Stronger (and Clumsier) Together

Many people have been working from home for a long time, and are used to doing everything by phone or video chat. The novelty has worn off for them, and they know how to conduct themselves gracefully, more or less. But for the rest of us, the last couple of months of teleconference meetings and online group chats have been, well, an adjustment. Managing group chats and teleconferences is an art, and we are not yet artists.

I’m not a phone or video chat person at the very best of times, and these are not the best of times. Much of that aversion is due to my general preference for written communication, and fierce discomfort with awkward situations.

It turns out some of it is a new understanding of how much the average person depends on nonverbal communication. It’s a cliché at this point, and blind people are frequently taken down a peg via sketchy statistics about exactly how much communication is unspoken, but it’s never been slammed home quite like this for me before. Physical distancing has meant no one can see each other well, or at all, and boy, does that change things.

I don’t know about you folks, but all my phone and video chat meetings have felt infinitely more confusing, and much less satisfying, than in-person gatherings. The flow of conversation is stilted, even when audio quality is high. People interrupt each other constantly, and it’s clearly accidental. Audio and video delays make it harder for people to follow group conversations, since what they hear does not line up with what they see. Larger meetings have lost their effortless interactivity, because people can’t read a room when there’s no room to read. A lot of the visual cues sighted people use to make sense of complex group dynamics have vanished, and they’re all tripping over each other as a result.

Me? I’m just my ordinary clumsy self, no worse off than usual, but I’m suddenly contending with everyone else’s confusion, which makes for awkward times.

And so, once again, I am reminded that I should be a tiny bit kinder to myself when I’m out in the world, mingling with people who have a distinct social advantage. COVID-19 has encouraged me to acknowledge how much effort and skill I bring to all my social interactions, and to admit that, hey, I’m actually pretty good at navigating social situations while missing the majority of cues on which everyone else relies.

All these years, I, as well as sighted people around me, have been hard on me for the cues I miss, the delicate social dynamics I’m oblivious to, the times I interrupt people because it’s apparently not my turn to speak. I have sat through hundreds of fast-moving group conversations, frantically filtering the chaos, opting not to speak at all in many cases to avoid the awkward social dance.

Is someone about to speak? Is it time yet? Are people looking elsewhere? How have people reacted to what I’ve just said? Everyone is quiet. Whyyyyy are they so quiet? Are they processing? Waiting for more? Was it okay? Am I doing okay?

It’s obvious, I know. Of course this was happening because a hell of a lot goes on in silence, where I can’t perceive it, in ways I can’t possibly interpret. Of course I should expect to struggle more and feel clumsier; I’m working with less than half of the information everyone else has! Shouldn’t a person who has been blind for a quarter-century know that without visual input, everyone else is just as clumsy as me?

Well, yes. And I did know it, intellectually. Watching it play out firsthand, however, has been interesting and, dare I say it, validating?

Watching socially adept sighted people make ‘blind person mistakes’–getting confused, losing track, interrupting, addressing people who have already left the conversation, going quiet because it’s all too much–well, it’s been helpful. I take no pleasure in it, and I have no doubt we’ll all find our groove soon. But it’s been an excellent opportunity for me to realize, all the way down, that I’m doing pretty okay out here.

If you’re a fellow blind person who has gotten down on yourself for missing cues and failing to interpret the impossible, I invite you to chill. I also invite you to extend that chill to other blind people as they flounder through this visual world. And let’s be patient with sighted people wrapping their heads around this new way of communicating, just as they have been (mostly) patient with us.

We’re all in this together. We’re all clumsy, and awkward, and out of our depth. Together.

“You Got a Permit for Those Feelings, Ma’am?”

When we think about gaslighting, we tend to focus on calculated, premeditated abuse, carried out over time for some nefarious purpose. We rarely think of it as something unconscious and unintentional — something we do to ourselves and each other, in some cases with disturbing frequency. Gaslighters are vindictive, manipulative bullies. Gaslighters aren’t decent, well-intentioned folks in widespread, shared denial. And gaslighters certainly aren’t members of marginalized communities who have learned to second-guess their perspectives. Perish the thought!

I’ve generally thought of gaslighting as something that rarely happens to me, something other people deal with, until a recent moment of public humiliation at the hands of well-intentioned strangers brought me up short.

Two recruiters for some sort of club approached my sighted friend and me, diving straight into their pitch without preamble. My friend grabbed a pamphlet, but I was totally in the dark about what was going on and who these people were. They spent the next few minutes talking about me as though I were an engaging art installation.

“Can she speak?”

“She can speak, right?”

“Our club is for, you know, all individuals.”

“Even she could participate in this, I think!”

“She’s okay, right? She can…”

“I know you’re guiding her today, but we could work something out…”

“And she really can speak?”

During this onslaught, I struggled to get my bearings while one of the strangers held some food item, a bag of chips as it turned out, right under my nose without explanation. I kept interjecting, trying to redirect their attention, to demonstrate my ability to have this conversation for myself, but nothing I said got through to them. Meanwhile, my poor friend stood there, horrified but unable to extricate us from the situation.

