You’re Making Me Uncomfortable

Uncomfortable.

It’s a word that went from private and innocuous to a public excuse for bad behavior almost overnight. When I was a kid, if you felt uncomfortable, you either fixed whatever it was, or you shut up about it. Discomfort wasn’t seen as a thing so awful that no one should be made to endure it for more than a millisecond – people were uncomfortable with all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons.

But around the time that self esteem policing (the impulse to ensure that no one is ever unhappy for any reason, and brought about such idiocy as participation trophies, third grade graduation ceremonies, and the kind of apps that take away your wrinkles and put makeup on your selfies) really got going, someone decided that the worst damage one can inflict on a human being is to make them feel “uncomfortable.”

The problem I have with other people’s expressions of discomfort is that the word “uncomfortable” is a vague, unhelpful word, and when placed in the sentence “You’re making me uncomfortable,” it asks the listener not only to decode what this particular person means by it, but also puts the burden of relieving that discomfort on the listener. Sometimes that’s absolutely appropriate, but not always.

What does “You are making me uncomfortable” mean? The answer to that varies greatly, and can give insight into who should be changing their behavior or attitudes.

You are making me…

Experience Physical Discomfort

Sometimes “uncomfortable” can be literal. Someone’s standing on your foot. Someone is invading your personal space, forcing you to stand or sit in an awkward position. Someone is touching you in a way that hurts. In that case, it’s absolutely okay to use the word “uncomfortable,” and to specifically call out what’s happening. “Can you back up? You’re pushing me against the wall and it’s uncomfortable.”

Feel Threatened

This one is trickier, and one that causes no end of argument between men and women. A man will say something personal to a woman – “You look really nice in that dress.” “Nice ass.” “Smile.” The woman responds with “You’re making me uncomfortable,” and the man comes back with “I’m just trying to pay you a compliment! I’m being nice and you’re being rude!” (Or worse.)

What men don’t take into account is that most women have had this experience before, and the way it plays out is almost never good. A man makes an observation about a woman’s body, she fails to respond with warm enthusiasm, and the man turns abusive – sometimes physically. And if the woman were to say to the man “you’re making me feel threatened,” the man would scoff at the idea.

It doesn’t even have to be as overt as an inappropriately personal comment. It can be someone staring at you the way they would stare at a product in a store window, or someone obviously talking about you to someone they’re with. Anytime someone is treated like they are not a human being with thoughts and feelings, but instead an object that exists for others’ amusement or approval, it’s easy to wonder where that objectification stops. It’s hard to call someone’s attention to the fact that they aren’t acknowledging your humanity without making that person feel defensive.

Using the word “uncomfortable” allows the speaker to introduce an element of ambiguity that lets the speaker off the hook – “I may have misinterpreted this, I understand that you had the best intentions,” rather than “We do not have the kind of relationship where your behavior is appropriate, and you should know that.” Because they should know.

Confront My Inherent Biases

This is the one that makes us all crazy. White people calling the police on Black people without provocation. Trans people abused and humiliated because some people freak out when they don’t know how to classify someone based on their appearance. Asylum seekers being detained and tortured while people debate whether they’ve broken any laws. Sometimes people are uncomfortable because they have opinions about entire groups of people that have no basis in fact. It’s easy to exist in the echo chamber of social media and formulate opinions about groups of people you have no direct experience of. If your only exposure to cultures other than your own is on television or social media, you can’t say you know anything. Media consumption is self-selected – you watch things you enjoy. If you’re a KKK member, you’re way more likely to be watching Fox and Friends, which reinforces your racist views, than Dear White People, which does not.

