Reading Nonverbal Cues Without Making Assumptions

Sometimes when I talk to people about the importance of reading nonverbal cues–in sexual situations and also in general–they tell me that they avoid doing so because they don’t want to “assume.” Paying attention to people’s nonverbal cues feels to them like making assumptions about people’s internal states based on very limited information.

Not wanting to leap to unwarranted conclusions about people’s thoughts and feelings is an admirable goal, but I think there’s a misconception at work here about what reading body language means in a practical sense, and I think that pop psychology is partially to blame. We’ve all seen those Cosmo and Psychology Today articles that are like “Ten Ways To Tell If He’s Into You Based On His Eyebrows” or “Your Kids May Be Lying To You: Just Check The Position Of Their Feet To Know For Sure.”

As exciting as it may be to literally read people’s thoughts and intentions based on the position of their feet or eyebrows, I’ve yet to see any actual research evidence for any of this.

Even psychology textbooks spread this false “mind reading” meme. I’ve seen sentences like “We are all expert mind readers! For example, this study shows that people can generally tell if a person in a photo is angry or happy.”

No wonder some people think that when I ask them to pay attention to things like body language and tone, I’m asking them to do the impossible and read minds. And no wonder some people also think that when I ask them to pay attention to things like body language and tone, I’m asking them to leap to wildly specific conclusions like “This person’s tone of voice suggests that they are sad and not really paying attention to our conversation because they’re thinking of their mother who’s in the hospital.”

Here’s how this works in a more practical sense. Yesterday morning I took an Uber to the airport. It was 5 AM. I had had about four hours of bad sleep. The following conversation ensued:

Driver: Where are you going?

Me: LaGuardia.

Driver: Which terminal?

Me: 3.

Driver: *laughs loudly* Oh, no, LaGuardia’s terminals are A, B, C, D. You’re thinking of JFK!

Me: Whoops. It’s C then.

Driver: Where are you traveling to?

Me: Ohio.

Driver: Where in Ohio? Cleveland? Columbus?

Me: [city].

At this point the conversation ended, and we didn’t speak again until we arrived at my airport and he wished me a safe trip and I wished him a nice day. I presume it ended because I was answering as briefly as possible and my tone was completely flat. I was literally only giving the driver the information he was asking for (whether because of social norms or because of a need to get me to my destination) and volunteering nothing more. I wasn’t reciprocating my driver’s cheerfulness and bubbliness at all.

Maybe I hate small talk. Maybe I’m exhausted. Maybe I’m sick. Maybe I’m feeling really anxious about flying. Maybe I’m on my way home to see a seriously ill family member (thankfully, I was not). Maybe I just personally hate this driver with all my heart and do not want to say a single word more to him than is absolutely necessary. Maybe I hate all people. Maybe I have depression.

The cool thing is, it doesn’t matter! The driver correctly picked up on the fact that, for whichever of many possible reasons, I wasn’t feeling like talking, so he stopped trying to talk to me after that brief exchange. No mind reading was necessary. All he had to do was pay a minimal amount of attention.

The conversation could’ve gone very differently. Sometimes when I am in fact less tired and physically miserable, I do engage Uber drivers in conversation because I like talking to people. It could’ve just as easily been like this:

Driver: Where are you going?

Me: LaGuardia!

Driver: Which terminal?

Me: 3, I believe.

Driver: *laughs loudly* Oh, no, LaGuardia’s terminals are A, B, C, D. You’re thinking of JFK!

Me: Oh, oops! That’s the one I usually fly out of. I meant C.

Driver: Where are you traveling to?

Me: [city], Ohio. I get to see my family this weekend!

Driver: That’s wonderful! Do you get to see them often?

Me: No, not too often, so it’s always special when I do. Does your family live nearby?

And so on. I’ve had a lot of conversations like this.

And for all the driver in that parallel universe knows, maybe I’m just in a cheery mood. Maybe I love small talk with strangers. Maybe I’ve been feeling really lonely and just want to connect with someone, anyone. Maybe I just drank two coffees and have energy that I just need to use somehow. Maybe something about this particular person appeals to me and makes me feel like chatting. Who knows? Clearly I’m interested in having a conversation, so he would feel comfortable continuing it.

Incidentally, many people would consider the way the conversation actually went to be a “failure”: either because I “failed” to respond to this person’s attempt to engage me in conversation, or because the driver “failed” to keep trying to get me “out of my shell” or whatever. I’m not exaggerating; some people really do think this way. Some people would ask me why I didn’t just have a friendly chat with the nice man. Other people would ask him why he’d just stop trying and let his passenger sit there in silence.

But I think that our interaction was a complete success. I was able to enjoy (insofar as I was able, at 5 AM) a nice, quiet drive. While I obviously can’t presume how the driver felt, his body language and tone when we said goodbye at the end of the drive suggested that it went just fine for him too. Nobody had to bend over backwards out of a sense of obligation or politeness.

Unfortunately, while this experience isn’t entirely rare for me, it’s not as common as it should be. I have had people who know me far, far better than this driver–enough to know that I generally dislike small talk and that I tend to be extremely fatigued, for instance–try to engage me in small talk despite monosyllabic responses, flat tone, and closed body language from me. Some of these people intentionally wanted to cross my boundaries in this way, but not all of them.

And I’m specifically talking about the ones that didn’t. I’m talking about the ones who on some level expected me to directly state, “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now” before they would stop trying to have a conversation with me. On some level, they thought that reading nonverbal cues is unnecessary because direct, effective communication means that I should have to verbalize “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now” every time someone tries to engage me in a conversation that I don’t want to have.

Maybe this seems like a reasonable assumption, but in that case, as an experiment, keep track for a day or several how often someone makes small talk with you (or something else in that vein) when you’d rather they didn’t and wish they would stop. Imagine if they never, ever stopped unless you either left their physical vicinity or said, “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now.”

It would be exhausting. It would be completely exhausting if every time I’m too tired, stressed, worried, sad, physically uncomfortable, focused on something else, or otherwise mentally occupied to have a conversation, I had to explicitly state this or else the person would continue trying to have a conversation with me.

And here’s the thing–you don’t have to have any idea at all what’s going on with me to pay attention to the fact that I’m acting like I don’t want to talk right now. You don’t have to read my mind. You just have to notice, “Huh, they’re not making eye contact and they’re answering monosyllabically.”

At that point, a number of things can happen. You can just stop, like the driver from this morning did. You can say, “Sorry, it looks like this isn’t a good time. Catch me later if you want to talk?/Should I leave you alone?” Often the response will be something like, “Yeah, I’m just really tired right now. I’ll talk to you later.” Or it might be, “Sorry, I’m just a little out of it. Keep talking, I’m listening.”

No discussion of nonverbal cues and the importance thereof is complete without an acknowledgment of the fact that some people have a lot of difficulty with this. That’s okay! That’s why it’s so important to provide resources that help people learn how to read nonverbal cues, because otherwise many people just assume that this is something we all “naturally” know how to do. But we don’t, for all sorts of reasons such as neurodiversity or cultural differences. For instance, if I grow up in Russia and learn how to read nonverbal cues as a Russian person, I may not be as effective at it if I suddenly move to the United States.

And it’s also important to note that we may misinterpret nonverbal cues from certain categories of people because of preconceived notions we have about those people. The nonverbal cues of disabled people may be inaccurately perceived as angry. The nonverbal cues of (white) women may be inaccurately perceived as insecure or uncertain. The nonverbal cues of Black men may be inaccurately perceived as threatening.

In general, if you know that you have trouble interpreting nonverbal cues in useful ways, you can supplement that with direct, verbal communication. That can look like, “I’m not sure if you feel like talking right now or not. It’s okay if you don’t, but can you let me know?” Or it can look like, “Hey, I have a lot of trouble reading nonverbal cues. If we’re ever talking and you don’t feel like talking anymore, can you please say so directly so that I don’t accidentally keep bugging you?”

I want to be careful and not hold nonverbal cues up as some perfect, ideal way of getting information about people’s needs and feelings. There’s a reason why people are cautious about nonverbal cues and wary of making assumptions based on them.

However, refusing to observe and respond to nonverbal cues also puts a lot of pressure on anyone who wants to exit a social situation or be given more physical space or be left alone or whatever. It’s reasonable to assume that someone who doesn’t make eye contact, closes their body off from you, answers tersely, and generally shows no interest in continuing a conversation probably has no interest in continuing a conversation. But if you’re unsure, you can always ask.

Some Advice on Supporting Friends with Depression

This Captain Awkward post about supporting friends with depression has been bouncing around in my head ever since I read it when it was first posted last August.

Since I’ve been having my own little depressive episode since December or whenever that was, I’ve been wanting to shout this entire post from the rooftops (except, of course, I don’t have the energy). I’ll highlight this part in particular:

I think one thing you can do to help your friends who are depressed is to reach out to them not in the spirit of helping, but in the spirit of liking them and wanting their company. “I’m here to help if you ever need me” is good to know, but hard to act on, especially when you’re in a dark place. Specific, ongoing, pleasure-based invitations are much easier to absorb. “I’m here. Let’s go to the movies. Or stay in and order takeout and watch some dumb TV.” “I’m having a party, it would be really great if you could come for a little while.” Ask them for help with things you know they are good at and like doing, so there is reciprocity and a way for them to contribute. “Will you come over Sunday and help me clear my closet of unfashionable and unflattering items? I trust your eye.” “Will you read this story I wrote and help me fix the dialogue?” “Want to make dinner together? You chop, I’ll assemble.” “I am going glasses shopping and I need another set of eyes.” Remind yourself why you like this person, and in the process, remind them that they are likable and worth your time and interest.

