Bookus interruptus. 1.

I’m a pretty hardcore reader. It’s not just that reading is one of my favourite things, but that I actively prefer the company of many books to that of most people. If I prefer your company to anything I have in hardback, you’re pretty special in my book (pun absolutely intended). When it comes to reading, I’m aware that I am a teeny wee bit prejudiced in favour of the activity.

I am also aware that there are plenty of people who judge my addiction as an affliction. I remember what must have been the most cack-handed quasi-intervention during my first week at university. The other foreign student on my course approached me at the cafeteria, full of confusion and concern, and told me that I was always sitting alone reading at lunch. I told him that I was already aware of the fact. He asked me why. I told him that I liked sitting alone and reading at lunch. I saw that piece of information bounce off his skull and get lost in the distance. Looking more puzzled than ever, he explained that I didn’t have to sit alone; that I could sit with him and his buddies. And I had to explain that I was happier as and where I was. Thankfully that didn’t seem to hurt his feelings as much as convince him that I was a weirdo.

Significantly, I couldn’t tell you the poor guy’s name. I’m not even sure whether I forgot it or never bothered to memorise it in the first place. I can tell you, however, that I was reading Spider Robinson’s “Very Bad Deaths“, and I’d just got to the point where <<spoiler removed, read the book>>.

The guy went on to join a fraternity. I went on to read Heinlein.

So yes, I know I’m biased. I know I’m odd. But I’ve asked and I asked people on both sides of the equation, and I just cannot find an answer to the questions:

How is interrupting women reading books in public for romantic purposes even a thing?

How the hell is it supposed to work?

My confusion stems from the reasons why I read books in public places:

  1. I want to read something. If you stop my reading because you want to talk to me, you’re interrupting me in my fun. You’re starting on the wrong foot.
  2. I have to read something (homework, work, whatever). If you stop my reading because you want to talk to me, you’re interrupting me at my chores. Again, wrong foot.
  3. I neither want nor have to read anything, but I don’t want to talk to people, so I’m using the book as a barrier. This is apparently a mystery to a section of humanity, but earphones on + face buried in a book + avoiding eye contact is NOT the body posture of a person who’s looking to interact with anyone at that given point.

What this means is that if someone approaches me while reading in public I’m unlikely to be glad of it. More significantly, I’m unlikely to think well of them for it. And no, it’s not about how charming or handsome or rich they are: if Brad bloody Pitt interrupted me reading, I’d be thinking “Oh poop, turns out Brad Pitt is a bit of ass.”

[Post-comment postscript: Yes, there are plenty of people who read casually, just to kill time, and may be glad of an interruption/intervention/distraction. However, body language aside – and someone casually glancing at Grazia doesn’t look anything like someone involved in a novel or textbook – you’d think that the fact that someone’s lugged a damn book with them would be a bit of a hint to any onlookers. Bit like there’s a difference between someone playing listlessly on the phone, and someone setting up a laptop.]

 

Lizard people.

I’ve been tinkering with a niggle for a while, running it past some experimental subjects friends. The niggle in question is the trope of woman-reading-book-in-public-place-getting-interrupted-by-guy-with-“romantic”-intentions. It’s one of those grey-area situations that risks sending everyone into full-on attack or defence mode. Rape culture! Feminism gone mad! Consent! Paranoia! I wanted to make sure that a. I was not full of poop and b. I could put the subject forth in a way that didn’t unnecessarily get people’s backs up.

It wasn’t really working. Or rather, it wasn’t working cross-gender. Talking to female friends about this, we were all on the same page. I haven’t run some sort of large scale study, so the numbers don’t mean anything at all, but I personally know of one woman who’d be not only tolerant of being interrupted by a stranger while they’re reading, but actually glad of it. One. And she’s absolutely bloody awful to men, because she uses them to get ego strokes, and drinks, and presents… she just sees them as interchangeable candy machines. I’m not saying that it is inconceivable that there are women out there who enjoy that kind of interruption. I’m just saying that I know one, and all the female friends I consulted couldn’t add to that list.

Talking to the guys, though, I was getting a two-phase response. The immediate response was, universally “eh what how is that even a thing does that really happen for real? Why would they do that?” It wasn’t that they thought that the act was iniquitous. They just thought it was anti-useful. They were eminently puzzled that a dood with romantic intentions would attempt to bring his hopes to fruition by annoying the bejesus out of his intended. They were all of the impression that if you want women to see you in a good light, you have to avoid acting like a prick. And all of them believed that “nose in book” + “headphones on” + “no eye contact” does not in fact mean “please talk to me”, so there’s just no opening there, no chance of it going well.

Thus far, we were all in agreement. Phew! Unfortunately, the same wasn’t true of phase two.

