September 17, 2006

Whenever a close friend begins a conversation with "Tell me if I've told you this already," I know nothing but trouble lies ahead. The sentence suggests a confidence or a conspiracy is about to be shared, a sexual faux pas, a health issue, a disaster that's befallen someone we both loathe - but it immediately raises suspicion too.

If you can't remember telling me your secret in the first place, you must be telling the same story to others, so I no longer feel like a confidante. And if it's a story you've told me before and can't remember, I'm clearly not special enough that you'd recall sharing it with me the first time. If it's a story you haven't told me, I'll wonder why you were worried you might have, and suspect you told it to someone else, which means I'm not the only one you trust, so my hackles are rising even before the story begins.

The problem for people who repeat stories is that most listeners are too polite to point it out. People will endure hearing a story two or three times because they don't want to embarrass the person telling it. Not me. I'll say, "You've already told me this," and I won't hide the irritation in my voice. What happens next is denial. They'll make a face of disbelief and say: "Are you sure?" Then I have to repeat their story back to them until they believe I'm not lying. Even then, sometimes they're not convinced. "What about the part when..." Yes. You told me. I heard the story. Move on.

Nobody wants to be reminded they've told the same story twice, because it makes them seem flaky. But shouldn't they have this information so they can do something about it?
My best friend Liza and I had a fight about this. She began to tell me a story she'd told me two days earlier. Two days. How is that possible? "You don't remember?" I asked. No, she didn't, and she was the one who seemed annoyed. Why? "Because," she said, "you sound so hurt. You take it so personally. You'd think I'd forgotten you were the person I'd lost my virginity to."

How could I not take it personally? If someone is telling me a story again, this says that what I thought was a bonding moment between us was merely a widespread bulletin that went out to friends, co-workers and family. Of course, it depends on what's being repeated and who's doing the repeating. If my doctor is about to repeat something, I don't mind. He's got hundreds of patients, I don't see him that often, he's off the hook. Plus I'm always willing to hear a medical cautionary tale. But with friends and in romantic relationships, it's different.

"If it makes you feel better," Liza said, "you're not the only person I repeat stories to." How would that make me feel better? It only confirmed what I'd feared. But it got me thinking. Maybe it's me. I have a lot fewer people in my life than she does; I don't find it difficult to remember who I told what to, because I don't have that much to tell and few people to share it with. And now I'm wondering - if people forget the stories they've told me, do those same people forget the stories I've told them? I hope so. Most of the stuff I share I regret afterwards, so it's reassuring to think they'll forget they heard it in the first place. Then again, chances are nobody's listening anyway.