Friday, May 18, 2012

A Riddle on Rubbing

You know what I would have done...

You know what you should have done ...

I was telling someone, someone I like, about getting on the elevator the other day and having a man, in a business suit, chat with me about the weather. Nice, I suppose. Except. EXCEPT. As he was wishing me a good day, he rubbed the back of my head. Really. Yikes. Joe looked startled. I was stunned into silence.

My friend said, 'You should have reached back and rubbed his crotch.

I was telling someone, someone I know, about being in line up at a deli counter and having a woman step right in front of me, pretending not to see me waiting there. I called out to her but suddenly she couldn't see me either. She ordered, got her stuff, stepped over me and went on her way.

The person I knew said, "You know what I would have done, I'd have run right into her, smashed her shins with the chair.

I was telling someone about going into a store, where I shop all the time, as do many other wheelchair users, and found that they'd blocked the entrance with a display. There was no possible entry.

Listener said, "You know what I'd have done, I'd have smashed through the barrier and gone about my shopping.

I'm bringing this forward for two reasons, first, none of the people who offered either outrageous or violent reactions would have done what they said. Not for a moment. They don't deal with their own stressors that way. Second, I always feel, after their advice about what they would have, I should have, or other could have done ... like they'd just be a way better disabled person than I am. That I'm a failure at even this.

I know they don't mean anything by it. But still, I can't find the support they are offering me in these answers. And I know they are offering support. Instead I feel, when trying to connect, really, really alone. In the end I I feel just hopeless - that there aren't any solutions so it's best to just joke.

And joking has a place.

Just not always.

Sometimes I just want someone to acknowledge the frustration, or the anger, or the sense of  violation I sometimes have. That's it. Just a moment that lets me know I've been heard and understood.

In case you are wondering, I am not a whiner, though it may seem like it here. I only mention these things to friends when they really bother me - not every time they happen (I'd never stop). So I'm not a constant drag on their empathy. I think they think that by suggesting those strong reactions they are letting me know that they get it, but by offering those strong reactions, I know they don't.

So ... some guy rubbed the back of my head in the elevator ...

What would be the best response to say to someone who has just said that, I'd like to know, maybe I'm off base, maybe what my friends said is really OK ... over to you.


Happy said...

If it had happened to me, I'd want my friends to say, "Holy shit, that's creepy as hell. Are you okay?"

I imagine they'd leap straight to imagining a better outcome to the situation, where the perpetrator gets punished. Because they want that to be the way it went down instead of how it did.

So Dave, that was creepy as hell, and I'm sorry it happened to you.

Anonymous said...

I don't have the answer either. You are right, they are "othering" us.

I get people patting me on the shoulder. Or leaning over me to get something. Or the repairman who came to the house and *climbed* over the wheelchair when I didn't get out of his way fast enough.

I hate being touched by strangers. I have allergies that can be set off, and it makes me feel assaulted. (That repairman was a smoker and I nearly had to go to the ER).

Sometimes, I've said that the next time someone leans on me to reach something, I'm going to slam the chair into them. But of course I won't.

If you aren't too bemused by it, you could call them on it. "Excuse me, what on earth are you doing?"

I hope someone else has good suggestions.

Anonymous said...

Happy posted while I was typing mine, but yes:

Dave that was creepy as hell, and I'm sorry it happened to you.


Feminist Avatar said...

Imagining violence against perpetrators of all sorts of wrongdoing is a common reaction to being told about 'crime' - so when women talk of being sexually harrassed we're often told 'you should have slapped/kicked/ etc', even by other women who have been sexually harrassed and who did not behave like that. And, I don't think anybody expects people to act on the advice. It's an act of fantasy that's meant to show strength of feeling and provide a cathartic outcome (you imagine yourself better), but also allows the listener to distance him/herself from feeling like a victim by giving it a happy ending (and thus being truly empathetic). Unfortunately, it doesn't make things any better for the 'victim', and indeed can emphasise the powerlessness of the 'victim' by highlighting the fact that the solutions are in fact impossible (or at least socially unnacceptable). At the same time, I think the intent is meant to be benevolent in that it's trying to invite you to join in the fantasy with the listener and so to join in their carthasis.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's not necessarily that people don't 'get it', as much as they do get it but want to place an emotional barrier between them and feeling like a victim, and they want to help you by helping you build that same barrier in your imagination (but of course it's too late).

