Between theory and reality, pt. 2

Once upon a time I had to attend a drug awareness class designed to teach us how to recognise different substances, anticipate their effects, and handle users and paraphernalia as safely as possible. The trainer gave us the statistics for various communicable diseases drug users are likely to carry. They were reasonably low, which was reassuring to us as first aiders. However, they explained that if we ever got stabbed with a needle, the chances of that needle carrying a communicable disease was almost 100%. The reason for this apparent discrepancy is simple: the drug users who practice unsafe needle use and disposal are also the drug users who catch and spread communicable diseases. Lo and behold, there is a correlation between certain bad behavior and certain problems.

This sounds obvious, yet we have a tendency to forget this when giving people certain types of self-defence advice, particularly that covering the low end of the violence spectrum (I’m going by Rory Miller’s model: Nice, Manipulative, Assertive, Aggressive, Assaultive, and Murderous). Assertiveness in particular is often sold as a socially-approved cure-all for all kind of low-level problems. For instance, if someone is trying to manipulate you into giving them your money/body/whatever, all you need to do is assertively state that you won’t. If you do it right, the problem will go away. Hey presto.

There are a few tiny issues with this. Firstly, the success rate of assertiveness very much hinges on the social context in question. Assertiveness is designed to work between equals. If a person deemed to be inferior tries to be assertive with a superior, that person can get squashed, metaphorically or literally. Toddlers who are “assertive” with their parents don’t gain a new level of respect within their family unit; they get a session on the naughty step. Pretty much the same dynamic is in operation if I (a small, ostensibly female, foreign person) act assertively at someone who deems me inherently inferior (e.g. someone who is a misogynist, xenophobe, or a might-make-right advocate). Who the fuck am I to talk to them like that?

This isn’t a groundbreaking concept. If we think back at Peyton Quinn’s five rules of social violence, four of the no-nos are “do not insult them”, “do not challenge them”, “do not threaten them”, and “give them a face-saving exit.” I can blow through all of them by acting assertive at someone to whom I am an inferior. I’m insulting them by treating them as my equal. I’m challenging them by demanding a change in their behavior. I’m threatening them by stating potential consequences. If I do the above in the presence of their peers, who are likely to be equally biased against me, letting me get away with that kind of thing would bring about a total loss of face. It’s obvious when you think about it. Often, we seem to prefer not to, possibly because it’s unpopular to point out that, diversity statements notwithstanding, some people are still classed as subhumans by a proportion of the population.

The second ignored issue is that, unless you’re a problem person yourself, most of your problems will occur when you’re dealing with problem people. You won’t find yourself struggling to defend your boundaries from respectful people who have healthy boundaries. You won’t have to protect yourself from consent violations by people who are invested in consent. If you were dealing with someone on the same page as you, these kinds of issues would not arise or, if they did, they would be resolved so quickly and willingly that they wouldn’t be issues at all. The fact that you’re having to fight that corner inherently proves that you’re in dangerous waters, dealing with someone who doesn’t play by your rules.

Some of the perpetrators of these transgressions are people who know the rules and deliberately choose to break them for their convenience. Depending on how far they push their activities, they could be classed as predators or criminals. Some, however, will be people who cannot parse the rules or somehow believe that they’re optional extras. The latter can be infinitely harder to deal with, even though they don’t even mean to do anything bad. Criminals, unless they’re newbies, tend to act like professionals. They assess whether picking on you is worth it based on the perceived risk:reward ratio. If you can tip the ratio in your favor, they may respond by fucking right off. Chances are that they’ll fuck off and try and victimise someone else, because that’s what they do, but for your intents and purposes the problem will be over.

Not so with people who fail to parse the basic dynamics of social interactions. You express a request, and they ignore it. You issue a demand, and they ignore it. You threaten a repercussion, and they ignore it. You exact the repercussion, and they move on to doing something else at you. They don’t get the point. It’s like punching treacle. In the same way that pain compliance doesn’t work against someone who doesn’t feel pain, social repercussions do not work against someone who operates in their own little world. Carrying out antisocial repercussions against them can land you in the shit if it makes you the one escalating the situation. You can end up in an endless struggle against someone who doesn’t even understand what the problem is, or doesn’t see it as an issue.

