Someone who describes a social interaction to me which made them sad or angry or bewildered and then asks me to explain why the other person did whatever it was that they did.
Now, I’ve been acculturated to enjoy the hobby of armchair psychology as much as your next Child of the 60s, but I’m so over it, because it’s ultimately so pointless when discussing real, actual, lives (as a hobby with characters in entertainment productions? sure, bring it on – because the writers have scattered many clues, so it really is a puzzle to be solved).
If you want to know why somebody rebuffed or rejected you, or whatever it was that they did, then why not ask them?
Sure, you might feel nervous about asking them in case it makes things worse. That’s understandable, although it might mean that you ultimately have to accept that you will never know. But in this case, what good does it do to ask somebody else their opinion of an interaction which they did not observe, let alone take part in?
Of course I (and most other people) would be able to speculate as to dozens of possible explanations, some that cast the other person as having a good reason, some that cast them as having no good reason, some that postulate a misunderstanding, some that postulate you inadvertently triggering painful memories, some that wonder whether it was just a bad day of sensory overload for the other person etc etc yada yada yada badabing badaboom and all sorts of shades of grey in between.
But in the end, especially if I don’t know the other person and am only getting your side of the story, it’s all just partly-informed speculation that lacks any genuine insight, no matter how much of what wisdom I’ve acquired over the years I might strive to harness for the purpose. Because none of us know exactly what is going on in someone else’s mind, or what experiences from their past have influenced those thoughts and their behaviour.
People are not puzzles to be solved, and treating them as such does not lead to good worldviews.
Addendum: this is why I appreciate good advice writers like those at Captain Awkward so much. The advice focusses on why the person asking for advice is feeling sad/angry/bewildered, and how they can use their words to stand up for themselves and negotiate better interactions (or avoid the worst ones), not so much on why exactly the other person is doing what they’re doing (there’s inevitably a temptation to speculate somewhat, but it’s not the major focus of the advice given – certainly not any idea that the other person(s) can be ‘fixed’ somehow if only their puzzle can be solved).
Categories: relationships, Sociology
I think it depends on the reason the other person is asking (which is almost the same as your addendum, but not quite). As a person married to a man who always assumes the worst possible reasons for another person’s actions, I spend a lot of time speculating other possible motivations. But the point of the exercise is to make it clear there are many possible reasons, not to solve the riddle as to which one it is. So I suppose I’m not really disagreeing. 🙂 I seem to be more often called upon to create uncertainty, rather than certainty.
LOL – so we’re not going to see a “Dear TigTog” Agony Advice column featured on Hoyden anytime soon!?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I’m totally down with “I find these interactions upsetting and want to handle them better/avoid them in future, what tips do you have?”. I’m totally down with any request for advice which displays a certain level of self-examination and willingness to consider one’s own contributions to the dysfunctional interactions (even if that contribution is simply being too generous in forgiving the other person for behaving badly).
I’m very much over the self-nominated-nice-guys moaning about “why do women love jerks so much more than me?” etc.
Thank you! The distinctions between actions, outcomes and motives are what I was attempting to highlight. Motives aren’t entirely irrelevant, and certainly are not uninteresting, but in terms of what a person might need to change about unsatisfactory interactions, then it’s actions and outcomes which are the pragmatic tactical/strategic facets which need to be focussed upon. We can’t realistically aspire to change other people’s motives, after all – at least not in the short-term, and not without them being willing to engage in their own course of self-examination. We can realistically work towards challenging actions which lead to distressing outcomes for us, and the important thing to know after the challenge has been made is whether the other person(s) are willing to change their actions or not, and then progress along the next branch of our decision tree regarding how we respond in light of that knowledge.
Regarding sexist/racist/ablist etc behaviour in particular, there’s then the personal/political spectrum to be taken into account, and a decision to be made about whether one wishes to engage in activist consciousness raising or simply minimise the aggravation/distress resulting from marginalising behaviours by a workmate or dorm-mate on a purely personal level – the decision will vary from time to time and place to place.
When I ask MyNigel this it is because I want his reassurance that I am not a bad person. He is good at providing that.
I think this is actually a really interesting topic and it provokes a whole bunch of thoughts for me. First, and most abstractly, it reminds me of all the philosophy around knowing the soul of another (especially a lover) and how one of the major struggles of the human condition is our sense of never quite knowing what ‘the other’ thinks, and so our eternal isolation that we seek to fulfil through love/sex/connection (cue critiques along the individualism of this thought process etc). In this, we might never truly know the mind of the other, but to not try is to not love, to not make human connection, etc. Secondly, it makes me think about critiques around sexist/racist/ablist etc behaviour, where because we can never know motive we can’t (apparently) ever know whether we have been wronged. And here we might distinguish between action and motive, by positing that it’s action and outcomes as much as motives that are important. But, then without motive, how do we know if the ‘offended’ person had the right to be ‘offended’, or perhaps more to the point, how do we know if this is individualised rudeness or systematic discrimination, yadayada. So, at some level, the mind of ‘the other’ again becomes important to our politics of social equality.
So I guess both of those things make your frustration and tiredness perfectly normal, but also I suspect that this is not going to stop in the near future – at least until we reimagine the human condition (I’m up for this!).
Reading some older posts on mass murders with assault weapons has clarified some of my thinking on this post: it mostly matters far less WHY somebody does something distressing/harmful than HOW they cause that distress/harm. When we understand how it happens we can respond best to preserve ourselves – emotionally and physically. The why of it is something the perpetrators need to deal with (should they care to) more than the targets.
This post was, by the way, provoked in the first place by one of those blatantly entitled Feminism 101 why-won’t-women-just-tell-me-the-cheat-code questions.