Feminist Avatar said...

That should be 'and thus stops them from being truly empathetic'.

Anonymous said...

"I am sorry the man did that. He must have see you as someone to pity because you sit in a wheelchair. Maybe this means of transportation seems to be like a stroller for kids. And even kids should not be touched by stranges without asking the parents before. I am angry, because I did not saw it coming and shouted stop or stoped him touching you. I am stunned. And my anger seeps through me. I see you as a real person, a real friend!!! And others should see that too!"


Anonymous said...

All the rudeness you outlined is terrible - people should be ashamed - but the personal touching - whoa - crossed a line there. Yet - I can't help think you do have a voice - use it. Resorting to violence - slamming, breaking or otherwise will not resolve anything - but speaking out will.

Many years ago I had a man (I won't call him a gentleman) slam his wheelchair into the back of my legs in a cafeteria line. He just wanted things to move faster - nothing to do with me. Believe me it doesn't endear one to the person in the wheelchair. Rudeness, standing up or sitting down is rudeness - and shouldn't be tolerated.

Oh - did I speak up. Yes - after I got over my shock that he would actually do that - I did speak up. "You may not realize that you are hurting me when you hit me with your chair. Please stop." I won't repeat what he said...

To be honest - I have found most people very accomodating with my physical disability - sure there are a few line cutters and impatient sighers - but on the whole people try their best.

Speak up. Happens once - shame on them, happens twice - shame on me.

nycivan said...

I agree with everyone that responding to inappropriate behavior is easier said than done. That being said, touching the back of your head was clearly inappropriate and i think telling the offender exactly that would be appropriate. ex. "Excuse me, sir, but touching me is inappropriate and offensive. Do not do it again." or more politely and less confrontational could be something like, " sir, you must not be aware how inappropriate and offensive touching someone you do not know is."

I don't know how helpful those suggestions are and if they would make sense in that situation.

I could also see myself saying something very kirt and stern like.. " don't touch me!"

anyway sorry these things are things you need to deal with.

Mary said...

My response to strangers touching me or my chair is the loudest, clearest "please don't!" that I can muster without crossing the line into aggressive bellowing. Compliance gets a big smile and a "thank you".

But then, strangers can be ignorant twits, this is not news.

Friends trying to be friendly and clumsily making it worse is a whole separate problem and if you figure out how to tackle *that*, without alienating them, tell me!

I don't mind when they say stuff like "there's never a flamethrower when you need one," or "poo through their letterbox, it's the only language these curs understand," because that's clearly not something I or they could, would, or should ever consider doing.

But when they say "you should run over their toes/bash the chair into them!" or similar wheelchair-specific ideas it's a problem.

To My Friend, the idea of running over someone's toes or bashing into their legs in a wheelchair is in the same imaginary bracket as the flamethrower. Cartoon violence. Comedy intent. Not real.

There's no way to explain that I'm mortified by the idea that one day I AM probably going to accidentally run over someone's toes in the same way that a walking person might accidentally step on someone's toes - and that I'm very aware my chair will likely inflict more damage than the average shoe. I've not done it yet but I have a horror of it verging on pre-emptive guilt. It's not a cartoony idea to me. It's unsettlingly real.

John R. said... are dead on, Dave...and I am sorry for I think I may have been one of the people that responded with, " I would have punched the guy!".....Dave, you are absolutely correct, I wouldn't have punched the guy..I never punched another creature in my life...I guess the instant reaction to the story you share about boundaries being broken (by freakin' strangers, no less) is just so creepy and maddening to hear and reactions go to this fantastic place of justice-getting.

The reality is my empathy was not being engaged and hearing about the incident (The rubbing of the head particularly) reflexively put me in protect, defend and kick-butt mode. Not helpful to you. Not helpful in the reality of the situations you describe.

