Disability: When Context Matters

[Content Note: Infertility, Pain Management, Surgery, Religious Proselytization]

Ana's Note: This piece was composed in January 2012 and was inspired by Froborr's excellent post The Problem of Proselytizing. This piece is also an unintentional two-partner piece about ableism, with the second piece to run 3/22/2012. This is the Kindness & Cookies piece; the second part is the Firebrand piece. Never let it be said that I am consistent.

I went to see my scoliosis specialist this weekend.

I haven't been to see him since 2010. The long delay between that visit and this one had special significance: during that time, I was trying -- and failing -- to get pregnant. This visit represented the culmination of two very painful realities. One, my persistent back pain is getting worse. Two, I and my Husband will not be having a child together.

My scoliosis specialist knew that I was trying to conceive. When I last saw him, he recommended that I get my pregnancy over with before undergoing invasive spinal surgery, and since conception is no longer part of my plans, I needed to give him a quick update so we could move forward. Because I didn't want to dwell on my infertility, I quickly outlined the basics: I had two failed IVF attempts last year, in each case all the embryos stopped growing and came back from the lab with multiple genetic abnormalities, and the diagnosis is that Husband and I are individually healthy but genetically incompatible with one another. And then my scoliosis specialist asked the question that everyone always asks, the question that keeps me from sharing this story more often with people:

Have you considered using donor sperm?

Every time I hear this from a well-meaning stranger, I have to fight a powerful urge to not make the Home Alone face and say, "Donor sperm?! Is that a thing now?? Do they do that??" I mean, you can honestly see how I could have missed that, despite it being a plot element in at least a dozen popular mainstream movies off the top of my head, and what with my having a dedicated IVF doctor who has been featured in at least a couple national magazines as pretty hot stuff in the fertility doctor community. So it was pretty dang rude of my fertility doctor to not have even mentioned donor sperm as a possibility to us. Thank you for bringing this option up for my consideration, Perfect Stranger!

You see, I have a whole little facetious "mini rant" prepared in my head.

I don't say all this, of course, because to do so would be considered hostile. I have a little mixture of polite pre-packaged explanations about my back and my health and it-not-being-meant-to-be and people nod and smile and we eventually move past the question. Their curiosity is satisfied, they've solved for X in the equation of Husband and I being genetically incompatible, and I choke back my tears. Again.

The "have you considered" question -- sperm donor? egg donor? adoption? -- is personally triggering for me because the act of considering those choices and making my decision with my Husband was one of the most painful experiences of my life. The question, though I understand that it is well-meaning and well-intended, takes me back to that moment every time, that moment when I had to make a decision about my future, a decision that gave me peace and yet pain.

I want to stress that I don't blame people for asking the question. Nine times out of ten, I believe they want to help me, that they're trying to understand me. They ask because on one level or another they care about me. But that doesn't change the fact that they're asking me to share something intensely personal with them, that they're putting me in a position where I'm supposed to bare my soul under the guise of a question of intellectual curiosity: Have I considered all the alternatives? The burden falls on me to give them the answers they need while still preserving my emotional privacy.

But a part of me resents that. Each time I want to shake them and say, How can you ask me this? How can you think I wouldn't have researched this exhaustively? How can you pretend that you can go from never-having-thought-about-this-before to total-expert in the space of ten seconds? How can you not realize that this is something intensely painful and private that I might not want to share? How? And then I feel guilty.

I feel guilty because I know that the problem is not the question itself. At least once a month, my Mother says to me, "Tell me again why you're not using a donor?", and I don't get upset at her. I don't get upset at her, because I understand why she asks. My infertility has hurt my Mother as deeply and as genuinely as it has me. When she asks me that question, she's not asking to satisfy an idle curiosity. She's not asking me to bare my soul to present my decision for her judgment. She's not asking me to change my life based on her opinion or the "new information" she's supposedly presenting. She's not a blank wall demanding that I educate her or modify my life in response. For her, the question is just an expression of her pain. It's my cue to explain to her all over again a decision that she already understands and agrees with. The process is therapy for her -- for both of us -- and we cry and nod and hug and agree that the whole situation sucks but that we made the best choice.

