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 who instantly understand why asking the question could be seen as rude, will not initially see why I see it as a symptom of how unhealthy our cultural norms are. 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 unfortunately 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
To spell it out, the unspoken social norm is : no one should say things that might somehow question a man’s strength, no matter what their intentions. And here I can already hear wails of protest. “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 part of the point, I mutter to myself, though I don’t kid myself that saying that will calm many people down. Because again: 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, it 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 -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.
Digging Into The Macho Mystique
In our hyper competitive, late stage capitalistic world, the importance—the essential role—of compassion for our very survival is so overlooked, or even worse, dismissed and disdained that it really does veer quite heavily into the farcical.
Androcentric and macho visions of rugged individuals and self reliant dudes and dudettes prevail, and in them we somehow dismiss or forget that each and every single one of us would be long (long) dead if not for -years- of a multitude of people- however flawed- showing us compassion by changing our shitty diapers, feeding our scrawny little bodies, and offering us shelter and even scraps of interest so we could learn rudimentary tools for surviving.
The idea that “compassion produces weak humans” entirely -and many times willfully- misconstrues and obscures how fundamentally important compassion and cooperative interactions are as both tools for survival, and as dynamics needed in order for humans to thrive.
Indeed, as we grow up in America, we learn to value and aspire to ‘rugged individualism’ and aspire to becoming ‘self made.’ These ideas are presumed to be real and very good things!
Back in reality, the very ideas of rugged individualism and self reliance are utterly ridiculous…since virtually no one living anywhere with indoor plumbing or heating built all of it themselves. Even the .001% (arbitrary figure) of folks living entirely “off grid” almost always need to acquire tools and energy generators they do not create by themselves.
But for the millions who are on grid and still somehow believe they are ruggedly individualistic, they’ve been so brainwashed they don’t even stop to considerall the purchased food, clothing, shelter or technical gear they surround themselves with while they watch “self reliant” survival trucker dudes on flat screen tvs in their centrally heated living rooms. As if any of them created all that shit by themselves.
Seriously, think about the utter irony of someone who dismisses others as “weak” for being self aware enough to proclaim that they do indeed struggle with bouts of “retail therapy” while they themselves surf the internet, drooling over catalogs of the latest survival and off road gear. Let’s consider the kind of “super self reliant” person’s typical obsession with “survival gear.” How many of these survival oriented folks are wearing gortex, wielding canisters of propane, putting up purchased tents, and driving four wheel drive vehicles (on roads already created by others) into “the wilderness” using GPS or orienteering apps, or even maps or compasses? And did they ever stop to think how many other humans (including a high percentage of women) designed, developed, created, delivered and marketed every. single. aspect. of each other those items? No, most of them did not. Not if those items were marketed correctly.
The idea of the macho, self reliant American is an utter bullshit myth that millions of folks actually seem to believe. Back in reality, we all rely on untold numbers of others who design, develop, build, package, market and sell us literally thousands of items and -importantly- the systems we use in daily life. No one is an island, abut we’ve been indoctrinated with myths about the idea of ‘self reliance’ so often that entitled Kens and Karens really believe they are ‘self reliant.’ As they hike off into ‘the wilderness’ armed with goods which would not be in their possession were it not for literally –thousands– of other people cooperating to bring them to them via complex systems of interconnection.
Related False Myths
Compassion and cooperative strategies are far (far) more prevalent than competitive strategies in the natural world, but millions of Americans got sold a faulty version of high school science… and so truly believe “survival of the fittest” refers to brute strength needed to maintain competitive advantages. “You’re either prey or predator” and other simplistic hierarchies with “apex predators” at the (desired) top are how far too many people understand the world. While I can see how this creates a pretty fear based bunch of humans, it’s time to grow the hell up. Really, if you can grasp the idea of apex predators, you can grasp the idea of interconnection. It’s long past time to do so. Because back in reality, self reliance is nowhere near as glamorous as it has been portrayed.
True Self Reliance
Know who appears to truly be most self reliant in America? Homeless folks. And most homeless people became that way directly because of an astoundingly lack of compassion based policies. And, the next group, closest to true self reliance? Poor folks. Right, back in reality, real self reliance is sooooo not glamorous.
On any given day the poor and the homeless make up about 12% of the US population. On those same days, billionaires buy tons of lawyers, lobbyists (including social media pundits and sock puppets) and politicians who then create and pass policies that continue that cycle. Policies that favor the wealthy and those willing to engage in exploitation and war profiteering are cynically pushed by the ultra wealthy. That’s the truth of it.
In the 21st century, poverty in America is a set of policy choices. That’s how toxic our collective relationships to compassion really are. So it makes a very sick kind of sense that other forms of compassion such as “Are you doing okay?” are also seen as rude.
Excuse my French, but this is a really fucking pathetic way to live.