My retrospect response is this,
"Wow Dave, that situation must have made you feel just creeped out and violated. I hope you told that person to please not touch you and I hope they learned something from your admonition. It sucks that some people feel that a person who uses a wheelchair is some fuzzy toy! I hope that never happens again."

So Dave, thank you for the reflection and I hope you accept my apology for reacting like I did. Ultimately it was out of a good place but really was not something to offer you solidarity.

Baba Yaga said...

The best reaction is probably the jaw-drop, the "I'm as stunned as you were, and have no reaction". That says that someone's really grasped the enormity, and the impossibility of reacting to these bizarre situations.

It's interestingly much more easy to react quickly and theoretically appropriately (but in reality, inappropriately) to a re-told or imagined situation than to a real one. Imagination must have fewer of the inhibitions (the *necessary* inhibitions) than one has in reality.

In my experience, though, just acknowledging that it's imagination, not what "I would" or "you should" have done, takes all the sting out of the imagined reaction. Then there's no suggestion of inadequacy in your real response, just of imaginative engagement with the horror one feels when rendered less than human.

For that matter, what response *is* adequate, when someone pats a grown man on the head?! In theory, one calmly informs the head-patter that his ways are erroneous, but in reality, that rarely comes to one in time; in reality, summoning up that kind of response can be an energy drain; in reality, it isn't always terribly safe to challenge people. Once people have crossed one boundary, the thing one knows about them is that they're willing to cross boundaries. Working out that "in this case he's probably not going to punch me in the face when challenged" (or, more commonly, and not much less troublingly, deny any validity to my words because he's defined me as other) generally takes slightly longer than the encounter gives one.

Faery said...

I think that this sort of response is quite common and does not necessarily mean that your friends have missed the point.

The 'You should have rubbed his crotch' comment could be comparing the innappropriate action of rubbing the back of your head to a 'more obviously' innapropriate action. They are not suggesting that you should actually do this but, perhaps, showing that they understand that it is just as bad. Maybe what they're really saying is 'Oh my! That's as bad as just reaching over and rubbing your crotch! How innapropriate of him!'

The 'You should have punched him' style comment could be your friends expressing their anger at hearing of the incident. Again, not actually encouraging violence but saying 'Grrr that makes me so angry I'd like to teach that guy a lesson, how dare he do that to you!'

I understand that these types of responses are not helpful but I feel that people are trying (but failing?) to empathise with you, especially if this is the sort of situation that they have never experienced before?

Mary said...

@Faery, amazing as this might sound, as a rule we are aware that our friends aren't actually encouraging us to get violent or rub people's genitals, although thank you for being so kind as to take the time and 'splain it to us.

Your comment "I understand that these types of responses are not helpful but I feel that people are trying (but failing?) to empathise with you, especially if this is the sort of situation that they have never experienced before?" focuses the whole interaction on the non-disabled friend.

"Oh, you've told me that you're upset that a stranger inappropriately touched you and treated you as less than human, but I've never experienced the situation, so don't expect me to take it seriously!"

If that's their version of "trying to empathise" then they're really not doing it right. It's not about them.

How about focusing the situation on the person who had their boundaries breached and is upset by it? The violated person, who's tried to turn to a friend for reassurance, affirmation, sympathy, and instead is getting shrugged off with a not-very-good joke that just reaffirms their Freak status?

Dave has every right in the world to feel upset that his friends response to him being "othered" is to "other" him a bit more and make light of it.

Rachel in Idaho said...

My mom thinks I should bark like a dog when I get patted on the head like one. I don't know how serious she is, but I don't have the nerve to do it!

It doesn't really happen often, but my usual response is to get icy and say "Please. Don't. Do. That." while moving away and letting myself look really pissed. One time a woman moved in to pat again to apologize for patting! "DON'T!" She actually looked a bit confused, but stopped.

Given that my own mother isn't going to "other" me I think it's safe to say that most of the over-the-top suggestions come from genuine empathy. She gets angry on my behalf about this stuff! Unless you go around patting random women in their mid-30s on their heads, you have no reason to touch mine. And even if you do that, man, that's creeeeeepy.

