We live in different worlds

At Slate Star Codex, a long (very long) but fascinating (very fascinating) post about the different words we inhabit.

A few years ago I had lunch with another psychiatrist-in-training and realized we had totally different experiences with psychotherapy.

We both got the same types of cases. We were both practicing the same kinds of therapy. We were both in the same training program, studying under the same teachers. But our experiences were totally different. In particular, all her patients had dramatic emotional meltdowns, and all my patients gave calm and considered analyses of their problems, as if they were lecturing on a particularly boring episode from 19th-century Norwegian history.

I’m not bragging here. I wish I could get my patients to have dramatic emotional meltdowns. As per the textbooks, there should be a climactic moment where the patient identifies me with their father, then screams at me that I ruined their childhood, then breaks down crying and realizes that she loved her father all along, then ???, and then their depression is cured. I never got that. I tried, I even dropped some hints, like “Maybe this reminds you of your father?” or “Maybe you feel like screaming at me right now?”, but they never took the bait. So I figured the textbooks were misleading, or that this was some kind of super-advanced technique, or that this was among the approximately 100% of things that Freud just pulled out of his ass.

And then I had lunch with my friend, and she was like “It’s so stressful when all of your patients identify you with their parents and break down crying, isn’t it? Don’t you wish you could just go one day without that happening?”

This experience leads to a more generalized investigation about the extraordinarily different experiences of life that people accumulate, including experiences of bias:

Sometimes I write about discrimination, and people send me emails about their own experiences. Many sound like this real one (quoted here with permission) from a woman who studied computer science at MIT and now works in the tech industry:

In my life, I have never been catcalled, inappropriately hit on, body-shamed, unwantedly touched in a sexual way, discouraged from a male-dominated field, told I couldn’t do something because it was a boy thing, or suffered from many other experiences that have traditionally served as examples as ways that women are less privileged. I have also never been shamed for not following gender norms (e.g. doing a bunch of math/science/CS stuff); instead I get encouraged and told that I’m a role model. I’ve never had problems going around wearing no make-up, a t-shirt, and cargo pants; but on the rare occasion that I do wear make-up / wear a dress, that’s completely socially acceptable…Hopefully my thoughts/experiences are helpful for your future social justice based discussions.

Other times they sound like the opposite. I don’t have anyone in this category who’s given me permission to quote their email verbatim (consider ways this might not be a coincidence), but they’re pretty much what you’d expect – a litany of constantly being put down, discriminated against, harassed, et cetera, across multiple jobs, at multiple companies, to the point where they complain it’s “endemic” (I guess I can quote one word) and that we need to reject a narrative of “a few bad apples” because really it’s a problem with all men to one degree or another…. These people don’t just show up in my inbox. Some of them write articles on Slate, Medium, even The New Yorker, discussing not just how they’ve never experienced discrimination, but how much anger and backlash they’ve received when they try to explain this to everyone else. And all of them acknowledge that they know other people whose experiences seem to be the direct opposite.

The whole post is very much worth reading, but I found this section the most intriguing. If you have time and find this sort of thing at all interesting, please click through and read the whole thing.

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4 thoughts on “We live in different worlds”

  1. OK, that is utterly fascinating and also utterly relieving–it makes so much sense of so many things: like the fact that I have never been catcalled or otherwise harassed BUT also tend to be overlooked and easily forgotten even by my friends, and so clearly I must send out a “don’t notice me” vibe, both in good ways and not-so-good.

    I had to laugh reading through the comments of that article, too, with how many people say they are always stopped for directions–that’s my husband, even in places he’s never been before, and yep, he definitely has an “I know what I’m doing” vibe going for him.

    I love finding something that suddenly helps all the disparate pieces of my life experiences click into place and make SENSE.

  2. My brother has the “Ask me for directions” aura, I think. I don’t have that one, but I have the “Don’t bother me” aura, apparently very strongly. Not so much a “Don’t notice me” as “Just not interested, don’t even try.” I never get harassed either. I agree with you, the article just made the world click into a more understandable form for me.

  3. I try to promote a standoffish aura, because I have non-existent small-talk skills and am not a people person, but it only works on people who weren’t likely to bother me anyway. I’ll keep trying until I get it right.

    I don’t mind how I often get asked for directions or if I’m an employee because at least those are factual questions I can helpfully answer, but for whatever reason my cultivated aura does not work at all on the on the very people I want it for. Chatty let-me-tell-you-my-life-story people zero in on me in a crowd. I think they can sense my fear and how I’m non-threatening and defenseless. I’ll be sitting at the bus stop, reading my books, minding my own business, and all of a sudden they will just TALK at me and I would like to say, “please leave me alone and bother one of the numerous OTHER people waiting for this bus? Can’t you see I’m reading?” but I’m too conflict avoidant to even manage that. Ugh. I shouldn’t have to actually hide from old ladies…

    Meanwhile my partner is over 6 feet tall and basically a 400lb sasquatch and yet when in public random little kids of both genders come up to him all the time to ask him to tie their shoes, or to play with them. It is so strange. He almost steps on them because they’re below knee level. Adults find him variously interesting (male) or threatening (female) because of his size, but kids, they know their own, apparently.

  4. Awwww. There’s something about big guys and little kids. Same as big guys and little tiny dogs. Totally cute.

    I wish I could tell you how to do the DON’T BOTHER ME, SO TOTALLY NOT INTERESTED IN YOUR BORING LIFE aura. I hope you manage to develop that! Or else perfect your ability to get people to go away. Miss Manners recommended, if I recall correctly, this scenario:

    You are reading on a bus or in another public place.
    Someone speaks to you.
    After a beat or two, you look up, gaze at them blankly for a second without really focusing on them, and say, “What?”
    They repeat whatever they said.
    After a beat or two longer of blank gazing, you say, “Oh,” and go back to your book.

    If you try that, I hope it works! I always thought it *seemed* like it should do the job of communicating “I am so absorbed in this book I can’t even really notice you right now.”

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