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.”
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.