Talk to the parts of the person that aren’t being eaten by the depression. Make it as easy as possible to make and keep plans, if you have the emotional resources to be the initiator and to meet your friends a little more than halfway. If the person turns down a bunch of invitations in a row because (presumably) they don’t have the energy to be social, respect their autonomy by giving it a month or two and then try again. Keep the invitations simple; “Any chance we could have breakfast Saturday?” > “ARE YOU AVOIDING ME BECAUSE YOU’RE DEPRESSED OR BECAUSE YOU HATE ME I AM ONLY TRYING TO HELP YOU.” “I miss you and I want to see you” > “I’m worried about you.” A depressed person is going to have a shame spiral about how their shame is making them avoid you and how that’s giving them more shame, which is making them avoid you no matter what you do. No need for you to call attention to it. Just keep asking. “I want to see you” “Let’s do this thing.” “If you are feeling low, I understand, and I don’t want to impose on you, but I miss your face. Please come have coffee with me.” “Apology accepted. ApologIES accepted. So. Gelato and Outlander?”

I think it’s a natural impulse to assume that the only way you can help someone who’s in a lot of pain is to try to address it directly, that maybe if they Vent to you and Get It Off Their Chests then they’ll feel better, and maybe sometimes they do, but I never did. I’ve written before that a lot of unnecessary pain and drama happened in my life because people thought they were willing to hear me vent and I thought it would be a good idea to take them up on the offer.

I truly believe that all of these folks mean well, but I truly believe that they don’t really understand depression, because they treat it like it’s just a LOT of sadness. Like it’s just like getting fired from five jobs at once, or being dumped by five partners at once (hey, if you’re poly, it could happen), or having a Really Bad Day where literally every single thing that could go wrong goes wrong, from getting humiliated in front of the whole office by your evil boss to losing your keys to walking into the subway station just as the express train pulls away to realizing you’re out of toilet paper right when you need the toilet paper.

Those things are not like depression. Those things are just really shitty.

One thing about depression is that it makes it really difficult to access the parts of your life that are genuinely good. For some people, this takes the form of anhedonia–losing pleasure or interest in things you used to enjoy. Not necessarily completely or all of the things, but sometimes completely and all of the things. For some people, this can mean that watching their favorite show or playing their favorite game is suddenly not fun anymore. For some, it can mean that trying to socialize with their good friends feels like reading a really boring story and not being able to actually interact with the story in any way. For others, it can mean not perceiving food as tasty anymore.

Another way this plays out is that you may still enjoy things, and know that you enjoy them, but lack the motivation to make those things happen. This seems very common. It’s a big part of depression for me. I do still enjoy spending time with my friends, but it usually doesn’t occur to me to invite them to do anything or to chat with them online, and if it does occur to me, I immediately come up with a bunch of reasons why I can’t do it and then I forget about it and end up reading for hours instead. Sometimes writing is this way for me too. But if I can just find a way to do the thing, I almost always find that it was worthwhile and wish I’d done it sooner.

So Captain Awkward’s advice about connecting with friends with depression is very on-point. If you just plop the ball down in their court, they’re probably going to look at it in confusion for a little bit and then toss it off into the bushes (possibly with a lot of shame and guilt). If you walk over, offer them the ball, and let them know how they can throw it back if they choose to, they’re much more likely to throw it back.

So here are some well-intentioned but not very helpful ways that people try to do this, and some better ways.

Less helpful: “We should hang out sometime!”*

More helpful: “I’d love to hang out if you’re up for it. Want to do that on Thursday night?” [if no] “Ok! Should I ask again next time I’m free?”

Less helpful: “Let me know if you need help with anything.”

More helpful: “Is there any way I can help?”

Even more helpful: “If it would be helpful for you, I’d love to [cook you a meal once a week/help you find a therapist/watch TV with you when you need a distraction. What do you think?”

Less helpful: You can talk to me if you need to.

More helpful: What helps you feel better when you’re feeling depressed? Is that something I can help with, and that you’d want me to help with?

Sometimes a friend with depression will say no to a lot of things and decline all or most of your invitations. This can make you feel like you’re overstepping boundaries and should immediately leave them alone until they reach out to you themselves. Pay attention to this feeling: it’s true that when people keep saying no to things you ask, it’s probably a good idea to stop asking. However, depression can also cause people to say no while wishing they could say yes.

The way to deal with this is not to assume, but to just ask directly: “You’ve said no the past few times I’ve invited you to do something. That’s okay, but I just wanted to check: would you like me to keep inviting you?” I’ve done this before with other people dealing with depression and found that they often respond that they do want me to keep asking, and they hope that one of these days they’ll be able to say yes.

For many people, depression causes a pervasive sense of disconnection from the world and from other people. When I’m having a depressive episode, I feel like I’m not part of anything, like I’m just one person and I don’t matter, like I could disappear and nothing would even change, etc. I feel like there’s a glass wall between me and everyone else. I feel like I can’t do “normal” things like laugh at a sitcom or make someone happy or fall in love. I feel like an alien sent here to try to learn how to act like a human being only I’m completely failing.

So for me, the most helpful thing that someone can do is to help bring me back into connection with others. This is why I find venting mostly useless. When I’m venting, I’m still only talking about my depression, and while the person I’m venting to may be very kind and a very good listener, this isn’t something we can connect over, you know? It’s not the same as a two-sided conversation about difficulties we’ve dealt with in our lives. It’s totally one-sided. It’s just me, talking about the exact thing I need to learn how to stop ruminating over.

Helping a depressed person feel more connected to others is a tall order even for the most empathic friend, but there are some things friends can do that might be helpful, some of which Captain Awkward mentioned.

One is to ask for their help with something they’re good at. Make it clear that you really value this person’s skill or experience with this thing. This helps them feel that they have something to offer others, which is a feeling that’s pretty thin on the ground when all you can think about is how sad you are.

Another is to talk to them about some of your own struggles. I’ve always found that hearing about other people’s problems gets me out of my head a little by activating my empathic or problem-solving sides (depending on whether they’re just sharing, or asking for advice). It’s also a reminder that everyone struggles, even if the magnitude of that struggle varies for different people at different points in time. This may be somewhat specific to me, but seriously, the kindest thing someone can do for me when I’m depressed is to talk about their problems–it means I don’t have to talk about myself (hard to do when all I can say is “yup, still sad”) and I also don’t have to pretend to be happy while they share happy things (as much as I wish I could just be happy for others when I’m depressed, that is basically impossible).

Another is to plan fun things with your circle of friends, if you share one, and include them in that. While not everyone is up for group things, especially when they’re depressed, I personally find it more helpful than hanging out with someone one-on-one. When I’m with a group of friends, there’s inside jokes and lively discussion (that I don’t have to personally initiate!) and it makes me feel like part of something again. Seriously, last month I spent a week in Minneapolis (where I have a shocking number of close friends) and my depression was basically on hiatus that whole week, because I was just always surrounded by great people that I trust and care for, and they were being interesting and/or funny all the time, and it was great.

Remember that no matter how patient you are, and how much your friend may want to be able to spend time with you, sometimes it’s just going to be impossible. Some people disappear for weeks or months at a time when struggling with depression. It’s legitimate to feel sad that you’re not getting to see your friend, but please don’t take it out on them or make them feel guilty. Believe me, they already feel like human garbage, because that’s how depression tends to make people feel. Remember the ring theory and find someone else to talk to about your legitimate feelings about not getting to see your friend who has depression. If not being able to see them for a long time causes you to no longer feel close enough to them to consider them a friend, that’s also legitimate. Accept that nobody’s at fault and move on. They didn’t get depression as a personal slight against you.

The most important thing about supporting someone with depression is to be really self-aware. Make sure that you’re really doing it because you care about them and want them to feel better, not because you need the validation of Fixing Someone’s Problems. Depression isn’t going to be fixed by someone’s friends, no matter how kind and patient they are. You may invite them to a thing and they may appear and seem totally happy and then later that night they post another Facebook status about how awful they feel, and you may feel like you Failed and you might as well not have bothered, but trust me–it’s more than just in-the-moment feelings. I may feel like shit, but I’ll remember somewhere in the back of my mind that I have friends who love me and who make an effort to get me out of my room, and that matters.

Besides that, stuff like friendship bonds can be a protective factor against future depressive episodes. Your friend will eventually recover from their current episode, and now that they feel better, they may be able to fully internalize how much people care about them and how connected they are to others. That can help prevent a future relapse. That matters.

So don’t do it because you’re hoping to see obvious and immediate results. Don’t make a person with depression carry that burden for you.

~~~

Now that I’ve reached the end of what I have to say, I just want to note that it’s almost impossible to even write about this (especially given that I am currently depressed) because the response is always immediately “Yeah well you don’t speak for all depressed people, my partner/best friend/I are totally different!”

Yes, I don’t speak for all depressed people, but I speak for more depressed people than just myself. If you already know for a fact that this doesn’t apply to the person you’re thinking of, just ignore it. (Or write your own article that describes your own experience.) But you probably don’t know that, and you can open up a conversation about it by showing them this article and asking if they feel that it applies to them.

