Sunday, July 16, 2023

Words Matter Series: "Feels Like Disrespect" Versus "Was Disrespect"

A friend today posted a quote along the lines of "Just because it's all inside your head doesn't make it less real".

This brought to mind a wording critique I've been frustrated with for years and finally will try to organize some thoughts around. Today is the longtime coming "feels like versus was" critique article. 

This is one that bothered me for literal years. Possibly (probably?) starting as yet again feeling invalidated in professional therapy services. Have also seen it in day to day conversation. Since then, I've had probably two dozen or so in depth conversations about this with a range of mixed reactions, and am hoping to continue exploring and trying to explain my reactions to it, ideally with open and respectful curiosity.

So what is the fuss I'm trying to make? Imagine this common situation. One person is recounting a story of experiencing disrespect at work to a friend. The friend, in trying to reflect and/or be an active listener, replies with "I hear that you felt disrespected".

I'l start with a question - does that, to you all reading this, feel like a validating response? No wrong answer here per se, we all have subjective reactions to language.

What I can report is that, for me, and at least some others I've talked to, we can often very intense feelings of invalidation hearing phrasing like this. And it doesn't have to be about disrespect. It can be about almost anything. You felt ignored. You felt sad. You felt weird. Etc. 

Sticking with the above example, why is it sounding invalidating? For me, it's because the phrase "feel like" implies non-reality for me and my verbal world. It sounds like the person is directly saying "no, you weren't actually being disrespected, you only felt (i.e. perceived) disrespect". And the phrase carries additional implied weight of "also, it's your fault that you're misinterpreting what actually was not in any way disrespect. Even though it felt that way to you, you should not be feeling that way.".

In my verbal world, if a person agreed that disrespect truly had occurred, or at least agrees with or trusts my report of it, they'd say "oh no, you were disrespected! How are you doing with that?" Not "oh no, you felt disrespected!". 

If such a reaction sounds foreign and nonsensical to you, we likely live in different verbal worlds. One early theory why (though not exclusive) - I'm a survivor of severe childhood and adulthood verbal and emotional abuse/violence. My experiences were and are dismissed constantly, and semantics are very much one weapon in that assault. So, that's the background I bring to this. Maybe I need to change my verbal world, maybe you need to change yours. Maybe it's just hard to translate. That's a topic itself.

Here's my pitch for my verbal world, and the underlying concepts trying to be captured where maybe it's the word systems itself failing us all?

An underlying question in the example above - was the person actually treated with disrespect? What does that question itself even mean?

To start with, back to re-inventing humanities 101, it's helpful to remember that we're in the realm of social dynamics, not physics. Human minds are unique, carbon atoms are not. The social dynamics world includes operating with subjectivity. It also includes intent and impact. To understand disrespect, I believe we need to keep all that in mind. This includes two important underlying questions of...

- What is disrespectful, what isn't, who decides, and whose rules are we going to follow? 

- Under a given definition of disrespect, was disrespect intended? Was it accidental?

- Was the situation perceived "correctly" by the person experiencing disrespect. Did they hear all the words accurately, etc.?

- Separate to the question of literally accurate, did they hear the interaction as intended. Were assumptions made? Were the assumptions correct?

We sometimes half-joke knowingly about how hard communication is. The above is part of why. There is so much going on in communication at any given time. All of the questions above, I'd hope, ought to matter if we want to fully unpack the situation of disrespect accurately, where accurate means "accounting for the full interaction". Sometimes that's a lot of effort, and people feel mixed about time, effort, skill, and worth in doing so. I try not to be too judge-y, but I'm very much in the camp of "let's get the understanding right, even if it takes a while".

And, back to the main topic of the article, the point is this. We have at least a half dozen subsets of info and perspectives to consider with the concept of disrespect for any given situation. Given that, what does this phrase actually even mean..

"You were disrespected"

Disrespected according to which definition / cultural / personal understanding of disrespect? Was it intentional or accidental? Was it was it perceived wrong or perceived correctly? All of these are very different scenarios, and none of them seem explicitly specified by the phrase "you were disrespected".

I think what instead happens is a lot of people assume certain answers to these questions are connoted (meant/suggested) by certain phrasing, or by the additional context or subtext of the given conversation. And, finally, to arrive at the thesis of this article, I find that...

 •  One subset of people assume the exact same certain answers to these social dynamic assumptions with both "it felt like" and "it was" as phrases.

 •  Another subset of people (including me myself!) assume two different sets of certain answers to these social dynamic assumptions with the "it felt like" and "it was" phrasings.

In particular, for me, the phrasing "felt like" was "was" is very much (in my perception of it) us having a conversation about whether the person should've felt disrespected or not. Which is just one of the half dozen dynamics we could be talking about. But it's the one that's always on my mind, probably because I suffer from both internalized and externalized neoliberalism syndrome (excessive and unjust fault placed on the individuals instead of on external circumstance). Fault is always top of my mind.

To me, "feels like" says that, while you did feel disrespected at the time, with later reflection you are no longer agreeing that it was actual disrespect. It's, in a sense, a mistake that you felt that way. An error.

Whereas "was disrespected" is no mistake. Something wrong actually did happen, at least as you see problem. And likely as you'd want others to also it. There is no mistake or error in how you are feeling. You should be feeling disrespected, because you were disrespected. Whereas in the prior case, even though you did feel disrespected, there was actually no real need to (though it did happen) and it was just a mistake. 

Even that, I'll admit, sounds a bit shaky to me as a description. It really confusing to talk about all feelings as real, in the sense that we feel what we feel (in that sense, feelings are never "wrong"). If you're sad, you're sad. Telling someone they aren't is just sort of invalidating or gaslighting them. We feel what we feel. 

But then there's the next level of analysis, where we might assess what to make of how we feel. Are the feelings justified? And other such questions. At the level, we can start to make value judgements. Looking back, we were confused? Were our perceptions correct or not? Are the feelings lingering, and why is that?

And to me, my thought is that current language is absolutely abysmal and astoundingly ill-equipped to empower us to have effective conversation about all these dynamics at play. It disempowers us from being more effective navigators of emotions, conflict, and other personal and social dynamics of the mind.

 Which leads to one of the reasons this blog was founded, which is to ask for support in exploring these  sorts of words and other "failures of concepts themselves problems, make them more understandable, and offer starts into co-developing potential solutions. 

Hopefully the above made sense. Writing this made me still understand that I still feel (and am!) only about 70% sure what I wrote above even makes sense to me. But I am 100% sure that something is going on with this "feels like" versus "was" phrasing, and I really want to nail down what it is because it's bugging the crap out of me and makes me uncomfortable everyday. Which itself is a good window into the world of Hypersemantic Sensitivity as a condition. 

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This article brought to you by the currently unfunded Peer Voices Network. 

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