Thoughts on Christmas, being in the minority, and accidental hurts

For those who aren’t reading Captain Awkward, you totally should! She recently fielded a question about how to deal with intrusive questions.

I didn’t want to derail that thread, but I wanted to address some of the stuff alphakitty said in response to one of my comments in that discussion thread.

I know what you’re saying about questions with a built-in expectation of a certain answer, that make you feel like a loser/outcast if you can’t provide one of the approved answers. My mom in well-meaning fashion asks me *every* birthday and mother’s day what my husband and kids have done/given me/did we go out for dinner?

And the answer is typically ‘husband bought a box of chocolate, and no,’ and I always feel like I’m confessing to a lout of a husband and self-centered kids who can’t be be bothered or don’t love me and I didn’t raise right. When until she asks, I’ve come to accept that they all totally suck at that stuff (partly because shopping locally is very limited)(though happily the local chocolate *is* really good!), and I’d rather have a family that is kind and respectful and loving and makes me feel valued 365 days a year than one that treated me poorly 363 days a year but did whiz-bang birthday/mother’s day funfests with lots of presents. But still — I feel like a failure with a shitty family when she asks. At least for a moment, ’til I remind myself “wait a minute, I’ve decided I’m ok with this!”

Oof…my sympathies! That is Not Cool of your mom! 😦 My grandma used to ask questions like that.

And yet… if we can’t ask each other questions, I picture us all standing around awkwardly with nothing to say because there’s only so much generic “public domain” conversation that’s remotely worth having, and we’re all petrified that if we ask a question about one another’s lives they’ll feel battered by it.

So, I really am not saying this, like, at all.

I said that “just asking” hits my exposed nerves, and here’s more about why: lots of people ask really seriously inappropriate questions about me and my family, without knowing us and without having any reason to expect an answer. It’s none of your business whether my mom drank or did drugs while she was pregnant with my sister, and that’s why Lily has these dramatic disabilities. It’s none of your business why I don’t know my cousins on Side X of my family. I mean, this blog is named for people asking my mom or me or my dad “what’s wrong with her?” about my sister in front of her – this question is not a hallmark of someone cued in on the possible hurt they can cause with a question. It’s my choice to tell you: my mom was extremely careful when pregnant with my sister, because she wanted me to have a sibling and she was doing her best to grow a healthy baby. I am estranged from one side of my family because they are Catholic and tried to proselytize to my infant self. My sister was “born that way.”

So “just asking” actually really offends me a lot of the time, because people act like their questions couldn’t possibly be intrusive – they’re “just” being friendly. And while there are so very many people who are thoughtful and compassionate – like I think you are, alphakitty – and who *pay attention* to whether they’ve said something hurtful, too damned many don’t.

The LW wouldn’t have written in if that weren’t the case.

People seem to use questions a lot as part of social maneuvering. I’m not willing to let people get away with that when it’s men asking women why they’re so emotional, and I think that this situation strikes me as not dissimilar – I’m not willing to let people treat this as normal. I think we can do better. Wishful thinking? Probably. As a biologist, I know that some of our social behavior is rooted in a very, very, very deep past and there’s only so much to be done about that. But it’s a conversation I want to have.

If I ran the world, my other choice (after people thinking before speaking, which, wow, I need installed in MY brain) would be that people back away gracefully when they do misstep. The LW was getting badgered and so clearly was not in company with people who were really connecting conversationally, instead of inserting platitudes and expected questions. Since neither I nor the LW runs the world, hopefully the Captain’s scripts and the input of the commenters helps that person develop tools and strategies for blocking people who badger.

So, yeah. I can’t sign on to a complete ban on questions about people’s lives. That’s how we show interest and concern, which are *good* things as long as they aren’t excuses for meddling and judgmental commentary.

I think you just have to be sensitive about *which* people you are close enough to to ask *which* questions, and be prepared to back off if the person you’re talking to stiffens or otherwise indicates that topic isn’t a good one.

^^^ This tells me that you are thoughtful and considerate and are aware that sometimes conversations go awry. My low-blood-sugar, migraine-feeling self wants to be mean and say, congrats, my comment doesn’t apply to you, but I know you’re here in good faith and are making a legit argument about not letting the pendulum swing too far in the direction of backing off. 🙂 And I need to eat something and ride out the migraine, because that’s on me.

Meanwhile, I’m sorry the dominance of Christmas makes you feel “othered.”

Thanks. Honestly, though? It used to, a LOT, and now it’s more “meh,” for me. I’m in a statistical minority, and I have been all of my life, so I’ve learned how to deal. (At CA, I was thinking about the LW not having had time to adjust yet.)

Although, man, I feel vigilant about this kind of thing regarding my sister. When she was in junior high, her teachers were mystified by her being so good at the unit on Chanukah and didn’t bat an eye at her telling them, during a creative writing/expression activity, how she had been baking Christmas cookies with our grandmother. Of course, Lily is Jewish and grew up with Chanukah, and our grandma lived hundreds of miles away and we hadn’t visited in months/years, let alone baked cookies together for a holiday that wasn’t ours.