 

All the guys thought it wasn’t that big a deal, really. You just tell the guy that you’re not interested, or that you’re busy, and he goes away. And that’s when I started flapping. I could think of a bunch of situations when I didn’t do that, because that didn’t feel like a safe option. Instead, I relied on non-verbal clues, or answering in monosyllables, and hoped the guy got the gist. (That has yet to work for me, which should be expected as the guy had already ignored a bunch of non-verbal clues in order to make his approach. Duh, Anna, duh.) Many women alone in public places often don’t want to tell the men approaching them to straight-up go away in fear of retaliation, or because they don’t expect it to work. It’s not that we don’t want to be rude, but that we know that rudeness could well backfire, or fail to work and be used to put us in the wrong.

Conversations started diverging at this point, with some guys saying “but how often does that escalation/retaliation really happen?”, “then you know that the guy is a problem and can behave accordingly”, “then you can just move”,  or “then you can ask for help from bystanders”, and sundry other ramifications. And I kept trying to explain that, personally, I’ve never felt I could rely on that. I’ve never felt that I could rely solely on the fact that I was in the right and a guy was in the wrong to result in a happy ending to an exchange. That bystanders aren’t always there, and even if they are they generally do nothing. That the chances of them doing nothing are often actually greater the greater the threat seems – people are happier being heroes when there’s no obvious associated risks.

 

I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t understand where I was coming from. And then I realised that there’s a huge selection bias in the people I talk to. I don’t knowingly or willingly befriend people who treat other people with disrespect. I particularly don’t knowingly or willingly befriend misogynists – it’s not that I’m on the lookout for them, it’s that our beliefs and behaviours naturally repel each other. So, when I’m talking about my problems with guys to the guys in my life, I’m not talking to them about them. I’m talking to them about some profoundly different them, them over there. I’m talking about the kind of guy that they themselves wouldn’t befriend, or if they did they would quickly re-train to behave more respectfully to those around them. The kind of guy that, by their own admission, engage in behaviours that they can’t wrap their heads around.

Every time I have a problem with a guy in a public place, it’s never one of “my” guys. It’s never anyone remotely like one of “my” guys. Because “my” guys are not the kind of person who hassles women in public places.

There’s so much gnashing of teeth over the gender divide around creepiness. Now I’m wondering whether this is really a gender divide at all. I am starting to thing that the issue is one of Lizard People – people who look very much like “our” guys, but have such a different psychology that they’re practically a different species. And us gals keep mixing them all up, keep believing that sporting the same style of genitals should make you able to understand and deal with them. And our guys keep thinking that, when we relate our problems, we’re having those problems with people like them, whose behaviour can be explained by the same motivations, and whose reactions can be expected to be similar. Because those Lizard People only show their forked tongues when our guys are not around.

Full circle.

Last week a friend of mine finally gathered the courage to talk to her therapist about her boyfriend. She has been referred to a therapist by her doctor, to deal with long-term and life-impacting anxiety issues.

She told the therapist about how her boyfriend treats her (not well), about how that makes her feel (not good), and about her reasons for staying with him (IMO, not healthy). And the therapist’s response was to tell her that she was being judgemental.

Judgemental. To make an assessment about a person’s impact on your life, based on prolonged observations of repeated patterns of behaviour, is judgemental. Noticing that someone is demanding that you sublimate all your needs in order to cater to their wants is judgemental. To want to be happy and healthy, and to realise that someone is constantly scuppering your efforts to get there, is judgemental.

And a mental health professional (allegedly) said this to a person who has been struggling all her life to even admit to herself that when people stomp on her toes, her toes hurt; let alone tell anyone else, include the foot-stomper, about her predicament. Someone she’s supposed to be helping get better.

 

Relating this episode to a friend of her upset said friend, who also has anxiety issues as well as a history of domestic abuse. Confused, disappointed, and triggered, said friend went forth to her establish support group for such eventualities: an internet forum specifically created and managed so that people can vent their emotional upsets, and get comfort and commiseration (not advice: just comfort).

And the mods censored her post, because she referred to her needs as “not stupid”. And the word “stupid” even when used to refer to non-people, is able-ist.

They didn’t hide her post, or take it down, or sent her a private message with a warning. No. They literally over-wrote all over the offending word “this section was removed by the moderators for able-ist content”, so every other forum participant could see. On a post written by someone who is, by her own admission, suffering from social anxiety, is recovering from long-term trauma, and has just been triggered.

 

And now I’m thinking that this is the end. We’ve come full circle. We’ve put all these mechanisms in place to protect the meekest and weakest and most disadvantaged, and now the mechanisms are more important than the people. And we readily sacrifice the people to the mechanisms, if the people ever come up short.

 

 

On the turning away.

Several months ago, a young friend of mine joined an internet forum for people with social anxiety. She joined the forum because she has social anxiety, and she wanted to meet people who could understand her predicament and help her find ways of overcoming it. What she found when she got there was something else entirely.

What is going to follow is my interpretation of what she experienced there. I’m not an expert. Neither’s she. We’re playing Chinese whispers. Any of this may or may not apply to other fora. This blog is, therefore, worth precisely what you paid for it.

