Offering comfort to strangers
By Brittney MacDonald, Life & Style Editor
Being aware of our boundaries, as well as the boundaries of those around us is becoming increasingly important—and having the courage to establish these boundaries in any sort of relationship is often the first hurdle to forming a good personal or professional relationship. But what about those times when that sort of discussion or hurdle has yet to happen, or in some more common cases, will never take place, such as with strangers? Most people would respond to this sort of question by stating that they would never test personal boundaries or invade the “personal space” of people they do not know, but, in fact, it happens every day.
Humans are social creatures by nature, so when we see someone who is upset we automatically want to comfort them. How we comfort them when we don’t know them personally is often dependant on their perceived age and gender. For women, tactile comfort is often our first response. We have been socialized to believe that touching a woman in some small way, patting them on the arm, embracing them around the shoulders, etc. establishes a connection that will help ground and calm them by reminding them that they are not alone. For the person offering the comfort, this response is the same whether you are male or female. However, when the upset individual is male, our ingrained response is quite different. We are socialized from a very young age to do one of two things: either ignore their emotional state, or to attempt to deflect the situation through humour or by belittling whatever it is that is upsetting them.
The reason why we are taught to respond in these ways in particular goes back a long way, and actually has its roots in chauvinism and sexist thought. It is based on the belief that any woman’s “hysterical” state is due to her emotional nature and need to feel secure in the knowledge that she will be taken care of, coveted, and protected. It also completely negates the idea of feminine bodily autonomy, or the idea that a woman should be allowed to establish boundaries for her own physical body. Don’t believe me? Consider what your response would be should the woman respond negatively to your attempt at offering physical comfort. If she told you not to touch her, or pushed your hand away when you tried to pat her on the arm? Most people would immediately get defensive, even though in doing so, she is simply enacting her own right to bodily autonomy.
For men, our response is still based in that old-timey, chauvinistic belief that men should not be open about their emotions. Ignoring they’re upset, or attempting to belittle the situation that caused it, is essentially a refusal to acknowledge their emotional well-being—because acknowledging it means you are recognizing their “weakness.” Now, most modern people don’t see emotions as a weakness for men, but that doesn’t change the root of the behaviour itself.
The problem is that most people confuse these behaviours with instinct. They believe that these automatic responses come naturally out of our desire to comfort one another, and not out of the way we have been educated through media, society, and various other outlets about how to behave. The desire to comfort those that are upset is an instinct, just as is our desire to protect children, or run away from a dangerous situation. What isn’t instinctual is how we offer that comfort. Those behaviours come from social conditioning from a very young age.
So you might be asking yourself, why does all this matter? In truth, it matters because these types of responses can either worsen the situation, or are even dangerous on some occasions. Good intentioned as your attempts may be, modern women are almost always in a heightened state of bodily awareness. This is due to the rampant metropolitan problem of public groping, which most women as well as some men just accept as something they need to be on constant alert about. This is especially true for people that ride public transit.
For men, these types of responses just further dangerous, classical archetypes of masculinity that much of society has been trying to break in recent years. In both cases, these responses might merely anger the individual or upset them further.
So how do you satisfy that instinct to comfort, while still respecting personal boundaries? Most of the time, your physical presence alone will do a lot to comfort another person. Even if they don’t know you, acknowledging that they matter enough to warrant an “are you okay?” will help a lot. Furthermore, establishing verbal communication instead of a physical connection or ignoring their emotional state puts them in control which will automatically have a calming effect. Responding in this way, as opposed to the more classic method, ensures that you remain respectful but that you never leave someone hanging out to dry.