Today I Learned...

Putting the edible back in credibility

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
In a world with social norms
I am very glad to see people acknowledging and examining social norms, and pushing back when appropriate. Many social norms don't work, or don't work for particular people, or used to work but could be replaced by something better now, and I'm glad we're calling them into question.


The fact that social norms have been used to oppress people for a long time, and that fighting back against those is good, is not carte blanche to pretend they don't exist. Let me give you a few examples.

I had a professor whose "I'm thinking about your interesting question" face was indistinguishable from most people's "I'm in incredible pain" face. He could have tried to conform to the social norm of what an "interested face" looked like, but it probably wouldn't have worked. He could have spent a lot of time lambasting students for not accepting his facial expressions as they were, or just wondering why kids these days were so quiet. What he actually did was announce his pattern in the first day of class, that in fact the more pained he looked the better we should feel about our question. And he lived up to that, and found other ways to demonstrate his appreciation of all questions throughout the class. To me, this is the perfect example of how to be when you don't fit into social norms in ways that are keeping you from getting what you want (in this case, student engagement): acknowledge the norm, explain how you are different and how you hope people will interpret your actions, and go out of your way to affirm people's code-switching efforts.

A PT I saw would be an example of a bad handling of divergence from norms. This PT charges for things other PTs don't. I'm okay with this, and in fact think that the current model of medical business where you charge for face time and only face time is harmful to all parties. I think you can do that without nickle and diming patients or in any way operating in bad faith. But. Given that face-time-only is the predominant model, I think she has an ethical obligation to go very out of her way to warn patients about her policy ahead of time- and that warning them means doing so in ways that are unambiguous in the current climate, where people will assume certain services are included for free unless explicitly told otherwise .

Lastly: I have a friend of a friend who brides herself on keeping good boundaries. Like all people who talk loudly about being good at something, she is terrible at it.* She thinks she is good at boundaries because when someone says a clear, unambiguous no, she doesn't fight it. In some contexts, that would be sufficient. In current American culture, dodging a question five times and displaying avoidant body language is understood to be an unspoken no. Missing/ignoring that is not only rude, it's informative. People are allowed to conclude from her behavior that she is a person who does not hear no, and to make predictions about her future behavior based on data from other people who don't hear no. Such as "she is not safe, and something so rude as a direct rebuke will make her even less safe."

There's a lot of room for debate here on when the aggrieved party is expecting boundary-violator to be psychic and sense the boundary without any clues, and when the boundary violator is refusing to respect "nos" except for those given in very specific formats (which can very easily be used as cover for violating boundaries until the risk of social punishment is sufficiently high). There are people who have sufficiently different zones of comfort that they can't be functional friends, and that doesn't automatically make either of them bad.

ASDers are the obvious example of people who just can't pick up on socially-expected cues, but I don't think you need to fit into an established pattern in order to avoid having your weaknesses viewed as moral flaws. Under my paradigm, the correct thing to do is what my professor did: tell people you miss these cues**, but respecting their boundaries is really important to you, so please tell you as directly as possible. You acknowledge that this is asking them to do some additional work to accommodate you. And then you accept it and thank people when they do so, even when it hurts. You accept a duty to respond well to very direct statements of discomfort beyond what would be expected from others***, because you have removed a set of options from people's toolboxes. You do not insist that they are rude for violating a social contract you have walked away from.

In some ways this is unfair, and I think I might have gone too far. I cherrypicked examples where either the norms were well intentioned, or there was some affirmative moral obligation on the part of the norm-violator to be extra straightforward. Lots of times norms are used to oppress people and it's not fair to say they can only get out of them by doing more work. There's a lot more here to work through.

*She also hates drama.

**As opposed to "these cues are stupid".

***There are limits, of course.


Log in

No account? Create an account