As an agnostic who does the gift-giving part of Christmas, who is unpleasantly pulled between my mother/siblings’ and my husband’s ideas of what makes Christmas special, it ain’t all that idyllic from where I’m standing…(ok, to be blunt I’d give the whole thing a miss if I could) and as the thread makes clear, even for Believers Christmas often isn’t all that It’s a Wonderful Life.

Right, and as I said on CA: this was my goal, to get this across.

Again: I know I’m a statistical minority. I just really wanted to say that there are so many statistical minorities in the US that we may actually be a plurality or majority, and so asking about Christmas isn’t the gentle, friendly, NEVER awkward question everyone who has asked it of me or the LW or many of the commenters intended. People are mourning lost family, friends, and pets. People are in the hospital or dealing with exams or struggling to find the money to keep the lights on and tummies full and can’t do that and also buy gifts. Hell, from what I understand, and what you’ve said, even people who are religious and/or celebrate Christmas have family drama Because Family And Expectations And Overwhelming Emotion, even if they don’t have people with disabilities or abuse or theft or estrangement in the mix. So why do we give in to the societal desire to make everything shiny and happy? Why not work together to make things better instead of forcing a veneer of idyllic social cohesion? 😉 (<- tongue in cheek)

So maybe instead of feeling othered you could look at yourself as being one of the favored elite who are exempted from the bullshit and baggage? (Not being glib, though I know it comes from a place of “privileged sort-of-insider who theoretically could be un-other if she chose”).

See, I initially heard this the same way I hear “I’m a feminist – I think women are so much better than men!” and I know that you are NOT trying to say that AT ALL! 🙂 I…am not exempt from bullshit and baggage, I just have it at a different time of year than people who observe Christmas. And since my winter holiday is a week long, trust me: there is drama for that whole week.

It’s friendly to keep an eye on each other during the darkness of winter. But we can make slight adjustments to our language to help everyone feel the friendliness and not the drama, right? That’s where I wanted to go with the conversation.

I do think, fundamentally, we are coming from the same place and are having a VERY nuanced, high-level discussion here. Which is good!

Edited to add: I was in a very bad headspace when I wrote this. I’m not disowning the main thrust of what I wrote, but…I felt way worse physically than I recognized and maybe got a little carried away. Apologies if I hit other exposed nerves or said something awful.

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2 Comments on “Thoughts on Christmas, being in the minority, and accidental hurts”

  1. Laura says:

    Enjoyed your post! As a someone who doesn’t celebrate christmas, with a boyfriend who doesn’t celebrate christmas (he’s at work, and I’m poking around on the internet, so clearly it’s not a big deal of a day) I do sympathize with how annoying it is to be asked about plans for a holiday I don’t celebrate, but it’s usually not coming from a bad place, just maybe sheltered. I also prefer when people ask what I’m doing for the holidays or preferably the winter break, since there are plenty of atheists who don’t recognize any holy days at all, but if not I have a script (a habit I must’ve picked up from captain awkward): “I don’t celebrate christmas: I celebrate X. My boyfriend celebrates Y. So we’ll probably take advantage of the long weekend and go camping.”

    What I’ve found helpful (over a lifetime of getting the exceptionally rude, “What are you?” question, on account of being mixed and thus ethnically ambiguous) has been learning how to answer those questions in a way that leaves me feeling satisfied. At first it was learning how to assert myself and say “I don’t owe you an answer to that.” or “That’s a loaded question.”

    Questions feel a lot less coercive once you’ve decided you don’t have to answer. Then I got to enjoy talking about my family history, so that nowadays I usually go ahead and let people know because I like the subject.

    I feel a lot of etiquette involves rules for what you should/shouldn’t say or ask presume a certain kind of person/audience. For example, I’m from Georgia where we DO NOT talk about money or paychecks, but my boyfriend is South East Asian and for his parents, asking about how much someone makes is a reasonable follow-up question once they’ve asked about their profession (which my southern belle spideysense tells me is also off-limits). I don’t think they’re right and I’m wrong or vis versa. It’s just OK in their culture and not OK in mine. I think a lot of these ‘bad’ questions are like that. They’re more situationally dependent then it might seem.

    Another example: my grandmother would be horrified if anyone asked her her age, like genuinely furious. When I was a little girl, she told me “A lady never tells.” But I don’t think that’s true anymore. It was for her, as a single mother and before there were laws about age discrimination to protect her in the workforce. But now? Not a question I would bother to dance around, and I’d happily tell anyone who asked me.

    • Elysia says:

      Disclaimer: I want to reply in a meaningful way (you’ve given me some stuff to chew on, thanks!), but I am having focusing, visually and mentally. So just a small response now.

      I really like your script! And I love the idea of using, “That’s a loaded question” as a response, too.

      I like what you had to say about cultural norms and etiquette. I was talking about some of this – for totally unrelated reasons! – with a relatively new coworker from [European country] last week. She was utterly horrified that people asked questions of each other that *she* found invasive about race and origin so often here in the US. It was a great learning opportunity for me to hear someone else’s take on these things, especially since she’s clearly a thoughtful person who has friends with diverse origins and life stories.


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