The Perils Of Asking “Are You Doing Okay?”
This story involves 6 white adults on a hiking trail at over 10,000 feet of elevation. It was a maybe a mile from the trailhead of a beautiful trail, high in some mountains, during a gorgeous autumn day. It’s a trail frequented by locals, but it’s also used by lots of tourists, the majority of them (like most of the world) not used to hiking at elevations of 10K.
My sister and I are both local, female, fit, and 66 and 57 respectively. We are slowly but steadily climbing up the well marked trail back towards the parking area. We are carrying on a conversation specifically about whether or not the trail would be good for out of town relatives who aren’t big hikers. Turning a corner, we come upon a group of four stopped right on the trail. There are two men maybe in their thirties, and an older couple, maybe late 60s, probably mom and dad to one or both of the younger guys. The older guy is leaning against a rock, red faced, obviously panting. Did I mention we were going up a grade at more than 10,000 feet?
I immediately asked “Are you doing okay?” to him because I am…human. I said it calmly, with sincerity and respect. But it was a pretty knee jerk reaction, familiar to most any competent person in the helping professions who finds themselves automatically sliding into professional mode when they encounter something that -on first glance- might be a big problem out in the world. And in response I get three glares from the men, and one grateful smile from the woman.
Think about that. Asking a male who is obviously in distress if he is okay is seen as…impertinent or rude by many because of how we’ve been socialized. My sincere and knee jerk question of concern was seen as rude.
You Rude Person!
One of the younger guys answers in an even tone, “Just taking a rest, we’re fine.” As would most people who “get” social cues, I’ve already instantly understood why I got the glares. And so I make an innane comment about us being two miles above sea level to try to take the sting out of my first question. The woman continues to be friendly and says something agreeable. My sister, having also understood my supposed faux pas says something polite about also being a bit tuckered out even though she lives at one mile high. The older guy valiantly says, “Yes, there’s that.” And that’s about it, the three people standing around the older guy move aside to let us pass. I’m slightly annoyed as my sister and I continue our trek, but not enough to even comment on it in the moment. Because it happens so damned often. I would just sound smug: “Can you imagine, the men all seemed offended because I asked the dude if he was okay?” But that thought did go through my head, I’m not going to lie.
To me, the problem with a simple and genuine question of concern for another human being perceived as rude, and then me feeling the need to -placate- others for asking it is an obvious symptom of how unhealthy our cultural norms are. So there’s that sad reality. But here’s the super sad part: many, many people will not initially see -beyond- the gender issues to the more generally problematic way many of us respond to issues around compassion and vulnerability. I’ll have to spell that part out. Because it is a part of culture so “normal” to us, we don’t get how toxic it really is.
What’s Compassion Got To Do With It?
I believe most adults will recognize that me asking that particular question could easily be seen as me questioning the guy’s masculinity. By simply asking that question, a healthy woman is possibly making fun of an older man- how rude. We get that. We get that the men glared at me because by simply asking the question, I was breaking rules against rugged stoicism, rather than simply asking if another human is okay. And so millions of us could understand why the men glared at me, and people have a right to get upset over perceived insults, right?
The Men Are Not Okay, And Neither Are Many Women
But, as some will note, it doesn’t stop there. From here at my desk I can really almost hear wails of “Let’s turn it around!” “What if it were a man asking a woman in a sincere tone if a woman was doing okay? Women are so touchy they might have all glared at the man, too!!! Both sides do it!!!”
Yes, Both Sides Do It
And really, that is a major part of the point I’m getting to, I mutter to myself, though I don’t kid myself that saying that will calm many people down.
The main point is really this: A human politely asked another human if they were doing okay. And that human got glares for asking the question, and we all understand why the glares happened. And yes, it was “conventionally” gendered, but even if it -had- been women glaring at a man who asked if someone was alright, it still would have been an indictment of how utterly uncool it is to presume to ask people questions based on them -possibly- being in a vulnerable position.
It shows just how undesirable it is to be seen as vulnerable, or as being someone who might need to be treated with…compassion.
The point bears repeating 20 gazillion times, so to put it another way: Compassion and vulnerability are both keystone qualities we all need to use to create healthy cultural norms, and to live healthy lives. Yet both are -so- reviled, and competition so overvalued that even asking another human if they are doing okay -during a time when many humans might legitimately not be doing okay-is seen as rude, and we all understand why.
In any healthy society that little reality would be seen as…pathetic, because that’s what it is. It -is- pathetic. It is a sign of how unhealthy our cultural norms are that we are so fragile and afraid of compassion that a stranger asking “Are you doing okay?” is seen as a rude thing to ask.