A few family and a very few friends can sometimes get away with it as a joke; sort of like ethnic jokes in-group, where you know you're actually safe. But we're talking about a group of people I can count on one hand.

Unknown said...

You know your friends, I don't--maybe they wouldn't do what they're saying. But I have physically moved people when they step in front of or over me, and I do shove displays out of the way when they're blocking. Admittedly, I'm usually too stunned when people pat me on the head to do anything. I think there are times when firmness is appropriate, like when people don't respond to spoken communication.

Sometimes it's hard to tell when people are asking for support and affirmation versus asking for suggestions about what to do--all of those situations are so shocking and othering when you encounter them that I find I just sit there unless I have some options prepared in advance.

Faery said...

@Mary I was trying to respond to a particularly upsetting part of Dave's post:

"Second, I always feel, after their advice about what they would have, I should have, or other could have done ... like they'd just be a way better disabled person than I am. That I'm a failure at even this."

I understand how he feels though. If I'm honest, I feel like a failure too after your scolding, it has actually made me cry.

I'm extremely sorry to Dave and anyone who found my comment to be insulting or patronising. I was sincerely trying to be helpful. I generally try to see things from both sides of the situation, and to find the good in everyone even when it seems that they are being inconsiderate. I was certainly not trying to 'other' and have never considered anyone to have 'Freak status'. :(

Anonymous said...


dont cry. I think you comment was thoughtful. When I gave an example of what
i would answer to both, the person rubbing the head and Dave, I had the same idea you wrote down.

In this case I would have been the frien answering and totaly did not get that it was Dave who wanted the reaction?

I think even I did not give the "correct" answer, I gave the answer that came from deep in my heart. I am disabled and I have "disabled" friends - if now we too start to think in raged categoris...

And yes I would have been stunned and hurt too if what happend to Dave would have happend to me.

I guess it happened already to me, albeit not right into my face physically. Maybe that is why I sometimes feel like roaring and sn appint at others or sometimes feel I simply want to cry.

I am sorry the other comment did that to you!

be virtually hugged, if you feel,you need a hug. I think Mary did cross a boarder here too. I dont think/hope that was her intention.


Anonymous said...

sorry for all the mistakes. it is hard to write if you imagine someone else crying...


Anonymous said...

My first thought was Dave had left this guy with such a good feeling (you do that to people you know) that he needed to try and express that to you and just did it the only way he knew how, not understanding what a creepy thing it was. My second thought was he hitting on Dave? Maybe not, maybe he was just trying to show affection in a way he had no right to do. I was hugged yesterday by a woman at work. I HATE BEING HUGGED, even touched really unless in the appropriate setting. But I realized the woman who hugged me, I had just helped and she needed to express her gratitude the only way she knew how (in my opinion in a creepy inappropriate way that made me want to go home and shower immediately). But I was "stuck" and allowed it. Should I have kicked or hit her?

CL said...

To me, the first one - "You should have reached back and rubbed his crotch." was less offensive than the other comments.

To me, "You should have..." followed by a hilarious revenge fantasy is joining you in the moment, sharing your outrage, and emphasizing how inappropriate it was by talking about what the guy deserved.

"I would have" is completely different to me, because it's like saying that the person would have handled the situation much more assertively than you did. Which is almost never true, and kind of offensive, because it's never as easy to be assertive as other people imagine. Even when they say "I would have (done something outrageous)" as a joke, I still think they're saying "I would have stood up for myself somehow, unlike you."

So to me, the first comment was fine, but the other two would have annoyed me.

Anonymous said...

That's a good point that the guy who patted you showed he was willing to cross boundaries..

And you were stuck in the elevator with him. Probably not a good time to try to confront him, when neither one of you can back away. Some times I hate elevators.

Anonymous said...

If my friend said, some guy rubbed the back of my head in the elevator, I would say, 'yuk, that’s so nasty'. I might also say, depending on who it is and the circumstances, ‘would you like to report it?’ (to the police).

To the guy rubbing the back of my head I would say, ‘why are you touching me?’