~~~

*I just want to state for the record that, depression or no, I have no idea what to do with “We should hang out sometime!” Are you merely expressing a preference for the sake of expressing it? Are you asking me if I also want to hang out? Are you asking me to plan/initiate the actual hanging out? In practice, I just respond, “Yeah, totally!” and then nothing ever happens.

Why Madonna Should’ve Asked Drake for Consent

[Content note: sexual assault]

My latest Daily Dot piece is about Madonna and Drake’s kiss at Coachella.

When Madonna took Drake by surprise with a kiss during their Coachellaperformance, the pop singer made waves on the Internet, provoking discomfort and disgust. Some of it was because Madonna is “old,” while others argued Drake’s reaction suggested a lack of consent.

However, on Tuesday, the Canadian rapper responded on his Instagram, clarifying that he had no problem with what happened and thanking Madonna for the impromptu make-out session:

“That totally happened to me, too!”: The Urge to Relate

A lot of what happens in therapy should only happen in therapy. (I’m looking at you, folks who oppose trigger warnings because “exposure is very important for overcoming trauma.”) But a lot of other things that happen in therapy are very applicable to the rest of our relationships and interactions. One of those is the tension between normalizing someone’s experience and validating it.

Normalizing someone’s experience essentially means helping them feel that their experience is normal. Short of memorizing statistics, the easiest way to do that is to relate what they’re telling you to something that’s happened in your own life. This is a very common conversational move. Someone tells you about a bad breakup and you say, “Oh, I totally went through something similar recently. It can be really hard.” Someone tells you their NYC subway horror story and you respond with one of your own. (We all have an arsenal of those.)

Validating someone’s experience is a more complex conversational move. To validate means “to demonstrate or support the truth or value of.” In the context of therapy or supportive conversations between friends, validating someone’s experience means letting them know not only that you believe them when they say that it happened–which can be particularly important when someone discloses, say, sexual violence or mental illness–but also that you affirm this as an “okay” thing to talk about or think about. The opposite of validating is to say “That’s not that big of a deal.”

Obviously, you can both validate and normalize someone’s experience in the same conversation. Therapists frequently do both.

However, the way of normalizing that we most frequently use in casual settings–relating someone’s experience to our own lives and selves–can get in the way of that.

For instance, someone says, “I’m having such an awful time getting out of the house this winter.” If you immediately jump in to say, “Oh, me too, it’s so awful, I couldn’t even make myself go to my friend’s birthday party because it was so cold out,” you may succeed in helping them feel like it’s okay to be having this difficulty, but you may also miss an opportunity to affirm the fact that their own unique experience is legitimate and difficult for them.

I get this often with fatigue. I try not to talk about being tired very much because I don’t like “complaining,” but sometimes I do mention it, and people usually jump in immediately to talk about how tired they are and how they only slept four hours last night and so on. But the thing is…my tiredness is a little different. I sleep at least 8 hours almost every single night, and have been for years. If I let myself, I would sleep 10 or 11 or more hours. I don’t know what it means not to want to sleep. Every day I daydream about coming home and going to sleep.

Of course my friend’s experience is also legitimate, and it sucks to only get four hours of sleep and feel shitty. But for them, not feeling tired as often as simple as finding the time to sleep enough. For me, absolutely nothing I have been able to try without medical intervention has helped.

So when I mention being tired and people immediately jump in to relate, I feel like I can’t talk about how extensively awful it is for me, because everyone feels tired! Feeling tired is normal! That’s just how life is! (Deal with it!)

On the other hand, some things feel bad not just in and of themselves, but also because of the shame and isolation that surrounds them. Mental illnesses are often like this because few people know a lot of people who are open about it (though that may now be changing). When I was first diagnosed with depression, I didn’t know even one other person who was (openly) diagnosed with it. I thought everyone else had it together and I alone was a failure. I saw the statistics on how common depression is, but they did nothing for me. What helped was to start meeting other people who struggled with it. Depression still sucked, and still does, but I no longer had to carry the burden of Being The Only Person In The World Who Can’t Even Be Happy.

How can you tell what someone needs in a given moment? How do you know if it’ll be more helpful to normalize their experiences, or to validate them?

Often there isn’t really a way to tell. In sessions with clients, I rely a lot on intuition and previous experience. But there are some things that people say that can serve as hints as to what they might need from you.

For instance, when people say things like, “I can’t believe I’m having trouble with something so simple,” or “I’m such a failure; I can’t even find a job,” or “Nobody else has all these problems,” that can be a sign that normalizing might be helpful. It can reassure them to know that other people do have trouble with these supposedly simple things, or that other people do actually struggle a lot with finding a job, or that other people do have these same problems. Sometimes what the person is dealing with really is shitty, but it feels a lot shittier than it has to because they think they’re the only one who’s so pathetic and incompetent as to have that problem.

On the other hand, when people say things like, “I know it shouldn’t even be a big deal, but–” or “Everybody probably deals with this but–“, pay attention to those but‘s. The part after the but is the part they have trouble accepting as valid. Everybody deals with it! It’s not a big deal! Therefore, what right do I have to even complain about it?

When someone says things like this, sharing your own experience and relating to them might not be as helpful. What they really need to hear at that moment is that their unique version of that probably-common problem is worthy of paying attention to and talking about. They might know perfectly well that other people have similar problems, but it still feels bad and that’s the part they want to hear acknowledged. Yes, everybody hates winter, but here’s how it sucks for me. Yes, everyone is tired, but I almost passed out after climbing a few stairs. Yes, I know you probably miss your family too, but I just really really miss mine today.

“Common” problems are easy to relate to. Most of us have had bad breakups or manipulative family members or really exhausting days. But rushing to relate your own experience closes off the possibility of learning more about their life. When you feel an urge to share your own experience, instead, try asking more about theirs and seeing if your experience is still as relevant as you thought.

With certain types of issues, relating your own experiences can also easily come across as one-upping even when you don’t mean it to–although, to be real, sometimes that’s exactly how people mean it. Please don’t one-up people. There’s no need. There is not a limited quantity of sympathy in the world, so there is no need to compete for it.

You might also accidentally relate to only a very small part of what they actually said, leaving them feeling misunderstood or unheard. For instance, if I share a story about a classmate saying something very hurtful and ignorant about queer people, and you share a story about a classmate saying something very inaccurate about cell biology, you may have missed the fact that the relevant part of my story wasn’t “a classmate said something silly” but rather “a classmate made a homophobic comment in class that impacted me personally.”

The urge to relate to someone’s experiences comes from a lot of places, I think. It’s a common way of trying to show someone that you understand. Showing someone that you understand them is a common way of earning their trust, respect, and affection. It indicates that you have things in common.

In therapy, of course, things are different in that the focus should always be on the client and their needs. But therapists do sometimes share stories from their own lives, and the purpose is slightly similar to how it works in casual conversations between friends–it’s a way for therapists to signal understanding of their clients, and also to let them know that they are not alone in some of their experiences. Sharing a personal story can be more powerful than simply saying something like “You’re not alone in that,” because it gives something more than a reassurance: it gives evidence. (Anecdotal, but still.)

Yet both in therapy and in life, sharing one’s own experiences can get in the way of fostering a better, deeper understanding of another person. It can also make it difficult for them to tell you more about their experience, because you’ve now turned the conversation back to yourself. It can seem very disingenuous if it’s clear to the person that you don’t actually understand very well at all.

And while we often tell ourselves that we relate to others in order to make them feel better, there sometimes is some selfishness in it. We want to prove to others that we “get it” so that we feel better about ourselves and our ability to understand and connect with people. A natural impulse, but that doesn’t make it necessarily helpful or productive all of the time.

I see this often in conversations about injustice. A marginalized person shares an experience they have had with discrimination or prejudice, and a person who is categorically unable to have the same experience nevertheless tries to relate something from their own life. Sometimes they relate an experience of being treated badly in a way that has nothing to do with their societal position, and sometimes they relate an experience that has to do with another dimension of identity.

There are definitely some important similarities in the ways in which many different marginalized groups are treated, but that doesn’t necessarily always mean that we can relate. The presumption of understanding can easily get in the way of actual understanding when a white woman assumes that her gender helps her understand someone’s experience of racism, or when a gay man assumes that his sexual identity helps him understand a trans woman’s marginalization. I mean, maybe it does, in a few limited ways. But we should always strive to learn more before assuming we “get it.”

I think a lot of people experience the urge to relate. I’ve definitely felt it. For instance, once a friend of mine who is Black was sharing some experiences of racism they had had, and I suddenly noticed a little gear turning in my brain trying to generate similar experiences from my own life that I could share. I thought, wait a minute, I never told my brain to do that! That wouldn’t be helpful right now. How could I listen fully if part of my brain was so busy trying to connect my friend’s experience to my own? How could I even come close to understanding their experience if I was already biasing that understanding by thinking of my own interpretations of my own experiences, which had nothing to do with racism?

