Author’s note: Before you start reading this, I have to state something for the record. I am literal to an appalling level. The world frustrates me, with its inability to simply state what it means. That means that this post will baffle a lot of you. Take comfort; the world baffles me just as much.
Just because you perceive something to be intentional does not make it so. I need to start with that.
Just because they left that wet towel on the bathroom floor does not mean that they expect you to pick it up; you have projected that intent upon them. You are angry with a projection, not a person.
Just because I’m telling you what I feel on this subject does not imply that I regard myself as some kind of authority on this; on anything in fact. This is an opinion piece, and I am sharing opinions with you. As such they carry no weight, and should be considered precisely as instructive as advertising.
I am a man, so I can only comment from that perspective. I apologise in advance. This post – and all of the posts I publish – could come under the label of ‘mansplaining’. That is not their intent. My sole intention is to get a few issues off my chest; if anyone is listening, then that is truly gratifying.
I was on a plane when the idea for this post came to me, and it came in the form of one well-used word: ‘Manspreading’. To my right was my partner; she chooses to be close to me. To my left was a complete stranger, a woman who did not choose to be anywhere near my personal space.
In my mind, I started to question the perceptions of my actions: was I sitting with my legs too far apart? I was only trying to be comfortable. I didn’t intend for my legs to extend out beyond that limited space which was mine; if they did, did she think I intended that to be the case? I hope not.
The mismatch between real intent and perceived intent can be incredibly corrosive: it can form false and deeply offensive impressions in the eyes of the beholder; it can lead to one party feeling that the other regards them simply as help; it can breed resentment and feelings of being used.
There are no little fairies coming to take that towel away, to put out the bins, or clean up that toast sweat. The fact that it is often unintentional is no consolation; it is often not even regarded as fact.
Imagine you and I lived together; further, imagine that every day, before I went out to work I made you a cup of tea, just how you like it, and left it waiting for you. I am doing something considerate. Now imagine the surface which the cup sat upon was granite, and that the tea was stone cold by the time you got to it. I’d imagine you would not find that quite as considerate as it was intended to be.
To take this further, look at the polling carried out prior to the 2015 UK election and subsequent EU membership referendum. The results were dramatically at odds with polls; questions were later asked of the intentions of the voters. Generalisations were made, which assumed uniform thinking by background: protest votes, a lack of education, the damaging effect of poverty. While trying to explain alienation, people became more alienated by the assumption of their intentions.
More contentiously, but only just, is the idea of clothing stores expanding their ranges by choosing to stock clothing for Muslim women. Is this pandering or capitalism? Detractors claim that the shops are only doing so in order to be politically correct. Likely they are doing so in order to make money. The idea that the intention was ‘appeasement’ is a deeply troubling indictment of our illiberal times.
Even more contentious is rapists. How often do we hear it reported that a sexual predator has used the clothes worn by a woman, or the fact that she had been drinking, as a justification for their actions? The women had chosen to be dressed in clothes which turned the rapist on, so clearly they were offering themselves for sex. Only a predator could deliberately project intent so obscenely.
There is no such thing as obvious. It is impossible to ascertain intent without deeper questioning. Trying to infer can lead to resentment, when you feel you are being used, and confusion, when the results you have identified do not come about. All of this is utterly human, yet utterly maddening.
If you find yourself listening to the words which someone has used, and saying “obviously, what they meant was…”, chances are that you did not listen to what was really said: you have projected your own views on to the skeleton of their words, likely with no consideration of their intended meaning.
If you find yourself looking at the result of an action and you create a narrative of what has gone on to create this result, what you are doing is projection. It has no weight, no truth and no basis in any kind of reality: unless you are role-playing or in drama school, you do need to know better.
If you find yourself wondering why someone reacts to you in a certain way, or is repelled by your actions, even though you thought you knew what they wanted, and modified what you are doing to fit their needs, you probably incorrectly guessed their needs: this is projection and it didn’t work.
If in doubt ask: people like it when you take their views in to account. It’s vindicating.
I hear comments from older relatives that they no longer know which words they are allowed to use, and that they find it uncomfortable. They feel alienated, not knowing the form of language which they feel that they need to use. For instance, they worry they don’t know how to address someone of transgender. Nor do I, but I suggest starting with the person’s name, and going from there.
Respect is the best start. It opens the doors to conversations with people you never knew you liked.
I’m not sure if we’re too busy to ask questions, replacing facts with assumptions and fear, or if what I am observing is as old as the human race. Most things I, and those around me, assume are modern inventions are usually anything but; human relations are as unchanging as our surroundings are not.
I hope that woman on the plane didn’t think I was manspreading, but then again, I mostly hope that I was only taking up my fair share of the allotted space. It’s far better to not need to be hated than to apologise for people hating you. Not that the airlines seem to care too much about that, however.