This post was first published in April 2009. It astounds me how many people continue, years later, to think this is about some specific behavior or another instead of about consent.
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:
- 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.
- Intimacy comes in stages and levels. If you start slowly and progress slowly, you’re much less likely to overshoot.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.