We give people, women in particular, handy tips on how to deal with problem people, but most of those tips assume that the problem person in question has ‘normal’ responses to stimuli. That’s often not the case. The person who pesters you with messages may stop when you tell them to… or they may carry on. They may stop when you stop replying… or they may carry on. They may disappear when you block them or change your number… or they may find you on social media. They may give up when you block and report them… or they may proceed to create false account after false account just so they can continue to contact you.* If you disappear from all virtual communications, they may give up… or they may decide that they need to find where you live to make sure that you’re ok. And none of this is because you didn’t handle the situation right: it’s because that tool doesn’t work against that person, because their responses aren’t normal, which should be damn obvious to start with because normal people do not deluge people with messages against their damn will. Duh!

This isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, but it definitely is A Thing, and it’s A Thing that often gets ignored when these techniques and principles are taught. I guess it’s hard to sell anything with the caption “this may or may not work”. Not doing so, however, is putting people in danger. Not only it can cause them to overestimate their chances during a situation, but it can make them blame themselves if things don’t go as they planned.

 

*Before you go on about “yeahbut if someone behaves like that you just call the police on them”, consider what chances you may have of getting help from the authorities when your complaint is “this person, to whom I willingly gave my number, continues to ask me if I would like some pizza.”

And before you go on about “but how could that be a problem”, consider how you’d feel if you’d told that person “no” and “go away” three dozen times and still they carried on.

 

Between theory and reality, pt. 1

Every time I think I’m going to get on with the “Creepology” book, something happens to make me realise how full of crap I am, and I have to stop again.

There’s a rule of thumb in dealing with socially awkward people: if you tell them clearly and politely what they are doing that is socially awkward and how they need to change it, they will comply. If they do not comply, then they are either not socially awkward, just pretending for their own convenience, or not just socially awkward. We can therefore use this as a litmus test to distinguish between the people we may want to help along and those we can squish without compunction.

There’s a tiny problem with this: it doesn’t work. It’s a beautiful theory, but in real life I’ve only ever seen it play out with foreigners, and even then it’s not a definite. Someone visits a foreign country where they don’t know the rules, a local tells them that they’re misbehaving, and sometimes they will say thank you and adjust accordingly. Sometimes they’ll have a hissy fit about fucking foreigners and their backward ways instead. Even when they adjust, it’s not necessarily out of an interest in Doing Right: they might do so begrudgingly, patronisingly, because their politeness forces them to indulge even those who don’t quite know how to behave.

I have never, ever seen a socially awkward person be told any permutation of  “don’t do X” and oblige. Not once. It doesn’t matter what the underlying reasoning for the request was, whether it was about generic behaviour – “that’s grossly inappropriate” – the local environment – “we don’t do it here” – or personal preferences –  “I don’t like it”. I’ve just never seen it work out.

I’m not saying that out there there aren’t people who are oblivious to non-verbal cues but respond well to specific requests, and who’ve been waiting all their lives for someone to explain things to them in a way they can parse them. I’ve been told that they exist and I have no reason to doubt that. However, I’ve yet to encounter any of them out in the wild. It makes sense if you think about it: logical as the rule of thumb is, it doesn’t explain how so many people get to grand old ages still socially awkward. This society may be conflict-averse, but to the point that someone can get to their 60s without ever having been told in a useful fashion that, for the love of all that is holy, that behaviour is obnoxious and they really need to cut it out, or else. That’s the myth, though: that real socially awkward people will modify their behavior when given clear, specific instructions.

In real life, or at least in my real life, this is how it actually goes. Someone engages in a behaviour I deem inappropriate. I tell them about it, specifying why I consider it inappropriate, and clarifying whether it’s my beef or society’s beef. The response I get is invariably one or more of the following:

  • They tell me straight up that I’m full of shit.
  • They turn around and rule-lawyer me to death about why the behaviour is ok either in general, or because they’re doing it and they’re pure of heart so everything they do is by extension ok.
  • They tell me that they appreciate that it’s not ok but they’re going to carry on because it’s not that bad, not really, and the risk:reward ratio is stacked up right for them.
  • They tell me that if I don’t like someone doing X, I should engineer my environment so X can’t be done around me.
  • They have a hissy fit and never speak to me again.
  • They carry on with the same behaviour somewhere else where they think I can’t see it.

