Archive for January 2012

Swatting butterflies

January 24, 2012

I used to have a boyfriend who, like many of the people I deal with, had what I call “a hole in the head”. Things that were obvious to others were not obvious to him. Most attempts to point these things out went through his ears and straight out of the hole in the head, leaving his eyes blank and his brain untouched. (Of course, we split up, not because he had a hole in the head but because his hole in the head didn’t match mine.)

He was once stopped in the street by a woman doing a survey about something like satellite telly. As he explained to me afterwards, he stopped to give her a long rant about the survey topic “because she had big tits”.

Now, I have plenty to say about badly-designed surveys that don’t let you get across your real opinions, and about people who stop you in the street when you’re just trying to daydream, and maybe she did ask a lot of stupid questions, but this still bothered me.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re saying that BECAUSE she had big tits, BECAUSE you found her attractive, you decided to stop and give her a big angry rant about satellite telly?” My boyfriend looked confused, but I could tell this was one of the times where I’d got through to him. I think he was confused because the woman, in his mind, was very much secondary to his killer arguments about satellite telly or whatever the hell it was. I followed up with some predictable comments about how she certainly wasn’t going to fancy him back after that display of aggression, and I really think it got through. At least, he’d remembered she was a person, rather than a pair of breasts attached to a clipboard, and that was progress.

I’ve said before, in passing, that wolf-whistling is not about attracting women; it’s about reinforcing dominance of public space. It’s about reminding other people: I am the looker here, I get to judge stuff. Reacting to attractive women by trying to make them listen to your boring opinions is part of the same set of behaviours. You’re using their social conditioning against them, for a start, but you’re also reminding them that drawing any attention is dangerous because it sets up more social traps to avoid. You’re putting yourself in the comfortable role of “inevitable consequence” and them in the uncomfortable role of “person who needs to be careful”. Effectively, you’re punishing them in some small way for their attractiveness.

It’s a similar thing on social media. I don’t get much street harassment these days, and for that I am unambiguously grateful. But on social media, every day, I get micropunishments for being too interesting.

I’m on Twitter. I’ve built up a few hundred followers by being reasonably interesting, and I get retweeted when I say interesting things. But the more followers and RTs  I get, the more attention I attract – and lots of that attention comes in a form that makes my heart sink a tiny bit every time. I can guarantee that if something I say gets retweeted more than ten times, I will get a reply I don’t want. It might be outright aggressive and/or insulting and/or weird, e.g. “Your not only boring but your ugly [sic]” or “Christians like you think you’re helping charity but you’re actually supporting jihad”. But more often than not, it’s just a little “correction”. I’ve done my sums wrong, you see, or I’ve made a general statement that – shock horror! – isn’t true of that particular individual, or I’ve made a spelling mistake, or I’ve shown too much sympathy for a group in society when that group has placed itself beyond sympathy by behaving in an irrational way.

The commenters are saying to me “You’re wrong, you know” but the subtext is “You’re wrong, and I have a right to correct you and have you listen to that correction”, and the deeper subtext is “You’re wrong, but if you weren’t interesting with it then you wouldn’t have to put up with being told so.

Mostly, I think “OK, this person is boring and humourless, they lack both empathy and reading comprehension skills, and they make me tired, but they mean well.” But when it happens over and over again, it has an effect and it does force me to change my behaviour. I think twice, three times, before posting a funny remark even if I know my friends will find it funny, because I can’t bear to see the flurry of humourless responses – and feel my social conditioning tugging on me to deal with them politely. “I think you’ll find the story about the chicken crossing the road is a hoax. Check Snopes.

We’ve heard a lot about the abuse meted out to women for the crime of being visibly female on the internet. I’m not saying that I have it anywhere near as tough as some of the high-profile women who’ve spoken out about this.

What I am saying is that every day, the drip-drip-drip of “corrections” and of drive-by nastiness starts to get to me. Not a day goes by when I don’t get “corrected” about something. And I don’t think a week goes by in which a complete stranger doesn’t seek me out online to tell me exactly why they’re not following me, or to tell me how they think I should change what I say to be more pleasing to them. I don’t know if they think I’ll welcome the criticism; maybe they’ve forgotten that I’ll have any reaction to it at all. Either way, their conviction that their own opinion is too important to suppress overrides any consideration of how I’ll feel. (Needless to say, these are very rarely people who have any interesting, original content of their own.)

I don’t know what to do to stop it. I already know that “I was joking” and “Yes, thanks, already Googled that, see my next tweet” and “I wasn’t asking for your opinion” have very little effect in terms of stopping the flow of micropunishments. And when I don’t know what to do to stop it, that’s usually a big clue that it’s not my behaviour that should be changing.

