Archive for September 13th, 2010

A common challenge for survivors of child abuse is not understanding social protocol. I have fallen victim to this enough times to dodge most parties and other social engagements because I don’t like feeling like a fish out of water.

For example, I recently attended a birthday party for a friend from high school who specified no gifts. She sent out an email to all invitees (around 25 women) providing details of the catered dinner birthday party and ended with, “Please do not bring presents. Your presence is gift enough.” However, there was a present table set up at the party, and it was piled high with gifts. The hostess made a big production out of opening each present in front of everyone at the end of the party.

I, as someone who parents did not socialize, would not have dreamed that “don’t bring a present” means “bring a present.” When I am invited to a birthday party, I assume a present is expected. If the birthday hostess tells me not to bring a present, I assume she means it. However, based upon the huge pile of gifts on the present table, it seemed apparent that most of the guests knew that “no presents” meant “bring a present.” WTF??

This is just one example of a way that child abuse survivors can find themselves feeling like an alien species. Certain social protocols were never taught to us, especially if we had abusive parents who did not socialize with others to keep the “family secret.” Social protocols like this one that are veiled and illogical are extremely difficult to anticipate and can wind up making you feel like a complete idiot, even though there is a very good reason for your lack of knowledge about illogical social protocols like this.

The last time something like this happened to me, I was the only guest at a barbecue that did not bring along a dish to share because the hostess never told me that guests were supposed to bring something. I was extremely triggered and spent hours crying tears of shame. My friends over at Isurvive were incredibly supportive and taught me to ask, “What should I wear?” and “What should I bring?” when I accept an invitation. This time around, I was specifically told not to bring a present, but that was apparently not the expectation, so even following this advice did not work.

Before you get worried about me, I was covered. The hostess paid to fly a group of us from high school out to the party from other states, so we had bought her a birthday card and a thank you card with a nice gift, so we just gave all of that to her at the party. One of my high school friends insisted that we bring the present to the party, which I thought was ridiculous until I saw the gift table.

However, I wasn’t thinking about me. Instead, I was thinking about the poor woman at the party (and there had to be at least one) who believed the instruction not to bring a gift and respected it. How did it make her feel so see such a show of opening each present, knowing (or believing) that she was the only guest who did not read the social protocol correctly? Actually, I know exactly how that poor woman (or women) felt because I experienced it myself at the barbecue a few years ago. This is exactly why I avoid most parties unless I am close friends with the hostess and know that she will be honest with me. I have enough unavoidable occasions to feel like a fish out of water with having my acquaintances set me up to feel ashamed due to completely illogical social mores.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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