The Unanswered Question

Some time ago I stumbled upon a question along the lines, “I have a fellow student who keeps commenting snidely on my looks. I’ve asked him to stop, but he won’t, and it’s upsetting me. What should I do about it?”

I composed an answer.

But I’ve learned from posting answers before that certain kinds of answers, helpful though I may be trying to be, get misconstrued and pounced upon by others. An honest response that may have taken hours to compose, that took effort and word smithing and finesse to get the meaning just right, is shot down because it counters the current politically-approved solution. Subsequently, not only is there arguing whether or or not my idea is a good one—which would be fine—but personal attacks telling me I’m evil, not a woman, homophobic, or whatever. For days my e-mail box or news feeds are filled with hatred letters telling me I’m a hater.

For a long time, I ignored these responses, who I think are often youngsters for whom the only correct solution is their simple, obvious, sledgehammer of a solution. But this time, I thought of those who would read my article, and summarize it down to “buck up and shut up”, and tell me why that was no good. People who would argue I was bad, that I was part of the problem, that I didn’t listen to what the original poster was asking, or say that I obviously didn’t understand what the original poster was talking about so why don’t I just shut up and bog off.

So finally, they won. Tired of the social nuisance that comes with sharing my perspective, I gagged myself.

I never posted this answer to the board where I found the original question, and I’ve since forgotten where I came across it. It’s late enough probably be irrelevant now anyway, but I hope she found an answer, a solution.

But I still wonder if this would have helped.

The answer

Many the proposed answers have dealt with external things you can do. Many are good answers; I do not claim to contradict or supersede them. I do not approve or condone the behavior to which you have been subjected, and I do not place the blame on you, though reading inattentively might lead to that conclusion.

In an ideal world, these things wouldn’t occur, or when they did, your objections would be taken seriously and the problems would stop. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. I’m writing as someone who has survived that real world, where changing others' behavior is something you have limited control over.

You can talk to the problem people, but they might ignore you. Or they might be clueless and not understand what they’ve done wrong, thus be unable to fix it (I’ve been that idiot at times. Sadly, I think there’s a lot of this in tech—although I’m not sure if it’s self-selection because of introversion and the machines are less intimidating, or atrophied social skills as a result of too much time with screens and machines. But I’m digressing…). You can escalate to administration, but they might not take the matter seriously. I don’t mean you shouldn’t try these things; indeed, you should not just accept abuse. But in the end, in the real world, there’s a chance your efforts won’t resolve the problem.

What you do have control over is your self, and how you react to things. I’m going to write stuff that may piss you off, but it’s experience of a social misfit and outcast growing up, transitioning genders, and coming out for the better. It’s challenging to explain some of this: a lot of it is from personal experience, and it’s hard to sum up in text. I think I’m on the other end of the problem our parents had, when we discounted what they said because they didn’t explain why, and we didn’t yet have the experience ourselves. But with 30 years additional experience, it turns out parents knew more than we thought—they just didn’t offer reasons. So I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned, and include the whys and wherefores too. I apologize in advance for my linguistic clumsiness.

Growing up, I got picked on and bullied all the time. I was told to ignore it, but that doesn’t work. No one ever explained how, and in reality, I’m doubtful you can just “ignore” it. It’s like a crappy algorithm on a server: it doesn’t change because you think of a better one. You have to implement it, test it, debug it, and push your changes onto the production server. Only then does it get better.

This is going to be a controversial paragraph, but please remember the problem of ideal vs. real world. If comments about your looks sting, then that’s evidence it matters to you. If looks really matter to you, you would put time and effort into them. So perhaps looks aren’t really important to you, since you don’t put much into them, and therefore they shouldn’t matter—but shouldn’t and don’t are two different things. You can’t simply switch off caring about something that’s been ingrained, without replacing it with something else; it’s something you’ve been told your whole life matters, so it’s wired in now. So what is important to you? What do you want to care about? Focus on that, and use it to override the unwanted default. It’s work, but do that enough, and the default gets rewritten.

