I haven’t had much to say on the Mallorie Nasrallah letter. I think this three-line comment has been the sum of my reaction. I realized that’s because I’ve said it all before, with the focus being compliments instead of sexual advances. This was originally posted here.

Having been mostly away from the internet for the last couple of weeks, I’m late to the party as usual, but I still think there’s something that needs to be said about the reception that Sheril of The Intersection received at Discover Blogs. Well, not so much about the reception itself. Sheril said just about everything that needed to be said about that. Scicurious’s take on the incident is well worth reading, as well, as is DrugMonkey’s commentary on why this should and does matter to men too.

So after all that, and everything else that’s been said, what’s left to talk about? Maybe the fact that every single time a discussion like this occurs, someone wants to know when compliments are appropriate. Sure, the temptation is there to dismiss the questions as distractions from the discussion at hand, but it is a real question for many people. Some of those comments are honest cris de coeur. And the conflicting responses, plus the occasional “never outside a relationship” aren’t helpful.

The real answer is both blindingly simple and incredibly difficult in practice: it’s negotiable.

Personal compliments are like touch, like nicknames and entrusted secrets. They’re an intimacy. They’re something that entails giving up a little bit of our personal integrity by letting someone in.

Intimacies are a good thing. We build relationships by exchanging these small pieces of ourselves and by treating them well. We build trust out of intimacies.

But intimacies also require trust, and they’re not something we can or want to share with everyone. If you’ve ever wondered why someone considers it infantilizing to be on the receiving end of an unwanted intimacy, just think about that relative–I don’t know which relative it was for you, but we’ve all had one–who wouldn’t stop calling you by your childhood nickname even after you graduated from high school, or who tried to smooth down your hair after you spent all that time getting it to do that. When we’re children, we don’t always have choices about what intimacies to accept. As adults, we should. That part should be simple.

Which brings us to negotiation. Negotiation isn’t simple, but it’s the only way to deal with the fact that rules just can’t cover as much complexity as people can produce. It’s one (very tempting) thing to say that personal compliments are never acceptable in a professional context, but that ignores the extent to which people become friends with their coworkers.

It also can’t account for professions in which the personal and the professional overlap to a greater degree, such as acting or sales. I have a friend who used to be a coworker who, before a big sales pitch, would need to know that he looked good. Because he trusted me to be critical and to not be in competition with him since I wasn’t in sales, he came to me for his reassurance. I’ve doled out more personal compliments in a professional situation than perhaps anyone but a stage director.

Now, that doesn’t mean that he asked me, “Is this sweater too tight or just tight enough?” my first day on the job, as my answer then would have been, “Needs to be tighter. You’re still breathing.” There was, in fact, one strongly worded discussion about taking anything about our friendship for granted somewhere along the way. But eventually we negotiated our way to the point where he could ask something like that and I could answer and neither of us was made uncomfortable.

Really, that’s all this kind of negotiation is about, finding that point where both parties are comfortable. How to do that is much more complicated. It’s not something that anyone teaches us, and there are as many means of negotiation as there are potential outcomes. Also, American society doesn’t put a very high premium on the kind of emotional honesty, with ourselves or each other, that would make this all much easier.

That said, here are a few guidelines for negotiating intimacy:

  1. Least desired intimacy always wins. If someone is experiencing less intimacy than they want, they may feel frustrated. Dealing with frustration is what makes us adults. If someone is experiencing more intimacy than they want, they feel, at best, uncomfortable. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.
  2. Intimacy comes in stages and levels. If you start slowly and progress slowly, you’re much less likely to overshoot.
  3. Intimacy does not move in only one direction through time. Just because you had, or gave, permission for something before, it doesn’t necessarily extend forever.
  4. Every relationship is a new negotiation. The intimacy between two people is shaped by their shared experiences and may not reflect the level of intimacy either one is willing to share with you.
  5. Be sure. As I mentioned before, some people are not very good at communicating what they want. Some people are not very good at picking up on subtle communication. We’re all good at seeing what we want to see, as well as seeing what we fear. Know what level of clarity you need not to make mistakes. If you have to keep asking, “May I?” out loud, that’s okay.
  6. Negotiation is an intimacy as well. If someone doesn’t want to negotiate, stop. If you don’t trust someone to negotiate fairly, you don’t want to be intimate with them, in any sense.

Simple, right? Well, no. Negotiating intimacy and relationships is one of the harder things people do, and we shouldn’t ever pretend otherwise. If we didn’t all make mistakes at it, well, the self-help publishing industry would implode. Then we wouldn’t all know what planet we’re from.

Seriously, though, you will make mistakes. Communication is difficult, and anyone who tells you otherwise has merely limited their audience to the people with whom they’re comfortable communicating. But knowing that you have to negotiate is freeing, too, when you realize it means that you’re not trying to learn a set of rules that, to the extent they exist, are more often than not defined by their exceptions.

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11 thoughts on “Negotiables

  1. 1

    Spot on.
    Life isn’t easy, deal with it.
    Only one thing:

    When we’re children, we don’t always have choices about what intimacies to accept

    They should have. I understand fully that sometimes you just have to remove their bodily autonomy and lift them, hold them, wash them, restrict them.
    But for gestures that are usually considered to be intimate, they should have their fully autonomy.
    I hate it when especially elderly women think they can touch, pat, caress my daughters just because they’re cute girls. Way to teach them early on that their bodies are not their own.
    I respect every child’s right to refuse my “advances”. I ask them. Sometimes I’m getting a no, not because they actually don’t want me to hug/kiss/hold them, but because they enjoy being in control over those things.