This doesn’t just happen around sexual misconduct. In the last six months I’ve had this kind of conversations for behaviours as disparate as approaching busy women in public places (“but I would like it if women approached me!”), making racist jokes (“but my friend lets me make them at him so you have to let me make them at you!”), interfering in third party conversations and/or mansplaining (“if people didn’t want my contribution, they wouldn’t talk where I can hear it!”), and, get this, going up to perfect strangers who are minding their own business without bothering anyone and correcting their behaviour or appearance in order to help them with their social awkwardness.

It is possible that every one of the people I’ve encountered in my misadventures has pretended to be socially awkward. I reckon that’s not the case, though. I reckon that this theory is overly simplistic and doesn’t take into account a rather important fact: that not everyone gives a crap about everyone’s opinion.

Plenty of people don’t care about what I know, think, or like. In their social hierarchy I’m a nonentity. I do not have the right to tell them what to do. I do not have the credibility to tell them that what they are doing is, here and now, inappropriate. I also am not important enough to them to make them modify their behavior to suit me; to them, their convenience or sheer habit is more important than my preferences, and why shouldn’t they be? Who the fuck am I to demand that they make changes? Aren’t they just as entitled to ask me to change my requirements?

It’s not just about me. I’m not that special. Those people react in a similar manner every time anyone tries to get them to modify their behavior. That’s how they got to be socially awkward at 30, 40, 50,… they discount information to the contrary. In umpteenth years’ time, they will still be having the same conversations on the same subjects, and still wondering why they struggle so much to retain people in their lives. (Meanwhile, my social circle will remain almost a dot because I’m a bitch; the social cost of speaking out is a whole other story, and this strategy discounts that, too.)

I’m not saying that telling people straight to cut shit out never works; I’m saying it works if and only if certain circumstances are in place. If one of my 6′ tall, 6′ wide, multiple-black-belt-wearing, armed friends tells someone that something is bothering them and could they cut it out, and that person complies, it could be that they’ve finally managed to help the poor bastard out by kindly explaining the rules of the world. Chances are, though, that they’ve just unwittingly intimidated someone into compliance, and that the compliance will only last as long as they’re around. That’s something that someone like me can’t easily do. The fact that for them it works every time can easily become evidence that the system works, though. The fact that it doesn’t work for the likes of me, or that it only works for me when they’re around, can be taken to prove that I’m just not doing it quite right.

 

Paraphrasing

When you live in a cabbage field and have no money, you have to make your own entertainment. Over the years I have developed a number of inappropriate hobbies. One of my favourite is paraphrasing what people are waffling into its core meaning, to reveal what they’re really saying. It costs me nothing (beyond occasional bouts of irritation), it doesn’t require any specialist equipment, and I don’t even have to leave the house to do it. I highly recommend it.

This is how it works. Someone says something that doesn’t quite sit right with me. It may not quite make sense, or bring about an emotional response apparently out of sync with current events: either way, it sticks in my throat. What I do is look at it closely, turn it into its component parts, paraphrase it, and repeat it back. The vast majority of the time, doing so reveals the source of my inability to swallow it.

A classic one we get at work (animal care) is people asking us to open early. We open at 8:30, but they need to leave for their trip at 6:00, so couldn’t we… Just this once… As requests go, I’d be tempted to class it as ludicrous straight up – do these people go to a supermarket and expect it to open at their convenience? When I disentangle the details of it all, it gets even more irritating. A simple solution to the problem of needing to leave early would be to bring the animals over the day before. That would incur a charge, though. So what these people are asking me, in their circuitous ways, is “could you start work 2 hrs + early so I can pay you less money?”

When I repeat their request back to them in those terms, those people deny sternly that it’s what they meant. It is, however, precisely what they are asking for. Whether they are doing so deliberately or because they haven’t thought it through is a different story, but not one that interests me that much. I am dealing with their behaviour, not their motivations, excuses, history, etc. We’re not close enough for any of that to matter. And, because of their behaviour, both in making the demand and in denying that it’s what they’re demanding, we’re never going to be any closer. I’m shutting the door on that.

