Well... maybe not always. It's something I started thinking about seriously in 2008, when I took a class called Interpersonal Basis for Abnormal Psychology with Professor Len Horowitz. If I had to summarize ten weeks of learning in a paragraph, it would be this one:
All of human interaction can be graphed on an X-Y axis, where X is communion (actions that show caring and bring us closer to others) and Y is agency (actions that establish power or authority. During social interactions, the behavior of one person invites complementary behavior from the other person -- or else there is tension in their system. If I do/say something that is high in agency, the complementary response will be low in agency -- we can't both be the authority. Meanwhile, if I do something high in communion, the complementary response would also be high in communion -- we like people who like us, and it hurts to be rejected.
Say you've got a friend who tells you they're feeling depressed. You care, and you want to help. So the next time you see them, you say, "Sweetie, how are you?" "Are you okay?" Where do these questions fall on Horowitz's X-Y graph? Well, on the one hand, they are high in communion, because you are showing that you care about your friend. But on the other, they are also high in agency -- basically what you're saying is, "I'm okay and you're not, so let me help you."
There's, like, a 50% chance that your friend is struggling with feelings of low communion, and your actions will make them feel good. "Look!" they'll think, "Someone cares about me, after all."
But there's also a 50-ish% chance that your friend is struggling with feelings of low agency -- and your high-agency questions force them to make a choice: a high-agency response, which, as I mentioned, causes tension ("I'm FINE -- WHY do you ask?" "Of COURSE I'm fine." "Bug off!")... or a low-agency response, which is demoralizing! And the complete opposite of what they need.
This, too, is demoralizing. Rather than expressing sympathy and understanding, you're basically saying, "The problem is that you don't know how to take care of yourself. So I will tell you how to take care of yourself." Which is obviously very high in agency. Not to mention, as this comic so beautifully illustrates:
Learning about the Dilemma of the Depressed Person made me angry and concerned about the way we "help" depressed people in our society...
But then I got to thinking. What about other groups of "disempowered" people? For example, people with disabilities? Sexual assault victims? Negatively stereotyped minorities?
About two seconds of research revealed that, yes. These people are regularly on the receiving end of high-agency behavior. It is shocking, and a little sad, that the United Spinal Association has to explicitly say,
Ask before you help
Just because someone has a disability, don’t assume she needs help. Adults with disabilities want to be treated as independent people. Offer assistance only if the person appears to need it. A person with a disability will often communicate when she needs help. And if she does want help, ask how before you act.
Be sensitive about physical contact
Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for balance. Grabbing them, even if your intention is to assist, could knock them off balance. Avoid patting a person on the head or touching his wheelchair, scooter or cane. People with disabilities consider their equipment part of their personal space.
Don’t make assumptions
People with disabilities are the best judge of what they can or cannot do. Don’t make decisions for them about participating in any activity.
But I guess it's not that shocking. I see it all the time. For example, that time I let a boy with only one arm carry his own suitcase. Pretty much everyone who witnessed this called me a terrible person afterwards.
"Why didn't you help the poor boy? He only has one arm!"
"How could you be so heartless?"
"Would it have killed you to carry his suitcase for him?"
No. It wouldn't have killed me. But it would have killed him. Just a little. On the inside.
Think about it this way. This boy had been born a certain way. His whole life, he'd only had one arm. And, being able-bodied in so many other ways, he learned how to compensate and operate independently. And, certainly, he'd learned to ask for help when he needed it. So what message would I have sent if I had just assumed he wanted/needed my help?
"I don't think you can do it."
"You're different from me."
"I don't see a person. I see a disabled person."
Again, it's pretty demoralizing, isn't it?
But wait! I thought to myself. This isn't exclusive to people with visible disabilities. It happens... to me! All the time.
In fact, it happened last night.
I was at the gym, playing basketball. Now, keep in mind, I'm 6'0, 165 pounds, and I've been playing ball since I was five. I was a Boston Globe All-Star, an MVP and a DI athlete. I did Class-III rapids my first day of whitewater kayaking last weekend, and a few days later, I biked 73 miles around Lake Tahoe. (It was probably my fifth bike ride ever, and my first ever longer-than-40-mile ride.) I might decide to up and run a marathon someday, just 'cause whatever.