It's the same question, this question that my Mother asks and that the Perfect Stranger asks. And yet it's an entirely different question based on the context.

What is the difference between someone proselytizing at me and someone sharing a religious viewpoint with me? What is the difference between advice dispensed by privileged strangers and advice shared between close friends and family? My personal opinion, informed by this recent interaction with my doctor, is that the difference is one of context. Context makes the difference between someone thinking they know what's best for me and someone hoping to understand me better. Context makes the difference between demanding a change, explanation, or justification versus accepting me with respect, courtesy, and kindness. Context defines the meaning of these words:

Have you considered using donor sperm?

Six words. They mean something completely different, depending on the speaker, depending on their relationship to me, depending on their location, depending on the tone of voice, the accompanying body language. From my Mother, it's a plea for therapy, a need to address the pain we both feel and reaffirm that this decision was the best one. From my closest girl friend, it's a genuine attempt to understand my situation and to empathize with me. From my scoliosis specialist, it's an attempt to turn my problem into something academic that he can solve. And when the question comes from a Perfect Stranger, the issue becomes more complicated.

When a Perfect Stranger asks me whether or not I've considered using donor sperm or measuring my thetan levels or having my thyroid levels checked or any number of highly personal things, there's a lot of conveyed presumptions packed into that question that -- lacking context -- I cannot immediately and easily unpack. Do they honestly not think I've considered these things before? Do they expect that I have considered them, but are asking me if I have anyway as a sort of roundabout way of satisfying their own curiosity? What, essentially, does the question mean? And how should I respond?

Have you considered...? posits the potential that I haven't really through through something that is integral to my life. For most deeply personal issues, I've invested hundreds of hours of thought, whether the issue is my religion, my political identification, or my reproductive choices. I don't know how to convey to a Perfect Stranger that the idea that they can brush up on my backstory in a matter of minutes, solve my problems with a few quickly-conceived pearls of wisdom, and then ride off into the sunset leaving my world a better place is insulting. It implies that I'm foolish, that I lack introspection. It implies they know what I need better than I do.

Have you considered...? suggests that it is acceptable to pretend that I haven't thought through important decisions in order to prompt me to bare my soul to satisfy a stranger's curiosity. The framing buys into the narrative that the Privileged are owed explanations, that they deserve to be presented alternative viewpoints on demand for their careful inspection. The question acts as a sort of Trojan Horse for smuggling in the real question -- Why aren't you...? -- and it leaves me without an escape clause if the question is too painful to answer.

Have you considered...? questions just how much expertise I have over my life, my decisions, my opinions. The query suggests that I've put less thought into my life than the person posing the question. I've spent my entire life considering in depth how I should live, what choices I should make, what I believe. I've tweaked and modified almost every aspect of my life. I have invested countless hours on the question of How Does Ana Want To Live Her Life. I easily meet the 10,000 Hour Rule. This is a topic on which I should be an undisputed expert and yet, my expertise is in dispute. I can't count how many times in the last month I've been asked by a Perfect Stranger whether I've considered living my life completely differently. Have I considered changing my religion? My political party? My feminist identification? Have I considered infertility alternatives? Have I considered any number of pain management techniques, including (and this is a very popular one) Tylenol?  

Have you considered...? YES.

Yes, I have considered all these things. In depth, over great periods of time. The choices that I've made as a result of that consideration are largely a good fit for me, even if that isn't readily apparent to a Perfect Stranger. And I am even willing to discuss my choices and my beliefs and my decisions in detail.  

But it's my right to determine in which contexts I want to consent to that type of discussion.

Whenever I'm asked a personal question, I have to make a judgment call. I have to gauge whether a question about my infertility is one meant to learn more about me or one meant to try to influence my decision. I have to judge whether a question about my religion is one meant to understand a different worldview or one attempting to convert me to a different religion. I have to decide whether a question about my pain medications of choice is one meant to genuinely empathize with me or one meant to play Armchair Physician so they can dangle an Obviously Simply Solution to my complex problems. I have to make these judgment calls because I have a finite number of spoons in a day and I've no interest in engaging with questions asked in Bad Faith.