The people she interacted with turned out to fall into the following categories:

  • People who identified with their social anxiety. They could offer and liked to receive commiserations, but couldn’t offer nor wanted to consider any kind of solution. If anyone managed to improve their symptoms by any means, they tried to convince them that those improvements were imaginary or temporary. Any people who significantly improved or, heaven forfend, recovered, had been fakers all along.
  • Vulnerable narcissists, who, although they appear to be sensitive types, are as self-preoccupied as grandiose narcissists. Although they may suffer from anxieties in social settings, those anxieties are largely due to the fact that the world is failing to rotate around them with sufficient gusto. 
  • People who believed that the common bond of anxiety was enough to include all participants of the required gender into their dating pool, and were mortally offended when told that their intended felt differently.
  • Low-level and charm predators who’d found the mother lode: a place that encouraged tolerance of social blunders, brimming with people who weren’t confident about their ability to interpret social situations or handle social conflict, who didn’t want to draw attention to themselves, and who were uncomfortable saying clear “nos” and enforcing boundaries. The organisers might as well have written “here be silent victims” on the door.

I am not saying that there weren’t people on that forum who were, like my friend, people with social anxiety looking for solutions. That would seem statistically unlikely. It is far more likely, given the most common symptoms of social anxiety, that a selection bias was in play. Genuine sufferers were there but weren’t being as vocal in open conversations or as ready to start private ones. The result was, however, that the bulk of the interactions my friend was having were not only not as advertised, but actively anti-useful to her.

I began to feel very concerned about the toxicity of the environment she had entered when she started to ask me questions like “What does it mean when a guy sends you unsolicited dick pics and insists you should Skype?” “What does it mean when you tell people that you are finally starting therapy, and they tell you that it’s not worth it?” “What does it mean when someone is friendly towards you when you’re having a bad day, but if you’re having a good day they try to make you feel bad again?” That’s the sort of predicament who makes me wish that we could make “asshole” an acceptable technical term, because sometimes getting into the finer points of someone’s motivations and behaviour requires way too much time spent rolling with pigs in mud, or a crystal ball I can’t seem to find.

I don’t know precisely why that specific boy might have sent those specific genital shots, and I can only imagine what he wanted to say or do over video chat. However, that behaviour smacks of a lack of respect for my friend’s consent, which makes him potentially dangerous and definitely non-OK. I don’t know precisely why those specific people were acting like crabs in a bucket; but I know it’s not a behaviour I want around me, particularly if I’m genuinely struggling with a serious issue. I could spend a lot of time interacting with said people, trying to work out their underlying psychology. But, yannow, I don’t want to (though I would have enjoyed a few moments alone with Dick Boy, because predating on predators is a hobby of mine). While it could arguably improve my understanding not only of their nature, but of human nature in general, chances are that I could have a more edifying, more useful, more enjoyable, healthier time doing just about anything else.

The experience did benefit my young friend, but not in the way she had anticipated. She learnt how to walk away from certain people in a low-value, lower-stress environment. She learnt how to walk away from an environment that, regardless of how it was advertised, was ultimately toxic. Hopefully that practice will prove useful to her if she ever needs to do the same in real life, with people she actually knows.

It did leave me wondering about the rest of us, though. How often do we take too long in turning away from well-intentioned failures?

I’m definitely guilty of buying into the stated goals of a group/community/organisation to the point of brushing under the carpet their actual achievements (or lack thereof) for way longer than it was good for me. I can remember countless occasion of groups palpably failing in their stated goals, yet still managing to convince themselves that they’re succeeding; or continuing to preach that their methods are sound, and the failure is due to external factors that somehow don’t require a re-adjustment of said methods. I keep seeing groups and individuals who absolutely believe they’ve found A Better Way Of Being, whether it’s through diet, fitness, art, spirituality, self-defence, whatever; and continue to bang on about how much Better their Way is, even though their lives are demonstrably made worse by it. And I/ we/too many people buy into it.

Keep the score.

I had a bust up with a long-standing yet distant friend a couple of weeks ago. It was your typical online bust up, doubtlessly shriller than anything we would have done in real life and frankly unnecessary. The aftermath left me torn between feeling like a total jackass, and thinking I might have made a life-changing discovery.

The episode started when I posted an older picture of me, in my pre-training state. Friend made a somewhat snarky comment about the current state of my back (as always, subpar). His comment was clearly based on some misconceptions about how my back came to be in said state. Instead of clarifying said misconceptions, I led the guy on into accusing me of hurting my back by “reckless overtraining” because I am “stubborn as a mule” (his words, not mine). Then and only then I told him that I’d not hurt myself in training. When he apologised for not getting his facts straight, I took the opportunity to point out that if he thinks it’s OK to mock cripples if they’ve crippled themselves doing something he doesn’t approve of, that’s pretty special. I’ve not heard from him since. I will be neither shocked nor terribly sorry if I never hear from him again.