I was, admittedly, a misfit. I wasn’t like the other kids, and consequently I was ostracized. My solution was to try to conform and emulate. But in retrospect, I’m doubtful that works: it’s no fun, they can tell you’re putting on a good front, and they like using exclusion as a form of power. They see your desire to be included, so they lead you on but don’t quite let you in. They toy with their victim, tempting with inclusion, and you get the brunt of it.

You describe these folks treating you badly, yet you want to be accepted by them. It sounds like the same game. But, you can’t force them to accept you; you have no control over their behavior. But why would you want to be accepted by them, if they treat you so poorly? (I did the same thing for years.)

But what else can you do? You don’t want to be alone! It can be really hard in small towns; I grew up in one. You said you’re in a small school, that does make this harder. But avoiding doesn’t fix.

The other option is to exit that game and all its rules, because it’s a game you can’t win. They make the rules, they’ve already decided you’ve lost. The only way to “win” on the surface, is to sell yourself out to gain acceptance, in which case you’ve lost in your heart. And selling yourself out is bad news: how will you respect yourself?

And this is where I’m blessed to be transsexual. It forced me to look at what was really important to my self-image and self-respect. Girding for transition, I had to come to terms with reality: I was going to lose some friends, some family, and I would lose certain career options. I was about to do something that would ensure the mainstream would never accept me. (Keep in mind, this was 1992.) The trying-to-fit-in strategy was not going to work, ever again. So ask yourself this: Do you really need everyone to be your friend? Do you want these jerks as friends? It’s hard risking friendships when you’re an introvert (as many of us techies are), but what is it costing you to maintain? Is it even a friendship if they’re doing these things? You may be better off thinking of these as acquaintances, or classmates, rather than friends, because they aren’t living up to their end of friendship.

When you redefine your self-value to something other than acceptance by the mainstream, you won’t need these morons and their comments. In my case, I remember using the ethical standards I lived by and appreciation of my overcoming adversity/trail blazing. But take time to be introspective; think about what you value in others (or rather what you should value in others, which might not be the same thing—ideal vs. real again), and apply those valuations to yourself. Work on living up to your own standards (it’s not always easy, 'cause you know better than anyone when you’re trying to cheat). Reflect on successes and failures, change your behavior, change your thinking, change your standards. Talk with others, especially those you respect, to get new ideas and integrate them.

Over time, the wired-in default is replaced with your own value system, and with it will come freedom and liberty. No longer will you have to adhere to social conventions or expectations, you can do what you want, subject to your own values instead of society’s. And frankly, you become a better person along the way, because society’s standards are pretty low.

My life before was boring. The more I reject the standards and invent my own (it’s ongoing after 20-something years), the more rich my life gets. I have more adventures than I can fit in a paragraph. My friends these days are composed of people from various counter-cultural circles (some requiring I overcome my own prejudices), who appreciate individuality. Many have unusual perspectives on what is important in life, and I appreciate them for what they are, just as they do me, even though we’re different. The normals compete to have shiny cars and big homes, hoping they won’t get sacked because they’ve got the payments, and look down on me for the old beaters I drive and my modest house. But my real friends respect my approach, even if it’s different from theirs, and I sleep comfortably with my financial solvency. I’m very glad something kicked me off the normal path, because I’d have had a much less interesting life and friends, and I’d be less happy.

And so these days, when someone rejects me or insults me? It’s okay; it’s their choice/opinion. There was a time every name I was called stung; now they roll off—because I assess myself by my standards, and I’m awesome. If someone didn’t notice, or some prejudice got in the way, that’s too bad—but I’ve got software and novels to write, skills to develop, things to learn, adventures to have, and more. If I keep demonstrating a better way, then perhaps in time, they’ll notice and clue in.

So screw those guys. Making software is fun, but there’s an amazing world out there. Mountains to climb, roads to travel, countries to visit, people to meet. Or other things that excite you. You’re young, smart, and on a promising career path. Take time to figure out who you are, what you want out of life—more than just a career banging out code, going home and playing video games. Find other things and spread your passions around, and live for fulfilling what you want out of life, instead of living other people’s expectations.

And when you become that multifaceted person, doing all that stuff, the comments just won’t stick anymore. You’ll be too busy doing stuff, and life will be so rich that a few dumb comments won’t matter.