How do we separate the Good Faith questions from the Bad Faith ones? For me, the best I can do is look at the context. What kind of relationship do I have with this person? How was the question framed? Does their tone, their language, their body language seem to convey respect for my situation? Are they genuinely trying to listen to me, or are they just interested in informing me of their advice? Advice isn't the same regardless of the source. Recommendations, whether they be ones of medication or religion, are not neutral or divorced of context. There is a difference between my Mother telling me that Tramadol worked for her, and a Perfect Stranger asking me if I haven't considered using Tylenol. There is a difference between hapax explaining to me how her religion approaches a specific issue, and a Perfect Stranger asking me if I haven't considered giving my life to Jesus.

I don't want prying questions or personal judgments or intrusive advice from Perfect Strangers. I don't honestly know enough about them to know if their experiences are even remotely relevant to my situation, and I know they don't know enough about me to be able to gauge my situation and determine what would be a good fit for me. "Ana, you should totally try Sulfasalazin," would be very bad advice indeed for me, given that I'm allergic to sulfa drugs. "Ana, have you considered being an atheist?" would be very presumptuous advice to give me, as that's a very personal decision that I think is best left to myself.

Have you considered...? Why don't you try...? Don't you think you should...? are all questions that, when coming from someone I don't know and don't trust, are invasive. They are questions that demand explanations, require justifications, and urge me to make changes to my life on the strength of a stranger's opinions.

And to me, that is the difference between proselytization and sharing, the difference between victim-blaming advice and a conversation between a loving mother and daughter. The same words in different contexts makes the exchange fundamentally different. When my mother or my friend or my lover tell me what atheism has done for them, or what wonders Tramadol has worked in their life, or how being a Libertarian has enriched their existence, it's an exchange of feelings between two people in a relationship, not a sales pitch. When a stranger says the same things, it's a a shared intimacy that I don't want and which is being pushed on me against my will.

And when a stranger questions me on why I don't live my life the way they expect me to, I lack the context to know for sure that it's not a judgment on me, a demand that I either conform or justify why I won't. I hope each time that's not the case, but it too often feels like it is.

The words are the same but the context changes everything.


Brin Bellway said...

This piece was composed in January 2010 and was inspired by Froborr's excellent post The Problem of Proselytizing.

I think you mean 2012, unless you got a copy of his post from the you who was celebrating the beginning of 2013 a couple months ago.
(Well, the timeline still wouldn't match up, but anyway.)

Ana Mardoll said...

Aw, man, I finally got used to it being 2010 and they change it to 2012 on me!

Yamikuronue said...

I've got a half-finished piece for my own blog that touches on a similar topic, only in that case it's more like, "Why don't you just X?" In the specific case I'm writing about, "X" is any number of hair-care options that were designed for either black girls or white girls and which work less effectively on mixed girls like myself. People just assume that because my hair doesn't match their idea of what black hair or white hair should look like, I must just be too lazy or stupid to use WONDERFUL_PRODUCT_ADVERTISED_IN_COSMO, because everyone knows WONDERFUL_PRODUCT_ADVERTISED_IN_COSMO makes your hair perfect.

Similar issues also apply to WEIGHT_LOSS_SCAM_OR_DIET and being overweight.

Maartje said...

So much agreement!

The more painful and personal the issue is, the more I have to fight a wave of red-hot rage when people say these things.

I'm a thinky person. If I share any kind of issue with anyone, you can bet your [insert something you really don't want to lose] that any 'solution' they can come up with in three seconds has been thought of and either tried or rejected SEVERAL TIMES. Or pondered and obsessed over endlessly.

And, guess what? That holds true even for the less introspective people I know, because they all have brains capable of thinking of the obvious solutions.

The rest of your post reminds me of how few people I really trust. My husband and three of my friends are allowed to ask these questions, but even they need to tread carefully because I'm so used to people judging and jumping to conclusions that I have a hair-trigger. My parents will, I guess, never be able to ask me questions of that kind on any subject.

RedSonja said...

