and others had of him. He had never written that glorious novel he always kept saying he would write. Nor did he ever write anything. And this was someone who taunted me regularly with his Phi Beta Kappa key and would view the essays I’d show him with eyebrow-raising condescension or outright dismiss them as “romantic pabulum.”
After 15 years of working as a journalist/editor and author, I gloated. I know, immature but it felt good.
Shortly after I took that memoir-writing class, I hired a freelance editor to review my manuscript.
The editor, a young woman in her late 20s/early 30s told me I was holding back. “I feel like there’s so much more you want to say but you’re not.”
To which I countered, “But…but suppose in doing that, the reader doesn’t find me likable?”
“Be honest, Iris and people will find you and your writing likable.”
Then it dawned on me: Maybe being likable has nothing to do with smiling or appearing blissful 24/7. Maybe it has to do with being authentic and recognizably human in one’s emotions and attitudes.
Right before my father’s cancer returned, fatally this time, he and I went on an afternoon drive somewhere in the wilds of New Jersey.
I was recounting to him my latest romantic fiasco, feeling especially self-pitying and disconsolate. I had been dating a hipster software developer who was slightly younger than me for a few weeks. Everything was going well or at least I thought until he stopped calling me. As I played and replayed scenes from our dates within my mind, I couldn’t pinpoint what went wrong. Did I not listen intently or laugh vigorously enough at some of his stories? Did I slurp my soup too noisily at the diner where we went after seeing a movie? Did he finally notice, under the glare of the fluorescent lights, I was older than him?
“It’s hopeless dad. They just don’t like me,” I moaned to him.
Behind the wheel, dad’s hazel-grey owlish gaze was fixed on the road ahead but I knew he was listening closely.
With a tender smile, he uttered softly, “They just don’t know how wonderful you really are.”
Yeah, I’m not a smiler and I’m not an ardent people person. Plop me in the middle of a party and I’ll either run to the nearest exit, walk outside onto the terrace (unless there’s a blizzard raging or Hurricane Sandy) or escape to a quiet sanctum where there are books and magazines. But when I think about my father’s heartfelt statement—and how much of what he said to me was born of deep and unconditional love and his acceptance of both my good and bad nature—I realize that no one can be universally likable, however hard she grins. In the end, being likable doesn’t matter, as long as you have love. Even if it’s for a short while.
IRIS DORBIAN is a former actress turned journalist who during her career has covered media, marketing/advertising, small business and theater/the arts. Her articles have appeared in a wide number of publications that include Playbill, Media Industry Newsletter, Mediapost’s OMMA, Live Design, DMNews, PR News, Backstage, Theatermania, Pilates Style, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher and Pointe. She is the author of “Great Producers: Visionaries of the American Theater,” which was published by Allworth Press and distributed by Random House in August 2008. Another essay, “A Prayer in Times Square,” will be published in the summer issue of Blue Lyra Review. A New Jersey native, Iris has a master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.