The anxiety about misspeaking with people different from oneself

Recently a person I’d just met accused me of being intrusive when I asked where she lived and whether she’d returned to working in the office yet. Although I didn’t think the questions were too personal, she said I’d crossed a line and was interrogating her, soliciting information and not sharing anything about myself.

I didn’t share anything about myself because you didn’t ask, I thought.

For several days afterward, my attention was on how the incident made me feel. In my mind I wasn’t the offender but the offended. 

As my pique receded with distance, I wondered whether I could understand the other woman beyond concluding that she lacks social skills. She is African American. Although I wanted to think that race was not a factor in the incident, I doubt that many Black-white stranger interactions are race blind. 

The encounter reinforced my anxiety about saying the wrong thing to a Black person. 

A friend said that she’s similarly anxious around a nonbinary person who uses the pronoun they. She’s afraid of slipping up and using a singular pronoun. 

I’ve also heard about the trepidation some men feel about misspeaking now that #MeToo has raised their consciousness.

If well-meaning people are this nervous about offending, how are we going to be able to talk across boundaries and achieve some level of understanding? I hadn’t brought up hot-button topics, just the sort of conversation starters I thought were common and acceptable. If those got pushback, how could more sensitive matters be discussed?

That sounds faultfinding, not where I intended to go. Let’s assume my attention was offensive for reasons I don’t understand. How might I get closer to understanding?

A start might be to think less about my discomfort and more about a person who doesn’t come to the encounter from a position of historic privilege. I don’t know what it’s like to be in the shoes of a Black person, a trans person, etc., but I know that they have reasons to be suspicious of people from groups that oppressed them.

I can’t know why the woman did not want to answer what seemed to me innocuous questions, but I could allow that it was her prerogative. Perhaps in a similar situation, the safest thing would be to comment about our surroundings and gauge from the response whether the person is open to conversation.

At the same time, I should accept that I’ll make conversational mistakes and not fear them so much. When I do, I can apologize instead of responding defensively. “I was just trying to be friendly” was the response I gave the woman, but I could have said, “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.” 

Above all, I should not let anxiety and mistakes result in avoiding talking to people who are different from me. Avoidance is a symptom of the white fragility that antiracism educator Robin DiAngelo wrote about in her book of that name. White liberals (myself included) have a thin skin when it comes to racial discomfort, DiAngelo said. Convinced of our own good intentions, we shift our focus to our hurt feelings instead of the other person’s perspective. Another writer, Forbes magazine senior contributor Dana Brownlee, mentioned the emotionality of well-intentioned white women in particular as a stumbling block toward better understanding.

If I’ve used a racial lens to look at something that wasn’t about race after all, the effort was still worthwhile. Greater awareness will help when race is a factor.

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  • Thank you, Marianne. I think isolation has made all of our social skills a bit more raw than they should be, but even as introverted as I am, I know I need to keep talking and connecting.

    The trouble can be that sometimes I find someone else who wants to connect and has found me just as I've had enough questions for that day. If I get a flurry of questions, I may respond with "I'm sorry, but I don't want to talk very much right now," thus making it clear (I hope!) that I'm regretting my own temporary shortcoming.

    Or I might say "I don't feel like talking, but I won't mind listening," then turn the other person's question back on themselves. I've done that and had the other person say the question was too personal. Then, swallowing the "Ta da!" I'd like to say, I just walk away quietly.

  • Margaret, your comment about encountering someone just when you've had enough questions for the day is interesting, and I will give it more thought.

  • In reply to Marianne Goss:

    Thank you, Marianne. I remember having to say it in pre-virus days by evening, after long days of having to talk to people. These days, it can happen much earlier. I hope you'll find the reply useful.

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