Because of posts like this, I have worked very hard to get to "What worked for me was...." If zie hasn't tried it, great, now zie has another idea if interested. It isn't a request for more info that zie may not be comfortable sharing, and it has the added bonus of not making hir feel like I think zie hasn't done everything zie feels is appropriate for hirself. I also feel like then I am getting across MY message better which is "I would like to help you because I care about you" without making it "If you would just drink this/eat that/only/never/white foods/carbs/miracle herb/etc...."

Ana Mardoll said...

@Yamikuronue, oh, god, so much, yes. Especially when "Why don't you X...?" is a question that presupposes a privilege that isn't there.

@Maartje, I'm glad I'm not the only one who is thinky like that!

@RedSonja, yes! "X worked for me," is one way Mom and I have managed to trade pain tips because she has a bad wrist and I have a bad back, but our bodies react to medication COMPLETELY differently. (For instance, she appears to be allergic to morphine.)

Fluffy_goddess said...

I am lucky enough to not be in a situation where there are a lot of questions people can ask me that will upset me, though there are a few. (There is also "Have You Ever Tried Knitting?", which is usually asked in a judgemental tone disguised by syrupy helpfulness by someone knitting baby socks out of organic locally farmed wool while I crochet myself a sweater out of mass-produced acrylic. I've become so inured to it that it's now my litmus test: if more than one person asks me that, I am in the wrong kind of knitting group, and will not be returning, because people who ask that will eventually move on to more personal criticisms. I will not be listing my more personal examples, since they tend to be actually triggering and not merely saddening. The Knit vs. Crochet thing doesn't seem to trigger anyone, so if anyone wants to use it as a euphemism, go ahead.)

I like thinking of it as a universal and usually-well-meant-but-ignorant phenomenom. People want to help. People are stupid, especially when put on the spot, and people then spit out whatever irritating thing they can think of. Unfortunately, since people are not fairy godmothers, this comes out as Have You Tried/Considered/Thought About, instead of "oh, here, I'll just transform the physical evidence that you're a serving girl into a fancy ballgown and then you can totes go to the ball, yay I just fixed your life". This theory allows me to deal with a certain number of Well Meaning Strangers who ask hurtful, intrusive questions, at least well enough to patiently and metaphorically hit them over the head with It Is None Of Your Business and a freezing glare. It's imperfect, of course, but helpful.

And I still hate having to think that way. I hate that people ask intrusive questions and expect honest answers, and make unhelpful suggestions because they are uncomfortable just saying "oh, wow, that sucks" and letting it be. I prefer "oh wow, that sucks". I heard it when there was a cancer diagnosis in my family and I was visibly freaking out. And then when there was a diagnosis of heart disease, I heard "wow, that sucks; I've heard x does great things to help ward that off". Yes, thank you, I know you're projecting your own terror of heart disease onto my situation, but my family have the excellent advice of doctors and nutritionists and we are working with our own situation, and I do not need to be told whatever we've been doing for the past thirty years is wrong and if we'd just make that one change we could avoid all recurrence of heart disease forever and ever ramen. Such questions do not make me second-guess whether I could have avoided this situation, but they do make me second-guess being in this conversation.

Kitwhitfield said...

I knit. Next time I run into a crocheted, frankly I'd rather ask them to teach me.

But I digress.

Ana, if mentioning That Piece draws the death-threat brigade onto you, let us know.

Dav said...

I've found conversational abysses open up when these cultural touch-stones fall away. I think it's a way to attempt engagement - "I'm paying attention to you, and here's this thing I heard on the news the other night that might pertain to your condition, and doesn't this attention reaffirm our bond?"

No. No, it does not.

The downside of eliminating this form of small talk is that conversational abysses soon yawn wide. You can't handle grief or illness or problems with kids/pets/cars/houses the same way. It makes things tough when you can't just drop folk wisdom or a cliche or an urban myth or a half-remembered plot point on someone and feel better about yourself.

All of my personal examples are way, way less emotionally loaded than infertility, so I can't imagine having the insult added to existing injury, but I am still trying to find ways to tell people how unacceptable it is to assume that people wouldn't do research and choose what they thought was best for their situation. Especially if they're, say, in excruciating pain. (Seriously. Every time I hear "I don't get migraines, but -" I feel my eyebrows descending in preparation for what is to come.)