This, I think, is what drives a lot of the confusion and miscommunication that happens around issues like race and gender. For instance, suppose a Black woman is telling me about how her coworkers and supervisors always assume she is angry and hostile when she isn’t. I start thinking about times when I have been assumed to be angry and hostile, and how that hurt, and how I dealt with them. Maybe I dealt with them by adopting a more friendly and cheery approach, and that helped. Awesome! I’m going to tell my friend about My Experiences and What Worked For Me!

Except that What Worked For Me is very unlikely to work for someone who is not white. As a white woman, I am not automatically assumed to be angry and hostile no matter what I do, generally speaking. So adjusting my demeanor, even though I felt that I was behaving appropriately before, might help change others’ perceptions of me in a substantially helpful way. A Black woman can be as painfully polite and deferential as she possibly can and yet she’s still likely to face that sort of stereotyping. Maybe if I’d listened rather than spent all that brainpower thinking about my own life experiences, I would’ve understood that.

(See also: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.)

Likewise, when I talk about feeling threatened by a man in public and men jump in to tell me that I should’ve Just Punched Him or Just Told Him To Fuck Off, they are thinking of their own experiences and how they might’ve reacted in that situation (for better or worse). A man who decides to Just Punch a man who is being offensive to him may end up getting hurt in a fistfight, but the consequences would be much more severe for me if I tried the same thing.

(See also: “Just call the police!”)

So, what do you do when someone shares an unpleasant experience and you have no idea whether or not relating something from your own life might be useful?

Here are some scripts:

  • “Do you think it might help to hear about something similar I’ve dealt with?”
  • “I’ve gone through something that sounds a lot like that. Feel free to ask me more about it if you want, or to just talk about your own stuff.”
  • “I know this may not necessarily fix the problem, but something that helped me with that was _____.”
  • “That sounds really hard, but you’re not alone in dealing with that.”

Alternatively, it’s almost always a good idea to ask them more questions (with the caveat that they don’t have to talk about it more if they don’t want to) so that you can understand what they’re going through better.

In social work school, we learn a lot about the importance of being very aware of what’s going on in our own heads as we’re trying to help others. That’s useful for any sort of interpersonal situation. It’s a good idea to go into these types of serious conversations with an awareness of what you’re bringing to the table, including your own needs and desires and biases. Many of us want to feel competent when it comes to understanding and helping our friends. That’s commendable, but it too easily turns into a search for affirmation from people who are busy trying to share their own troubles.

Don’t let your need to demonstrate your understanding get in the way of actually understanding.

Facebook Needs a “Sympathy” Button

My latest piece for the Daily Dot is about the challenges of expressing sadness and loss on Facebook as it’s currently set up.

If you’ve ever posted some sad news on Facebook, you might’ve watched as the status received a few likes followed immediately by comments such as, “Liked for sympathy” or “I’m only liking this out of support.”

It’s not surprising that a gesture meant to stand on its own needs a little explanation when the post in question is negative rather than positive or neutral. “Like” is an odd verb to use when someone’s talking about their recently deceased pet or a crappy day at work, but a thread full of identical comments reading “Sorry to hear that” seems almost as awkward.

Many people still think of social networks like Facebook as places where people primarily share things like news about job offers and impending moves, BuzzFeed articles, and photos of food, babies, and animals. However, that view is out of date. Depending on your social circle, Facebook may also be a place to vent about health troubles, share articles about crappy things going on in the world, and seek condolences when loved ones pass away.

Commenting and “liking” may no longer seem sufficient as responses. Mashable writer Amy-Mae Elliot suggests a “sympathy” button as an addition to Facebook:

‘Sympathy’ is the perfect sentiment to cover what Facebook lacks. It can mean a feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune, and also an understanding between people—a common feeling. It would be appropriate for nearly every Facebook post that gears toward the negative, from sending ‘Sympathy’ if someone loses a loved one to saying ‘I sympathize’ if someone’s in bed with the flu.

Clicking the ‘Sympathy’ button would let your Facebook friend know you’ve seen his post and that he’s in your thoughts. And unlike the fabled ‘Dislike’ option, it would be difficult to hijack or abuse the notion of sympathy.

It’s not as snappy as a “like” button, and it doesn’t have an easily-recognizable symbol that can go along with it, but it would make it easier for Facebook users to engage with negative posts.

The “like” button isn’t the only way that Facebook’s design subtly encourages positive posts and discourages negative ones.

Read the rest here.

“Educate Me!” “Go Google It!”

A common dynamic online:

  • Person A is writing about or discussing Social Justice Things online.
  • Person B comes across Person A’s writing or discussions, perhaps on Twitter or Tumblr, and has a basic-level question about Social Justice Things–sometimes the particular ones under discussion here, or maybe just something else that Person A might know about.
  • Person B asks Person A a basic-level question, hoping to learn more about the topic.
  • Person A is annoyed at the request and responds angrily: “I’m not here to educate you!” “Go Google it!” “[link to Let Me Google That For You results]”
  • Person B feels embarrassed and hurt, and concludes that Person A doesn’t really care whether Person B understands Social Justice Things or not. Person B may develop a very negative opinion about Social Justice People and Social Justice Things, because that’s how cognitive bias works.

Here’s another common dynamic, perhaps an even more common one:

  • Person A has a blog or a Twitter account that they use to discuss Social Justice Things with like-minded folks. Person A posts something.
  • Person B comes across Person A’s writing or discussions. Person B is privileged relative to Person A on the issues being discussed–gender, race, class, etc. Person B feels annoyed at this discussion. They find all this Social Justice Stuff to be whiny and irritating and they don’t understand why people keep making such a big deal over such little things.
  • Person B asks Person A a basic-level question, perhaps worded in a way that reveals their irritation (“Yeah well, how are men supposed to meet women if we can’t even compliment a cute girl on the train?” “Okay so are you suggesting that white people just stop accepting job offers because a Black person should get them instead?”).
  • Person A is annoyed. They were just trying to discuss Social Justice Things with people they trust. They have answered these exact questions on their blog or Twitter dozens of times, as have many other writers. Maybe right now they don’t want to discuss basics like why street harassment is street harassment, or what affirmative action actually is. They are irritated at Person B’s entitled-sounding tone and the fact that Person B doesn’t seem to have done even the bare minimum to teach themselves about these issues.
  • Person A responds angrily: “I’m not here to educate you!” “Go Google it!” “[link to Let Me Google That For You results]”
  • Person B’s confirmation bias leads them to view this as yet another example of Social Justice People being awful rather than viewing this slightly rude response in the context in which it happened.

Here’s the problem: in practice, these dynamics can be almost indistinguishable.

I’ve been mulling this issue over in my mind for a while, trying to keep my own privilege in mind but also trying to understand the perspectives of everyone in this situation–the person who innocently asks a 101-level question hoping to learn more, the person who asks a 101-level question hoping to derail the conversation, the Social Justice Person tired of being expected to serve as a free tutor for anyone who asks, the other Social Justice People who feel that we have a responsibility to be kind to newbies, the people who are observing this dynamic from the outside and, more often than not, handing down edicts that they want the Social Justice People to follow without necessarily understanding our perspectives and situations.

Thinking about all this has led me to make a number of observations, some of which contradict each other, and none of which are going to please everyone.

  • Not everyone who talks about Social Justice Things online is doing it for the purpose of educating others.

A common assumption made by those who ask these basic-level questions if that if someone is blogging or tweeting about social justice, they are there to educate. Here’s the thing, though–for some of us, it’s just our daily lives, and we share them with each other because it brings us comfort and connection. If I post a tweet about how I’m really shaken up after a guy followed me down the block screaming sexual obscenities, some men may see this as an invitation to ask me why this is harassment or what the guy should’ve done instead or how exactly I suggest we fix this problem, just throw all the men in jail or what? But I wasn’t posting to educate. I was posting because I’d just gone through a traumatic experience and wanted people to know what I was dealing with and support me.

  • Not all online public spaces actually function as public spaces.

Recently there’s been a lot of conversation about this. For example, one thread of the conversation concerns the use of people’s tweets in news stories without their permission. After a controversial Buzzfeed story collected sexual assault survivors’ tweets without asking the person who has started and was leading the conversation (though the journalist did ask the authors of the individual tweets), media types all over the internet insisted that “Yeah, well, Twitter is public.” Technically, yes, but what does this mean in practice?

In practice, many people use Twitter to connect with others that they might not know in person. That’s the power of Twitter. Making our accounts private wouldn’t do the trick. In a recent Pacific Standard interview, Mikki Kendall discusses the “fetishization” of Black Twitter, which is exactly what it sounds like–Black people on Twitter connecting with each other and discussing things that are relevant to them, whether it’s the Eric Garner shooting or the latest episode of Scandal. Sometimes, clueless white people stumble onto Black Twitter discussions and expect the participants of those discussions to educate them about racism. They don’t understand that those people are there mainly to interact with each other, not to teach white people.

Twitter and Tumblr are public, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is invited to the table–just like if you see a group of friends talking at a restaurant, that is not an invitation to barge in and ask them questions, even though you are able to see them and hear their conversation.

  • Even discussions meant to be educational happen on different levels.