Still, the entire event makes me feel like a giant asshole, because of two main reasons. Firstly, I don’t generally set out to lose friends, however distant; yet this time I went and did it. Secondly, my inclination to facilitate his downfall was only partly due to the conversation we were having. A whole host of other factors were in place, namely:

  1. My back hurts. A lot. The pain not only stops me doing stuff, which is frustrating, but it affects my mood. While I try very hard not to let it affect how I interact with people, I’m aware that I routinely fail. I am, very often, a bear with a sore back.
  2. I do not find the subject of crippling injuries  – mine of anyone else’s – terribly snark-appropriate. This is particularly true when that snark is coming from uninvolved third parties. Why I might be understanding if my nearest and dearest become frustrated at how injury-prone I am, they gain the right to make certain comments by their contributions to my life. If they choose to call me an idiot (and they do) because I overdo something and hurt myself, I can’t really fault them. In a very practical sense, my injuries affect them. Some guy I’ve seen a handful of times in the last 20+ years cannot claim that position.
  3. The guy was speaking entirely from assumptions he had concocted without any help from me. We have never had a conversation that included the words “how are you?” We have never spoken about my physical condition, my training, my lifestyle, or, well, anything much about me at all. Yet that lack of information (which may or may not have stemmed from a lack of interest) didn’t deter him from passing judgement. I don’t find that an endearing trait.
  4. I’m rather fond of the “praise in public and criticize in private” guideline. His initial comment was public. I carried on in public because I wanted to teach him a lesson in public. He then switched language to a more private one… and I came back at him in English. Give me a tire swing and a banana, and I’ll make an excellent monkey.
  5. The guy had been two-thirds of an asshole a number of times before. He’d never done anything egregious enough for me to feel justified in calling him out on it, particularly in public, but he’d done plenty that vexed me just enough. Over the years, I’d accumulated a bag of niggles with his name on it.

 

Although factor no.1 concerns me on a near-permanent basis, it’s no.5 that concerns me the most in this particular instance. My reaction to his statement was absolutely and unequivocally driven not only by the statement itself, but by the fact that it was just one misplaced statement too many. The bag of niggles finally ruptured, spilling its icky contents all over my floor. So I decided to finally let him have it not just because of what he’d just said, but because of what he wrote in my yearbook in ’92, and that remark about my weight he made in ’95, and that reaction to my post in ’08… you get the picture.

I was brought up with the belief that acting out any form of anger is intrinsically bad. That anger is an unworthy motivator, because it makes you react out of your emotional state, rather than out of a rational evaluation of the situation. And that may be true, but sometimes it’s a bit too convenient. Most people can be goaded into anger; you just have to know what buttons to push. It’s not uncommon for the same people who’re routinely rousing you to also be those telling you that, because you got roused, you have just lost the argument. It seems not unlike the behaviour of an abusive partner who does something specifically to make you cry, then tells you that there’s no talking to you because you’re overemotional. It’s a brilliant tactic, until you spot it.

I was also taught that you’re not supposed to let extraneous vexations interfere with the level of anger you manifest in a given situation. For instance, if my anger-o-meter is 10% full with back pain, 20% full with the idiot who delivers my parcels lobbing yet another package marked “fragile” over my fence, and 2% full with my dog tripping me up while I was carrying my first coffee, it would be unfair to dump that 32% on the next person who bothers me just because they happen to be the unlucky ones who push me beyond my anger containment level. There was definitely an aspect of that going on here, and I don’t feel good about that.

However… a large part of the accumulated vexation came from that same person. He’d been operating just below my anger containment level for, well, for the vast majority of our friendship, come to think of it. We have rarely had an exchange that didn’t have me clenching my teeth at some point. I had mentioned to him that I wasn’t happy with some of his behaviours before, but I did so conversationally, rather than by slapping him with consequences. The situations didn’t seem to warrant anything more, but the problem never really went away. And now I’m wondering if that’s a tactic, too.

It’s remarkably convenient, if you’re that way inclined, to be just bad enough to people for them to notice and be affected by it, but not enough to justify them doing anything about it. Whether it’s being rude, exploitative, annoying, hurtful, it doesn’t much matter. The important thing is to operate at just the right level. Too little, and you don’t have an impact. Too much, and you might find yourself impacted – with a fist, for instance. But if you find the sweet spot, then you can continue your activities unhindered. Until someone has had enough, that is. And then chances are that they will look like the bad people.

Now I’m wondering whether the whole idea of not being led by the cumulative anger built into an exchange is completely stupid.  (I’m not including in this any anger that doesn’t pertain to our exchanges with that person. Sore backs need not apply.) Continually wiping the slate clean prevents us from over-reacting to a single exchange; but it also allows people to constantly take advantage. It can also mean that we don’t react enough until we reach blow-up levels. So maybe the way to go is to keep the score, and work at developing a range of reactions, rather than going all-for-nothing. If you do something once, I’ll react at level one. If you do it twice, I’ll react at level two, and so on. I’m not sure if it’ll be deemed “fair”, but I want to give it a try.

