"Oh so I can't say ANYTHING anymore"

Ready to get meta? Let’s get meta.

It seems that anytime the words “Please don’t say…” come out of someone’s mouth, someone else is always ready to start with the “Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING to anyone anymore” and “I guess we should just never talk to anyone ever again” and “What an awful world it would be if nobody ever said things to other people.” It also happens all the time with posts about street harassment (“Oh so now I can’t EVER talk to a woman again, how is the human race going to procreate”), racism (“Oh so everything is racist now, I guess I just shouldn’t talk to Black people except then I’m a racist anyway”), mental illness (“Ok so I should just never say anything to my friend with depression ever again, got it”), and probably others too.  I was prepared to get this response to my previous post about telling people they look tired, and oh, I got it.

And I decided that I’m tired of it and I’m not going to entertain this bullshit anymore. I’m not going to patiently repeat, “Well, I didn’t say you can’t say ANYTHING, and I even provided a list of things that are better to say…” and “No, as I said, it’s totally acceptable to say it when you’ve got that kind of relationship with the person…” Because you know what? Life’s too short. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, and all that.

I’m fully cognizant of the fact that this is only going to provoke even more “Well now I REALLY can’t say ANYTHING EVER AGAIN” like tribbles on the Enterprise, but here goes anyway.

Tribbles. So many tribbles.

First of all, it’s an annoying thing to say. It’s antagonistic and whiny. That wouldn’t in and of itself make it inadvisable to say; I’ve noted many times that it’s important to learn how to separate the message from the way the message makes you feel. So, sure, I could be annoyed at this for no good reason and maybe I should set that annoyance aside so that I can instead grasp at the nugget of truth hidden therein.

Second, in the context of a discussion, it adds nothing. It’s empirically inaccurate. It neither asks for clarification nor provides it. The only thing it accomplishes is that it expresses disapproval, but it does so in an indirect, passive-aggressive way that’s ultimately ineffective. You could, for instance, say “Now I’m worried that I’m going to offend someone through no fault of my own” or “So what can I say instead?” or “I still don’t understand why this is offensive, and that’s freaking me out because how am I going to know what else I’m not supposed to say and keep people from hating me?” (Hey, did you see that? Those were examples of things you can still say. See? You are still allowed to say things to people.) Passive-aggressiveness is a great way to annoy people and get them to ignore you, and not necessarily a great way to get your needs met.

Think about how ridiculous this argument would sound in any other context:

“I didn’t like Age of Ultron.”

“Wow I guess all movies are bad and should never have been made”

“Can you not tease me about that? It’s a sore subject.”

“So I’m not even allowed to talk to you anymore?”

“Can you please keep it down after 11? That’s when I go to bed.”

“Ok so I guess I have to be completely silent 24/7 and never communicate verbally or do anything that causes sounds”

Come on. It’s not fooling anyone.

Third, it derails and shuts down people who are trying to share their experiences. Most “Please don’t say” articles aren’t coming from Experts Dispensing Sage Advice; they’re coming from ordinary folks who are talking about difficult stuff they’ve gone through and how other people unintentionally made it even harder. If that’s not interesting to you and you don’t care about making their lives easier, that’s fine. That’s what the “close tab” button’s for, you know. If you do care about being a better friend or ally to people who are dealing with said issue, then read the article and consider it seriously.

It’s been suggested to me that “Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING” responses are coming from a place of fear of social disapproval and frustration with changing social norms. I believe it. Those are valid feelings. As someone who’s lived in three countries and six cities and has shifted political, religious, and sexual identities, I know the struggle of constantly trying to fit in and be accepted in new social spaces. It’s not easy.

Remember that ring theory thing I keep referencing, though? You need to find the right spaces in which to process your feelings about someone else’s feelings. The person who is having the original feelings–the Original Feeler, I suppose–is not the appropriate person on whom to foist your own feelings.

Just because your feelings and needs are valid doesn’t obligate anyone to do anything about them. That may sound harsh, but remember that it applies to everyone. You don’t have to take care of your friends with depression or fatigue or whatever, either. You don’t have to care about the shit that anyone else goes through. You only have to respect their stated boundaries.