In other words, I'm taller, stronger and more athletic than the average man. I've got abs that look like this:
Comparing my height/weight/skill level to those of the others on my team -- and the opposing team -- it was obvious who I should guard. So I interrupted.
"I want the guy in the black shirt."
Keg Belly smiled sweetly and said, "Him? No! You need someone who isn't going to muscle you around."
"Are you kidding? I guarantee that I could muscle the fuck out of you," I answered. "So why do you think I need to be treated like a delicate little flower?" I may have also said something along the lines of how rude and sexist he was... And scoffed at him every time he got scored on by his man, who certainly wasn't having trouble muscling Keg Belly around.
Likewise, when I play basketball with men, and men fall down, the game goes on like nothing happened. But, often, when I fall down -- everything stops. Men look shocked and horrified. They run to my aid to ask if I'm okay. I used to say something pretty rude when they did that. But now, I just say, "Of course -- why wouldn't I be?" (Which, you know, if not the complementary response, and causes tension in our system. But, as I've said before, it's important to #BeRude sometimes.)
And when you give people unsolicited advice, there is a large chance that that is what you're doing -- perhaps to someone you care about.
Which is completely stupid! Because, for all you know, you're a Keg Belly talking to a Six Pack.
The other thing about the horrible, "Are you okay?" question is that... it can be really inconsiderate and uncomfortable for the person you're asking. Like, I play ball, it's inconsiderate because it's like you're telling me I'm not as fast or strong or good as you.
But when you ask it to someone who's actually struggling through something, like depression or a sexual assault... You're kind of bringing up something they might rather not talk about. Someone recently posted on r/depression, Does anyone else hate being asked , "Are you okay?" Users commented,
Which... makes sense. You wouldn't ask someone you didn't know that well, "Hey, how did your colonoscopy go? Are you okay?" "Hey, how's the new birth control working out for you? Is everything okay?" So why inquire about an equally sensitive mental health issue? Or an extremely personal matter?
It makes sense because there's all this demand for "trigger warnings" on books, movies and news articles online... yet we mindlessly ask people we love how their personal struggles are going. You know that good mood they might have been in when you asked that? Yeah, it's gone. Out the window.
It makes sense because there are so many better things you could be asking them. Questions that remind them that, just because they're struggling now, they're totally hanging in there and doing fine. Questions that show them you know they can do it. Questions that reassure them that they are still the person they used to be, and you totally still see them that way.
Questions that remind them that they still have agency, independence, and autonomy. But that you care, and are totally ready to support them, if and when they need it.
- How's it going?
- What're you working on these days?
- Let's catch up soon -- like really catch up. What's your schedule look like this week?
- You've always been really good at ___. Can I pick your brain for a project I've been working on?
- You're an important friend to me.
- If you ever need anything, let me know! You were totally there for me that time when _____.
- Wanna go for a walk? I'd love to get outside for a bit today! We can talk about whatever. Or we can just listen to the birds.
- I'm pretty much going to sit at my house alone and watch Netflix tonight. I'd love it if you'd sit with me. Or we can go to your place -- you have that awesome couch!
- Can I get some advice about _____?
- You look great today!
- It's SO GREAT to see you!
- Seeing you always makes my day!
- I was JUST thinking about you! Remember that time we ________!?
- Get over here and give me a huge hug!! (you know, if that's appropriate in the context of your relationship)
- I saw that you accomplished _____. Way to go!
- I've been on this thing lately where I've been asking people, "What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?" What's yours?
- This is sort of random -- but what are three things about yourself that are important to you?
BUT. Let's be real. Whoever you're talking to, anywhere in the world, each of these questions is better, more personal, and more interesting than some generic, scripted question like, "Are you okay?" I mean, if that's all you've got, why don't you just delete your default SMS app and replace it with Yo?
I haven't tested this, either, but I would daresay that people who used a mindful, thoughtful greeting like the ones above would probably also be seen as warmer and more charismatic. (Remember: charisma is a science, not an art.) So... get mindful. Be a better conversationalist. Treat people like people, and ask better questions.
Do you have a greeting/question you use to get a conversation going? Share it in the comments, below!