Chuggers and the power of “no”

January 18, 2012

Street fundraisers – “chuggers” – are in the news again. Why do we hate them?

Partly because they’re in our public space. If you work in town, your lunchtime shopping trip is a chance not just to eat but to get away from colleagues, to let your social face relax and daydream your way down the street, passively enticed by shiny shop windows. That’s why so many of us wear headphones; we’re really not expecting or looking for any interaction. The chugger changes that. Suddenly the street is a place where we have to dodge packs of identically tabarded people asking us awkward questions or starting fake conversations. And so we hate them because they force us to work when we are not supposed to be working.

Why else do we hate them? I think it’s also because they force us to say no. I’ve written before that a “no” is worth something, but the flipside of that is that it costs you something to say it. You have to make a decision, you have to work out how to express it, you have to actually come out and say it and you have to either justify your decision or fight the urge to justify it. No wonder we resent the people who put us in that position when we just wanted to grab a Boots Meal Deal and look in some shop windows.

With a chugger, it’s a tougher “no” than most, because your no is a refusal to give to charity. And what kind of terrible person has the nerve to actually say they don’t want to give to charity? But when you’re put on the spot like that, you have to come right out and say it. You have to be that terrible person. And we tend not to like the people who make us think less of ourselves.

The trouble is, the “no” we’re giving is not the “no” that comes out. We’re saying: “No, on this occasion I am not going to hand over my direct debit details to a complete stranger, in the street, in order to support this particular charity.” But the “no” that comes out is “I don’t care about starving children/leukaemia/the rainforest.

If saying “no” actively makes you feel bad about yourself, if your “no” is twisted into something it’s not, something is wrong with the situation. The person asking probably still deserves a no, but you have the right to look at what’s weird and upsetting, and call them out on it if you still have the emotional energy.

However, when chuggers approach me, I never try to explain why I have a problem with them, any more than I would try to explain why I’m refusing to give. Why not? Because they don’t care. The agencies who hire them have trained them to respond to every possible objection I might raise in a way that superficially addresses them, keeps me talking and keeps the hard sell going. They are not trained to listen or take my feedback; they are trained to use everything I say as a way of manipulating me into handing over my direct debit details. And boy are they trained. (I know two people who quit their chugger jobs after the first day because the round-the-clock drilling was just too much.).

So when chuggers approach me, I say: “I don’t talk to chuggers.” That very briefly explains I object to their presence, but still manages to say “no” (though not in so many words). And, most importantly, it nips the conversation in the bud.

What am I trying to say here? People who take your “no” as a sign of engagement and encouragement to keep asking are dangerous. They do not see the true value of your “no” and they do not respect your boundaries. The types of people who behave like this include stalkers, rapists and sociopaths.

The tragedy of chuggers is that they’re otherwise normal human beings who have been trained so well that during working hours they might as well not be human. I’ve heard from a few different sources that they’re trained to accept a straight “no” with good grace; but I know from my own experience that they fail to recognise other clear no-signals like “I give to charity, but there’s no way I’ll give to you.”

If you know in advance that someone is the type to ignore a “no”, the best thing is to withhold that “no” along with any kind of response or acknowledgement. That’s why victims of stalkers are always told to ignore all contact. But it’s hard to do that; sociopaths prey on our social instinct to give a response. And anyway, you often don’t know in advance. So what should you do?

I think the only way to deal with this situation is to accept and internalise the fact that you owe these people nothing, not even basic politeness. Once they’ve ignored your “no”, you don’t owe them a “sorry” or a “goodbye” or anything else that your training as a social being prompts you to give. And you don’t owe the charity anything more than you owed it before the chugger approached you. (Why is a charity that spends its money on paying people to harass you in the street more deserving than one that doesn’t?)

On the contrary, they owe you for taking your time and energy without your consent. If you want to take the encounter as a reminder to think about how much you give to charity and whether you should give more, great: that little reminder is some compensation for the chugger’s bad behaviour. So go ahead and re-evaluate your giving. It goes without saying that the charity who hired the chugger will be excluded from your benevolence.


January 17, 2012

“You know that bowl we lost?”
“Which bowl?”
“The white bowl. We had two, and we lost one…”
“You’ve found it. I still don’t know which bowl you mean.”
“Look, this is the other one…and I’ve found the other one, the one that was lost.”
“Oh, that bowl.”
“I can’t believe you guessed the end of my story before you worked out what I was talking about.”
“Sorry, love.”

