It started with a revelation to my wife.
What!? How can your closest friends know nothing about it? She was as flabbergasted as I thought she’d be.
Yeah, I never told them.
Because it’s so frivolous its embarrassing. They won’t be interested anyway.
My embarrassing secret is, in fact, just a very ordinary hobby. A trendy one, in fact. Among many other things, Im a houseplant geek with a particular interest on weird and challenging plants like carnivorous plants, Tillandsias, jewel orchids, Bulbophyllums, and high-humidity begonias.
Which I know is strange thing to be embarrassed about, since plenty of people got really into houseplants while cooped up at home over the past two years. Houseplants are cool! #Plantfluencers are admired and raking in money on Instagram and YouTube! And I do happily share photos of my plants on Reddit and other forums, which always result in tons of positive feedback.
But I felt more comfortable talking about my hobbies with strangers than with people I know in real life. Strangers congregating on r/houseplants or r/SavageGarden are certainly going to LOVE what Im going to share, but with friends, colleagues and even family members, I’m afraid not. I mean, Begonia chlorosticta is stunning and extremely challenging and success with them probably means that you’ve achieved sensei levels, but for my DOTA-playing football-watching buddies, I might as well be asking them to admire a Pollock painting.
Now, think of how you interact with different groups of people. Im sure you bitch about your job in front of friends and certain colleagues you trust, but what about your manager? Or your mom? Probably not. Imagine writing something ironic on Facebook and out of nowhere Mom comments below your post, oblivious to your sarcasm. It can be super awkward, and I can see why some people refrain from adding their parents on social media!
Not surprisingly, scholars and pundits have a word for it. When something you intend for a certain audience on Facebook (say, an ironic joke that your close friends will “get”) attracts attention from an unintended audience (like your mom) and results in misunderstanding, embarrassment, or other less-than-pleasant situations, what happens is known as context collapse, “the flattening of multiple audiences into a single context” according to Wikipedia.
So really, my very selective approach to talking about my hobbies is just one of the many examples where I speak and act in very different ways in front of different people to avoid context collapse. For example, I can sometimes crack crass adult jokes in front of buddies (forgive me, ladies) – something that my colleagues and bosses will never see me attempt in front of them because I feel the need to maintain some semblance of workplace professionalism. I dont tell the same jokes in front of my wife, because as a woman she will not appreciate them (well, we do make adult jokes but of a different sort), but I conjure plenty of incredibly lame dad jokes when I’m with her – jokes so lame that I feel embarrassed telling them to anyone else. Outside of inappropriate and lame jokes, politics is a HUGE conversation topic between me and some of my close friends, but I avoid making my political views known in office. I bitch about office stuff with certain colleagues and not with others, and so on, and so on.
Different audiences, different topics, and different me.
That’s probably why felt so awkward when my wife casually mentioned my houseplant hobby in front of one of my friends – she was unaware that I never talk about such hobbies in front of most friends. But whats particularly embarrassing about this hobby, and why do I avoid mentioning it to friends? To be honest, I can be damn neurotic so such weirdness certainly reflects more on me than on the you if I’ve not been open and honest with you.
One reason is I don’t think that my predominantly male friends who watch football, play aggressive video games, and expect sex, blood, and violence in their favourite TV shows will be interested in hearing about such a ladylike pursuit. Gardening and home making and decorating your indoors space is sometimes viewed as feminine activities. Maybe it’s the damaging effects of toxic masculinity or something. Luckily, times have changed a lot and it’s common to see male houseplant influencers nowadays, even though the hobby as a whole skews heavily female.
But there is also another bigger reason why indoors gardening has been such a guilty pleasure for me.
As someone who’s just entering his 30s, it’s expected of me to appear motivated, purposeful and career-driven at all times. Fake it until you make it, as they say. Those who dont seem ambitious enough are disdained. What will my career-focused friends think of me if they know that I spend a few hours each week tending to a bunch of pretty but useless greens that bring no financial reward and personal growth? Will people not start inferring that I’m not focused on entrepreneurship and self-improvement and productivity and winning industrial awards? Just like how reading Harry Potter or Dune is something perceived as a waste of your time, while reading books regurgitating bland financial advices show that you are highly motivated and future-driven. Meanwhile, most manly hobbies such as playing computer games and watching football games aren’t exactly purposely pursuits, but at least those are pretty universal vices among men, so they can’t fault you about it.
Of course, my hobbies have never interfered one bit with my career. It helps me de-stress after work, and I might have burnt out a lot more frequently without it. Plus, hobbies require money and money requires work. Gardening enthusiasts will work their asses off and save money to be able to afford a plot of land, just like how many “driven” people are working their asses off to afford a BMW. At the very least, people work hard to that they can continue to enjoy their hobbies in comfort; when finances are hard, hobbies are usually the first thing that go out of the window.
