Possibly not the best stance to take on, if you can manage it.

Let me be clear up front: I am privileged. Therefore I don’t know what I’m talking about. On the other hand, however, I was a wimpy bookish kid in the 40’s and 50’s, and I was made fun of, picked on, picked last at every sport, bullied, chased, and very occasionally, when I couldn’t run fast enough, beaten up. So I can at least get in touch with those feelings. But, yeah, I’m privileged, so that means I don’t know what I’m talking about and that my advice is not only useless, it is condescending and demeaning. I get it. Here it comes anyway. Stop reading now.

It is common these days for people to get butt-hurt about things other people say and do “to” them. I’m here to suggest that if we can manage it, we might do well to take another stance.

If management puts you in a giant open plan office1, it is probably not the case that they are doing it because they are “aggressive” or trying to hurt you. More likely they are motivated to improve profits by saving money on space, or perhaps even to improve productivity because they have heard that people who work together are more productive. Management is not out to get you. It may be that they don’t trust you. It may be that they don’t respect you much. But they are not out to get you, because that would reduce your results, their profits, reduce their standing among the other managers. Their own self-interest makes it very unlikely that they are trying to hurt you — even if it hurts.

Full admission: I am not a woman, so I know very little about what I’m about to say …

If you’re a woman, and a man says something complimentary, it’s not dead certain that he is actually planning to have sex with you against your will. I suppose, if he’s young enough, he might be willing to have sex with you, but more likely he just wishes to share a pleasant word with a pleasant-looking person. I can’t speak for all men, but I have always preferred the company of women, even since kindergarten when Judy Knoblock used to help me tie my shoes. I have raped none of those women and in fact even shared a hug with only a very few.

Now hell yes, even if the odds are a hundred to one against a real sexual aggression, you’ll want to steer far into safe waters. I certainly hear enough horrible stories about things that happen even at the rather staid conferences I attend to be totally certain that you should be careful. Very very careful. It’s terrible that it’s necessary, but it’s true.

Nonetheless, the odds are 99 to one that the pleasantry is well-intended and perfectly harmless. Even with the one-in-a-hundred case in mind, even with the greatest care in mind, I’d like to suggest that for your own spirit, you assume that the remark was a positive one — and then continue to be careful.

Freely granted: I am as white as it’s possible to be, and I am from around here …

Perhaps you are a person of color, or wearing attire that’s likely not from around Pinckney, Michigan. Someone, let’s assume this time that it’s another woman, asks where you are from or comments that the hijab is quite lovely, as they often are. I suppose, right behind that, sometimes you get a “why don’t you go back there then”, or “too bad you’re going to hell like all non-Christians”, but by god it is interesting where you come from, just like it’s interesting here, and that hijab really is quite nice. I think it would be helpful to take on board the fact that someone is interested, someone appreciates what you’re doing. Sure, remain strong. If you can’t open up fully, lest the next remark pierce you, maybe you can let the nice part of what’s been said slip under the door and comfort your heart just a bit.

Nonetheless: I am sensitive, and I have been hurt by people’s remarks …

In our society today, enlightened folks are trying to raise our consciousness about not hurting other people with what we say. That’s valuable. I don’t like to be hurt, and I’m sure you don’t either. I don’t support the current backlash against what they like to call “political correctness”, but I would like to suggest that we can understand it a bit.

Most of the time, most people mean well. So there one is, meaning well, and one says “that dress is lovely” as something a bit more human than “good morning”, trying to get a little positive contact with a fellow human, and maybe to brighten their day a bit, and there the listener is feeling hurt by a positive comment. I know. Their life has been full of backhanded compliments, or full of people trying to put them down, or trying to get into their pants. I know.

But every time I take something negative on board, it hurts me. It doesn’t hurt the other person: it hurts me. So, in the unlikely event that anyone says something nice to me, complimenting my car, my hair, my taste in black clothing until they invent a darker color, I try to respond with a sincere “Thank you”, if I possibly can. No matter what happens next, I just got a little jolt of positive energy. Even if they take it back in the next sentence, I can always respond, aloud or silently, “[Verb] you”, if it’s needful.

Now I’m not you. I don’t know your experience, your fears, all the bad things that have happened to you. And what I find useful may not be useful to you. Nonetheless, a thing that I find useful is to try to take positive energy on board, to try to remember that most people — or at least some people — don’t intend me any harm, and to parse my life in as positive a way as I can.

Because I am how I am, I think that outlook might help other people. It might even help you. I hope it does.

If not, don’t worry. I’ll probably not ask you where you’re from, or compliment your outfit, or say much of anything. You’ve scared me too much. I don’t like rejection, and that’s what you’ve trained me to expect.

A focus on aggression makes for a greater focus on negative things. Maybe a focus on taking things positively would make for more positivity. Maybe it’s worth a try.

Or not. I don’t know much of anything about it. I’m just some old white guy.

  1. This example was the primary trigger for this article. Showed up on Twitter today.