Ana Mardoll said...

I will, thank you. :)

Ana Mardoll said...

Yes! I think so, too, at least in part because I used to do this very thing: it's an attempt at saying, "Look! I'm paying attention to you!" But then you're coming off like you're NOT because you're making it about YOU.

It took a loooooooong time for me to learn that the best response is "I don't get migraines, but they sound awful" followed by a frowny face.

Dav said...

Man, I am clearly operating on way too little sleep. Editing FAIL.

Ana Mardoll said...

I will join you in sleep stupor, because I didn't even notice any fail.

Dav said...

TW: Terminal illness

Overheard on a cross-country bus cell phone conversation:
"I've never been diagnosed with cancer, but everything works out for the best."



Also, I think it's completely legitimate to feel no guilt* whatsoever about people who prioritize "feeling helpful" above "respecting your agency" and "treating you with respect". Don't feel guilty about getting angry about this stuff. These people are crossing boundaries like whoa, assuming that you're not even remotely capable of doing work on your issues, and seizing a position of authority to hand out unsolicited advice.

I just wish there were more small talk templates that made it easy to respond to news that makes you sad/worried/upset/concerned for others that didn't involve dismissing it, blaming it on the victim, or elevating it to a magical talisman that will make the sufferer a better person.

*Also completely legitimate: feeling guilt. Feelings! Legitimate! All of them!

darchildre said...

@Fluffy_goddess - I'm a long-time crocheter who recently took up knitting and it's amazing the difference in the way people (both crafty and non-crafty) react when I work on my stuff in public. (Of course, now I get "Have you considered knitting continental style?")

I get this stuff about my anxiety and, unfortunately, it mostly *does* come from my parents, who don't quite grok the problem. I don't consider myself to be overly debilitated by anxiety (certainly not to the degree that I have been previously, when I was in college and under a lot of stress and didn't have the tools to deal with anxiety that I have now) but it certainly does impact certain choices that I make. For instance - I work at the circ desk of a library, which means that I spend a lot of the day talking to people and on the phone, which is hard for me. So, when I'm not at work, I'll often make choices that lead to less conversation, such as using self check-out lines at stores or emailing rather than using the phone. (The telephone is a tool of evil anyway.)

Nearly every time my mom sees me do this, she says something like, "Don't you think that you should make yourself talk to people, so it won't affect you so much?" I know she means well, I know she's just trying to help, and I know that she has no way of really understanding what it's like inside my brain. But it's infuriating, nonetheless.

However, the advantage has been that I know how much it pisses me off, so I try not to do it to other people. I don't always succeed, but at least I can try.

Jadagul said...

Ana, this reminds me of the conversation we had a week or so ago about trigger words, in which I commented that a lot of (usually very privileged) people are insensitive about them because they just don't have a framework for understanding what the issue is. I would have thought of "have you considered...?" comments as, essentially, empty space in the conversation, checklisting, like the tech support guy who asks you to check that your computer is plugged in. I mean, of course my computer is plugged in, and of course I checked that myself, but I understand why he has to ask and the whole process takes ten seconds and it's no more annoying than any other method of wasting ten seconds of my time (I'm....not a very patient person, sometimes).

But the thought process is something like, "the cost of making this comment is ten seconds out of both of our lives, and in the .01% chance that you haven't thought of it, the benefit will be huge, so I should check." Apparently the cost can be...somewhat higher than that. So I should maybe stop, which is good to know.

Ana Mardoll said...

Hugs for this comment. :)

Yes, it really is ten seconds but as it turns out the ten seconds from Random Strangers add up really really really fast. And, as you're noticing, there are associated implications that can be very problematic. But I completely understand that it's hard to think of those when you're coming from another direction.

Definitely a good rule of thumb I've been trying to follow for conversation is the standard "Wow, that sounds X" (awful, terrible, stressful, horrible) and if they follow up with "Yeah, it is. *stop*" then the conversation needs to move on. If they follow up with "Yeah, it is, and we've tried A and B and C and can't think of ANYTHING ELSE" that *might* be an opening for, "Huh. I might try D, if that's an option."

