Societal norms are more influential than we realize. They drive how we present ourselves, how we relate to each other, and how we view the world. They force us to think about ourselves from the perspective of others and reflect on how our actions make others feel. Even if these perspectives don’t always directly influence future actions, it’s always a good idea to take it into consideration. For example, if you’re the girl that was in the elevator with me this morning – please take into consideration that proper hygiene will not further global warming. I fully believe that homemade deodorant is the white man’s revenge for emancipation.
That said, there is one social norm that does tire me. I’m going to describe to you a scenario that I experience at least ten times a day.
Me: Hello! It’s nice to see you again. How are you?
Other person: I’m good! How are you?
Me: I’m good!
Sometimes this conversation lasts a little longer – we might throw in a comment about the weather, or a small update on a meaningless aspect of our personal lives as to confirm that we’re “fine, really!”
But are we?
Here’s a very personal example from my private life: Not too long ago, I broke up with my partner of a little over a year. It was, and continues to be, a difficult time for me. Of course, my close friends knew what was going on, and I talked/screamed about it on stage. But whenever a coworker, a family member, or an acquaintance would ask me how I was doing, I would respond with “I’m good, how are you?” and eagerly lean in to shift the focus back to them. The two of us would play this reverse tug-of-war for a few minutes as we push the attention back and forth between us, ad infinitum.
Here’s the rub: I was not “good”. I was tired, insecure, and very sad. While the feeling that stuck with me the most was isolation, I didn’t want to burden people with my troubles.
I was lying.
I could pretend like I read T.M. Scanlon’s seminal philosophical work called What We Owe to Each Other. I’m going to avert that lie and admit that I only know about this because of NBC’s The Good Place (it’s a great forking show). It’s the question that (spoiler alert) brings together two of the main characters in season 2, and is the basis of the idea I’m presenting here. When we think of these societal norms – or, the things that we owe each other – we tend to think about ways that we accidentally or intentionally bring harm to others. We owe each other respect. We owe each other physical and psychological safety. White lies aside, most people will agree that we owe each other the truth, even if it hurts the feelings of others. If your best friend was going to leave the house with a questionable weave that looked plastic in the sun, you would tell her, wouldn’t you? If not, why did you let me do that, Brooke?
My point is that we know that lying is bad and the truth is good. If that’s the case, why do we lie to each other every day when a friend, colleague, or other well-meaning individual asks how we’re feeling?
I originally justified these lies by forcing myself to believe that I was protecting others from my “drama”. I would think, “nobody cares about what you’re actually feeling. They’re only asking that to be polite.”
The truth of the matter is this – I wasn’t protecting others from having to hear inane ramblings about my breakup, or my family issues, or my depression. I was protecting myself. I already felt guilt, sadness, and anger. I didn’t want to put that on others. I thought it would just make me feel worse. Even in my grand, elaborate scheme to save others, all I was really doing was trying to save face. It’s a selfish act hidden deep in the murky waters of my savior complex. On top of that, it’s an act that is harming me and others. I wasn’t just stuffing my feelings down into my giant, ravenous gut – I was also contributing to an unspoken rule that talking about your feelings is an imposition upon others.
Maybe – just maybe – if we were honest with each other about how we are actually feeling, we might find community in commiseration.
To put things into perspective – if you’re a person who uses the women’s bathrooms in your local bar, you have probably met Tina.
“Tina” is the name that I use to describe the drunk girl fixing her hair in front of the bathroom mirror. With her glitter eyeshadow and butterfly barrettes, Tina is the fairy godmother of drunk 20-30 somethings and the patron saint of crying in public bathrooms. She is Tampa, Florida, if Tampa, Florida, were a person. She will only appear if you say “Rosé All Day” three times into a mirror with the lights off. Once she appears, she will tell you how beautiful you are, and how anyone would be lucky to have you. Then, she’ll ask you how you’re doing, and the waterworks will start, and you’ll do something that you’ve only ever seen done by Mr. Rogers and Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford.
You’ll actually tell her the truth.
You’ll tell her that you spotted your boyfriend checking out a waitress who is 5 years younger and 50 pounds lighter. You’ll tell her about how he discarded your birthday plans because he “just couldn’t right now”. You’ll tell her about your explosive relationship with your mother, and how you haven’t spoken in weeks. You’ll tell her that this is the first time in your life that you’ve ever truly felt alone. You’ll tell her the whole, sad, story of your childhood, and every single choice that you made leading up to this precise moment, in the bathroom of this Taco Bell Cantina, where tears are washing away the remains of your Kat Von D eyeliner.
The beauty of Tina is that, despite her smeared lipstick, wine-stained romper, and droopy eyes, she is listening intently. She asks you to expound upon details. She wants to know more. Tina cares. And you care about Tina. And you’ll think about kissing her, but you won’t because that would be inappropriate, but you’ll think about her in the shower for a few months after. Maybe that last part’s just me.
I’m not saying that talking to Tina actually fixes anything. Tina’s not a relationship or family therapist, she’s just a swell girl with a great spray-on tan and earrings so big that they vaguely remind you of the Olympic rings. But you can bet your ass that after you cry it out with her, reapply your eyeliner, and leave the bathroom, you’ll feel a sense of relief, however small.
I’m just saying that this dynamic might work out of the confines of the lavatory. I’m a private person, so you often won’t catch me sobbing to strangers unprompted, telling them all of the things I believe are wrong with me. But I do think I’m going to stop assuming that people want to be told a lie. If someone asks me how I’m doing and I don’t feel fine, I’m going to be honest about it.
Because the honest truth – something I really believe – is that people care about each other. It’s why we have those societal norms in the first place. It’s why we care about global warming, and by extension, do granola hipster shit like making homemade deodorant (that, again, doesn’t work). It’s why we choose to be honest, but only when we can also be polite. It’s why we don’t always tell people what’s on our minds. We want to help other people because we care about each other. We believe that sparing others the truth of our sadness protects them from harm. But all we’re doing is forcing each other – and ourselves – to be alone with our thoughts, when community was the entire purpose of human interaction in the first place! =
We’ve made it a faux pas to be honest with ourselves and others about our feelings. We’ve normalized isolation. And I’m not afraid to tell you this: it makes me sad. I believe that being taught to internalize my emotions instead of expressing them is one of the major reasons why I have depression and anxiety today. I don’t want that for me anymore, and I certainly don’t want it for you.
I’m not going to tell you to do. I’m not your mother. I’m just your friendly neighborhood pansexual comedian with a host of mental illnesses, a few close friends, and (if I may brag) extensions that no longer look plastic in the sunlight. I can only tell you what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to be more honest about when I’m not feeling “good, how are you?” I’ll also reflect on when the people in my life need more from me.
I’ll do it for me, for our society, and for the young people (especially women, people of color, and queer folk) coming up behind us who will, hopefully, not keep all of their feelings bottled up all the time. I’m going to subvert this “norm” and do my part to make it less…normal.
I think, at the least, we owe that to each other.
Also, Tina, if you’re reading this, I hope things are going well back home in Tampa. If they aren’t, give me a call. Let’s talk.