If I’m trying to explain to someone how the fight for same-sex marriage is actually marginalizing more urgent queer causes and essentially demanding that queer folks assimilate and act as straight as possible in order to receive their rights, that may not be the time to show up and ask how I presume same-sex couples could possibly instill good morals in their children. If someone is discussing how laws and police officers and incarceration is not a good solution for street harassment because it doesn’t get at the underlying problem and will only serve to further oppress men of color, that may not be the time to demand to know what’s wrong with telling a hot girl that she’s hot.

To do so would be the equivalent of bursting into a Physics 301 classroom and demanding to be taught basic mechanics. But people don’t realize this because they don’t see social justice as a discipline, a method, a field of inquiry that has many levels and layers of knowledge.

This is why some people refer to basic-question-asking as a form of derailment. The folks who get told they’re derailing often find this difficult to understand–how can just asking questions possibly be derailing? It’s derailing in the sense that you’re trying to get the person to stop talking about what they want to talk about and instead talk about what you want to talk about.

  • The reason many marginalized people don’t want to answer basic questions is because those situations often turn confrontational and nasty.

Yes, it always starts the same–someone asking a basic question. Sometimes I answer and they say, “You’re right.” Sometimes I answer and they say, “I don’t agree, but thanks for taking the time to explain your view.” Sometimes they say, “Huh, I’ll think about that, thanks.” But a disturbingly large percentage of the time, instead, I get drawn into a horrid gaslighting argument that may or may not include the use of personal insults and slurs, or even threats of violence.

I explain this the same way I explain street harassment. If you’re a nice guy who just wants to tell me I’m pretty, you don’t understand–because you have the privilege of not dealing with this on the regular–that so many of the guys who came before you followed that up with FUCK YOU, YOU UGLY SLUTTY CUNT. (Or worse.) If you’re a nice person who just wants to get some answers about some stuff you don’t understand, you may not realize that a bunch of the people who asked me those questions before have turned out truly nasty. And I can’t tell from reading a single typed sentence from you which of those you are.

  • However, people who don’t know much about social justice are unlikely to know/understand much of what I just wrote.

In that way, social justice is very, very unlike physics. If you don’t know much about social justice, you won’t know how ostensibly public platforms are functioning for marginalized people. If you don’t know much about social justice, you won’t know why I need support from people to process an incident of street harassment, or why a person of color might be looking for support to process a recent police shooting. If you don’t know much about social justice, you might not think those things are even a “big deal” in the first place. If you don’t know much about social justice, you might not know about the harassment and abuse that less-privileged people have to deal with online from people who initially come across just like you.

So when we get angry at people who ask basic questions because we think it’s obvious that the questions are not appropriate for the situation, we might be overestimating how much they really understand about what’s going on. Just like I might get angry at an American who shows me the middle finger, but maybe not at a foreigner who does the same. The foreigner might not realize that it’s a very rude gesture. Social justice spaces bring their own culture shock.

  • Meanness to newbies isn’t a Social Justice Problem. It’s a Human Problem.

Perhaps it’s people with an overinflated opinion of Social Justice People who assume that we are somehow magically immune to the flaws that plague the rest of humanity. But every bad thing you find in any group of people–sloppy thinking, meanness, tribalism, abuse, self-centeredness, sexism, racism, any other -ism–also exists among Social Justice People. Maybe slightly less for some of those, maybe slightly more for others–but it’s our virtually-universal human flaws that contribute to all of these issues.

Have you ever tried to post a basic question on a tech or gaming forum? Ever got told to “go read the fucking manual, idiot”? I have! That’s why I don’t post on tech forums when I need help with Python or HTML. Ever asked a professor a basic question and gotten snarked at? I have! I asked a psychology professor in college–a respected expert in her field–a question about APA citations, and got in response, “Are you even a psych major?” Ever posted a question on Facebook or Twitter and had your own friends condescendingly tell you to Google it? I have! And so it goes.

Are you also upset about tech forum admins telling newbies to “go read the fucking manual”? If so, great. If not, you are being hypocritical. And keep in mind that tech forums, unlike someone’s random Tumblr, often are explicitly meant for teaching and learning.

Anyway, I don’t think that being mean to newbies is a Tech Problem or a Gaming Problem or a Psychology Problem or a College Problem or a Miri’s Friends Problem; I think it’s just a problem. I think the irritation we feel when someone wants basic answers is understandable; I also think we should try to think rationally about whether or not it’ll help anyone–our own selves included–to express it.

That said, I’m extraordinarily unsympathetic to people who seem to have made it their mission to root out every example of Human Problems in social justice circles as though we are somehow exceptional in this regard. (The phrase “get your own house in order,” while admittedly unkind, comes to mind.) And while some might argue that we have some sort of “responsibility” to be better than others–well, I think we try. I think we often fail, because being a human is hard.

  • Googling is unlikely to yield a good social justice education.

That, I think, is the central problem of telling people to “go Google it.” The social justice information that is easily found through Googling is likely to be written by and for straight white able-bodied American middle-class people. We, as Social Justice People, know this and understand why it’s a problem; Hypothetical Newbie does not. Unless you want Hypothetical Newbie to receive their entire social justice education through Jezebel and white male writers, I’d advise against telling them to Google their question. (Remember, too, that Googling certain issues is also likely to land them on MRA sites. Nobody wants that.)

If you don’t know what you’re missing anything, you won’t know to look for what you’re missing.

  • Unfortunately, the response to being angrily told to educate yourself will rarely be to educate yourself.

(With the huuuuge caveat that a lot of what gets interpreted as “anger” when coming from women or people of color or women of color in particular is not actually anger, or wouldn’t be interpreted as anger when coming from white men. It would be considered being direct. But sometimes it really is.)

Anger can be absolutely 100% justified and still cause people to shrink and shut down and go away. That is, in fact, one of its purposes. For most people, getting yelled at is not conducive to the sort of mood–hopeful, curious, alert–that is conducive to learning. Many of us have had awful grade school teachers who yelled at us; some of us might still remember what that was like. I do. I didn’t learn squat-diddly-doo in that class, so focused was I on making myself small and unnoticeable and calming myself down.

(That class, by the way? It was English. The grade? Seventh. That was the year I started getting really, really into writing. I am thankful every day that out of all the ways that teacher wrecked me, destroying my love of writing wasn’t one of them.)

So there’s sometimes a difference between behaving in ways that are absolutely understandable and justifiable, and behaving in ways that are likeliest to get us the results we want to see. When I think about how to respond to someone online, I think about what I want to happen here, and how I can best make that happen. It sucks that we can’t always express ourselves fully if we are to achieve certain goals, but that’s part of being realistic and goal-oriented.

Where do we go from here? How do we resolve these tensions? If educating others is important to us, how do we do it without burning out, giving in to entitled expectations from others, or demanding that Social Justice People be stronger and smarter and better and kinder than everyone else at all times?

My only two suggestions are that if you ever feel like yelling at someone for asking you a question, first consider one of these alternatives: 1) ignoring the message, or 2) linking them to a good resource that might answer it for them.

To that end, it might help to start amassing a database of links for common questions. One incredible example is Aida Manduley’s Ferguson masterpost. Shakesville’s Feminism 101 is also great, though perhaps not entirely 101. Another, much more general one is my own. If you know of others, please link to them.

I try to encourage people to have compassion for each other. This means, fellow Social Justice People: I know it feels impossible, but we need to try to remember that not everyone who cannot be discerned from an asshole is an asshole. Not being willing to take the risk is perfectly okay, but I think it’s better to not take that risk in a way that minimizes hurt to people who did nothing wrong. For instance: ignoring/blocking. And, not-Social Justice People: try to remember that when we’re hurting and angry, it’s because of lifetimes of death by a thousand cuts that you can’t see because you haven’t learned to see them yet. I hope you find a way to learn, but in the meantime, try to cut us some slack for being upset.