If that makes sense. :)

Lonespark said...

My only default is "wow, that sucks," so I'm glad to hear that's sometimes wanted. It feels so inadequate.

I also often tend to go to "How can I help?" which seems meh because people can be really overwhelmed and not into scheduling tasks for you. And then occasionally I'm all "Let me know if you need anything," and then I feel dumb because when, in the midst of overwhelming crisis, has anyone ever had the time or energy to really do that?

Dav said...

I try to go slightly more specific these days: "Would it be helpful if I brought you a casserole or walked your dog for a while?" No one has ever said yes, which indicates that I'm still not quite doing it right, but I refuse to jump into co-workers' and random acquaintances' extra-stressful lives without the least indication that they want me there.

kbeth said...

Ana, I'm curious how you would feel if someone asked you the same question with slightly different wording; something like "Oh, that's terrible, and donor sperm isn't an option?" This seems to me to be slightly different from the questions you listed, because it assumes that you *have* in fact thought about that option, and have rejected it for some reason or another, and the asker is sort of just checking rather than seriously asking if you've never thought of some glaringly obvious solution. Which also, to me, implies that it's a question that invites a simple yes or no answer and not a whole explanation. But that may just be me and my biases! So I'd be interested to hear your take on it. :)

Ana Mardoll said...

Well, I personally would still find that version of the question triggering (takes me back to the "donor sperm discussion" memory) and intrusive (I'm being asked to elaborate instead of merely accepting the information I've offered), even if the re-phrase does solve the insulting issues I outlined.

Also, while it may seem like a simply yes/no question, it's not. Physically/Medically, the answer is "yes", but if I say "yes" and stop, the person will very likely follow-up with asking when we'll be doing this thing and how it where work and where it will come from. Emotionally/Situationally, the answer is "no", but if I say "no" and stop, the person will very likely follow-up with asking why not, since the problem is the combination of Husband and my genetics.

So I'm afraid that doesn't really solve the problem because it's asking for more information than the person may be emotionally able to give, and it's providing them with the same "how do I convey this succinctly without breaking down in tears at my desk" problem.

Ana Mardoll said...

I would say as a general rule that if you're able to assume that the person HAS thought of donor sperm, it's a good idea to assume that they'll either use-or-not use that option without your intervention, and that they'll volunteer that decision if they want to.

Of course, this varies by context. But that's the idea. :)

Nick said...

I find that when people say "Have you considered X" in this context, they don't really mean "Have you considered X" like they're suggesting it -- they're assuming you know about X and are bringing it up in a more roundabout way (maybe because they think it's more polite than being direct.)

An analogy: just five minutes ago my mum asked me "Do you mind making me a cup of tea?" Of course, she didn't mean "Do you find the concept of making me a cup of tea to be offensive or imposing on your life?" -- she meant "I'd like you to make me a cup of tea." Similarly, when people ask "Have you considered using donor sperm?" they actually mean "Are you going to use donor sperm, then?" or "So, why haven't you used donor sperm?"

If you find those questions intrusive and prying, well, that's fair enough. But I really don't think they're intended to be patronising.

Ana Mardoll said...

From the OP:

Have you considered...? suggests that it is acceptable to pretend that I haven't thought through important decisions in order to prompt me to bare my soul to satisfy a stranger's curiosity. The framing buys into the narrative that the Privileged are owed explanations, that they deserve to be presented alternative viewpoints on demand for their careful inspection. The question acts as a sort of Trojan Horse for smuggling in the real question -- Why aren't you...? -- and it leaves me without an escape clause if the question is too painful to answer.

So, yes, I'm aware of the "indirect is more polite" possibility (I do live in the Southern USA, after all! *wink*) but it's still intrusive and prying and lacking context can seem very patronizing indeed. :)

April Marie Gilbert said...