I know how she does it

January 12, 2012

I have an acquaintance who seems to be a powerhouse of activism. She’s always sending me emails about local events, petitions to be signed, protests, worthy documentaries to watch and so on. To be honest, sometimes she just makes me feel tired. How does she do it all?

Today she forwarded me something about a consultation that needed an urgent response. The email said  that I should click on a link, “download the document” and “fill it in, which won’t take long”.

I clicked on the link. There was no document. I sent the webmaster some feedback asking where on earth the document was. I followed some other links on the webpage I’d arrived at. I still couldn’t find anything to fill in, but I did manage to find contact details for the people managing the consultation. I sent them an email as my response to the consultation.

Then, after about half an hour of this rather irritating effort, I got back to my acquaintance, ccing in the original writer of the email, and told them about the problems. I suggested they either supply the correct link for this difficult-to-find document or reword the email to explain that people will have to write a response in email or letter form.

My acquaintance rather guiltily responded that she hadn’t actually checked the link before forwarding it. Bingo! Now I think I know how she does it. She doesn’t do it. She just forwards messages about it and expects other people to do it. Yet again I am reminded: don’t mistake email activity for actual activity, and please don’t assume that people who demand your time are willing to give theirs. Sometimes they’re demanding yours as a substitute for giving theirs.

The harsh beauty of “no”

January 9, 2012

Some people are afraid of the word “no”. It makes sense to fear the rejection, refusal or lack of interest shown by that word. If you’re trying to achieve something, a “no” is a setback. It can be frightening on the other end too: being the person who delivers the “no” can make you feel terrible about yourself.

I see “no” very differently. In the past I’ve worked as a business-to-business telemarketer, and my telemarketing agency had rules: you are not allowed to give up on an organisation until the right person says no. Who is the right person? They’re called the “decision-maker” (which my agency, bafflingly, shortened to “DMC”) and they’re the person who has the power to decide whether they want to buy what you’re offering. Sometimes you find out their name after several calls; sometimes you never find it out.

Mostly, you never get to speak to them at all. Why? Because they know a “no” is worth something, and they’re damned if they’re going to give it to a cold-caller. So they refuse to speak to telemarketers, pretending over endless days, weeks and months never to be available when the telemarketer calls. The lack of a “no” from the right person can trap a telemarketer in limbo, endlessly doomed to keep ringing the same person and getting the same result. You feel like a ghost, someone who’s kept in a strange half-world by unfinished business that can never be finished. The lack of a “no” works with the agency’s inflexible systems so that the telemarketer is condemned to repeat the same mistake, the same fruitless task, over and over again until they leave their job. Refusing to give a “no” is not just a time-stealing tactic; it condemns the telemarketer to something very like how I imagine Hell.

I could give so many other examples. Have you ever applied for a job and heard absolutely nothing back from the organisation you applied to? There, the lack of a “no” keeps you wondering: have they shortlisted candidates yet? Are they being slow? Have they lost my application? Did they receive my application at all? Or have they simply decided that I am not worth a “no”?

When companies say “Unfortunately we cannot reply to unsuccessful applicants”, what they mean is: “You are not worth a no.” They mean that they are fine with leaving you to wonder what’s going on and effectively second-guess your own rejection, as long as they don’t have to put in the tiny amount of effort and resource it takes to send a mass rejection email to all the unsuccessful candidates. They want to push all the effort of rejection onto the rejected candidates, each of whom will individually put in more emotional effort (waiting, wondering, chasing) than it would have taken the company to definitively reject all the applicants together. In the case of job applications, a no is a gift. It tells you how you’ve done and it lets you move on. It saves you time and pain and second-guessing.

I’ve recently been trying to book a training course and I asked some friends if they were interested in going on it with me. A chorus of maybes and not-sures and silence and doubtful comments made me think they probably wouldn’t, but the possibility that they would was enough to make me turn down the offer to do the course on my own at short notice. Afterwards, I got two definite “no”s and I think I can second-guess the rest. But I’ve already missed out on doing the course and missed out on the short-notice booking discount I was offered, which could have saved me up to £100. I’ve lost opportunities, time and money because of my friends’ failure to say no.

And why couldn’t they say no? Because it’s hard. Because it makes you look like the bad guy. Because it forces you to make a decision you don’t want to think about. Because it makes you commit to something, even though you’re committing in the negative. Emotionally, it’s much easier to fudge the issue with silence or vagueness.

That’s why a “no” is a gift. It’s a compliment. It tells you that the other person has thought about what you’re offering, whether that’s “Want to come for a coffee tomorrow?” or a serious job application. It saves you time, emotional energy and sometimes money. It lets you move on. And you are worth it.