Fourth, another consequence of this tendency to exaggerate someone’s actual criticisms into something grotesquely ridiculous is that, intentionally or otherwise, you’re poisoning the well. That entire line of criticism starts to be considered laughable, not something for serious people to actually contemplate, because the exaggerations become louder, more visible, and more accessible than the original criticism. Maybe you’ll even find some obscure, poorly-written example to prove your point and use that as a stand-in for the rest of the criticism. See! This feminist blogger says she doesn’t want men to ever speak to her for any reason, not even to yell “Fire!” when the building’s on fire. Here’s one random college student who thinks that every single classic novel contains sexism and racism and therefore should be permanently banned from their college curriculum. That’s definitely what street harassment and trigger warnings are all about.

It starts to turn into a weird sort of gaslighting. “I know you’re saying that you’re only bothered by these specific things, but actually you’re bothered by literally everything so the problem is with you and I don’t have to take you seriously anymore.” And so we have to focus our energy on preempting these immature and derailing accusations by insisting that there are plenty of men or white people or whatever that we do like, and plenty of compliments we do appreciate, and so on. Imagine how much easier things would be if we didn’t have to spend all that time stroking egos and could instead just state directly what we’d like you to stop doing, and you could either agree to stop doing it or disagree and take yourselves out of our spaces and lives.

There is no other option, by the way. If you don’t like my boundaries, you can choose not to interact with me, but you cannot choose not to respect my boundaries. And no, I’m not talking about honest mistakes. I said “choose.”

There’s something to be said for the weaknesses of “Please don’t say” articles, which is why many writers try to frame these things more positively, like “How to support your friend with depression” or “Some better things to say to people with chronic illness” or whatever. That can be a great idea. I try to do that when possible.

However, sometimes, that’s not enough. Sometimes I really do need someone to stop saying a particular thing that I don’t want to hear anymore, and I have the right to set that boundary. Whether or not you agree and are prepared to honor it, I get to set it. You don’t get to tell me I don’t get to set it.

And even when I do that, I usually provide alternatives. In that last post I had a bunch of them, which at least a few readers apparently either didn’t bother to read or considered so insufficient as to persist in claiming that WELL NOW WE JUST CAN’T SAY ANYTHING ANYMORE. Really? I literally gave you some stuff to say. I can’t exactly take it in good faith when you claim that I’m telling you you are not allowed to speak to other human beings ever, especially when I only gave you one sentence not to say. Does your entire vocabulary consist of the words “you,” “look,” and “tired” in various combinations?

Basically, I’m disturbed by these responses to folks attempting to set their boundaries. That is really weird to me. You (usually) have the option of not interacting with someone if you don’t like how they’re asking to be interacted with. Sure, that doesn’t always work for your boss or your child, but it certainly works for me, a random writer that you’ve probably never met in person and never will. If my boundaries bother you that much, close this tab. Do not return to this blog. Do not pause to leave a childish little comment about how you are closing this tab and not returning to this blog. Your irritation is not my problem.

And then do that with the other people in your life whose boundaries you’re not willing to respect. Do it for yourself, and do it for them.

Or, you know, consider respecting their boundaries. That works too.


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"Oh so I can't say ANYTHING anymore"

13 thoughts on “"Oh so I can't say ANYTHING anymore"

  1. AMM

    [Content note: serious grouchiness and non-sympathy.]

    “Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING anymore”

    You are far, far more charitable to these jerks than I am. My reaction is: you bet, you can’t say anything any more. Just shut up. Forever. The people who say this stuff aren’t interested in hearing anything you have to say, they just want to have an audience for their ill-considered opinions and to waste your time.

    I’m not saying you don’t have good points, or that there’s no point in writing an article like this. There are probably people out there who aren’t like that who might learn something from it. But the people you’re talking about will get nothing out of it, except maybe an excuse to mainsplain and dog-in-the-manger some more.

    (Maybe it’s just because I’m getting old, but I don’t have time for this s***. Life’s too short, especially mine.)

    1. 1.1

      No, I totally get where you’re coming from. Everyone’s got a different threshold for dealing with this stuff.

