A sorry excuse for an apology.

I’ve noticed a shift in the way apologies are offered. This seems to be affecting both online and real-life interactions, but online things seem, as per usual, worse.

First and foremost, I’ve noticed a decline in people’s willingness to apologise. I’m routinely seeing people engage in the most vitriolic one-sided arguments imaginable. They just start attacking someone and don’t stop until they run out of gas. When they shut up long enough for people to be able to explain that they’ve gone off on one over nothing, or over their own misinterpretation of events, they seem unable or disinclined to utter the short word “sorry.” On the contrary, half of them seem to demand some kind of retribution or apology for the waste of time and energy the exchange caused them. “How dare you cause me to scream at you for three hours solid because you did not state X thing simply enough for me to understand it?” If that was applied to physical violence, it’d be like demanding that someone gives us first aid because we hurt our knuckles on their face after assaulting them. It’s uncanny.

When people do offer apologies, the vast majority of the times they couch them in language that suggests, to me, that they aren’t apologising at all. That might well be entirely my fault, though. I cling futilely to the notion that when people use words to communicate, they select those words in order to best convey what they mean. I like to think that they’re even more likely to do so when the communication is important; when, for instance, it could mean the difference between mending and burning a bridge.

“I’m sorry for getting my information wrong.” This is becoming common as hell, particularly after vehement arguments, including public ones. They are sorry because their actions were based on incorrect information. Hmkay. But are they sorry for bitch-slapping someone in public? No mention’s made of that. Are they sorry for the emotional impact of their actions on the person they just pilloried? Are they sorry for doing something specifically designed to hurt that person’s feelings?

…and before anyone jumps down my throat about how feelings are not important: they are. Firstly, the vast majority of the time, when people interact only briefly they have no idea who they are talking to. They do not know how that person feels, how strong they are, what their life is like in general, or what just happened to them. That person may be struggling with grief, depression, anxiety, or stress, and barely managing to keep it together. They may have just been diagnosed with an incurable disease, buried a child, or been fired. Straws and camels’ backs, people. We’re all breakable. And some of us live closer to our breaking point.

Secondly, there are plenty of scientific studies showing physiological changes after a positive and negative social interactions. An internet scrap can have a measurable impact on someone’s physiological state. And yes, we can all train ourselves to be more resilient against this kind of thing; however, that doesn’t detract from the fact that the vast majority of these interactions are conducted as they are specifically to upset somebody. If these people think that public shaming, threats, or insults shouldn’t work on us, then why the hell are they using those tactics? They can’t have it both ways. And if they do something specifically designed to hurt somebody, should they not be apologising for that?

There are even worse apologies out there. “I’m sorry if I did this entirely inappropriate thing that I do all the time because that’s just what I do.” “I’m sorry if I say inappropriate things, I just don’t have filters.” Those are not apologies at all. They’re weaselly requests that you forgive all past trespasses and enable future ones. People saying something like that have no intention whatsoever of stopping, and they’re trying to get you to stop trying to stop them. Furthermore, if they know that what they are doing or saying is inappropriate, they do have filters. They’re just choosing not to use them.

Crowbarring a “sorry” in a sentence doth not an apology make. My least favourite non-apology of all time, the one that really sets my teeth on edge, is “I’m sorry if I came across as an X”. Insert whatever word you’d like under X, it all amounts to the same. I look at that sorry excuse for an apology, and all I can see is the glaring holes in it.

It doesn’t say they are sorry for doing what they did. It doesn’t say they are sorry for the impact their statements or actions may have had on those at the receiving end. They know what they did was wrong, because it made them come across as an X, and an X, by their own admission, is not a good thing. But they don’t seem to care about the wrongness per se. Taken literally, the apology seems to have to do more with the fact that they misrepresented themselves. Are they sorry for their actions, or just the impact of those actions on their image?

And… are they going to do it all again?

Maybe I’m too damn picky, but for me, that kind of apology just doesn’t cut it. And I can’t find it in my heart to be sorry about that.

 

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Cui Bono?

I had a whole bundle of fun at work with a self-advocating Anger Management Issues Sufferer. He could not control his outburst because HE HAD ANGER MANAGEMENT ISSSSSSUUUUUESSS, as we routinely heard him bellow as he went around waving his arms and banging stuff. Apparently, his need for our tolerance for his problem eclipsed our need for a non-threatening work environment. They also eclipsed the needs of another employee, who had social anxiety issues… so while his outbursts would shake us all up for minutes to hours, they would have her suffering for days.

She also had a condition. Her condition, sadly, meant that she wasn’t willing or able to make a fuss about her condition. Thing is, Anger Dude wouldn’t have had a chance in hell to find out, for the simple reason that he never bothered asking. He never asked any of us if we had any special needs. He never asked any of us if we were meeting our regular needs; how we felt about his behaviour; how it was affecting us; if we needed anything to mitigate its impacts on us. And he never, ever said sorry. He didn’t have to, because he had a condition, didn’t we UNDERSTAND?!?!

