The writing on the wall, part 2
Kind, respectful, forthright. (Yes all three.)
This is part two of a three-part series inspired by, of all things, a laser-printed wall sign in my partner’s apartment. It’s about boundary-setting, being effective in social situations, and advocating for yourself.
It begins like this:
Nobody owes anybody anything. Even so: be kind, be respectful, be forthright.
The sign in the hallway of my partner’s apartment consisted of two sheets of printer paper, painter’s-taped to the door. The top sheet said the above, in big letters. The rest is a fantastic set of instructions for setting and enforcing boundaries, which I’ll share in part 3. But the big type has been such a useful shorthand for me that I thought I’d take some space here to unpack it.
I started with “Nobody owes anybody anything” here:
In it, I talk a bunch about how people tend to use the language of indebtedness when they’re about to cross a boundary, or when they have already done so. It’s at this point that you need to make a choice about how you’re going to continue interacting with the person—assuming you want to continue interacting with them.
Which is where the next part comes in: Even so: Be kind. Be respectful. Be forthright.
Not because you owe them kindness, respect, or forthrightness, any more than you owe them anything else. But because this combination of things is most effective for establishing and protecting your boundaries, for reducing the likelihood of escalation, and—incidentally—for raising community awareness of predatory behavior.
A note on safety
Remember: if you are in danger, or feel strongly that you are, don’t worry about following any set of “rules” for engagement. Get out of there as fast as you again. Those aren’t the kinds of situations we’re talking about.
Now assuming we’re talking about a situation where you want to try and continue to interact with the person, let’s look at the three parts of this.
“Nice is different than good.” -Little Red Riding Hood, from Into the Woods
What does it mean to be kind in a situation where someone is crossing your boundaries? Every situation is different, and sometimes—even often—kindness will not be the first response to cross your mind. But if you’re looking to communicate effectively, here’s some ways that kindness might look.
You assume goodwill, and start from the premise that they didn’t mean harm. “Hey, when you said that thing, it made me feel x. Did you mean for me to feel that way?”
You lead with your affection for them, and let them know they’re wanted even though they hurt you. “I really like hanging out with you, but it really bothers me when you do x. Would you please stop?”
You tell them what they’re doing with gentleness rather than accusation. You might say, “It seems to me like you did x instead of y, and that hurt. Can you explain? rather than “Why the hell would you do that?" or “What’s wrong with you?”
Respect can also be hard to muster if someone is doing something you don’t respect. But it is vitally important to be on an even playing field with someone if you are truly trying to communicate about something difficult.
What does respect look like in tough conversations?
Level with them, which is to say, meet them where they are. If you approach someone from a high horse, they’re going to feel looked down on. You may want to condescend to them. Just know when you’re doing it, and know that it’s probably not going to be as effective at reaching them.
Keep the conversation centered on your experience of them, rather than on the abstract morality of what they did. “This hurt me,” rather than “What you did was wrong.”
Approach them as a fellow human who may have different values to you, and let them know what you need. “I know that in some of your friendships x behavior is okay, but I can’t deal with it. Can we talk about how you can manage not to do x with me?”
Expect respect in return. Be clear about consequences, and stick to them. “I’d like you to respect my boundary. But I want you to know that if you can’t, I’m not going to want to be around you.” Tell them when they do it again; decide how many chances they get. But if they can’t respect you, do what you said you’d do.
“Forthright” is an interesting word here. It generally means “honest,” but it adds an extra piece of something like “forthcoming.” So: forthrightness is not just honesty but the willing to speak the truth directly and clearly.
Without this piece, truly no conversation about boundaries can happen at all. Kind and respectful are important for maximum effectiveness, but without the forthright part, you might as well just have a screaming argument, or ghost someone.
Forthrightness also has a kind of cleansing flavor to it, as a word. It puts me in mind of idioms like “clearing the air,” or “setting the record straight.” It bespeaks the kind of honesty that makes everyone breathe a sigh of relief, even if it’s a difficult truth to hear.
What does forthrightness look like when setting or enforcing boundaries?
Get to the point. If you have something to say, say it. Too much hedging or trying to soften the blow is likely to backfire.
Focus on impact rather than intent. You want them to do that too, so model what you want. Instead of “You deliberately did x, how dare you?” go with “You did x, and that hurt someone.” It’s likely they’ll still deny it or try to explain how it wasn’t their intention. If they do this, you don’t have to change your position.
Tell the person what you want and don’t want in the situation. The clearer you can be about this, the less opportunity there will be for misunderstandings, defensiveness, or prevarication.
Figure out if you need an apology or repair with the person. If you do, be honest with yourself about what parts of it are most important for you to feel whole.
Each one of these things, practiced without the others, can be partially effective. But without all of them, you can get new problems you didn’t want. Forthright but not respectful or kind? People rarely react well to being told off, even if what you’re saying is true. It’s great if what you want is to hurt someone and leave flaming wreckage.
Respectful but not kind or forthright? It’s like a carefully worded firing, where you offer someone their dignity and coldly ask them to leave, but don’t tell them what they did wrong or have any compassion. (This one is hard to do, too: think of what often follows when someone starts a statement, “With all due respect…”)
Kind but not forthright? You get the kind of results I got in my twenties when I tried to fend off bros at the bar by politely refusing with a smile. (This tended to end with forthright, neither respectful nor kind.)
Each one of the qualities without the others warps the quality itself, to a certain extent: “kind” becomes “nice;” “respectful” becomes “polite;” “forthright” becomes “brutally honest.” Appeasing someone, freezing them out, or blasting them with the truth may be all you have available to you when someone really crosses the line, and that’s okay. Notice how well they line up with our instinctive responses to danger: fawn, freeze, fight. (“Flight” is another popular option: just get the hell away from the person.) So it’s natural that these responses are the more immediate ones to come up.
But when we can do all three at once, more subtle results become possible.
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