And people who are into giving (most of the time) unwanted advice (read from strangers) are the ones I don't particularly like. Hell, I found out today that my mum raised hell at my elementary school because she never raised me to see colour in others just to see people for WHO they were (which I feel, is a hell of a lot more important anyway). and a lady came up to me and asked me why I (a white girl) was playing with a black girl. Apparently I came home that day and asked my mum what a black girl was, causing my mum to raise hell to the school the next day cause I guess it was someone who worked for the school. Anyway, slightly anecdotal to what my point was. I am one of those people that I'm just genuinely curious about others. I like finding out about their backgrounds, lifestyles, etc because it honestly just fascinates me to learn about other ways other people live their lives and were raised. People who like to play armchair physician however, make people like me seem suspicious. Though I will say, the ONLY time I ever say to someone "Have you considered...?" is when it is someone I am close to who understands me and how I am. Like, my mum. She doesn't keep track of a lot of things that I do. So me saying that is usually something I'm not sure if she's heard of and vice versa. She keeps track of things more on the weight loss end of life and asks me things like that constantly since she knows I'm trying to do what I can to see what works for me to try and lose weight. Though, after reading this post, I'm starting to feel bad for being curious into others lives....And hope that I've never come across as trying to change someone else's life.....

Nicholas Kiddle said...

I've ranted about a similar thing before: http://ksej.livejournal.com/273541.html

The biggest problem for me is that it's so exhausting having to explain to someone who doesn't know the backstory why no, that will not help, thanks for your consideration but would you please shut up now thanks. And I'm something of a compulsive explainer, besides the fact that so many of these questioners have social power such that ignoring them or being blunt isn't an option, so like you say, the seconds really do add up.

Joamanova said...

Hi. *waves* bit of a lurker here.
Firstly thank you for your very many interesting and thoughtful posts. Most of which I've read, nodded in agreement, and decided I had very little to add.
In this case, though, I had an immediate response.
I detest it when people say: "you should just ..." fill out the blank. The framing is different (and as i'm not a native speaker it might also have lost something in translation) but I can relate inasmuch as that phrase, coming from nearly *anyone* makes me take several deep breaths in the sincere hope I don't end up killing anyone.
It's a bit of an add-on to your "have you tried..." or even worse "Back when *i* had -totally unrelated issue-" but the "you should just" implies that you're being stupid/lazy/careless about issues in which only you, yourself have a vested interest too. And i can totally relate how any phrase remotely like that, with regards to issues as painful as the one you describe, is hatefully intrusive.

I guess what i'm trying to say is that i've always seen it as a matter of framing. As in i could say something like: "I'm so sorry. Are there any options left?" and try to gauge whether i should drop it. So i'm not a superstar at those types of conversations either. Like i said, i despise the word "just" as if there was a solution at all, let alone an easy one, i'm just too lazy/careless to even try it. So I avoid using that one.
Seeing it from another angle, context, is illuminating. Maybe it isn't the word "just" or what it implies, but the context in which it is generally said. "Couldn't you just..." if i could, don't you think i would have tried it already? So i will try to do better, and i'll try to get less upset about the phrasing. Because it is absolutely about context as well.
Thank you for this post.

David said...

There seems an obvious rule of thumb that you should only make suggestions when *asked* for suggestions.

But that doesn't really work, because there _are_ a lot of places where unasked advice is welcome. If someone sits down to lunch with you, and explains they were late because their car kept stalling, and you have some useful idea of why that might be happening (Perhaps it is cold, and something something fuel injectors...I don't know anything about cars.), it's rather expected you'd give that advice.

In fact, most of the time, when people _choose_ to talk about problems in their life, they'd be happy with a solution. Heck, that's mostly why they bring problems up. (Actual problems, that is. There's a whole nother issues where people are just trying to gripe and someone insists on trying to solve problems that are not really 'problems', just annoyances.)

The problem is that often people end up talking about problems without really making 'a choice' to be doing so, just because they followed social norms as the conversation went places they didn't really want.

So, it it is about context, but not for what the question means, but whether or not the question should be _asked_ in the first place. But whether or not someone actually wants to talk about something at all. People need to notice the lack of wanting to be discussing that subject, and _not_ continue that discussion.

And, frankly, I find almost all questions about 'Why are you choosing to live your life a certain way?', which includes 'Why do you have the specific amount of kids you have?' to be rather rude to start with. Those are clearly personal choices, and rather important ones. If someone is going to ask them, or ask questions anywhere near them, they need to immediately back off if the person doesn't start volunteering information.