With practice comes ease. These days, when someone wants me to write something so they can put it behind a paywall, I straight-up ask them: “So you want me to work for you for free, so you can sell my work for a profit?” Most of them deny it, but it makes them go away, so, yannow, I’m happy.

The game has worked well for me outside of work. Recently a prominent self-defence instructor came out with a length and rather convoluted public statement about gender-non-conforming individuals. He doesn’t have a problem with gay marriage, ’cause he’s all open-minded and shit. He doesn’t even have a problem with transsexuals: if a dude wants to be referred to as Mrs., he’s willing to indulge their delusion. Those gender-non-conforming individuals, though, there’s no way of knowing how to deal with them. They are making their own problems by being who they are. If they would only pick a damn gender, then their problems would disappear.

I read the lengthy waffle and paraphrased it thusly: “My problem with non-binary people is that they are non-binary. If they only stopped being non-binary, I would not have a problem with them.”

Put like that, the statement makes it quite obvious why the guy hasn’t been offered his own float at the local Pride parade. Things get even more interesting if you substitute pretty much any other term for “non-binary”. “My problem with gay people…” “…with Jews…” etc. The bigotry inbuilt in that circular way of thinking becomes pretty obvious, and, from my point of view, pretty damning. I’m sure the guy in question would disagree. I’m not sure I care.

Paraphrasing is also a great way to deal with people who try to get away with name-calling by using fancy terms. They’re not calling you “stupid”, they’re calling you “educationally subnormal”! That’s not an insult, it’s just a fact! Why are you getting so pissed off?!

 

 

Punishing – internal.

In the last blog I riffed about punishment – punishing success vs. failure. That was all external stuff – punishments imposed on us by the people or structures around us.

Pretty much the same mechanisms seem to happen internally with people, too. People tend to internalise the parenting/teaching mechanisms that were used on them and turn them into their style of self-talk. That kinda makes sense: when people parent or teach you, they’re supposed to be doing what it takes to make you become A Good Person – that’s the advertising slogan, anyway. The shittiest, most abusive parent/teacher/partner is unlikely to tell you that what they are doing is for their own shits and giggles. They’ll sell it to you as for your own good, or at least as the inevitable consequence of your poor behaviour or sheer sub-par being.

Even when you’ve managed to work out that the people who brought you up were really not up to the job and totally bodged it, it can be hard to remove those internal mechanisms. It’s exponentially harder to do it if you don’t see the mechanisms per se as pernicious – and often, they may not be. Sometimes it’s not what you do (have high standards for yourself, expect more of yourself as you get better) but how and why you do it (expecting the impossible, pushing yourself past breaking point). It’s not the tool that is toxic, but how it’s wielded. Sometimes the tool is fine in itself but comes with toxic adaptations: encouraging yourself to succeed is a-ok, doing so by calling yourself names you’d never use near anyone else, not so much. If those names are part of your internal vernacular because you’ve grown up with them, it can be hard to spot them.

It’s harder still to move on when you find an environment that rewards or seems to reward your kind of attitude. That is super common: people with a certain mindset find environments that support that mindset to be a good fit. If you like pushing yourself, you will find environments where that is supported comfortable. They’re familiar. They make sense. You make sense in that context. Your attitudes and behaviours are rewarded – suddenly all the crap of your life is treated as a good thing, as something that makes you exceptional, but in a good way, for a change – and that can be a very good thing or a fucking tragedy. It depends: what is being encouraged, and what is it bringing you to? People rail at those online groups that encourage and support behaviours widely considered to be problematic, such as eating disorders or cutting, but don’t bat an eyelid when people find a ‘fitness’ program that grinds them into shattered pieces, a ‘self-defence’ system that teaches them to always hit first, or a ‘prepping’ scheme that encourages them to cut themselves off from an all-too-dangerous world. It’s the same fucking mechanism, folk. Whether it leads to success or disaster is often a matter of luck.

That is pretty shitty. What is shittier still is when you break out of that. You keep your head down and inch towards the light, and eventually you find yourself in a place utterly unlike the one where you were brought up, with people entirely unfamiliar to you. You’ve broken the fuck out of the shit that was holding you down and choking the life out of you. You’ve fucking done it – and you’re failing more than you’ve ever failed before.