  2. 3

    Intimacy is a penetration of personal space. This always comes in layers, and the layer ordering varies from culture to culture and from person to person within cultures. You can pretty well bet that the layer ordering is different between genders within just about every culture.

    Ignorance is no excuse.

    That said, it’s a pretty good bet that the more distant the subject is from people, the less personal it is. Commenting on the location of someone’s house is less personal than commenting on the architecture, which is less personal than commenting on the decor, which is less personal than commenting on clothing, which is less personal than commenting on hairstyle, etc.

  3. 4

    Sometimes I’m getting a no, not because they actually don’t want me to hug/kiss/hold them, but because they enjoy being in control over those things.

    emphasis mine

    This. So much.

    However awesome making friends and forming new relationships may be for some, nothing beats being in control of your own space.

  4. 5

    Yeah, intimacy can be a tricky thing. Usually, people can use the Golden Rule, but I know from personal experience that there are those who are extreme on both ends of the spectrum. And there are those who change how intimate they are with you wildly for no reason, which are exceedingly difficult people with whom to deal.

  5. 6

    Usually, people can use the Golden Rule

    There’s a reason many of us prefer the negative (sometimes called “silver”) formulation. Projecting my preferences onto someone else (“do unto others”) is a lot riskier than assuming, at a minimum, that things I don’t like will also be objectionable to them.

    Not adequate, but a start.

  6. 7

    And there are those who change how intimate they are with you wildly for no reason, which are exceedingly difficult people with whom to deal.

    This is when it’s a really good thing to be able to say, “No, I think I desire less intimacy,” and have that stand.

  7. 8

    Thanks, Stephanie, this is such a thoughtful post – sometimes there cannot be a rule – even one as simple as the Golden or Silver rule. Both, as is pointed out above, necessarily involve some amount of projection.

    Negotiation, as you rightly point out, is a two-way street. A process, not a set of rules. Not projection, but asking, suggesting, listening, and acting on actual information received. Being open to ebb and flow, and to new learning about others and oneself. Respecting that others are not carbon copies of oneself, or fixed stereotyped “others.”

    Asking someone else to tell you what the rules are, so you will never offend or hurt them, is simply lazy. You’re asking them to do all the heavy lifting so you don’t have to. That is just not a good context for letting intimacy, and desire, develop.

    Thanks for putting that all of that into a “thinkable” framework!

  8. 9

    Asking someone else to tell you what the rules are, so you will never offend or hurt them, is simply lazy. You’re asking them to do all the heavy lifting so you don’t have to.

    Proceeding from one stage to another is inherently risky. Even asking if the change is acceptable isn’t without risk, but nothing in life really is.

    Example: most women are at least somewhat open to comments on their clothing [1] — as with much of what we do with our appearance, it’s at least partly intended to draw attention. However, it’s still somewhat risky for a dude to bring up the topic. Nothing ventured, nothing gained; to a co-worker I’ve known for a while and have established at least some trust with (e.g. she talks to me about her family): “I hope I’m not out of line, but that’s a lovely fabric. What is it?” Pay careful attention — you may not get an explicit “I don’t want to talk about it” but anything less than an enthusiastic launch into the topic is a pretty good hint.

    Working in a highly multicultural office, I get a lot of opportunities to observe, and sometimes discuss, styles when people (almost always women, oh well) come dressed “traditional.” Whatever — bringing in fresh garden produce gets a lot of free recipe advice.

    So far, so good — I’m gotten to the point with several co-workers where I’m in trouble if I don’t notice a new outfit or hairstyle. That’s about my limit anyway.

    [1] No, not in the “shows off your figure!” sense.

  9. 10

    Well, and how does this tie into misogyny? Women are asking to be considered as equal partners in the tricky process of interpersonal negotiations. That’s all. If I say, “That makes me uncomfortable,” continuing to do that marks you as an asshole, and if your penchant to continue doing that despite my discomfort is motivated by a subconscious belief that women are supposed to accept X type of compliment, or always be open to come-ons, or something like that, well, that’s misogyny.

    Personally, I’ve been lucky in that my co-workers have always been very nice people. I’ve gotten tons of compliments from both men and women about my choice of attire or makeup or jewelry, and it’s never come across as rude or invasive. So it definitely can be done. I don’t even think it’s that hard, so long as you classify women as part of your in-group, i.e. human beings who are deserving of empathy and consideration.

  10. 11

    Well, how about the Platinum Rule: Do unto them as they want you to.
    How does it tie in with misogyny? I’d consider it to be one of those “clue in the people who think it’s soooo complicated” posts.
    Well, no shit, it is complicated.
    Not offending people you don’t want to offend isn’t easy, we’re going to do so sometimes.
    But the instances can be reduced.
    Paying attention is one of those clues. No, women aren’t mysterious. Nor are men. People, on the other hand, are complicated.
    I think we need both: being able to say “please don’t do that, I’m feeling uncomfortable” without being the asshole, and not pushing people over the boundary that they need to tell you that in the first place.
    If you try to move forward in a relationship (of any kind), try a small step. Watch out how the person reacts to it.
    People usually do give clues as to whether they found it appropriate or not.
    But claiming that it’s too complicated is a sure sign of not wanting to negotiate, but wanting to dictate.
    Seriously, most people are quite competent at interpreting whether their pets are comfortable or not. If we can do that with another species, not doing it with our own is just lazy.

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