“Don’t be so sensitive.”
“Jeez, learn to take a joke.”
“Wow, you really can’t take constructive criticism, can you.”
“Don’t take these things so personally.”
If you’ve ever said this or something like this to another person, this post is for you. If you’ve ever had this or something like this said to you, this post is for you. If you are a human who lives and/or works with and/or around other humans, this post is for you. And also, in a pretty major way, this post is for me.
You have to have a bloody thick skin in this life. You have to be ready to deal with horrible experiences and feelings on a daily basis and still somehow be able to gird up your loins and do the dishes. I’d say that the backbone of the human condition consists of figuring out a way through a sequence of punishments, occasionally and accidentally stumbling upon joy, until you die. And yes, when you are working or shopping or in any way interacting with the rest of humanity at large, you have to just keep your head down and get on with things.
On the other hand, it’s terrifyingly easy to land in a situation where you hurt or upset someone else without meaning to, or where you are the one who is hurt. Some people deliberately engage in situations where they hurt or upset someone else while fully meaning to. (In the scientific community we call these people douchebags.) No matter which side you’ve been on, you know how it goes: everyone’s engaging in playful banter until one person gets offended about a joke that was made about them, or one of your colleagues is upset because of the funny-but-definitely-not-complimentary new nickname people have started calling them, or you admiringly describe your beefy mate Steve as a ‘big guy’ without realising he’s kinda got issues surrounding his weight. Most of the time this stuff is light and well-meaning, so the person who is upset just takes a deep breath, forgives their fundamentally decent friends or colleagues, and everyone moves on.
But sometimes a nerve is hit. A person gets hurt. A comment is made which crosses a line, or knifes through someone’s defenses to hit a vulnerable spot. Often (please hold your eye rolls for the end of this presentation, SJW-haters) what happens is simply that a throwaway misogynistic/racist/otherwise prejudiced comment is uttered, and the person hearing it has just had enough that day (or heard enough of that crap from a particular person). The usual protocols fail; the poker face cannot be maintained; the faux niceness falters like the pathetic flicker of a spaceship’s failing quantum vectroid shields. And it becomes clear, whether through the person’s behaviour and body language or them directly explaining their feelings, that a wound has been made.
‘Offended’ is a crappy term. It has gained fusty, frumpy connotations; when you say that you are offended, you sound like an old spinster writing to the Today Programme to voice her disgust about some rap song they heard in Tesco’s. It does not lend the right respect or understanding to someone who has been poorly or even cruelly spoken to. This is why I am trying to avoid this word in my writing here. I don’t want to talk about being offended and will try to avoid the word where possible. And when I do use the word, I am using it in its rawer sense: the sense of being hurt, wounded. Because when someone hits that nerve and calls you ugly, or incompetent, or unloveable, or whatever, it feels like an ache right at the base of the ribcage.
When we hurt someone, deliberately or by accident, the reflex so often is to say something lighthearted like ‘Don’t take it so personally!’ or ‘You’re just overreacting.’ There are a million phrases like this that we use. We say this because, by pointing out that we have hurt their feelings, that person is pointing out that in that moment we have been a douchebag. And we don’t want to admit that we’ve been a douchebag because:
a) we don’t think we are a douchebag and/or are capable of douchebaggery
b) to admit such might imply that we are always and inherently a douchebag, the idea of which we certainly don’t want to entertain.
So we try to wave away the issue and pretend like it’s all water under the bridge. But we must remember that:
i) that person isn’t saying we are always and inherently a douchebag. They’re just saying we’ve briefly and temporarily been a douchebag in that moment. And let he who has never once done anything douchebaggish cast the first stone.
ii) whenever we say these things, what we are really saying is:
- I don’t think what I said was mean/hurtful/prejudiced
- I refuse to try to understand why you might think so
- I acknowledge that you are hurt, but I feel your hurt is incorrect, and making sure I defend my feeling of being right is more important to me than simply apologising and trying to be considerate to you, my friend/colleague/relative.
And in implicitly saying this, we hurt the person even more. We render their feelings, sincerely felt, invalid. It’s a complex situation necessitating multiple ordered lists, so you know this is serious.
This family of comments are all basically a form of gaslighting. Gaslighting (expertly explained here by Dr Nerdlove) is what is happening when a person deliberately antagonises or even deceives another person, then calls them ‘crazy’ or ‘delusional’ when they react to this behaviour. This form of gaslighting is particularly insidious because it is so subtle and so universally ignored; typically the onus is on the upset person to ‘man up’ and ‘get over it’.
Well, listen up bro. That person might be highly sensitive, but that doesn’t mean you have the right for them not to be offended when you say offensive things. It is not up to them to work through whatever totally normal human sensibilities they might have so that you can deal with your new nickname for them, ‘Chubnugget’. It is up to you to be a cooler and more considerate person. Why aren’t we all constantly working to be cooler and more considerate people?! Isn’t that something we want to be able to say of ourselves before we die in the ever more inevitable nuclear armageddon? How terrible is it really simply to apologise? Apologising feels awesome – believe me, I’m a southern Brit.
And to those of you who have been hurt and who have had to endure the chorus of ‘dude, don’t take it so personally’, I say this: stand your ground. Perhaps you are more sensitive than the average person, but that probably means you’re more sensitive to everything, including mirth and joy and grief and shame and orgasms. So it’s a pretty cool and profound place to be. And sometimes offense is necessary to show up a real problem. If someone says something prejudiced, that person should know that that thing they said was not okay. And if they don’t hear it from you, explained calmly and with rational eloquence, they will hear it multiple times in the future from people who they probably respect far less and are far less likely to listen to. When you hear ‘Don’t be so sensitive,’ this is the time to say
“I know you didn’t mean to upset me, but that really got to me, and I can’t just let it go. You see, the thing is…”
I am writing this post to everyone, but really I am writing it to me. I have a history of keeping my head down and swallowing the offense. Of being told not to take things personally. But these things are personal. I am someone whose friends used to joke that I (as a young female teenager) looked like Michael Winner, and did not once mention how much that made me want to jump down a well. That’s personal. I grimace through repeated running gags about how I am a racist (no idea where this came from – the idea appals me) even though to me this is the same as if I were to call my friend a pedophile. That’s personal. I work in a male-dominated industry and have to put up with constant unjustified bullshit from people who seem to have no problem speaking respectfully to male colleagues. That’s personal.
But I am working hard to be tough – and being tough doesn’t mean ‘manning up’ or ‘taking a joke’. Being tough means refusing to shut up until you are spoken to in a polite and respectful manner. Being tough means explaining to your friend why you don’t like jokes about your weight, or your family, or your skin colour. My god, we have to try to be nice to each other. 2017 is turning out to be an even worse year than 2016 (and David FRIGGIN Bowie died in 2016 so we know this is bad news) and all we may have left is the connections we shape between the people we coexist with. So we need to be tough. And rather than saying ‘Don’t be so sensitive’ we should say ‘I’m so sorry. Wanna grab a beer?’