It tends to work out that the ‘better’ you do (for an hitherto undefined and utterly subjective value of ‘better’, sorry ’bout that), the better the people you find yourself surrounded with. Seriously, it’s like fucking magic: suddenly you look around and everyone you know is wonderful. You may also find out that your friend group is pretty damn rarefied; a lot of people are either allergic to or incompatible with the behaviours required for self-improvement and change in general. The crab bucket is a thing, as is the risk of becoming so obsessed with certain work that you’re neglecting your old friends and they end up falling by the wayside. There are costs to this, and one of the possible costs is loneliness, or at least a mismatch between the amount of in-person interactions you get to have and what you need/want.

The other, perhaps greater cost is that suddenly everyone you know is exceptional. They may not be all-round exceptional – the tropes of geniuses who can’t tie their own shoes or remember to feed themselves are there for a reason. Chances are, though, that they’re exceptionally good at something, and that you can notice it. They may be exceptional at something you don’t give a crap about, but that doesn’t invalidate their exceptionality.

I’ve got friends these days who are luminaries in their fields. Those fields may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that isn’t the relevant issue here. The fact is that I can wake up one morning with a question about photography or astrophysics or medieval swordpersonship or quantum computers or the legal system in Oklahoma or Chinese soup, and I can ask an expert. If they don’t know, they’ll probably know someone who does – and, because they are cool people, they will admit to not knowing. I watch exceptional martial arts, eat exceptional food, listen to exceptional music, watch exceptional art, and struggle to follow exceptional conversations. I am surrounded by people with exceptional bodies, minds, and souls. And those are the standards I measure myself against.

The measuring isn’t inherent in the process. It’s the way I do business. Whether it’s a bad thing, a good thing, or just a thing kinda depends on the hows and whys of me doing it. It’s not very Zen – and yes, I judge myself on that metric, too. Tell you what, though: you don’t get yourself out of the shit without measuring yourself and striving for improvement. It just doesn’t work like that. Whether the measuring is a good or bad thing kinda depends on what your next step is. Which rolls back round to my last blog: the tangle of punishing failure vs. success, and how it pretty much all sucks.

When I measure myself against the standards ‘my people’ live by, I find myself wanting. I’m punishing failure: I’m not doing as well as I’d like to. I’m also punishing success: the only reason I’m getting to see those standards up close is that I did fucking well to get to where I am. Either way, it smacks of putting the boot in, because I’m not fucking well failing because I fucking well want to.

And this is where I veer firmly into the world of crap that is exclusively mine, so I’m going to drop this here. Make of this what you will.

 

Punishing – external.

I’ve been talking with Rory (hi, Rory!) about punishment, and in particular how some environments are set up to punish success and/or failure. It’s all still pretty mushy in my head and I have no idea where it’s going to go, so here’s a random regurgitation of possibly disparate concepts.

Punishments of both failure and success is waaaay more common than people seem to believe. Some bits are so ingrained in the way people do peopling that they’re almost invisible. The whole thing also seems to be tangled into chaos, to the point that half the time I can’t tell wtf people are being punished for. I reckon half the time the people doing the punishing haven’t got a damn clue themselves.

[Though this may be my blind spot, because my family’s parenting would have been dramatically improved if they’d just dropped me into the penguin enclosure at the local aquarium as a toddler and left me there, I routinely talk to people about it and they’re shocked when they start to disentangle the underlying mechanisms. Selection bias could well be at play, though.]

Example: A kid does badly in a subject or activity. The kid is punished for that failure, often without any considerations as to why the failure took place. Were they lazy? Or were they ill, tired, emotionally or mentally drained, overwhelmed by other problems that took up too much of their bandwidth? Are they simply not very talented at that thing, requiring more support than the average bear? It is in fact possible for someone to be very, very bad at something, even though they are very good at other things (for me it was physics; it’s the wrong shape to fit in my brain). Our school system is often not geared up to accomodate that. When parents can’t or won’t parse the issue, the problem can be compounded. Facing a challenge knowing that you’re likely to fail, because it’s set up at a level you can’t operate in, and that you will likely be punished for that failure, because nobody gives a fuck about your problems, frankly kinda sucks. If you did that to an animal you’d get reported. And all of that discounts that for some people knowing that they’ve failed is punishment enough. A bad grade, for someone who cares about grades, is a punishment. Everything on top of that is just putting the boot in.

