I ran some errands during my lunch break yesterday. I had some checks to deposit and the most convenient place is a cramped ATM vestibule near my office. It has four ATMs, but no space for anyone waiting to stand, and when I got there they were all busy. I stood near-ish to the last one, with a line of people who came in behind me, so it was pretty crowded; I was wearing my headphones and listening to my iPod, which is true of about 90% of the time I’m outside my apartment.1

I was endorsing a check, writing on the back of my book (because I always have a book in my purse, duh). I had a vague sense that the woman at the nearest ATM was flustered, inserting her card again and again. I heard her say something in my general direction, but thanks to the iPod (and noise-canceling headphones, I hate earbuds) I didn’t hear what. I took off my headphones and moved maybe a half-step forward, and said all of, “Hm?”

And then she yelled, “You’re too close, Jesus!”

I got as far as, “Sor — ” before she stormed off.

So I used the ATM and walked off grumpily. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I had been attempting to apologize. And frankly, rudeness irks me pretty badly (don’t even get me started on the guy who walked into the vestibule from the other side and cut the whole line, something that is never, ever acceptable). It wasn’t until I was down the road on my way to the post office that the situation flipped in my brain.

From the perspective of Grumpy Stranger Lady, she was using the ATM and clearly having some sort of issue with it. Some stranger was standing too close, making her uncomfortable, and was off in her own world wearing headphones instead of paying attention to what was happening around her. Maybe she was having a bad day, or was just easily flustered, or short on patience for whatever reason. Regardless, it occurred to me that if she were to tell the story of our very brief encounter, she’d be the reasonable one, and I’d be the rude one.

The thing is, she isn’t wrong; that was reality as she lived it. I’m not wrong either; she was pretty rude. In objective reality, we probably both could have done better, with me paying more attention and her being less snippy. Whatever, it was an encounter that lasted about two seconds, and didn’t have any lingering after effects. But it was a tiny moment of eye-opening for me.

I’m bothering to write this down because I’m someone who reads all kinds of blogs where people share very personal experiences (not to mention I work at a website which features personal stories in a major way). You can see some of my favorites in the link sidebar, but I read a lot about feminism, anti-racism, GLBT activism, anti-ableism, and so on — lots of people examining and trying to figure out how to dismantle societal privileges and *isms of many sorts. I don’t tend to say much, because I rarely feel like there’s anything I can add to the conversation other than “thank you for sharing”/”I agree with you”/etc. And generally, the conversations aren’t about me. What is me talking about my experiences as a white person going to add to a post where a person of color is talking about her experiences with racism? It’s not that I don’t have thoughts, it’s that they aren’t necessarily relevant and there’s no need for me to hijack a thread about someone else to talk about my own junk. It’s a conversation I can learn from but not one I feel like I can add much to, so I am a serial lurker who is glad the big, wide internet has so many people brave enough to talk about their lives.

Back a bunch of years ago, when I first started this blog, I wrote a not-very-well-articulated, but none the less honest, post about some sexism I’d run into at the bookstore where I worked.2 It was the first thing I wrote that got read, let alone linked to, by anyone other than my close friends; I wasn’t quite prepared for that, but who is? I followed a few track back links and ran into some other people’s discussions of my post. One stands out in my memory; the thrust of the post-about-my-post was, “Well, she says that, but I think she was misreading it. It wasn’t about sexism, it was just an in-group, out-group thing.”

At the time, I was really upset by that and didn’t know why. I get it now: the post was about my experiences, things I knew were true because I’d lived them. It isn’t fair for someone to say that wasn’t what happened and I was misreading the situation (let alone someone who wasn’t even there, but that’s not even close to the point). I knew what my experience was and didn’t understand that what bothered me was someone saying no, my lived experience was incorrect.

It was a pretty minor life experience. Blatant sexism, but nothing with long-lasting consequences on my life. (I learned someone was an asshole. I avoided him after that. The end!) If I was that unsettled by being told my life experiences were wrong in something fairly minor, I can only imagine how people who share significantly more personal experiences must feel.

This is probably the most no-duh-worthy thing I will ever type on this blog, but: privilege is a huge part of what makes that kind of dismissal possible. It allows people to be oblivious to the very fact that there’s another perspective to consider, let alone the validity of that experience. It lets people ignore the whole concept of empathy, of taking a few seconds to realize that other people may have experienced a situation differently, and their experiences are legitimate — even if it’s just why someone is rude at an ATM.

It isn’t just about reading blogs. It’s about being polite, because there’s a good chance the rude person you’re encountering is having a shitty day. It’s about letting things roll off your back when they aren’t personal, and it’s about respecting people when they say things are personal. It’s about having empathy and realizing you are not the center of the world, and other people have thoughts and feelings and experiences, too — and doing your best to treat them that way.

And it’s about never, ever cutting people in line.

  1. I don’t like engaging with strangers. Headphones are a great way to avoid it. See also: everyone else on the subway.
  2. Barely-relatedly, oh man, I’m always tempted to go and purge the archives; I said a lot of embarrassingly dumb things when I was starting to learn and didn’t know how much I didn’t know.

One thought on “A Slight Shift in Perspective

  • September 20, 2010 at 11:23 am

    I am all about efforts to increase empathy. I often feel that way in posts about other people’s experiences too: I want to say “thanks for sharing” but have nothing else to add. (Sometimes I just say thanks for sharing, then, if I think it would do something for them to hear it.)

    I admit that sometimes I do look at a situation and think “is that what I would think was really going on in that situation?” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that on a certain level (and in your own head), but when you automatically assume that your analysis of it (especially if you weren’t there!) is preferable to someone else’s, then you really are failing in empathy. Even if you, by some off chance, happen to be right about what was “really” happening, you still aren’t taking into account all the other life experiences of that person that made them interpret the situation the way they did.

    Also, off topic: Blogs are fun. More fun than policy papers.


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