The Travelling Pain Club.

A few weeks ago I busted some ribs. I was rolling with some largish guys, as one does, and being careful to save my ever-problematic back… so I managed to hurt my front instead. It didn’t feel like much of an injury to start with, so I carried on doing what I needed to do: the usual lifting and carrying at work, and some bits of urgent DIY, cos I’d started a project and my house was in a sorry state. By the third day of this I found myself at the nearest hospital, begging for an x-ray.

(I didn’t get one. I got some seriously nice pills, though, and a leaflet about my injury that I couldn’t quite read, because it was all fuzzy. Did I mention the pills? They were NICE.)

A sucking chest injury not being part of my plans for the summer, I took extra steps to guard my ribs. It wasn’t much of a struggle, really, because anything that engaged my pecs HURT. Pavlov would have been proud of the speed at which I found ways to adapt my work to spare the injury site.

The following week, my ribs felt virtually ok-ish but my lower back was shot. It was definitely a muscular problem, so No Biggy(TM), but the pain was serious enough that it was incapacitating. Not only I couldn’t lift any weight (including my own), but my range of motion was nonexistent. Two days into it I tried to drive the car and before I got to the end of the driveway I was practically in tears.

A friend of mine who has brains explained to me what was going on. I was busy carrying on as normal saving one part of my body, which meant that I was over-using other parts, and with poor form to boot. In order to spare my left pecs I overstrained my right lower back. It all makes sense. The pain you are working around travels, finding the next weak or over-used spot. I’ve done the exact same thing a number of times in the past, but because I didn’t know it was a thing I’d failed to notice it.

Looking back at it, I could trace the past paths of the Travelling Pain. Twisted wrist to tennis elbow to strained shoulder to mid-back muscle injuries to lower back structural damage. Right cruciate to left lower back to right scapula to left neck to left arm to right arm. Hitherto mysterious injuries and ailments became the obvious consequence of not being able to give myself the chance to stop and heal.

I could also anticipate the Pain’s next likely spot. I couldn’t move my legs properly; I was, in fact, walking very much like I imaging a penguin with raging haemorrhoids might, but I still had to walk. As a result, my hips were under a lot of undue stress. I was willing to bet that, unless I got the chance to rest until I was properly healed, I was going to get a hip injury next. That would have been actually novel. I’ve never had a hip injury before. Unless I popped a knee instead, which is always on the menu.

The Travelling Pain clearly saw me looking at it, because it took a novel step: a chunk of it jumped off me, and landed on the Minion.

The Minion is my co-worker/employee/housemate/associate/minder. Because I was injured, she’d been doing all the lifting and carrying at work. Not only she’d been lifting for me, but she’d been lifting solo what we normally would have lifted together. So her lower back went. The damn Pain had spawned.

At that point, I got pissed off. I am a jackass, but I try not to be an asshole. I draw the line at hurting innocent people. So I took a few days off, figuring that the best way to avoid hurting myself or others was to not be there, and cut down on the work we’re booking until we’re both healed enough. Because if we can’t draw the line at some point, it’s not going to get better. It’s just going to be differently and increasingly bad.

Looking back (and looking around, too), very similar dynamics seem to apply to non-physical pains. Someone gets hurt, and life doesn’t stop for them. They try to carry on as normal while protecting their injury site, but they’re walking wounded. Because they’re not operating normally, experiences they could normally have dealt with end up hurting them. That creates another injury site they need to protect, and on and on it goes, with them bouncing from trauma to stress to depression to heartache to codependency to trauma. Unless or until the pain incapacitates them so thoroughly in their daily interactions that those around them who are carrying their load also get hurt, and end up carrying the spawn of the original pain. It can make for some interesting family trees, but it’s not ideal. And until someone can draw the line, it doesn’t get better. It just gets differently and increasingly bad.

 

 

 

 

The Minion went a-walkin’.

I have a Minion. She is my employee/tenant/friend/minder. She was born in ’91, which makes her a kid forever as far as I’m concerned. She recently took up photography, so she’s been going on a bunch of walks looking for interesting shots. The last walk she went on was to a National Trust property. For those unfamiliar with the organisation, the National Trust is a charity that manages British stately homes and formal gardens; the sort of places where one can reasonably expect to find older, tweed-clad upper-middle-class people enjoying a  cream tea. One may reasonably feel at risk of being at the receiving end of some vicious tut-tutting following a faux-pas. One doesn’t tend to feel at risk of harassment, stalking, or assault. Alas, life has a way of surprising us.

Before anyone starts panicking, the story ends well. In fact, it ends so well that I’m sure it’d be a non-event in many people’s eyes, because nothing happened. I’m inordinately proud of how the Minion did, so I’m going to give you the potted summary of what happened, what she did, and how it ties in with top-notch self-defence training.