To close, I’ll link to Ozy Frantz’s excellent post, “Certain Propositions Concerning Callout Culture.” Their piece is sort of about the general case of what I’ve discussed here, and I echo many of their views, caveats, and recommendations.

~~~

Here is a great article about a very similar problem plaguing another great community: Wikipedia. Although the situation is not analogous in many ways, hopefully it will serve as an example of both the harms and the occasional inevitability of Newbie Hate/Fear.

Official policies tell editors to tolerate newcomers’ innocent mistakes (“Please do not bite the newcomers”), but active editors often reverse newbies’ contributions without explanation. “Activists have been at it five and 10 years and don’t tolerate little mistakes,” says Jensen, an editor since 2005. He recalls running a workshop in which a well-known expert on Montana history tried to add a paragraph to the site, only to see it immediately erased.

Editors distrust newcomers for a reason: bitter experience. “Trolls come,” Jemielniak tells me in an interview. “If you spend time reviewing recent changes, after an hour or two you will have a feeling that the world is composed mostly of primary school students and cranks.” Some vandals simply replace an article’s text with random characters: destruction for its own sake. Instead of improving article content, editing often means acting as a human spam filter. Jemielniak and others may decry Wikipedians’ emphasis on edit numbers, but valuing lots of small changes, even out of testosterone-fueled competitiveness, has an unsung benefit: It encourages editors to discover and repair damage. Eternal vigilance keeps the site’s contents from decaying.

How to Show Affection When Showing Affection is Hard

I’ve mentioned before that it’s difficult for me to be emotionally intimate with people. That means that it’s hard to tell them that I love them or remind them that they mean a lot to me and basically anything else associated with sappy rainbowvomitness.

In that earlier post, I described why I have this issue, but it can come up for people for all sorts of reasons–a history of abuse, trouble recognizing or connecting to one’s emotions, difficulty with language, speaking, or writing, and so on. And some people just aren’t very emotional or forthcoming, and that’s okay too. It’s not their style.

How do we show love to the special people in our lives when few of the ways we’re taught to do it resonate? I can’t bring myself to write sappy Facebook statuses or have one of those conversations where we just keep talking about how much we love each other. It quite honestly turns my stomach and makes me feel uncomfortable, boxed in, and small. I worry about What It Means to be a person who says those things. Does it mean I’ve once again become everything I worked so hard to stop being?

So I’m writing this post sort of experimentally, more for myself than anyone else. Writing, especially writing publicly, is one of the best ways I have of figuring shit out. I’m curious if the process of writing this will help me uncover ways to connect to people in my life that feel comfortable and authentic for me. So, although it will look like a list of advice, the advice is actually for myself.

I guess this isn’t likely to help that many people because both this issue and my particular situation might not be that common: I have issues with verbal/emotional affection but not physical affection, most of my relationships are long-distance and fairly casual, I’m polyamorous, and I have an easier time being affectionate with people with whom the relationship is strictly platonic. Maybe for other people, it’s physical affection that’s tricky, or it’s harder to express affection for Just Friends outside of the confines of an Established Relationship. I don’t know. Hopefully this will help more people than just me, though.

So, here is what I’m going to try to do, or do more of:

1. Give gifts.

When possible, gifts are a nice way to express appreciation for people that doesn’t necessarily involve a lot of feelings!talk. Sometimes, simply telling someone I care for them can feel very performative and self-centered in a weird way: “Look at me! I have feelings about you! Listen to my feelings! Affirm/reflect my feelings!” Giving a gift, especially a gift that is useful rather than purely A Keepsake To Remind You Of Me, can be a way to decenter myself. That’s why I tend to give lots of books and edible things. I hope that by giving someone an enjoyable experience, I can express affection for them without putting myself at the forefront.

2. Share appreciation for their thoughts, ideas, and actions.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s hard for me to do the “I love you so much you are so special to me I’m so glad you’re in my life you make me so happy” thing. Something that feels more comfortable and also resonates more with the way I experience my close relationships is to tell someone that I respect or appreciate something they’ve said or done. It helps that many of my friends are writers, which means I can express positive thoughts about their work. One of the reasons this is easier for me is because, like with the gifts, it takes the focus off of me and my emotions and keeps it on them and the cool things they say and do; another is that it’s what I would appreciate, because effusive expressions of emotion are somewhat difficult for me to understand and respond to and I much prefer compliments on concrete things that I do. I never want to make someone feel as awkward as I feel when I suddenly get a rainbowvomit message about how much someone cares about me that I don’t know how to respond to, so I feel better when I affirm people in ways that might be a little easier for them to reciprocate or respond to (“Thanks, I’m glad you liked it!” “Thanks, I like your new blog post too!”).

3. Tell them stories about your life.

I want to feel like my friends and partners know me and know what my life is like. Because most of them live so far away, they have no idea unless I tell them–beyond the generalities that I put in my Facebook statuses, which, although they can feel quite personal and intimate, are actually quite filtered and intentionally cheerful. Where do I talk about my successes at work, or how awful I felt when I couldn’t write something that felt important to write,  or the woman who helped me out on the subway? Pretty much nowhere. Maybe spontaneously telling people these things will help them feel like I care enough to want them to know about my life, and I know I’d appreciate hearing those types of things from them to.

4. Do helpful things for them.

The key here being to actually listen to what they need and do the things that they will find helpful, not what you personally think would be helpful. Little acts of service are a big part of the way that I show affection to people, though they might not always realize it. I remember when I was first getting to know my boyfriend over a year ago–before he was my boyfriend, before it would’ve felt at all appropriate to express that I cared in any other way–I knew he wanted a game that was being sold at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Living just a short subway ride away from it, I offered to go and get it for him and bring it to Skepticon, where we would see each other. The fact that I got to use my wonderful city to do a little nice thing for someone made it all the better. Other things I like doing include giving New York touristy tips, editing people’s writing, and carrying heavy things.

5. Use your talents.

This relates closely to the previous one, at least for me. Most of my favorite ways to show affection involve this somehow. For instance, cooking for people is something I take really seriously as a way to demonstrate the fact that I care. Although I love doing it, it is time-consuming and sometimes physically taxing and can take me away from socializing with people–but I do it because that effort is meaningful. (And I really do not exaggerate when I say that my food is amazing.) Other skills I like to use are writing (I might write a nice holiday card for someone, or let them read and respond to a new article before I’ve posted it), listening (when someone needs to rant about something), and observing (when someone needs help dealing with a problem in their lives, and I help them not necessarily by offering advice but by noting things I’ve observed about them and the situation). Although the expectation I sometimes face with everyone from partners to total strangers that I listen to and help with all of their problems just because it’s also my profession can be ridiculously stressful and irritating, I’ve found that when I really, really care for someone, I’ll drop anything to help them out. (With the caveat that if it becomes too frequent or starts to feel like an expectation, we might have a talk.)

6. Connect them with people, events, media, or resources they might like.

I think about the people I care about a lot, although they don’t always realize it because I hate to do the “hey I’m thinking of you” thing (again, it feels really presumptuous, like a demand for their attention). But one way it plays out is that I often come across things that I think people I care about would like, and I like to share those things with them. Most commonly it’s books or places, but I also like introducing people to people they might like or inviting them to events they might like. I have often reached out to friends I knew were job-hunting with listings I thought might work. I like connecting disparate friends together (although I’m also mindful not to expect them to like each other).

7. Ask for their help in little ways.

People like to feel needed in ways that matter to them. It is hard for me to make people feel needed because I like to do everything by myself, whether that’s exploring the city, editing an article, or coping with a difficult time in my life. But there are ways for me to include people in my own processes without compromising my hard-won sense of independence and competence. For instance, I sometimes post requests for practical suggestions or advice on Facebook, which lets people share their own knowledge and experiences. Other times I reach out to individual people to ask if they know of an article about X, or if they can help me think of a word for Y, or–very rarely–if they wouldn’t mind listening to me vent for a while. I only do this with people I value, so I hope it helps them remember that I value them.

8. Sexting.

This is obviously only applicable with certain types of loved ones, and I’ll also caveat it with the fact that sexting is something I find very performative in a way that is fun but also requires a lot of mental energy that I don’t always have. But when I can do it, it’s a nice way to remind a distant partner that I find them sexy without having to belabor the point–a way of showing rather than telling, as it were.

It’s probably easy to look at this list and assume that I just need to get over my intimacy issues and everything will be great. Well, I’ve restarted therapy for mostly this reason, but that’s not going to make noticeable changes immediately (if it ever does). Therapy is not accessible to everyone, and I’m also not sure that disliking rainbowvomit-y emotional expression is necessarily a sign that there’s something “wrong” with you. It’s not the way everyone experiences love and attachment. It’s certainly not the way I experience it anymore.

If you deal with similar issues and have suggestions, please feel free to share them in the comments. (If you do not, then please don’t speculate and offer suggestions anyway; just use this as an opportunity to learn about people who deal with stuff you don’t.)

On Mishearing “Get Consent” as “Don’t Have Sex”

[Content note: sexual assault]

This fall, the new affirmative consent law in California, which requires all universities that receive state funding to adopt definitions of consent that translate roughly to “only yes means yes” rather than simply “no means no,” reignited a number of age-old debates about the meaning of consent and sexual assault. One of them is the claim that anti-rape advocacy is attempting to redefine perfectly good sex as rape, and that in this new climate, men cannot ever be safe from being accused of rape no matter how careful they are.

Remember, by the way, that this is not new. This is not a California’s-new-law problem. This is a very old problem.

This article was published before the law passed, but it’s still very relevant because I’m hearing these sorts of objections, especially in response to the law, all the time. The authors interview a number of college men (and those who work with them) who say they are much more careful about hooking up now that there’s such a focus on campus sexual assault. For instance:

Pollack said a patient recently told him about making out with a girl at a party. Things were going fine, the student said, when suddenly a vision of his school’s disciplinary board flew into his head.

“‘I want to go to law school or medical school after this,’” Pollack said, recounting the student’s comments. “‘I said to her, it’s been nice seeing you.’”

More anecdotally, I’ve heard these sorts of remarks too. “I don’t even bother asking women out now,” or “I haven’t had sex for years because I’m scared they’ll call me a rapist.” I feel sad for these men who clearly want sexual intimacy but feel that they have no choice to give it up. And I also feel angry, because this is not what we’ve been saying, and yet they insist that we’re telling them they can’t have sex at all.

Countless writers, educators, and activists have weighed in on what consent is and what it is not and how to communicate around it. If you Google “what is consent,” the first page has numerous resources meant to help young people learn what consent is, such as this one and this one. Don’t like reading? There are graphics!

Yet (some) men insist that this is all so mysterious and perilous that they have no choice but to avoid the whole enterprise altogether.

I don’t want anyone to be lonely, insecure, and sexually unfulfilled. I don’t want anyone who wants to have sex to be unable to have it. I want everyone to have the confidence to pursue and find the types of relationships they’re interested in. I want everyone to feel worthy and valuable even if they haven’t found a partner yet.

But I also want people to pursue all of this ethically. That means that if you’re ever unsure if someone is consenting, you stop and ask. And if you don’t think you are able to do that, then you should abstain from sex until you are able to do it.