Fluffy_goddess said...

And you would be welcome at my stitching group! Actually, my current stitching group is mostly people doing beadwork at the moment, but the group has included knitters, crocheters, rughookers, cross-stitchers, embroiderers, and sometimes people doing complicated things with chainmail. It also has people eagerly seeking Doctor Who ringtones, which seems to be another good litmus test.

Fluffy_goddess said...

"Have you considered knitting continental style?"

*snerk* I find that knitting in public gets a lot of what-are-you-doing in an approving way. Crocheting in public... I can still remember The Irritating Professor I didn't like in university going on about how it was so *fascinating* but so *hard* and he couldn't *imagine* learning. (I did not offer to teach him.) And in general, it gets poked at as a curiosity, instead of as another useful skill that helps you make cool stuff.

Ana Mardoll said...

Oh, I love that post, so much. Because you really hit the nail on how "why don't you just..." makes YOU out to seem *negative* for turning down all this Super Amazing Awesome advice.

Joamanova said...

Thanks. :)
Not just negative, but *careless* about something only you, yourself, have a vested interest in. Which is not only judgemental but patronising to the point of demeaning.
Also there's a sensitivity to the subject itself (and a slight TW here: pregnancy and the possibility thereof)

people don't seem to get how sensitive of an issue that is. I'll keep it brief, here, because the subject merits a fuller examination than i'm able to give here at this point.
The issue being, amongst other things that it is apparently completely okay to ask why someone has no children. Or worse: "but don't you *want* children?"
As far as (the possibility of) pregnancy is concerned all of a sudden a person seems to become public property. Whereas, for instance to me personally, the subject is extremely wrought and sometimes extremely painful. There is no correct answer. And if one tries to give an honest answer the response is "oh, but i had an aunty Mary who didn't think she could get pregnant and *she* had two kids when she was 97!" (hyperbole i know, but i hope you see my point in this).

So it's not just, as you pointed out, the context and the framing itself. It's also the subject. And that, to my mind, makes it a feminist issue too. Because it's about making women's bodies into public property and about shaming. As in:
* any woman should want children to begin with;
* if she does (and why is this considered to be so self-evident?) she has to be able to have them;
* if she does not either want, or is able to have children, she owes the world an explanation.
With the caveat that if it's more complicated than that, she still owes the world a full and exhaustive explanation.

Again this falls under context, just a slightly different type of context. This type of, i hesitate to call it ableism, appropriation of another person's life/body/wishes etc., makes me seriously lose my ... ahem ... cool, let's say.
Do people here agree? Or am i giving way to much weight to what might just be a personal issue of mine?

Thanks again for your post, I'm learning a lot from it and the discussion. And, because i forgot to mention it in my earlier post, thank you so much for putting yourself out there on such a painful subject. It helps a lot, but it must be difficult for you. I, for one, appreciate it very much.

Ana Mardoll said...

Or am i giving way to much weight to what might just be a personal issue of mine?

Not at all! I've noticed on Shakesville (where the blog owner and a good number of commenters are Childless By Choice) the irony that Infertile Women and CBC Women face a lot of the same prejudices, questions, body-policing, life-policing, etc.

I think it's ultimately about trying to push conformity.

(The irony is that I would actually *like* to be able to conform in this regard, but our culture doesn't value conformity enough to pay for all my infertility attempts carte blanche.)

Joamanova said...

*nods* My CBC friend and i do have a lot in common. Me, i am as far as i know, neither. Let's say i'm CBAPC (Childless by another person's choice) but currently re-evaluating. And this conformity-pushing, also takes for granted that you're biologically female *and* you identify as such and so on. As a cis-gendered and (for purposes of this discussion) heterosexual female, i'm in a position of enormous privilege in this regard. Which is why i tend to take the subject so seriously: i can only speculate this issue must have quite an impact on a *lot* of people for a lot of different reasons.

And ... *laughing* I wish i could conform in this regard too. And i hope this is appropriate: cyber-*hugs* for that statement.

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