The Minion was a-walkin’ with her tiny wee dogs in a quiet part of the property, minding her own beeswax and ogling the shrubberies. She spotted a guy also walking on his own. When he saw her, the guy changed direction and made a beeline towards her. She thought this was suspicious, because people don’t normally change their route in order to intercept unknown third parties. (You need to know what’s normal to recognise what’s not. I got this from Marc MacYoung.)

When the guy approached her, she realised quite quickly that he wasn’t all there. His speech and manners suggested that either he had a mental illness, was under the influence of some substance, or had a severe learning disability. The Minion didn’t much care what was afflicting him, because she had no way of reliably finding out. However, she conclude that whatever ailed him made him unpredictable. (I got this from Rory Miller’s “Talking them Through“.)

She tried putting the guy off using by sending normal, subtle messages. The guy did not appear to either read them or care about them. On the contrary, he became convinced that they were on a date, and started to talk about what they might do on future dates. Confirmed in her suspicion that the guy wasn’t playing with a full deck and because they were in an isolated area, the Minion decided not to ramp up her attempts at making him go away in order to avoid an escalation in his behaviour. (Peyton Quinn’s five rules for preventing/deterring social violence: 1) Don’t Insult Him; 2) Don’t Challenge Him; 3) Don’t Threaten Him; 4) Don’t Deny It’s Happening; 5) Give Him A Face Saving Exit.)

She took the time to check him out and determined that, if necessary, “she could probably take him”. (She’s not got any training, but she’s a tall lass who does a job requiring strength and quick reflexes. My money’s on her.) This is important: she had no hesitation whatsoever in deciding that, if she needed to protect herself, she would not only go physical, but go all in. (She gave herself permission to act. Kathy Jackson of Cornered Cat has written some beautiful pieces about it, but if you want an aphorism I’m fond of Malcolm Reynolds’ “Someone ever tries to kill you, you try to kill ’em right back.”) To help stack the odds in her favour, she made sure that he was walking between her and a pond their were skirting, so that if it came to it she could chuck him in. (I got this from Rory’s environmental fighting training.)

Gentle persuasion and brisk walking weren’t enough to shake the guy off. So, even though she wasn’t done walking and would have preferred to stay there longer, she decided to start heading back towards the main part of the property, where there would be people able to assist her if required. (She prioritised her safety and welfare over her right to be there. She also consciously moved towards safety – people and lights – not just away from danger; I got this from Rory, again.)

Once they got closer to civilisation and it became clear that she could make an easy getaway, the guy started to demand that she give him her phone number. As there were now people present, the Minion was happy to be more forceful with her rejection. She flatly refused to give him her number, attached herself to a random family, and followed them back to the buildings. The guy stopped following her. However, she continued to be vigilant in case he’d taken a different route and wasn’t laying in wait in the car park. Once she was in her car and off the site, then she let herself chill out. (I got post-event checks at VioDy.)

When she got back, the Minion talked through the event and her feelings with me. I told her that I thought she’d done splendidly, and why. We ran through a couple of possible alternatives, but couldn’t really come up with better tactics or a better resolution. We discussed her contacting the National Trust to make them aware (although it’s not their fault, it may well be their problem – chances are this is not a unique event). She mentioned that she’d not previously thought of this kind of thing as a likely risk; but now that she’s aware that it can happen, she’ll be on the lookout for it. I suggested that if she wanted to get any training, or acquire any tools that may assist her in resolving this kind of situation, I probably know someone who can help her. She said she’ll think about it.

Now, this is a young lady who’s had no interest in self-defence prior to this event. She hasn’t done any training, read any books, or watched any DVDs. The only reason she’s vaguely aware of names like MacYoung or Miller is that she works with me and I use her as a guinea-pig. She’s a normal young woman for this time and age. I talk her through some of my blogs, because if they don’t make sense to her then they won’t make sense to the vast majority of people out there. Yet, without any self-defence training whatsoever, she just went and aced a practical test as if it was nothing. (And any instructor who wants to convince me otherwise and who has managed to put off a mentally disturbed person with romantic intentions without striking a blow is welcome to come forward and tell us why I’m wrong.)

The thing that bugs me is that, despite of this experience, she still believes that self-defence “is not her thing”. She still thinks of self-defence as “guys in black pajamas smacking each other” (as opposed to martial arts, with is “guys in white pajamas smacking boards”). And that’s a situation that we, the self-defence community, have created. Too many instructors have pushed too hard to make self-defence something special, something esoteric, something demanding a fixed set of relatively uncommon (or at least commonly repressed) personality traits. There’s so much “brutal” this and “badass” that. Fuck the sheeple! And fuck those who disapprove of me saying fuck, too, because how can you be a badass without swearing? And how can you self-defend without being a badass?

Problem is that some people don’t want to be badasses. Some people are perfectly happy being who they are and how they are, and that doesn’t necessarily interfere in the least with their willingness to self-protect. But it does interfere with their willingness to join a group that clearly sees them as either inferior, needing to change themselves in order to reach a standard that is, ultimately, far from universally embraced, or unwelcome.