~~~

I wish I could explain consent to all of these men. I wish they could attend one of my workshops about consent, where I help people learn to understand body language, find language to help them ask for and give consent, and show how these skills apply to all areas of life, not just sex.

But I’m not sure how much of the misunderstanding is innocent rather than willful. The information is out there. So many people are working hard to make it available to college men. I’m not sure how much else I personally–or we collectively–can do for people who may not want to learn and change.

If we keep saying, “Make sure your partner is consenting!” and they keep hearing, “Women are mysterious fickle creatures who sometimes call random things rape just to screw you over,” I’m not sure how much responsibility we can accept for the misunderstanding.

Especially since many people have a vested interest in perpetuating this misunderstanding. It serves their purposes. They think it makes things easier for them, even as it causes so much more anxiety and fear and pain than embracing affirmative consent as a standard.

~~~

Sex, with all of its possibility to hurt, will probably always bring up fears, including the fear of overstepping a boundary and hurting someone. That is not a pleasant feeling; I know because, as someone who was not socialized to feel entitled to others’ bodies or attention, I feel it. Communicating clearly and expecting nothing less than clear communication from my partners helps relieve that fear, but a little bit of it is a good thing. It helps us remember that we have the power to hurt.

Right now, though, the predominant fear is one many people, women and gender-nonconforming people especially, face–the fear of having our boundaries willfully ignored. I won’t speculate about which feels worse. It is possible that someone who doesn’t have to face a high likelihood of being sexually assaulted feels subjectively as bad when they imagine the possibility of “accidentally” assaulting someone as I feel when I imagine the possibility of being assaulted (on purpose).

But for me, personally, the fear of being assaulted is so much worse. Because there are ways–ways that aren’t discussed nearly enough–to reduce my risk of assaulting someone to approximately zero without any undue burden on me. There are no ways to reduce my risk of being assaulted that are effective and that to not impose an undue burden on me.

This is why I am glad that men are starting to feel that surmountable fear. I don’t want them to live in terror. I don’t want them to avoid sex out of fear. (That would be how the other half lives.) I do want them to accept their fair share of the responsibility, though. And yes, that means more fear than they may be used to.

Ezra Klein says as much in a provocative Vox piece:

If the Yes Means Yes law is taken even remotely seriously it will settle like a cold winter on college campuses, throwing everyday sexual practice into doubt and creating a haze of fear and confusion over what counts as consent. This is the case against it, and also the case for it. Because for one in five women to report an attempted or completed sexual assault means that everyday sexual practices on college campuses need to be upended, and men need to feel a cold spike of fear when they begin a sexual encounter.

~~~

When I first read that Bloomberg piece about waning “hookup culture,” my initial reaction was, honestly, to shrug. Let them be scared. Let them avoid sex and intimacy. I’ve certainly done that because I was afraid of sexual assault.

But then I thought, this isn’t really the way forward. At least, not entirely.

These men don’t seem to be afraid in that rational, “Shit, I could really hurt someone! Better be careful” way. They seem afraid in a reactive way, almost out of spite–“See, look how much you’ve fucked up my life! Happy now?” They seem afraid because they keep interpreting consent education in the most negative and life-fucking sort of way. They seem afraid because they still don’t understand that their female partners are human beings with their own subjective experiences, experiences that they would do well to listen to and try to understand.

I don’t want men to live in fear. I don’t want men to stop flirting with women and asking for their number. I don’t want men to start refusing sex with eager, consenting women because what if they’re actually lying and not consenting.

I want them to listen to us. I want them to respect our agency. I want them to let us write the story together with them, rather than writing each chapter themselves and then handing it to us to read, perhaps accepting some critique if they are especially gracious.

The Context of the Thing

[Content note: sexual harassment/assault, victim blaming, racism, police brutality, homophobia, fat shaming]

Many debates in the realm of social justice and politics are debates about context. In what context are certain things said, and can those things ever be divorced from that context? Should they ever be?

Take this Facebook post, made by a New York coffee shop I had heretofore found entirely satisfactory:

A Facebook post by The Bean, including a photo of a NYPD police car and a caption, "Thank you NYPD for protecting our great city."

Image description: a Facebook post by The Bean, including a photo of a NYPD police car and a caption, “Thank you NYPD for protecting our great city.”

 

What is so irritating about this post is the plausible deniability. Surely, a Manhattan coffee shop could just post this image apropos of nothing, perhaps in the holiday spirit, to express gratitude towards the city’s police force. It could just be a matter of city pride; certainly we all like it when there is as little crime as possible. And so on and so forth.

But why post this image now? Why would a coffee shop that has posted nothing but photos, comics, and articles about coffee, store news, six posts about local events, and one cutesy article about Mother’s Day for the entirety of the year 2014 suddenly give a shout-out to the city police department?

I think I know why. But, of course, I can only speculate.

So it is with a lot of other statements that rankle, hurt, or even trigger. “What were you wearing?” Oh, sure, you could just be curious. After all, maybe it was my outfit and not my perceived gender that drew my harasser’s attention that night. Of course, you are very worried about me and just want to make sure that I’m being “smart.” You’re not thinking about the fact that that’s often the first question authorities ask us, and that fashion advice is the only kind of prevention they seem to be able to offer us. You’re not thinking about what happens to women whose outfits were deemed insufficiently preventative. Who helps those women? “Oh, I’m not saying it’s your fault,” you say. “I think anyone who does such a thing is wrong and bad and if it were up to me I would bring them to justice.” Would you? Okay, I’ll grant you that. But historically, that’s not what’s happened, is it?

“What about black-on-black crime?” Certainly it is a tragedy that so many young Black people die at each other’s hands, presumably because of gangs or drugs or one of those other scary things, and really, if a given group wants to stop dying, maybe they should stop killing each other. Never mind that the same ignorance that causes people to ask this question is the ignorance that keeps them from seeing everything that’s already being done, by Black people, to address this issue. Never mind that most white murder victims are killed by other white people, too, because people tend to be killed by those who are near to them and/or have some sort of relationship with them, and our neighborhoods and relationships are still very segregated. Never mind that “black-on-black crime” is a derailment from what is in my opinion a much more preventable issue–the fact that police around the country are killing Black people with virtually no consequences.

Yes, violent crime happens, especially in disadvantaged areas, and that is awful. But that the people tasked with “protecting” us, according to my local coffee shop, are murdering people, especially in a systematically racist way, deserves immediate attention and resolution, because a police officer who murders innocent people is an even greater threat to our society than an ordinary citizen who murders innocent people. Why? That should be obvious: cops have power, weapons, skills, and immunity that ordinary citizens do not. Law enforcement officials can do things like plant meth in the car of a woman who accused them of sexual harassment and then have her arrested on this country’s ridiculous drug laws.

“I don’t see anything wrong with gay people, I just don’t see why they have to be in my face about it.” No, you’re right. Perhaps you are a person who believes that sex, love, and relationships should be an entirely private matter. Maybe you’re uncomfortable when your coworker tells everyone about the vacation she’s planning for her and her husband’s anniversary. Maybe it turns your stomach to see free condoms handed out on your campus. Maybe you change the channel every time a guy and a girl kiss in a TV show and you don’t feel that it’s appropriate for children to see a man and a woman holding hands in public. But you don’t mention that because…maybe people would ridicule you for it, whereas publicly stating that gay couples gross you out is still socially acceptable. I don’t know.

Or maybe you have double standards for queer people versus straight people, and you believe that the things straight people get to do–hold hands and kiss in public, chat at work about their anniversary plans, see relationships like theirs on television, access the healthcare that they need–are not things that queer people get to do. Sometimes queer people are loud and in-your-face about being queer because they are fighting against the idea that they should have to be silent when straight people don’t have to be. Your casual remarks about “I just wish they’d keep it to themselves” are telling us to get back in the closet so you don’t have to be uncomfortable.

“Of course it’s wrong to hate people just because they’re fat, but they really need to lose some weight or else they’ll be unhealthy.” You may think that what you’re saying here is commendable. After all, you must really care about this person and have great concern for their wellbeing. Maybe you even have some helpful weight loss advice that totally worked for you. Really, they should be grateful that you’re trying to help them.

Okay, but the idea that “they really need to lose some weight or else they’ll be unhealthy” is the idea that causes people to hate them in the first place. If weight is perfectly correlated to health, and if losing weight is a possibility for everyone, then only those who do not care about their health would allow themselves to be fat, and only an irresponsible person who lacks self-control would refuse to care about their health. Such a person would not make a suitable employee, doctoral student, or partner, for instance. Such a person would be a bad influence for your children. And the idea that fatness is responsible for poor health 100% of the time keeps fat people from getting the medical care they need, because doctors assume that the problem must be their weight.