Finally, my attack of politeness paralysis lifted: “Excuse me but we really need to go.”

As we power-walked away, my friend swung between apologizing and expressing shock.

“Did that just happen? I am so so sorry! I didn’t know what to do. Did that seriously just happen?”

I assured her there was nothing she could have done differently and thanked her for acknowledging my own shock and embarrassment. We parted ways, and I was preparing to shove this incident into my trusty ‘shit happens’ folder when I realized something at once forgettable and bizarre: I had thanked her for being upset about this. The first articulate thing I’d thought after it happened was, thank God I had a sighted person with me. I was hugely grateful to someone for whom this sort of treatment was an anomaly, not an inevitability, the way it is for me. I was relieved that she’d been there, with her working eyes, to assess my feelings and find them valid.

Why?

This realization crystalized further as I sent a message to a blind friend I knew would understand.

“The sighted friend I was with was more upset than I’ve ever seen her. That gave me permission to be, I guess. I dunno. I’m still shaking.”

There it was, in plain language. Somewhere along the line, I’d become so distrustful of my own perceptions of reality that I needed validation, sighted validation in particular, before I’d let myself react. What was this self-diminishing nonsense, and when had it started?

If I’m being truthful, this subtler form of gaslighting began early, and it came from just about everywhere. Remember those decent folks I mentioned earlier? The ones in widespread denial? I believe I learned this pattern, however unwittingly, from kindly people who couldn’t bear the idea that they could do real damage without even knowing it, who clung stubbornly to the belief that intentions trump results, always.

How many times had I been encouraged to be extra patient, unfailingly gracious? People just don’t know what to do with me. How to talk to me. How to work with me. How to live alongside me

How often had I been reminded, by sighted and blind people alike, not to be too hard on people because they didn’t know any better? They’d never met someone like me before. Not everyone has read my blog. They didn’t mean it. I read the situation wrongly. They meant well. I must have misunderstood.

And how many comments have I heard and read, online and off, asking for sighted validation? Was anyone sighted with you? Did anyone see what happened? Maybe you misheard? Maybe it would help if you could see their faces? Most communication is nonverbal — maybe you’re just not good with social cues? Maybe there was something going on you couldn’t see?

Then there is the gaslighting I have done to myself. Even a sighted person couldn’t have done this, known this, understood this, accomplished this, noticed this, fixed this. I had a sighted person check so I know it’s okay. I need a sighted opinion on this please. I wish I had a pair of eyes to verify this.

Sure, sometimes I misunderstand things, miss out on context, because my eyes don’t work. Sometimes I need someone’s vision: Did this document print okay? Is this picture what I think it is? What’s on my screen right now? Did she look upset or was she smiling when she said that?

But when I get to a place where either a sighted person was there to witness it or it didn’t happen—either a sighted person thinks what happened to me is discrimination or it doesn’t count—something is very, very wrong. And I doubt I’m the only one doing this self-defeating dance.

I should be leaning on all my friends, sighted and blind, for everyday validation, the kind many of us crave when we’ve been through something difficult. I am comforted when people join me in my anger and acknowledge my shame. What my sighted friend did for me that day, standing beside me, getting offended right along with me, was good and kind and helpful.

The wrongness lay in my intense relief that her sight, more than any of my own senses, gave me permission to feel my feelings; that I worried about confiding in too many other friends for fear they’d poke holes and imply I shouldn’t be upset; that some internet commentator would materialize to tell me I don’t get to be offended; that any of this would influence me so easily.

The fact remains that I was there. It happened to me, not a friend or coworker or random internet troll. I should be able to own my reaction and sit with it a while without guilt or undue doubt. I should be able to confide in some friends, take in their support, ignore any advice I didn’t ask for, and move the hell on with my life.

The good news is that I believe I’ve learned my lesson. This incident should have been an annoying blip, not a miniature crisis of faith in my judgment. Speaking of faith, it’s time I placed more of it in my perception, less of it in hidden, well-intentioned gaslighting, and mastered the art of sitting still with what hurts me without picking apart that hurt or trying to explain it all away.

In case my faith crisis is also your faith crisis, here are some thoughts. People will behave in ways that hurt you. Sometimes you will have witnesses; mostly, you won’t. You will have feelings about the things that harm you, like shame and embarrassment and even rage. Some people will disagree with you about those feelings and whether you should experience them at all.

Here’s the wild, subversive, beautiful bit: You don’t have to change, suppress, or deny your feelings. You get to sit with them, express them without questioning their fairness, their reasonableness, their right to exist. Then you get to let them go, and carry on living a kind and gracious life, whatever that looks like for you.

If you want to educate those who hurt you, if you want to cut them some slack or analyze their reasoning or question your reading of the situation, there will be plenty of time for that later. But the immediate aftermath of a painful thing is not for educating or reasoning or arguing on Facebook with your cousin’s hairdresser about whether it was really as bad as you claim. No, immediate aftermaths are for your anger, and your shame, and your frustration with this silly old world.

Put out your gaslight, friend. You won’t be needing it anymore.