There’s so much information and advertising out there telling normal, everyday people that self-defence isn’t for the likes of them. And then we have the audacity to see them as inferior because they don’t want to play with us. It’s uncanny.

 

 

 

I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghostbusters.

My editor sent me off to watch the new Ghostbusters movie. Apparently I needed to do so because the baddy was a creep, and I’ve written a lot about creeps, and it’s a popular movie that’s gonna affect people’s image of creeps, and so on and so forth. Is it starting to sound as if I needing some convincing? I may have been a wee bit reluctant. Not having liked the first or second movie, I didn’t harbour many hopes of liking the reboot. In that sense, I was not disappointed.

I find it hard to convey my opinion of the movie. The words I find myself using seem way too strong to be applied to something happening on a screen, which ultimately took up only two hours of my time and caused me no physical damage. Shouldn’t words like “loathing” be reserved for South-American dictators, or people who mug little old ladies? Howsoever, it will be a long time before the irritation of having invested time and money on watching the damn thing subsides. I am absolutely positive that people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. Unfortunately, I don’t.

The movie does, indeed, have a creep as the main villain. He’s not a creep as we know it, though. He’s the archetypal, Ur-creep. He’s got the dead staring eyes, and the awkward body language, and the constantly slightly-off social interactions, and the ongoing history of getting bullied, and he talks to himself, which may sound bad but is actually less creepy than when he talks to people, because he has a tendency to break into apocalyptic rants. They could have made him more caricaturish, I guess, but that would have required smell-o-vision.

In the context of this particular movie, with its overabundance of over-the-top characters, he fits in well. As a representative of real-life creepishness, however, he fails abysmally. I’m willing to be that most of us, if faced with a staring stranger muttering apocalyptic rants to himself, would not be racked by uncertainty. The guy looks and sounds, to my utterly untrained ears, like a paranoid schizophrenic. I’d be reaching for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and not because I’d feel compelled to diagnose the guy. The DSM-5 is a large tome. It’d make quite an impact if thrown with some force. Issues like “is he just socially awkward but harmless, or is he a danger?” or “Did he mean that?” just would not arise, for the simple reason that most of us would be too busy running in the opposite direction.

The original movie, now, had some good creeps. Venkman routinely displays sexually motivated behaviours that are highly inappropriate in a professional setting, yet there’d otherwise be nothing much the matter with him. He’s not repulsive-looking, he can communicate with people, he’s not unduly odd, he’s not stupid. He seems to have a decent grasp of what is socially appropriate, yet he completely ignores that when he’s seeking a mate, i.e. every time there is a female around. He’s the sort of guy who, if he wasn’t so badly behaved when thirsty, and if he wasn’t thirsty all the time, would probably not have much of a problem satisfying said thirst.

Then there’s Dana’s neighbour, who is both physically unappealing and quite obviously socially awkward. He is mostly harmless and rather pathetic, but he is viciously intrusive and clearly oblivious to social clues. He’s the sort of guy who’s had a door slammed in his face so much that to him that’s normal, so he can’t see anything in it. He can’t readjust his behaviour in response to negative clues because those are the only clues he ever gets. He is a rather sad figure, yet he is also a terrible boundary breaker (trying to get into someone’s apartment without their consent, for whatever reason, is NOT ok, whatever Twilight may have taught us). He is the kind of guy who may really struggle to get the girl, and if he ever did manage may lose her quite promptly due to an inability to process negative feedback. He’s also the kind of guy who, if you’re nice to him at all, is likely to misconstrue the meaning of such a rare event, and read way more into it than a regular guy would. As a result, people who were trying their level best to spare his feelings may end up having to hurt them badly just to push him away to a reasonable distance.

Those are real creeps: creeps any of us may find ourselves dealing with in our everyday life. Creeps that may get past our boundaries because they don’t go charging at them chanting about the apocalypse while staring into the void. Creeps who make us feel confused, conflicted, or sad; emotions that can clog our responses long enough for them to get at least part of what they want from us. Creeps who can get under our skin, because we can’t quite work out whether they’re wolves in sheep’s clothing or sheep in wolves’s clothing. The wolves in wolves’ clothing don’t have that effect; without getting violent, the best they can do is make our skin crawl.

It takes two to tango, or not – 4. Applications.

What would this look like in real life? How we would actually go about teaching the four steps of rejection would vary between settings. I’m going to use the example of a partnered dance activity, and go step by step.