Plausible deniability is how all of these statements function. We are expected to take them entirely out of context, as isolated thoughts or ideas or feelings or beliefs that have nothing to do with what came before or what will come after, and nothing to do with the horrors that have been committed in their name. You asking me what I was wearing has nothing to do with the systematic refusal to believe and help people who have been harassed and assaulted. You innocently wondering about black-on-black crime has nothing to do with centuries of white-on-black crime, and with the casual dismissal of this crime, and with the fact that it has historically not been defined as a crime at all. You wishing that queer people wouldn’t shove their sexuality in your face has nothing to do with our erasure, metaphoric and sometimes literal. You patronizingly advising bigger people to get smaller has nothing to do with their mistreatment in all sorts of social contexts, including medical ones. Nothing at all!

But that’s not how communication works. If a celebrity becomes the center of a huge controversy and I post about my love for their films or music, that can and should be taken as a statement of support for that celebrity. If a business comes under fire for its practices or policies and I post about how I’m going to proudly patronize that business today, that can and should be taken as a statement of support for that business. (In fact, I once ended a friendship with someone who did this on the day the Chick-Fil-A homophobia thing went viral, and I do not regret it.) There is of course a chance that I had simply not heard of the controversy, but in that case, I should reconsider my support for this person or business once a friend helpfully comments and lets me know about what’s going on. And in most cases people do not do this.

So if you post about your gratitude to the NYPD right after one of its officers has once again gone unpunished for the cruel killing of a Black man, and as protests march right down the block where your coffee shop stands, that has a context, too.

I suppose it can feel like this is all a huge burden. Why shouldn’t you be able to just say what you think and feel without being held responsible for decades or centuries of terrible things done in the service of the beliefs that you are expressing? It’s true that what happened is not your responsibility, and every terrible thing done by people who believe the same things you believe is not your fault.

But that is why what you say hurts people, and that is why they warn you where your beliefs may logically lead. If what women wear has any relevance to their sexual violation, if black-on-black crime is more important and urgent than white-on-black racism, if queer people being open about themselves and their loves is so unpleasant for you, if fat people should lose weight before they are taken seriously–then that has implications for how we treat people and issues. If you take the time to listen to the voices of those most affected by these issues, you might see that these implications are just as horrifying to you as they are to us.

Opening Up, Closing Down

[Content note: depression, suicide, self-harm]

The truth about mental illnesses that many of us have learned is that they change you for good. Even after the symptoms are gone, the medication gradually reduced to nothing or stabilized at a dose that works, something remains. (And for many of us the symptoms are never entirely gone.)

Depression left my scaffolds–indeed, my very foundation–cracked. I’m okay, even joyful, much of the time. But it feels a little flimsy.

One of the ways this plays out in my daily life is that I have problems with intimacy. I don’t mean the sexual euphemism, but rather the ability to be vulnerable, to let people in, to be seen as you are, to be comfortable with closeness.

I am intensely uncomfortable with all of this.

I hate talking about myself, whether it’s positive or negative. I hate feeling like I need someone’s help to deal with emotions. I hate wanting someone’s help to deal with emotions even when I know I don’t need it. I hate the first time I tell someone I love them and I hate many of the subsequent times too. I hate it when people know that I miss them. I hate being visibly upset around someone, which means that if it’s at all possible to leave, I leave. I hate expressing any emotion besides joy and anger (which I rarely feel) to anyone. I hate it when someone says things to me in an attempt to build intimacy but I don’t know what to do so I say nothing. I hate when people notice emotions I didn’t intend to share. I hate when they tell me this as though it’s going to somehow endear them to me. I hate that there’s nowhere I can cry without being seen or heard by someone.

So relationships, whether platonic or romantic or sexual or some combination, are difficult.

Some people have difficulties like these for their whole lives, but for me, it happened as a result of depression. And, ironically, depression is also the thing that’s hardest for me to share with people.

During my nine years of depression–in fact, probably my whole life up to and including that–I was very different. My experience of mental illness was that it triggered a sort of leaking of thoughts and emotions. I literally lacked the ability to hold them in. They spilled out of my hands, like when I try to move a big pile of laundry from the washing machine to the dryer and little bits and pieces–a sock here, a tank top there–keep falling on the floor. I remember crying apropos of nothing on the band bus in 10th grade and telling my boyfriend that there’s no way to be happy when you hate yourself. Fifteen is old enough to know that this is not an appropriate thing to say. It didn’t matter. It just came out.

It’s not like I didn’t try to plug the leaks. In 6th or 7th grade, I decided to keep a record in my journal of “things left unsaid.” Each day I intentionally tried to shut myself up at some crucial juncture, and rewarded myself for it by writing it down in the notebook later–the thing left unsaid, the person I didn’t say it to, and the reason I didn’t say it.

Years later, what I learned about psychology and behavior change suggested that this could be quite an effective strategy for some people. But it didn’t help me much, because my problem wasn’t purely behavioral. When I looked at those entries later, I noticed how many of them had to do with hurt feelings. “Thing left unsaid: that I was upset about what _____ said about my outfit. Reason: because it wouldn’t make a difference.”

I tried so very hard, but everything hurt. If they couldn’t read it explicitly in my words, they read it implicitly in my face, my body, my tone. I couldn’t hide it. I gave up writing the entries within weeks because it was already too late, everything was leaking out and I couldn’t patch the holes fast enough. In college the dam broke completely, and everything from those little hurts all the way up to wanting to kill myself became common knowledge for those who interacted with me a lot.

For a while it was okay. I thought that being so open was keeping me going–and, as I’ll get to in a moment, it was important in some ways–but what it ultimately did was it completely broke me. It destroyed any sense of self-respect, independence, and competence that I had. When I confided my depressive feelings to someone, usually a partner, I felt like garbage. I felt so much more shame about the act of confiding than I ever did about the feelings I confided themselves.

If you’ve ever had to call the last person you want to speak to right now because they’re the only one available to talk you out of slashing your own wrists, then maybe you know what I’m talking about.

You have to reveal. You have to open up, in order to live. You have to tell it to the therapist and the psychiatrist and your parents and your partner and anyone else who is in any way responsible for your well-being.

You tell people the darkest most horrible things not because you trust them and want to let them see this part of you, but because you have no fucking choice.

And so the concept of “opening up” has been totally ruined for me, because I didn’t get to save it for those special, bonding late-night conversations with someone I feel ready to show myself to.

I had to do it.

Now I don’t.

And not having to feels like freedom. It feels like victory. It feels like independence, finally. It feels like adulthood, although it shouldn’t. It feels like maturity, although it shouldn’t. It feels like wholeness. It feels like safety.

It feels like recovery.

So now I sit at the computer with words typed into the chat box–“I feel sad,” “I can’t stop crying,” “I miss you so much”–and I can’t send them. I want to send them and I don’t want to send them. Not wanting to send them almost always wins out.

In a way, intimacy was easy when I was depressed. I wore it on the outside and it created a sense of intimacy with many people almost instantly. New partners saw my neat little red scars so early on, too early on. “We’ll work on that,” said one, an aspiring psychologist. “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” said another.

Now nobody has to see, and it’s almost impossible to want it any other way. Intimacy has gotten much harder. Perhaps mirroring my own style, new partners disclose little and so I lose interest in them quickly, convinced we have nothing in common besides politics.

Instead I write. The stress of work, the rush of falling in love, the little depressions that come and go, the grief of losing my old lives, the fear of the future–they sink into paper and that’s where they stay.

It’s lonely and isolating as hell, but it beats feeling opened up and exposed.

And now, although I’m known as someone who talks about depression a lot, I don’t really talk about it. I speak obliquely of it, the way someone might mention the passing of a loved one without ever speaking openly of their grief.

I can say that there is fatigue. I can say that it feels sad and numb and dark and hopeless. I can say that I wanted to die. I can say that my head was–still is, much to my constant disappointment–fuzzy and slow, memory useless, words perpetually at the tip of my tongue but left unspoken. I can write this blog post about how depression has affected my ability to desire, build, and feel intimacy.

But I do not ever, not anymore, tell you how it really feels. I will not make you listen to me tell you I hate myself I hate myself like I’ve never hated anything before and I wish I could rip my body and my mind to shreds–

No, I stay on a meta level. I’m comfortable talking about it conceptually.

But the feeling of depression itself? That is a dark room into which I want to go alone. I don’t want anyone knocking on the door trying to get me to let them in. I don’t want to have to hold their hand and guide them around the sharp corners they can’t see, because when I’m in that room, I need to be caring for myself. Not for anyone else.

Of course, it always starts out with them hoping to care for me, but that’s never how it ends up. People end up needing my support to navigate the nightmares in my own head.

Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the mental fortitude for that. Caring for one person–me–is enough.

Presumably, I don’t have to be stuck this way for my whole life just because I have/had depression. I’m hoping to start therapy again soon, for this and for other reasons. But for now, as I reflect on myself and my life at this very special (for me) time of year, it’s hard not to feel hopeless about all the little things I can no longer do, at least not without lots of anxiety and fear. Like tell someone how the stress actually feels. Or talk to someone about how powerless I feel in my work. Or ask someone if they can talk to me for a while to help me get my mind off of things.

In this way, and in many other ways, mental illnesses may never end, or may take much longer to end than we expect, and there is no hopeful cheery note for me to end this on.