It’s human to be afraid of what we don’t understand, and when confronted with a set of social cues and conventions we don’t understand, it’s natural to feel awkward. But it’s only recently that people have gone from “I don’t exactly understand what’s expected of me in this interaction” to “I’m angry that I’m being confronted by my own ignorance.” And it seems that it’s increasingly true that just the presence of an Other whose culture might be different from one’s own is enough to make a person uncomfortable. It’s a vicious cycle: see an Other whose culture you’re not sure of, demand that Other explain their presence, be (rightfully) denied that explanation, get angry that the person Other isn’t conforming to your expectation of their behavior, demand validation from an authority that your mistrust of the Other is justified. But just because the systems of power in our country support narrow-minded, bigoted attitudes doesn’t make those attitudes correct. It just means that we have to work harder to confront our own narrow-minded, bigoted attitudes, rather than ask those we’re hurting to do the work for us.

What do you mean when you tell someone they’re making you uncomfortable? I would suggest that it’s time to remove “uncomfortable” from your vocabulary. Not permanently, but maybe let it go on an extended vacation. Do the work of drilling down on why you feel uneasy around certain people or situations, and then do the work of figuring out the right way of expressing it. It could be by saying “I’m not looking for your approval” to someone who makes personal remarks about you. Or it could be by introducing yourself to someone you don’t know and getting to know them better. Or it could be by shutting your mouth and walking away.

Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide

I have a tendency to spin off first drafts like nobody’s business. I’m never at a loss for ideas, and every time I come up with something interesting that I could expand into a story, I write it down somewhere.

The hard part in turning a first draft into a finished product is knowing exactly what belongs in a story. I have a couple of specific faults as a writer that I’m constantly fighting against.

The first is that I have had the lesson “show, don’t tell” ingrained in me so much so that I forget that sometimes, you have to just say a thing outright, and then back up that telling with showing. Too many times, I’ve left important information in my mind, because as I write, my brain is filling in all the necessary information. It takes another reader to tell me that they don’t understand part of my story for me to know what I’ve left out.

The second is that I don’t always know where to place the POV. I’m a big fan of historical fiction where the POV is a character on the periphery of major events – a servant or underling in a position to see events unfold. But that’s not right for every story. It means that I have spent a lot of time re-writing work to change the POV.

Now I spend a lot of time thinking about the math that I, as a stereotypical English major, have done my level best to ignore.

ADD:

Go back and make sure that you’ve included all the information the reader needs to get a complete picture of the action. Does your character have magical powers? Make sure they’re stated somewhere obvious! You can show them in action later, but you don’t want your readers to say “How did that tree spring up out of nowhere?” because you forgot to mention that your main character is a dryad.

SUBTRACT:

I’ve now written this post about four times, because I have a tendency to put in a lot of stuff that’s not necessary, and distracts from my main point. When you add too much unnecessary detail, you distract from your story and drag down the pace. Especially when writing short fiction, it’s really important that every word pulls its weight. If you’re taking the time to point out that Aunt Harriet always wore an eight-inch hatpin with a ruby on it, she had better stab someone with it at some point, otherwise you’ve added a detail we don’t need and distracted us from more important things, like the pistol in Aunt Harriet’s apron pocket.

MULTIPLY:

I’m an opera fan. One of the features of opera is that each character tends to have a recognizable theme (if you’re unfamiliar with this convention, listen to Peter and the Wolf, a great introduction). Thematic images work the same way in literature. Perhaps one character is associated with the color blue, or roses, or sadness – go back over your manuscript and look for opportunities to add that to your piece, giving your reader one more way to fix that character in their mind.

DIVIDE:

The last thing is knowing how to break up your story. In a shorter work, it’s easy to represent changes in scenery or time with a few words, but in a much longer work, it can blur the passage of time or scenery. Sometimes it’s hard to know where one chapter should end and the next one begin, so I like to apply the Treasure Island Rule. When my children were small, I read them Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s a perfect book for smaller kids, because the chapters are short and always end on a cliffhanger, keeping the children engaged until the next night. We’d get to the end of a chapter, and I would give a dramatic “Da da DAAAAAAAAAAAA” like the music just before a commercial in a 70s detective show. Find those dramatic cliffhanger moments and make them the end of your chapters.

Now I’m back to polishing up this book, which I plan to pitch at a conference next month. Wish me luck!