      For what it’s worth, part of my aim in writing these articles is 1) to convince fence-sitters who aren’t sure what to make of things and 2) to remove all plausible doubt. If someone makes a comment like this and gets sent to this article and continues to publicly be a jerk, well, it’s there for all to see.

      I definitely sometimes feel like saying like…well, if you think not being a jerk is THAT difficult, maybe you really shouldn’t talk? Just a thought.

  2. 5

    Sometimes I feel a sensible response to the ‘o so I can’t say ANYTHING’ crowd is to just say, ‘well, if that’s how you feel, maybe that’s the right choice for you.’

    Though the type of remarks, if made by men who believe that it means they CAN’T TALK TO WOMEN EVER, usually make me bring up the fact that even though I’m not into men sexually or romantically I’ve had men I did not know talk to me in public places and even express those types of interest without it being creepy or intrusive, even when my response to those specific types of interest was No. I’ve had people ask me about mental health issues in a way that made it clear that I only needed to say as much as I wanted, but I’ve also had people express an almost voyeuristic curiosity.

    With the benefit of the doubt, I feel that some people who might be the ‘fence sitters’ could be influence by other people who have constant tales of woe about how they *can’t say X.* I can imagine say, a man who is influenced by accounts from other men (offered from their perspective) of how women just seem to get offended by EVERYTHING these days; even more so for white people and minorities since residential segregation is still quite a thing in the US.

  3. 6

    My usual response to “oh now I can’t say things anymore” is “of course you can! It’S only that it makes you an asshole/racist/misogynist/harasser.”
    Because in my experience that’s where the actual problem lies: Those people aren’t interested in learning about how to have better social interactions. They don’t care about what would or wouldn’t be appropriate. They just want ot have their cake and eat it, because they consider themselves to be good people therefore everything they do is moral and if you complain there’s clearly something wrong with you.

  4. 7

    I can’t help but suspect that it’s the attempt to set boundaries that’s the issue. Some people seem perpetually outraged at the notion that other people aren’t just supporting characters in a movie about them. “How dare you not exist solely for my amusement!”

    1. 7.1

      Exactly! That’s why those types of people often say that they can’t say anything over the internet or news or well distributed magazines. For them there is no contradiction. They write/appear/work in these places because they believe that they are allowed to say and do anything there, and when someone comes along saying that words have consequences it threatens the whiners’ entire worldview.

  5. 8

    “Can you not tease me about that? It’s a sore subject.” / “So I’m not even allowed to talk to you anymore?”
    This literally happened to me a year ago. I had a(n Internet) friend whose default communication style was teasing–not one I favor, but she was a good friend in other ways, so I accepted it. Until one especially bad day when I asked her please not to tease me about my appearance, because that’s a loaded subject for me. She cut off all communication with me–unfollowed & blocked me on all social media, etc.–and I never heard from her again. Later another mutual friend told me she said “it hurts me when I hurt other people, and I can’t change, so it’s better for me not to have contact.” I’m all, “The fuq? Disappearing without a trace or an explanation isn’t hurtful?” In retrospect, I’m sure it’s better for me not to be too close to someone who can’t respect my boundaries, and I guess if her friendship requirements include “must be able to tease on any subject without thinking” that’s her issue. But it really burned me, and I’m still angry when I think about it.

  6. 9

    “I can’t change, so it’s better for me not to have contact.”

    I think that is really what the “I can’t say ANYTHING” line is about. That they don’t want to put in the work to respect that boundary… that the work they would expend trying to be vigilant about the boundary and stay firmly inside it, would outweigh the potential benefits they would get from following it.

    In my own life, I have wondered how to avoid coming across as awkward, stilted, or insecure in the process of respecting a boundary. Because I hate feeling awkward or self-conscious. And I fear that anything that requires me to engage in ongoing self-monitoring– like practicing staying within a boundary, like self-discipline in general– will render me unable to relax, have fun, or be creative relationally. I’d be validating everyone who ever dismissed my feelings with “chill out”. And a big part of my self-concept involves “not coloring inside the lines”.
    But since others do not seem to have a problem with it, there *must* be some trick to respecting a boundary without becoming compulsive, overly self-conscious… or rule-bound.

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