But thats not the point. Hobbies and other fun activities are worth existing for their own sake as long as you and your familys sustenance is taken care of, even if they do nothing to advance your career. Ive since learnt that feeling a bit embarrassed about your hobby is probably a good sign. That includes your time-wasting gaming sessions, my friends. As Oliver Burkeman wrote in his anti-productivity-culture self-help book *Four Thousand Weeks”,
(Hobbies have) come to signify something slightly pathetic; many of us tend to feel that the person whos deeply involved in their hobby of, say, painting miniature fantasy figurines, or tending to their collection of rare cacti, is guilty of not participating in real life as energetically as they otherwise might.
The Chinese even have a phrase for it: 玩物喪志. My parents’ culture sees hobbies as something that make people lazy and unambitious.
Yet it’s surely no coincidence that hobbies have acquired this embarrassing reputation in an era so committed to using time instrumentally. In an age of instrumentalization, the hobbyist is a subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no payoffs in terms of productivity or profit. The derision we heap upon the avid stamp collector or train spotter might really be a kind of defense mechanism, to spare us from confronting the possibility that they’re truly happy in a way that the rest of us—pursuing our telic lives, ceaselessly in search of future fulfillment—are not. This also helps explain why it’s far less embarrassing (indeed, positively fashionable) to have a “side hustle,” a hobbylike activity explicitly pursued with profit in mind.
EXACTLY. It feels like were constantly expected to justify our hobbies. It shouldn’t be that way. People who know about my hobbies have often asked me to turn it into something money making. I’ve always said NO. My day job exists for a purpose. My work is work to me, and my hobbies are hobbies.
Perhaps it’s time for people to start needing to justify why they have been so ambitious and working so hard. You don’t need to be the CEO of your company to be able to feed your family and spend quality time with them, unless it’s to lead a luxurious lifestyle that itself may need some justification.
Granted, I do turn some of my passions into hustles, like writing articles. But it’s never been about profit. Sharing my musings and opinions with you, dear reader, is the entire point. It just happens to also (at some points) bring in a very tiny bit of pocket money.
And so in order to be a source of true fulfillment, a good hobby probably should feel a little embarrassing; that’s a sign you’re doing it for its own sake, rather than for some socially sanctioned outcome.
I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly guilty for thinking a bit too much about how I spend time. I dont watch any series because I see it as a time sink. At least tending to my plants take very little time each day. (I do spend more time than I care to admit looking at them.)
All these does sound like me unfairly blaming others for my personal failings, though. So writing this article has been a chance for reflection. While my reluctance to discuss my hobbies stem from my fear of being judged, perhaps it’s me who’ve been overly judgemental towards my friends, family and colleagues. After all, they never told me anything about what they feel about my hobbies, since I told them nothing. If they do judge me, it’s more likely because of whether I’ve been an asshole or whether I’ve been kind to others.
You know, I know how you can be really passionate and knowledgeable about many things, but most people will never find out.
Do they care? I know that I will just bore the heck out of them, we are just interested in totally different things. If I want their attention, I should be talking about money-making and stuff.
Well, I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. How many times have people proven themselves to be not what you expected? People can and will surprise you if you let them.
She’s right. They are plenty of people whom I dislike at first who turns out to become good friends of mine. I wouldn't have been lucky enough to know them better if I had not give them the chance.
I guess I have been spending too much time imagining how others will react to things I care about, and underestimating how interested they might be. It’s always inspiring when you see someone being passionate about something, right? Even if they aren’t going to share my hobbies, they will at least learn something new and true about me.
After all, my wife would have found me much less interesting had I not told her about all the weird and wonderful things about animals and plants and philosophy and sociology and aliens. If, many years ago, I was scared of boring the heck out of her, wed not have decided to know each other further. And all the amazing years that we have spent together since will not have happened.
I’m glad that I made the right moves when it comes to my partner. But I regret that I didn’t share more about myself with you, my dear friends and readers. This is why I am going to write again. And I will not just write about politics and society as I used to write in my old newspaper column, but also about all the many other things I know and care about. From how to grow weird and wonderful plants to musings on computer sentience, from thoughts on social justice to the implications of technology on humanity, from navel-gazing like this exact article to delicious food I discovered over the weekends.
Who knows, there might be something that stirs your interest. It’ll be a damned shame if i missed the chance to share it with you.
Like everything else, this comes with risks. My views on things often don’t align with that of those around me. Pretty sure I’ll eventually offend someone over my thoughts on web3, or politics, or some other heated topic. All that is fine. We must learn how to agree to disagree.
Last month, I visited a friend’s home and to my surprise, he has a rack full of succulents on his balcony. Not super well-grown ones, as he clearly lacks the know-hows that I’ve learnt through experience, but ones that are tended with care. For the first time, I realised that we might have more in common than I thought.
Never knew that he’s also somewhat interested in plants, I mused. Perhaps I can share some growing techniques with him.