Pushing conversations past the breaking point

I was in two conversations with friends recently that went very, very differently, highlighting along the way one of the most fundamental problems with the way we communicate: we do not respect boundaries. If we can’t respect them when they are clearly articulated and plainly requested, we certainly don’t respect them when they are more subtly implied, with the ask in body language or shiftings in turn of phrase.

We were sitting in a restaurant perusing the menu when my friend started running down the items and making comments about their caloric count, suggesting that she shouldn’t order certain things because they’d make her fat. I remained silent, not wanting to make a scene, growing uncomfortable, but it kept progressing. Then she was talking about how she was losing weight, she was talking about pounds and pants sizes.

‘Hey, can we not talk about weight loss?’ I said, trying to keep my tone neutral.

‘Sure,’ my friend said, and then kept talking about weight loss.

I sighed internally. My first attempt at asserting boundaries, of going quiet and trying to deflect the conversation, hadn’t worked. My second explicit request to stop discussing the subject didn’t work either. And the rest of the meal was marred for me both by the weight loss and dieting talk, and by the fact that I hadn’t been respected when I asked for a change of subject. I, like many fat people, feel troubled and uneasy around weight loss talk in general, especially when it comes from people who are smaller than I am, especially when it’s filled with self-hatred about their bodies.

We were sitting in a house, and somehow a subject came up and one of the people in the room started seeming a little anxious to me. I tried to shift the conversation somewhere else to make her more comfortable, but the other people in the room didn’t pick up my social cue.

‘Hey, can we stop talking about this?’ She said.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Have you read that book I recommended yet? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.’

There was, as there inevitably is, a momentary lurch in the conversation, like someone had thrown a wrench in the works and we had to wait while it was taken up, but we picked it up again, and soon everyone was more relaxed, and she shot me a grateful glance.

She shouldn’t have had to, though. Because I should have been more assertive about changing the subject before she got so anxious that she had to say something — and when she did, I wasn’t doing anything special by respecting her boundaries and forcing the rest of the room to do the same. This shouldn’t be something unique or remarkable, but rather, a basic thing to do for other human beings. I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable around me, whether it’s because of a conversational subject, because of something I am saying, because of something other people are saying.

This doesn’t mean I don’t think we should talk about difficult topics — there is a difference, though, between feeling attacked or uncomfortable because an issue hits close to home, and feeling challenged by a subject that’s new, or being approached from a different angle than you are used to. It’s reasonable to talk about health care reform and why single-payer is superior even if someone people in the room think the current system works just fine. On the other hand, someone who experienced medical trauma shouldn’t be forced to sit through a conversation about medical trauma in silence, and when she speaks up to ask people to please stop talking about it, she should be respected. And the people in the room should remember that it’s an issue for her so they can watch their mouths in the future and make sure she’s more comfortable in conversations with them and with their friends.

This doesn’t have to be some whispered conspiracy — ‘don’t talk about dental trauma when Jane’s around’ — but rather, her friends should retain the ability to change topics smoothly and without comment, to get rid of those awkward bumps that seem to arise when people ask for a conversation to move on and everyone is suddenly stiff and silent. It’s not unreasonable to request that a subject be changed, and it’s incumbent upon us to change that subject. This should be pretty basic stuff.

But it’s not. Because between these two conversations, I see variations on number one playing out far more often. I see people firmly asking with varying degrees of politeness that a conversational topic be dropped, and I see the people around them ignoring them — or ‘but just this one thing’-ing them, as though the conversation has to be wrapped up. No, it doesn’t. The people who want to discuss that issue can move to the other room if they want to continue. Someone in the room has expressed discomfort and wants to move on. Adding to the problem by making ‘just one more comment’ doesn’t actually mean that you’re respecting someone’s boundaries, it means that you don’t think that person’s boundaries are important.

We live in a world where we all have to live together and where conversations are sometimes difficult and complicated. We need to be able to communicate smoothly and effectively with one another if we’re going to survive and build connections with one another. Not respecting boundaries — emotional, physical, or otherwise — is not an effective way to interact, nor is it a kind way to interact. When someone requests that a conversational subject be tabled, the only appropriate response is ‘okay.’

Photo: Talking, Pedro Ribeiro Simões, Flickr