Saturday, 11 October 2008

Across the Pond

The more I get to know Americans, the less they fit the image I used to have of them. Surprising as it may seem, they are not all like characters in Woody Allen films. Some attitudes I have encountered recently on the (mostly) American message board I visit have puzzled me quite a lot.

Question: if you see two strangers arguing in the street, do you go up to them and interfere in their argument? If one of them insults the other and then, realizing they overreacted, apologizes, do you – before the insultee has time to respond – tell the insulter there is no need to apologize? Or do you tell them they are forgiven for what they said? I don’t think so. Yet that kind of thing happens all the time in the virtual world.

What on earth makes a person think they can exonerate or forgive someone on behalf of someone else? As Primo Levi said, in a much more serious context of course, only the victim can forgive the person who did them harm. And, in the case of murder, the culprit cannot be absolved by anyone, not ever.

Anyway, if I’m having an argument with someone (yes, it does happen), I do not want anyone to come to my rescue – I am old enough and articulate enough to defend myself – and, if I’ve been abused, I do not want some meddler turning up and telling my ‘adversary’ that all is well. It’s up to me to say so, not them.

And then there’s the idea that you can be proud of someone even though you aren’t their spouse or a member of their family or directly involved in their achievement – like their teacher or trainer, for instance. (On that forum, the ‘achievement’ in question is very often spending an enormous amount of money on a luxury product, not discovering a cure for cancer, and I will never understand how that warrants congratulations, anyway, especially these days.) I thought it might just be me, so I asked around and no one can understand why one should say ‘I’m proud of you’ to a stranger either, so it
must be a US thang, like dressing up one’s pet or newborn baby for Halloween, using buttermilk and canned soup in everything, allowing a creationist anywhere near the White House, and owning a gun.


  1. I thinking telling anyone that you are proud of them is actually quite belittling because it puts you in a place of superiority. Being proud of one's child doing well is appropriate but an adult, even a family member telling me that they are proud of me makes me absolutely furious. Admire me by all means but don't patronise me.

  2. You're right, it is patronising. I haven't quite managed to put my finger on exactly what it is that bothers me about it, but that is certainly one of the reasons why it makes me bristle. But, like me, you are a European; I'm hoping one of my American readers will come and comment on the subject.

  3. Token American piping up :~D

    I think the "street argument" analogy is fallacious - when people disagree on a message board, there's an implied invitation for the rest of the members to weigh in. Otherwise they'd take the argument to private messages (as I've been known to do "over there" for exactly that reason). Also, with the type of argument you're describing - or, at least, the kind I remember from there - the people aren't weighing in on the arguments of strangers. They at least "know" one of the people involved in that limited internet sense of the word.

    I think the thing that's not registering re: the arguments, as you *are* and independent and intelligent and articulate woman, is that the phenomenon is more about "taking sides" than participating in a discussion. They're butting in to defend their friends (friends who have often exhorted them in private messages to help defend against the "attacker" because they can't argue for themselves like you can).

    I don't know how clique-y Europeans are, but it's a very strong force here in the U.S., even with so-called adults. And telling person A they were "in the right" when one is in no position to do so is more about reinforcing the social relationship than it is making a judgement on the argument itself.

    As for the pride thing, I think it's more social nonsense and conceit - it's more, "Yay! You're becoming more like me! This validates my opinions and behaviors! And since you are doing so, clearly I 'paved the way' and am therefore at least slightly superior, so I can give you a pat on the head." Since we do have consumerist guilt, we feel relieved and justified when someone else falls into the same patterns, and attempt to positively reinforce them to keep it going. Expressing "pride" is a condescending way to do so, but that tends to be the communication standard for a lot of people.

    Sorry so long. It was an interesting question!

  4. An interesting question, and an interesting answer, too. It explains why I've dipped my toe into online forums from time to time and got slightly repelled and gone away again. It's like school, but only the bad bits - I wasn't one of the 'popular' girls at school and all the taking sides and cliques made me ill. Why on earth would I want to revisit that kind of thing? - surely one of the beauties of being an adult is that most of the time you can socialise only with people you get on with!

    The last point too, about the delight when someone else makes similar choices to you and validates your own - that explains why I get such venom sometimes, for choosing not to have children, from women with their own families. I could never understand why they cared, especially since someone has to remain available to cover at work for their maternity leaves and school sports days and summer holidays, but maybe it's because I wasn't joining The Club and so made them wonder if life outside The Club might hold some attractions - I wasn't validating their choices.

  5. I don’t know about an interesting question, T, but your answer was certainly very interesting. I realize now I was labouring under the misapprehension that I was talking more or less privately with whomever I was addressing. I knew, obviously, that anyone was welcome to comment on anyone else’s post, when an opinion or information was being asked for, for instance, but I truly thought ‘arguments’ between two people were a different kettle of fish. Thank you for explaining the ‘taking sides’ with ‘friends’ situation. It looks like I don’t understand group dynamics at all. Which is not terribly surprising: I am an only child; I was very happy at school, but never belonged to a large group – I always had one or two very good friends; one of the words I detest most is the word ‘community’; I’m at my best in ‘one to one’ communication. I will keep what you said in mind from now on and be more cautious.

    Oh, ‘validation’! Another word I can’t stand. I don’t know if it’s just healthy self-esteem or incredible arrogance, but I don’t feel the need to have my choices, my thoughts, my opinions, my lifestyle validated by people I don’t particularly respect for their wisdom or experience. In fact, if someone I despised were to say, ‘Well done!’ to me, I would wonder where I’d gone wrong. Peer pressure was practically nonexistent when I was growing up (or maybe I was unaware of it, I don’t know) and my aim never was to blend in and be like everyone else, so... I try not to do harm, I don’t break the law and I don’t care whether what I do meets with anyone’s approval.

    L, if that was your experience of large groups of people, I can see why you would be repelled by forums. A lot of them are the way you describe, but not all. I guess it depends on what brought the members together in the first place. The nicest forum I know is the one devoted to Leonard Cohen. Everyone there is nice and helpful. Probably because it’s all about love and beautiful music and poetry and trying to achieve the great man’s cool and calm attitude to life, erm, things like that. Nothing to do with spending money and acquiring more possessions. I think it makes a difference.

    I’d never understood why women were so virulent towards child-free women. Like you, I can see why now. Thanks again, T!

  6. herd mentality. I hate to say it, but perhaps that's amplified when groups of women converge in real life or on the net. I'm an American but lived in the UK for years now - and used to frequent that site a lot. I drop in once a day if that now, and I have to say I've probably only been on the fringes anyway. It makes me slightly nervous, all that gut spilling and virtual bonding. I don't need to be gushed over and I don't want to gush over anyone - I mean, sincerity is great but I'd be inclined to do it privately - but that doesn't make me bad - although it's interesting to see how that often translates to cold or unfriendly. Or even sticking to the relevant subjects of the place in question, which is bewildering. Probably why I really cut down going - it ain't no substitute for real life, those places. Something some people could do with remembering!

  7. Yes, Anon, virtual friendships cannnot replace real-life ones, but they can be comforting to those who have no way of forming new ones because they are, say, stuck at home, for one reason or another, and/or live in a city so large (and so 'inefficient') that they never see their old friends. I wish the Internet had existed in the 15 years I spent chained to my computer, working all day and often all night too. I wouldn't have felt so isolated.

    But I agree with everything you said. I find it very depressing.


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