Friday, February 20, 2015

Respecting single people's time

(This piece has been sitting on the back burner for some time, but a comment I read today reminded me that it was long overdue.)

My sister Jenny teaches sixth grade, and she's very good at her job. Not only does she spend hours of time on her class during the school day, but she also expends many hours before and after school preparing lessons, grading papers and otherwise doing whatever she can to provide an excellent education to a hormonally-charged and squirmy group of tweens. After work, she has a place of her own with its attendant responsibilities, bills to pay, meals to cook and functions to attend. In other words, like most professional working adults, she has a full and busy schedule.

But Jenny also has to deal with a frequent social irritant. Some of her friends -- unfortunately, it seems most common among those who are married with children -- often contact her at the last minute, asking her to drop everything and do something with them. Their justification for this behavior? Well, she's single, so she must have loads of free time, right?

Uh, no.

Jenny's experience is far from unusual. A number of other friends and acquaintances -- including Linda, a graphic designer who runs marathons, participates in long-distance bike races and operates a major fansite in her spare time, and Rebecca, a professional singer who currently works two jobs to make ends meet -- have publicly expressed frustration over this same recurring social irritant. Their bosses, co-workers and friends repeatedly assume they have gobs of time to attend social functions, work extra hours and take on additional projects, simply because they're single. To put it bluntly, in Western society most married or partnered people show little respect for single people's time.

This is a social blind spot, and I suspect I know where it might originate. For many adults, the last time they were single was in high school or college, when they had relatively few responsibilities and far more free time. If they don't stop to consider, they may fall into the reflexive belief that single adults have the same kind of open schedules they once enjoyed in their student years. But this simply isn't so. Single working adults have as many responsibilities as couples do -- with the added stress of making do on one income, single-handedly running their own errands, cooking their own meals, taking care of their own finances and doing all the household chores, since they don't have the luxury of delegating these responsibilities to a partner. They are not footloose and fancy-free teenagers -- they are working people, and they are staggeringly busy. When you operate on the thoughtless assumption that they can just clear their schedules at the drop of a hat, you are strongly suggesting that you do not acknowledge their status as full-fledged grownups. That stings. And the more often you do it, the more emotional corrosion it causes to your relationship.

I'm far from free of blame in this regard. On many past occasions, I blithely assumed my sister would be free to do something without taking the time to consult her first. Now that I see what a bonehead I was, I've been making a greater effort to be as respectful of Jenny's busy schedule as she is of mine. But it isn't really that difficult to make the necessary mental adjustment, to recognize and respect the time of friends and acquaintances, whether they're singles or couples. It just requires a few minutes of your own time to stop and think about it -- and to change your behavior accordingly.

(By the way, if I've ever disrespected your time, my sincerest apologies. I know I can do better.)

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