What does it mean to know someone? What does it mean to be known?

This is a part of the Choosing Vulnerability series. Read more about it here.

Like an airplane trailing an advertisement in the air, a quote from my favorite movie as a teenager trails through my head. In high school I used to feverishly imprint it into my journals and brain. In Brett Easton Ellis’s ‘Rules of Attraction,’ one of the male characters says to the girl he’s in love with, “I just want to know you.” She responds: “Nobody knows anyone. You will never ever know me.”

Around the same time that I saw ‘Rules of Attraction’ I watched a Bob Dylan documentary. A reporter asks Bob what his songs mean. “Know. K.n.o.w. Nobody knows anything. I don’t know shit about these songs I write. I just write em,” Bob says while walking away.

And then enter the infamous Socratic paradox: “I know that I know nothing.”

Nobody knows anything. Nobody knows anyone. Needless to say at that time in my life I grew stubborn, independent, certain that people could never really get to the depths of someone else, and simultaneously determined to disprove these theories.

Lately I’ve been thinking about my life and the people I know.

I’ve been friends with a guy since the summer, and as time has progressed I’ve realized that I like him more than a friend. When I think about our connection and the time we’ve spent together I realize that most of the time we talk it’s about our emotions, what’s going on in our lives romantically, or we sarcastically banter back and forth.

I don’t know what kinds of books he reads or what kind of music he likes or what he thinks about Palestine. I’m not even sure if we’ve ever had an intellectually stimulating conversation (unless you count our discussions on polyamory). I know the sound of his laugh, the way his smile lights up the room and how he smells. But what does he believe at the core of his being?

Then there’s my childhood best friend: we’ve been in and out of each other’s lives since colleging in different states and then both separately traveling the world. Every time we talk it’s like a day hasn’t passed. But I can’t remember the last time we actually spent time together. I know who she is at her essence. But so much of that is because we’ve known each other since we were 10: we’ve been through all the hiccups, heartbreaks, high school drama, and everything that comes with growing up together. But at this point in our lives, I don’t know what her spiritual beliefs are, how she likes to spend her days, what she likes to eat. I don’t know what the essence of her being has become.

I moved to Asheville almost a year ago. While I know a lot of people and have a large community group of friends, I’m not sure how many people I’d said I really know or really know me. I’ve seen people at multiple large-scale events and intimate gatherings; I’ve run into people at the local grocery store and stopped to chat for a few minutes; I’ve danced with people consistently at ecstatic dance; I’ve shared food with people at numerous pot lucks and shared what’s alive in my heart at numerous cacao ceremonies. Do these things constitute knowing someone?

There are people in my extended family who I don’t really know and don’t really know me. Sure they’ve known me since I was born and know where I went to school, but do they know what my spiritual beliefs are, how I interact with others, how I like to spend my days?

Does knowing someone mean knowing their hopes, dreams and beliefs? Does it mean knowing the way they walk, the look on their face after an argument, what kind of music they like to listen to when it rains, the smell of their breath in the morning? Is it knowing if they prefer the Times to the Wall Street Journal, coffee to tea, the Beatles over the Rolling Stones? Is it knowing their past and where they grew up, where they went to school, their favorite childhood memories and most profound moments? Or is it knowing how they handle a challenging situation, what their breaking point looks like, how they treat other people, what’s alive in their heart, if they would stand up for what they believe in, if they would tell you the truth even when it’s painful?

There are the layers of knowing a lover (the way their body moves, the sound of their voice in the morning), knowing a roommate (how they clean up their messes and spend their days), or knowing a traveling partner (what they do when neither of you can speak the native language and you’ve missed a bus). And then the further layers of knowing a sibling, a parent, a friend, a partner.

I googled, ‘what does it mean to know someone?’ A Psychology Today article was the first to come up.

The author or the article references a paper that philosopher David Matheson wrote. Matheson says that personal knowledge comes from being acquainted with someone, or being able to recognize someone, or having the capacity to interact with someone smoothly. But, he argues, none of these are sufficient to explain the depth of “knowing someone.” Matheson says there’s the “communication account” of knowing a person, by which you only know someone if he or she actively shares information with you, particularly intimate, private information.

Then there’s Dr. John Van Epp, author of How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk, who developed the following acronym for what to learn about a person: FACES — Family background, Actions and attitudes of the conscience, Compatibility, Examples of past relationships, and skills (in a relationship).

In the same book, John Van Epp presents another formula:  T+T+T=Know. The three T’s are Time, Talk, and Togetherness. John Van Epp says that patience, asking good questions, truly listening, and spending time together in a variety of circumstances that allow you to observe the other person will give you the best platform for getting to know someone.

My mom always says that it takes two years to actually know someone. What do you think? What does it mean to know someone? How do you know when you know someone?

As I continued to google, this Thought Catalog article came up. The author sums it up beautifully:

It’s seeing their flaws — the surface ones, the silly ones, the painful ones, the permanent ones — and respecting, loving, challenging, and accepting them, respectively. It’s allowing the vulnerability to have your own flaws on display — to expose them for scrutiny, only to find that they are respected, loved, challenged, and accepted. It’s coming to see yourself through the eyes of someone whose opinions and thoughts you cherish and respect, and in so doing, learning to further cherish and respect yourself.

It’s the simplicity in their presence and its ability to transform monotonous into memorable, the mundane into an adventure.

It’s knowing what makes them irreplaceable, what makes them weird beyond belief, what makes them insightful. It’s knowing which experiences have helped mold them into who they are — which have smoothed their rough edges, which have left them with toughened skin. It’s being as willing to share your secrets with them as you are committed to protecting theirs. It’s knowing that at their worst, their best is still visible; that at their best, their worst is insignificant.

It’s still knowing useless, nonsensical things about them, and finding relevance in these facts with surprising ease. It’s knowing that they like eating sun-dried tomatoes and regular tomatoes together. It’s knowing that they’re really not into period films. It’s knowing that they had their name changed years into their life, and knowing what the old name was. It’s calling them that name every once in a while when they least expect it. It’s knowing that they will never stop wanting to chase a butterfly when they see it. It’s knowing their favorite food. It’s knowing what they’re allergic to. It’s knowing what topic shuts them down, which gets them going. It’s knowing how to hit them with the hardest “would you rather” question, and it’s the smug satisfaction in that victory, as they can’t help but acknowledge that wow, you really know them.

It’s being comfortable in silence with them, because it is only quiet, not a void in need of fillers — because keeping their company is as natural in silence as it is in engaged conversation as it is in laughter. It’s knowing when their silence is serene, and when their silence makes a statement. It’s knowing their vices, their yearnings, their insecurities.

Knowing someone, in all these senses, is not a one-way street. It’s a complex, interconnected, beautifully alive and dynamic experience. It meets your own existence at its core, shaping it and awakening it, and becoming a part of your own knowledge of yourself. It is a process that integrates itself into the instinctual patterns of your very being; it is a pulsing presence without ever being an imposition.


2 thoughts on “What does it mean to know someone? What does it mean to be known?

  1. Hey April. Really enjoyed reading this. I once read something, wrote it down and always kept it with me (just wish I could remember the author). I think it is worth sharing here: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” Lots of love, Uncle Doug

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