That didn’t sit very well with me at all. I though the underlying principle of the whole tolerance/anti-discrimination/equality thing was to make sure that everyone’s needs were met. This seemed to be something else entirely. This seemed to be saying that one person’s special needs could trump every one else’s regular or special needs. That his needs weren’t only “special” because they were different, but also in the sense of being more important.

That kind of attitude is not unique to him. My friend Eddie wrote this in the context of people advocating for Socially Awkward people:

“The way I see it, a lot of this boils down to how the people want to be treated. Jerks/creeps/manipulators/whatever want special treatment. Socially awkward people just want to be treated normally.

In many cases it seems to be identifiable by who benefits most from how they are behaving. (…) Generally people who are socially awkward will stop doing whatever it is that they are doing when someone points it out, even if they don’t know why they’re doing it wrong. That includes leaving the group. They most certainly don’t benefit from their behavior.

A jerk will try to make you change your behavior to benefit them. They’ll try to make you look like the antagonist here. They try to spin everything to their benefit.”

(Thank you, Eddie.)

Some advocates for Socially Awkward people are not asking for them to be treated “normally” despite of their difficulties. They are asking for special treatment because of their difficulties. They are asking for other people to subsume their own needs, because Socially Awkward people’s needs are specialler. They are trying to gain a benefit from their difficulties. Cui bono? They do. That doesn’t sit well with me.

The tactics they use to get there bother me even more. When I started to pay attention to them, I realised that many of them are bog-standard manipulative/predatorial tactics, in particular:

  • Forced Teaming. Making the problem our shared problem. “We need to learn how to support X people…” Do we? Do we really? Says who, says where? They’re unilaterally restructuring the relationship to benefit themselves.
  • Typecasting. “I didn’t think you were one of those bullies who like to oppress the afflicted.” “If you’re not completely cold-hearted, you will…” Nope. You don’t get to tell me that if I don’t do what you want me to, then I must be a horrible person. You don’t get to tell me that if I don’t agree with you 100%, then I must support the opposite of what you say. You don’t get to tell me that if I’m not an apple, then I’m an aardvark.
  • Straightforward emotional blackmail: “If you advocate for anyone else’s rights, you will be directly responsible for the suffering of these innocent wee bunnies.” For instance, talking to people about creeps will make them so paranoid that everyone remotely socially awkward will be dragged to the edge of the village and stoned to death, and it will be my fault.

These tactics are not necessarily underhanded. Forced teaming, for instance, can be used to pull people together in order to engage everyone in a joint cause. People seem to be forgetting this, but in a democracy it is genuinely better to have people inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in. Reminding people of common goals (personal safety, clean streets, three acres, mule) can make us all more flexible in how we go about reaching them. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case here. It is not my goal to include people into my life whose behaviour I find difficult to manage. It may well be their goal to be included in my life, but that doesn’t make it a shared goal. It definitely does not make the management of their behaviour a shared responsibility.

More than that, there’s something grossly lacking from these efforts: any sense of reciprocity. I’ve yet to have any of them manifest any kind of interest in anyone else’s rights/needs/wants. I’ve yet to have any of them ask me how the impact of their needs and limitations can be mitigated. I’ve yet to have any of this kind of advocate mention the advantages to including the people their are supporting into our lives. All they’ve been pushing is their rights/needs/wants. If anyone dares resist, they get attacked for this alleged iniquity. All stick and no carrot.

It may be malicious. It may simply be the result of hyper-focusing on their own issues. Either way, I don’t want to play their game.

 

 

 

Bookus interruptus. 3.

Whenever I ask guys why they think that approaching women engaged in their reading in public places is OK, I’m generally given four reasons for the behaviour:

  1. Romantic. “But her eyes shone like the stars and she was perfect in every way and she is clearly a goddess amongst women and I might have never seen her again!” I appreciate that “our eyes met across a crowded room” is a trope that sometimes comes real. However, that’s eyeS, in the plural. And no, that doesn’t mean just the two you have been furnished with. If someone catches your attention and you catch hers back, or vice versa, yippie. If someone catches your attention and you have to forcibly interrupt whatever she’s doing in order to catch hers, that’s a different trope altogether. Not a nice one, either. Even “The One” may balk at being approached thusly, and you’ll have ruined your chances. Also, Romeo & Juliet met at a party. Different kettle of fish. Also a different century, while we’re at it. And a different culture. So, like, not many parallels, really, when you think about it.
  2. Pathetic. “If I didn’t hit on women when they’re out and about, I’d never have a chance to do it at all.” Son, then there’s something seriously, seriously out of kilter with your life. If your only contact with women occurs when you get the chance to corner them in a public place doing their own thing, you might wanna see to that. And the fact that you consider it OK to force them to interact with you under those circumstances may well be part of your issues.
  3. Entitled. “I have a right to speak to everyone I want!” Hmkay. But they have a right not to want to speak to you back, though… or haven’t they? Would that make them stuck-up? Is their time and attention a public service they’re selfishly withholding? Do they owe you something, just because they’re having to share a space with you? Do you feel the same way towards men, and if so do you act upon those feelings? “Is it asking too much of women these days to be able to just chat with them in a public place?” Let me turn this around. Is it asking too much of you these days to expect you to keep yourself busy without demanding the attention of strangers? And how comes is it always “women” you go on about? Are guys really happy to drop whatever they’re doing in order to entertain you? Or do you just leave them alone, and if so, why the gender bias?
  4. Misogynistic. “If women didn’t want to get hit on, they’d stay home/go out chaperoned.” “If women didn’t want men to notice them, they’d not go out looking attractive.” “If you think you’ve got it bad here, try Saudi Arabia.” Do I even need to explain why this is messed up?

I just can’t fit this in my head. In fact, I understand it even less than cat calling. I understand some berks wanting to engage in a power-play to brighten up their day; I don’t agree with it, I don’t like it, but I understand it. This interruption business, though, is not supposed to be motivated by shittiness. It’s supposed to be a genuine attempt at creating a connection. Yet it’s about as well-thought-through and about as effective as standing in the middle of a field banging a metal bucket with a ladle in order to attract deer. And then shouting at the bloody deer for not behaving according to our wishes. Because that’s bound to make it better.

And yet, despite overwhelming anecdotal evidence, we can’t seem to get this through to certain guys. Every time I’ve tried, I’ve been told that I’m wrong; or that women are wrong in reacting like that; or that there is some wrongness in the system, the universe, or everywhere but in the behaviour itself. So many women seem to spend so much time calmly and rationally trying to explain to so many men why this kind of thing doesn’t feel very nice to us, why it’s unlikely to be well-received, why it’s ultimately unlikely to work. And everything we say is just poo-pooed, as if our opinion on the subject was immaterial. As if we weren’t participants in that exchange; just marionettes failing to perform their assigned role.

Bookus interruptus. 2.

Carrying on with the previous blog, mulling over the why-oh-why of men interrupting women reading books in public. Reading books, engaged in their reading, not listlessly flicking through Cosmo.

There are, of course, circumstances under which I am not only willing, but glad to be interrupted while I’m reading in public:

  1. The train/bus/plane is on fire and I didn’t notice it.
  2. I’m about to miss my stop.
  3. You’re the author. (I once emerged from a plane in Phoenix clutching my extremely battered copy of ConCom to bump into Rory, who, by sheer accident, was going to be on my next flight. The exact words I uttered were “EEEEEEEEEK!” All and still, if he’d walked past me while I was reading, chances are I wouldn’t have noticed him. But I wouldn’t have minded him cutting in.)
  4. You have information that means more books for me. For instance, “I couldn’t help but notice that you’re reading Suzette Haden Elgin. Did you know that her early fiction can be found under X pseudonym on Y website?” I shall then feel the common bond of readership with you, and thank you. I might even exchange further words with you. Unless you’re reading; then I’ll probably leave you alone, because I actually get it.
  5. You’ve brought me a dressage-trained unicorn that poops Cherry Garcia ice-cream. If you come at me with something both relevant to me and truly amazing, like “I couldn’t help but notice that you’re reading Tom Robbins and turns out he’s doing a secret reading at a coffee shop down the road in 22 minutes, knock twice on the door and they’ll let you in,” I’m going to be damn grateful. Still quite possibly not grateful enough to want to hang out with you in other settings, and definitely not so grateful as to believe that you’re now entitled to my attention (and if you think you are, you’re loansharking), but grateful nonetheless.

So yes, there are ways to make interruptions work. That’s not how it usually goes, though.

I have had scores of “conversations” that started with a guy interrupting me while I was reading (and, these days, writing too). I have witnessed scores more.  The usual exchange seems to start with a gloriously creative “Whatcha readin’?”, and go downhill from there. Sometimes they’ve never heard of that author. Sometimes they have. I’m not sure why anyone should care. Sometimes they want to know more about your business, where you’re going, what you do for fun. “Reading” hardly ever seems to be the right answer. The exchange tends to sound stilted and forced, which should hardly be a surprise because it is forced: one side wanted it, and the other didn’t. Yet it’s happening. And it’s happening in the apparent hope that making an inconvenience of oneself could somehow increase the chance of getting oneself laid.

I don’t get it. Generally speaking, if I want to get in someone’s good graces, never mind their undergarments, I tend to avoid pissing them off. Doing so would seem anti-useful. So is this really a working tactic? Has it ever worked for anyone in real life? And if not, why is it even a thing?

 

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.