To the friend who says you should... or I would..., I would say, 'well next time I’ll call you and you can do just that’. And see what happens next in the conversation.

I don’t know if these are best answers, I just wanted to have a go at answering the questions raised.


Anonymous said...

On the lighter side - there seems to be a trend here. First someone called you "fella" and then someone "pet: you. Sounds horsey to me :-) Has Joe been wearing his cowboy hat again??

Please don't be hard on yourself - you aren't supposed to be a poster boy for disabilities - just be YOU.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Faery, I didn't find your response insulting or patronizing and I thank you for your contribution, please keep adding your voice to the mix.

Kristin said...

I think an appropriate and light-hearted way to respond to someone petting your head would be to bark at them. When they look at you oddly, just say "Well, you pet me like a dog so I barked my good-bye."

CAM said...

I say that people who have not had a certain experience, can only imagine how they would react if confronted with that situation. Most people imagine they would act in a way that they consider to be bold, to stand up for themselves, or would be the best response they can imagine.
Most people who have never had a spouse that has cheated on them say,"if he/she ever cheated on me, I would kick them out right away". But many, many relationships continue after infidelity.
Just like the teenager that says, "when I have kids, I will let them do whatever they want". When they have children of their own, they know boundries matter.
I think it is human nature to say, "if that happened to me, I would do....." but we never know until we are there, and it doesn't mean we are judging those who don't do the things we suggest, even thought it feels like we are.

Defying Gravity said...

You're right, it's maybe a bit like when you tell someone about an experience and they come right back with an experience of their own (usually worse or more extreme). They mean to communicate 'yes I understand and empathise with the point of your story' but what they actually communicate is 'your experience isn't important'. A better response would be 'that sucks, how are you doing with it?'

Having said that, I'm sure I've given the joke type response sometimes. But, having thought about it, I'm also pretty sure that I would have phrased it as something like 'Wouldn't it be great if... (you could reach over and rub his crotch)' or 'Don't you just wish you could...' and definitely not in the form 'I would have...' Don't know if that makes a difference or not really though.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,
I don't comment much, but wanted to say something to this as I feel really strongly about it. If a friend of mine told me that a stranger on an elevator had rubbed the back of their head, my response would have been...

Wow! Yuck! I am really sorry that happened. That's horrible. That was completely unacceptable, rude, and a serious violation of your personal space. Ick. Ick. Ick. The very idea gives me the creepy crawlies. Are you OK?

Over the years, I have had friends share vulnerable memories and disturbing incidents with me. I learned long ago that my outrage on behalf of my friend is less important than my friends' feelings. So when I respond, I try to validate their experience. I will tell them that I am angered on their behalf sometimes, but their feelings are more important.

Just my take on the matter.

Belly (Liz McLennan) said...

Oh, boy.

I'm one of those people - I touch. I touch everybody, not all the time or anything, but enough of the time that this post makes me realize that I need to reign it in a bit.

A former waitress, I often touched my customers on the shoulder or arm, jokingly. I've hugged repairmen and the UPS guy.

Sigh. Yeah. I'm *that* person and while I think (hope?) that most of those interactions made someone's day a little...lighter...I sincerely hope I've never made anyone feel crummy the way so many of you have described here.

I'm sorry, Dave...all of you.

And I'm thankful, too. This is something that I need to be aware of, instead of blithely tra-la-la along, assuming that my need to touch supersedes another's right not to be.

Ettina said...

"There's no way to explain that I'm mortified by the idea that one day I AM probably going to accidentally run over someone's toes in the same way that a walking person might accidentally step on someone's toes - and that I'm very aware my chair will likely inflict more damage than the average shoe. I've not done it yet but I have a horror of it verging on pre-emptive guilt."

I've had my foot run over by a motorized wheelchair. It really doesn't feel much worse than having it stepped on. In fact, in some ways it's better, because the weight is more spread out and comes on/off more gradually.

I'm not visibly disabled, but I have had people touch me when I wasn't comfortable with it (I'm a bit tactile defensive). My instinctive recoiling typically signals to them that it wasn't good to do that.