Is all of that punishing a failure, though? Half the time the issue seems to be worst for kids who actually do well at most, if not all, other things. If you’re good at most subjects, that creates an expectation that you will do well in general. Suddenly you find yourself entirely unable to parse a subject or part thereof, or your performance dips because of external issues, and people are disappointed. Doing well has become part of your identity. You’re not “a student who does well”, let alone “a student who works hard”: you’re a “good student”. If you fail to perform up to your normal standards, that failure is measured against your successes. An A student who suddenly gets a D often attracts a lot more notice than a C student who does the same.*

Behaviour attracts the same problem. A ‘good’ kid is expected to behave in a certain manner. Something that would be considered a minor slip or just the usual crap on the part of a ‘bad’ kid attracts more attention when they do it. It’s the drop in ‘performance’ that is punished (failure), but the reason that drop is noticed is that the performance is normally high (success).

To a certain extent, all systems where you advance kinda punish success. A yellow belt is supposed to perform better than a white belt. An orange belt, better still. We rail at the egregious behaviour of trainers who punish students who perform better than they do – and we have a right to, because that is truly shitty teaching and those people have no business being in education in the first place. But the way in which a lot of standardised training systems operate is effectively geared to ask more and more the better a student gets. The Peter Principle and people’s personal needs and wishes are often disregarded. Whether that’s a good thing, because it expands students’ skills and comfort zone, or a form of subtle but effective torture depends on how the game is played and by whom. It really can go either way. People have been broken, sometimes beyond recovery, by being pushed by people whose stated purpose was to help them learn and developed.

It all gets even more funky when you take into account that it’s easier to punish good people. Good people respond to punishments. They actually give a fuck about that kind of thing. Bad people often don’t: if you want to put a truly ‘bad’ kid on the naughty step, you may have a fight on your hands. Suspending kids who don’t want to be in school in the first place is no punishment at all. People who flip a finger at society at large can often only be punished by the use of force.

[Interesting personal revelation: I was a good student and a shit-awful kid. My performance was usually stellar. My attitude was, in a school setting, beyond reprehensible. I’d learnt at a very young age that the adults in charge did not necessarily have my best interest in mind and did not necessarily warrant my respect. I wasn’t even anti-authoritarian; I didn’t care enough about authorities to rebel against them. I just did my own shit because I wanted to do my own shit. Whether that aligned with the system’s wishes for me was largely immaterial. That was treated as grossly offensive, regardless of whether the shit I was doing was in alignment with the authorities’ wishes. It also caused them a huge degree of internal conflict: when I’m misbehaving by performing better than my peers, better than my teachers, how the fuck do you punish me? Particularly when I’m not one to take it lying down.]

Punishing ‘good’ people – those who will not fight against the punishment – is easier. It’s also more tempting, because their falls from grace are more noticeable: they are falling from a greater height. It’s also the most unwarranted kind of punishment there is, because their are probably already punishing themselves internally and trying to do better.

I’m increasingly unsure that this kind of punishment is devised to improve behaviour. I reckon a large proportion of the time it’s meted out either out of habit (this is how we parent/teach/relationship because this is how we parent/teach/relationship) or out of a thirst for retribution. Either way, it’s pretty damn shitty.

 

*If you really wanna fuck people up, you can make perfection the minimum requirement. For instance, you can make a 100% mark the pass grade. It makes sense if you squint: after all, it’s the grade that shows that you did everything you were supposed to. Everything below 100% is a fail, because you failed to do what you were supposed to do. 100% is not a win, though: you just did what you were supposed to. There can be no ‘winning a system geared up like this. Put this system into someone’s head, and you can make a victim who is going to go on victimising themselves throughout their lives.

A lot of ‘gifted’ students struggle with perfectionism, performance anxiety, depression, etc. I will forever wonder how  much of that stems solely from the fact that they are the children of people who identify as the ‘parents of a gifted child’, and demand they perform accordingly.