  1. Tell students clearly that they all have the right to ask other students to dance, regardless of gender. This is not Victorian England. If we want to address the issue of men being overpredatory and women being overmeek, how about we stop endorsing the whole man-the-hunter-woman-the-prey thing?
  2. Tell them the appropriate formula for asking for a dance. Do you ask by mutual looks and nods? Do you walk up to someone and ask verbally? What is the protocol in this particular setting?
  3. Tell them that they all have the right to decline a dance by using the magical words “thank you, but no.”
  4. Tell them that, if they are rejected, the correct response is a swift “thanks anyway”, followed by backing the hell up and leaving the person alone. Explain that nobody has the right to demand an explanation, plead, insist, persist, make sad puppy eyes, or do anything else to try and push another into dancing.
  5. Tell them that if they are turned down three times on a row by a potential partner, to take the damn hint and stop asking. If that person ever wants to dance with them in the future, they can ask themselves.
  6. Tell them that if they believe they are being rejected overmuch, they should talk to a teacher. There may be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.
  7. Tell them that if they habitually reject a lot of partners, they might find themselves sitting out a lot of dances. And that’s entirely their call, if that’s how they want to play it.
  8. Actually make them go through both asking and rejecting at least once every session. Point out to them how the world did not in fact end either when they rejected, or when they were rejected. Make rejection a normal, everyday fact of life, rather than some kind of climactic event.

 

What we are doing at the moment also gives women an inaccurate sense of their level of responsibility and power over the overall interaction. By teaching people that rejection is a two-person, multi-step process, we can stop putting an undue burden of responsibility on the actions of a single party in a single step. By looking at the entire process, we could accurately identify where the misstep took place, and what it indicates about the people in question. Ultimately, teaching only one half of a two-person script that routinely fails – and teaching that to the person who is often enough not the cause of sad failure – seems an exercise in futility.

The only way for everyone to be on the same page – and the only way to weed out for definite those people who are not – is for everyone to know what the damn page is. Yes, we could rely on the fact that people should know… but, let’s face it, we’re doing that now, and it isn’t working. By actually telling everyone what’s what we can make sure that everyone is adequately informed. This will eliminate the possibility of people misbehaving because “they don’t’ know any better”, or pretending to do so. It will also enable a fast and uncompromising response to misbehaviour when appropriate, and save everyone a lot of bother along the line.

 

It takes two to tango, or not – 3. Rejection, Response, and Response to the Response.

Rejection.

The second step of the dance is the approval or rejection. This has been done to death, but some of the information out there does not prioritise clear information transfer.

When the primary goal is to avoid upsetting the person being rejected, the result can be word salad. When the primary goal is to “let him have it” for daring to make the offer in the first place, the result is verbal escalation at best. Either extreme can have its use in places, but neither conveys a clear, calm, “no,” and both can fail badly in social settings.

The bottom line of approval and rejection should be “let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no”. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and stick to it. All future steps of boundary setting will fall apart if these three basics are not into place.

 

Response.

The acceptance or rejection will be met with a response. This response is significant. The manner in which our decision is received should inform the future of any potential relationship with the asker.

If a rejection is met badly, that is a meaningful data point. Bad or blank reactions can tell us a bit about how well we did at expressing our rejection. If the person is utterly confused, were we maybe too vague? If the person is offended, were we maybe too blunt? More than that, however, these kinds of reaction can tell us a lot about the other person’s disposition. If a person cannot be denied something they want without becoming spiteful, accusatory, hysterical, vulgar, vindictive, manipulative, angry, threatening, whingey, etc. – if a person does not accept our “nos” gracefully and respectfully, basically – that’s a massive red flag.

Bad reactions to our rejections can make us feel bad. However, they shouldn’t. They should tell us that our rejection was a good call. Yes, it can feel terrible when people fly off the handle at us because we didn’t oblige them. However, there is no upside to engaging further or more intimately with someone with whom we will have to fight every time we are unwilling or unable to give them every damn thing they want. In fact, Richard Grannon (http://spartanlifecoach.com) recommends the use of small “nos” to test a person’s attitude and particularly to screen out narcissists.

There’s the rub: when we focus solely on the activities of the person setting the boundaries and how well they are performing, it’s easy to forget that for an adult to throw a hissy fit because they can’t get their way is far from normal. We also forget to mention that if the group as a whole reacts unusually badly to any of its members being denied their wishes, that’s a red flag about the entire group. Do we really want to be part of any group where our good standing is predicated on never, ever saying no?

 

Responding to the response.

The very last stage of this process is our response to how our no was received. Based on their behaviour, we might decide that the person in question is someone we still want to retain in our life, albeit in a restricted capacity; we can carry on as we are, basically. If they behave at all badly, however, we may decide that we do not want them around at all. Their reaction to our rejection is their own responsibility, and a reflection of their personality.

I must reiterate this: people who play fast-and-loose with our consent are not safe to be around. In particular, telling someone who flipped their lid, resorted to manipulative tactics, or in any way tried to coerce us into dating them that “we can still be friends” is staking an awful risk. They have already demonstrated a lack of either understanding or interest in our consent: why should we expect that to change? If we do want to keep them in our lives, we need to be mindful that they could try to overcome our consent again, and plan accordingly. As Maya Angelou said, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”