Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email email@example.com. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
Lately I have been wrestling over this question. I have been getting feedback from others: they say I am too easily and too often offended, and can’t take a joke. I do not agree with this assessment, but because I don’t want to be that kind of person, and the feedback is somewhat consistent, I am willing to look at my own behavior and consider the possibility that it might be true.
I think that you would also have an opinion about whether I am this way if I described the situations when I come across as humorless. I don’t really want to, though. I’m looking for broad advice because this comes up a lot. People can be skilled at fooling themselves that they are one thing, when in fact they are another. It’s often done unconsciously and without malice, but it still happens. But at the same time I am also aware that people will use their own standards, and for their own reasons, to define others. It’s a question of how to discern the difference. Popular opinion is ambiguous, like the writing on the wall. Sometimes it tells us the hard truth that we needed to know in order to change. But sometimes, it’s just a warped, distorted version that deserves no consideration. How can a person tell if changing because of popular opinion is growth, or more akin to drinking the kool-aid?
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
Per your request, I am going to address myself to the question of changing one’s ways based on feedback from others… first. I am reserving myself the right to a few words about the trope of the humorless feminist there toward the end, though.
But before any of that, I want to say that I think that it’s a difficult and brave moment, to grapple with the idea of your own flaws and foibles with an eye toward the possibility of making a change. I am also a person who is often thinking about how to do better—in my personal life, my professional life, and all the funny ways that they intersect, too—and I know for sure that making changes is hard enough without them being changes that someone is trying to demand of me. So let me please award you this pocket-sized fanfare and perfectly ripe fruit salad in recognition of your efforts.
As to the people you know, and whether changing due to popular opinion is growth or buckling to peer pressure: it depends. What it depends upon, I am sure you won’t be surprised to hear, is the quality and qualities of the people who are giving you this feedback. What are their politics? To what degree have they examined their own assumptions and privilege before they start telling you how you should be in the world? Are these people who know you intimately? Over time? When questioned, are they able to explain whether this is something they think would be good for you as the person you are, or is it just a case of “you’d fit in better around here if you were more like everyone else.”
That’s my first concern, and it sounds as though it’s yours, too: How much of any complaint about one’s personality traits is a version of “if you changed this thing about yourself, more people would find you socially acceptable”? In those cases, I would be much more inclined to change the society in which I was known than myself. Often, too, that kind of feedback is actually the kyriarchy expressing itself through the hive mind: that’s when people of color get told they’re “too aggressive,” queers get told they’re “too obvious,” women get told they’re “too strident,” and so forth. Whose yardstick are you being measured against? Do you trust these people—based on their actions elsewhere in their lives—to notice whether they are reinforcing oppressive thinking?
My other significant question is about intimacy. Have these people known you for long? Have they known you well? One of the realities of life is that the longer we know and love people, the more we understand their patterns and how some of the traits we maybe do not adore about them are the other side of a trait we really admire. For example: I am not very good at changes in plan, and some of my close people find that exhausting. They have confidence that things will work out even if it’s all gone sideways, and welcome the opportunity for spontaneity. I am very good at making and executing plans, and the plans are often great, but if or when anything interrupts my plan I totally lose my composure (and am AWFUL and spontaneity, generally). And so, my loved ones end up taking deep breaths and locating some patience with me and my charts and lists and shareable Google docs (for which, if you’re reading, thank you), partly from love but partly because they have benefitted from the planning part. Meanwhile, I take a deep breath and leave room in my many plans to include time to just see what might happen, partly because I love them and partly because I have had great adventures this way. A newer person might just see me as controlling, anal-retentive, and the enemy of fun (ahem). But my close people are able to see that like all strong personal qualities, it has two sides.
Right? So part of this intimacy question is about how well these people really know you, and for how long. If even one of my close friends—the people I have known and loved for a decade or more, who have seen me through every kind of major life experience, who have seen me in every circumstance in which I exist—came to me and said they thought there was something about my behavior I needed to change? I would take that very seriously. I’d know that they had probably agonized over it, and practiced what they were going to say and thought about when to say it, and so forth. Is that what you’re experiencing? Do these people want you to change for you?
Or do they want you to change for them? My concern is that these are your shared-experience friends—the people you met at university or at work that you picked out as being the most tolerable to you from the other several thousand people in the complex of buildings. Which, listen, sometimes one or two of those people end up being your friends forever. But I would caution you to be very clear about this question of “is this just about fitting in better?” Because one thing that’s true about these shared-experience friends is that they all exist in the same milieu. They know school-you or work-you. Have they been home with you? Met your relatives, participated in your life-cycle events, visited with you for holidays? Have these people eaten your Great Aunt Petunia’s potato salad? If so, that’s when I would consider making changes based on their feedback. If not… I think that it’s probably well-meaning advice that you shouldn’t take.
That said, it can be difficult not to fit in. Standing out can be exhausting. So while I want to say “don’t change for other people,” I also want to say that sometimes we do what we need to do to keep our jobs, graduate, live to fight again another day.
As promised, now a moment about the issue of being easily-offended/humorless. We all know that this is a way to dismiss and minimize the concerns of people doing the big work of speaking out against oppressive language, right? That “can’t you take a joke?” and “I didn’t mean anything by it,” and “can’t we just watch the movie?” and all similar expressions really boil down to: “nothing about this has anything to do with my identity or values, so I am comfortable ignoring the injustice.” What some people call “humor,” other people—including me—might call “microagressions” or “a toxic environment.” If so, there may be a complaints process you can access about this.
Humorless people—those who are humorless about white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, gender-policing, ableism, and so on—are generally my favorite. Those aren’t comedy moments. Injustice lives and breeds in language. The things people say turn into the actions they take, and those actions profoundly affect people lives, up to and including their ability to live at all—whether that’s earning money, finding housing, or surviving an encounter with law enforcement. If what you’re not finding funny is oppression and disempowerment, Brave Correspondent, then come sit with me and my friends. We can all be humorless together.
Love and courage,