Sunday, September 6, 2009

Reining in defensiveness

Clever Elsie has a really thoughtful Singletude post about how to respond when someone asks 'why are you single', pointing out that giving the benefit of the doubt is likely to be a better approach than getting defensive:

As offensive as it can be, though, if you're so inclined, it can be a great opportunity to educate the nosy party about singles. Something I've noticed over the past year and am still coming to terms with is that many people who ask questions like this aren't aware that they're offensive or--hello?--awkward. Sometimes they imagine you must be upset about your singleness (usually because they would be if they were single) and want to encourage you or help in some way. Other times, they may be genuinely curious. They may even just be making small talk and don't know what else to say.

Does that mean it's okay for them to ask why you're single? If it's not okay with you, of course not. But if they're not asking with intent to hurt or irritate, then they're asking out of ignorance, and the best way to combat ignorance is with knowledge--in this case, your firsthand knowledge of being single... As much as you might relish firing back with a real zinger, a candid explanation...could help a singlist person (i.e., someone who has a bias against singles or being single) open his or her mind and understand how "single" can be a good choice, not an unfortunate mistake. It might also help them realize how a question like "Why are you single?" can deeply affect someone. On the other hand, a sarcastic comeback could put them on the defensive or make you seem defensive, reinforcing their unfavorable attitudes about singles.

Her point about people asking out of ignorance made me think about the questions I sometimes get as an Asian-American (for example, 'what are you' or 'where are you from' when the real question they mean to ask is 'what is your racial/ethnic background' ). The person asking usually has no idea how offensive their question is, or that the question itself is rooted in racist assumptions, and every time it happens, I have to consciously remind myself that they probably don't mean to be rude and I should think of it as an opportunity to educate them. At the same time, I have to admit that a big part of me is annoyed that I even have to go through that thought process. That is, why is it my job to educate them, to choose my words carefully so I don't directly suggest that they are racist? Of course I know that the alternative (i.e., saying what is really going through my mind) would be totally unproductive, but it would also be so much easier (well, for me at least). Along similar lines, when I encounter singlist attitudes, I generally try to find a diplomatic way to reply but sometimes I think having to make that effort is, in itself, annoying. Fortunately, it doesn't happen to me all that often. It would be nice to think that we will eventually reach a point where this educating process won't be necessary...


Clever Elsie said...

Thanks for your response to my post! It is frustrating to have to "educate" people, and I also hope there's a time coming when it won't be necessary. In the meantime, I try to take a similar approach to yours, explaining myself even when I don't feel like it. But I don't always have the time or patience for that, and I don't blame anyone else who doesn't, either. That's when the one-liners come in handy. ;)

Anonymous said...

I agree with QE: it's great to take the chance to educate a singlist when they ask an irritating question.

I also agree with Elsie's comment: sometimes you just don't feel noble enough, or patient enough, to take the high road, and a one-liner is so much more handy. Also, sometimes you know or suspect the person you're talking to isn't worth the effort of trying to enlighten and is really only worth a quick smack-down. Unfortunately, I myself am never quick enough with the one-liners, though, so I either freeze or end up giving the "educational" spiel, which I have not mastered yet either--I feel awkward and inarticulate and as if they're not really listening to me.

I think that for singles, it's especially easy to come off as defensive, because prevalent singlist rhetoric reinforces the notion that if you say "hey, wait, I don't need to be coupled to be complete", then you're "just defensive". So if you add a zingy one-liner to the conversation, you're even more likely to be branded as defensive than someone who provides a pithy response to some other (non-singlist) kind of insult. I find it very interesting that in racism, sexism, and even (to an extent) agism, if someone says "I'm happy being (black/female/85)" and has a bit of an attitude, no one would consider saying, "Oh, you're just being defensive", but if a single person says the same with a bit of an attitude, then we're defensive.

The Singlutionary said...

Jenn, I am asian american too and I have always been asked "where are you from". I just started playing dumb. I say "California". Then they ask again or they stop and try to find the policially correct way to get the information they are seeking.

I need to go read these one liners!

Sherry said...

Personally, I take "Why are you single?" as a compliment. Meaning that I'm such a wonderful person that others can't believe that I'm "still single" and haven't found someone to share my wonderfulness with. I never take it as a sign of being wrong, so I grin big and say thank you and move the conversation along.

I've decided that if I become defensive about it, people will think I'm not happy.

Jenn said...

@Clever Elsie: I love the list of one-liners on your post!
@Onely: While singles may be more likely to be accused of being defensive, usually other 'isms' aren't assuming you aren't happy about your race/gender/etc. - they are assuming other negative things. So if I respond less-than-carefully to a racist or sexist comment, I definitely run the risk of being called "too sensitive" instead.
@Singlutionary: Yep, that's exactly what I was talking about. The conversation usually goes something like "Where are you from" "California." "No, I mean, originally" "Well, I was born and grew up in the Bay Area, so what do you mean by originally?" "Oh, I meant where is your family from?" "Uh, still California - my parents and my grandparents were born in the Bay Area too." At this point, the questioner usually realizes that I am trying to make a point and they either get exasperated with me or they get embarrassed and re-phrase the question. Ugh.
@Sherry: Yes, I do think that most times, the question is meant as a compliment. The only problem is when that compliment is accompanied by the assumption that as wonderful as you are, there's something 'wrong' with being single. But it's certainly nice to take the compliment!