Alien (by )

It'd certainly be fair to call me a noncomformist; I'm hardly a slave to fashions, and my hobbies tend to revolve around meddling with the fundamental forces that bind the Universe together, science fiction, old technical books, and learning self-defence.

But... this isn't exactly a role I've chosen for myself. I haven't gone to some effort to step off the beaten track; I've not rejected the mainstream as an act of rebellion. The truth is, I've never really felt a part of the human race.

Why should being different be a problem, though? I love talking to people who are different to me - and I couldn't do that unless I was different from them. The diversity of human experience fascinates me; I love seeing how people's lives differ from mine. Monocultures are harmful and fragile: our diversity is a great strength.

Of course, for many, being different is hell because they experience explicit discrimination for it. LGBT folks, immigrants, minority ethnic groups are all explicitly targetted for their difference, by people who think that their being different makes them a threat. But I'm lucky; I've had very little of that in my life. At school I had some unwelcome attention from the bullies for being bookish and shy rather than sporty, but I'm pretty sure those folks were just looking for levers to mess with people rather than actually taking some kind of moral high ground over me; and I didn't have all that much trouble with them, as I didn't react much so they went after more interesting targets.

For me, the problem is more subtle: my experience is mainly of feeling left out, unwanted, or forgotten.

I was born with one functioning eye, so "3D" films and magic-eye pictures were always things for normal people; and PE teachers at school never seemed to understand that I really had a problem with depth perception, and assumed that my pitiful performance at anything resembling catching a ball was me mucking around. I was given an unusual name, so those things in shops with keyrings/pens/mugs with a selection of common names on never had anything for me. I was raised vegetarian, so I always had to check if I could actually eat food I was given, and went hungry at my primary school's leaver's barbecue. I was the only child of an unemployed single parent, so normal family dynamics never applied, and I never had the expensive toys the other kids at school had. I learnt to read before I started school and read through books insatiably, so my experience of education was very different to that of the other children in my class; I can hardly complain about the fact that I found school and exams easy, but it meant I couldn't really relate to my friends' difficulties. We ate food we grew on our own allotment, and didn't have a car. For whatever reason, I've never liked hot drinks. Spectator sports hold little joy for me. I find pubs and parties distressing. The only mass media that featured people like me was the harder end of science fiction, so I was used to most stuff on the TV (and what the other kids raved about, in particular) as reinforcing the idea that "normal people aren't like me". I can certainly relate to the calls for better representation of different groups in mass media today!

I become irrationally touchy about any situation where somebody assumed that something which applied to most people would apply to all people: People describing bacon and coffee as delicious as if this was some objective truth, rather than just the fact that they find them delicious. Employers thinking that expensive coffee and free beer are a good way to reward the team. Each of these things is tiny in itself, not really worth making a fuss over, but the accumulated weight of them all became hard to bear. This makes me feel angry: I remember a dream I had when I was about ten years old. In this dream, there was a special event at school; the teachers had organised everyone into groups of three, each of which had a kit to assemble, but they'd forgotten about me when drawing the groups up. So I was sat with a couple of other kids who'd been explicitly excluded from the activity for being troublemakers, and we were given some leftovers from everyone else's kits to "just mess around with". I was furious - so recruited the two troublemakers into a plan: with the leftover parts we had, we built a high-powered catapult and, when everyone else had finished their kits, we opened fired and smashed them all. I woke from the dream seething with fury, almost in tears.

But I can't simply blame others for my situation; I am certainly complicit in my own invisibility. When somebody assumes something about me, I feel embarrassed about being different, and I freeze; the opportunity to interject passes, and I seem to have implicitly agreed to whatever it is. It's only when I look back and realise: that was the point where I could have gently avoided whatever catastrophe it turned into. For instance, a few years ago, some friends came to visit our house for New Year's Eve. This was great at first, but then one of them proudly produced a bottle of some strong spirit from their bag, and the others were pleased about this. I, however, wasn't; it made my stomach churn with fear, but my initial thoughts were just "Oh no, this is bad". I held on as long as I could, but they started showing signs of inebriation, then talking about their symptoms of inebriation, and after a few hours I couldn't cope any more and made excuses to go and hide away on my own elsewhere in the house, only reappearing when my help was needed with something. I was furious that I had been made to feel like this in my own house; some reptilian-hindbrain part of me was feeling like my home had been invaded; I was riding the stressful emotional rollercoaster of bitter fantasies of storming downstairs and kicking them out of my home (into the cold streets of an unfamiliar city at night when they'd be legally unable to drive themselves the 50-odd miles home), while rationally knowing I could do no such thing; history would certainly record me as the Bad Guy if I did that.

But what I should have done was say something at the beginning. My instinct was to freeze and think "Oh crap", and then enter into the vicious spiral of feeling bad, hiding my emotions, and then feeling worse because nobody's responding to how I feel.

EDIT 2019-07-31: Added this paragraph after a recent revelation about myself:

I'm never sure if I'm entitled to complain if other people do things that most people would be fine with but I am not. There's an unwritten (and constantly changing) social contract about what things are OK to say/do to random others and which aren't; and it's based on a kind of assumption of what "most people" would find acceptable. In the past, jokes about rape were funny; but as it's become apparent that sexual abuse is more commonplace than was thought, and that a rather large proportion of the human race will find jokes about rape upsetting rather than funny, they have become taboo. Lots of things people say and do cause me distress (even if they're not saying/doing them to me, but I just overhear or witness); I'm used to it being my problem, not theirs, and it's usually only in hindsight that I realise that something somebody has done was actually violating the usual social contract, and by then, I feel I've implicitly accepted their behaviour by not rejecting it immediately. That, combined with never being quite sure if it really was a breach of the normal social norms or just me being sensitive, makes it hard to speak up. So I rarely go back over such things.

I don't feel comfortable with drawing attention to my different-ness, anyway, particularly when it's something that's bad about me; but a big factor in my tendency to hide my pain was a nasty episode at a place I worked many years ago. I worked part-time while I was at University; I had been struggling with the alcohol culture amongst my university peers, so I had as little to do with university as possible, just turning up for the bare minimum of lectures, and focussing my attention on my workplace; it became a safe refuge for me. But the little software consultancy I worked for was growing, and started to hire non-technical people for roles such as HR and sales; and with those people came a drinking culture that quickly spread to dominate the company's social fabric, and became a significant topic of conversation during the days. I went to my boss and explained that the recent shift towards all company-organised social and celebratory functions being held in bars with drinks on the company was becoming a problem for me, and he asked the person who had been tasked with organising all that stuff (the new sales guy) to change it; but he took exception to that, did everything he could to work around the spirit of the restriction while staying just inside the letter of the ruling, pointedly rubbed my face in this, and privately told me that I had no right to dictate how other people lived their lives. Ever since then, I've tended to just grit my teeth and bear it, but I think the result of this has just been that I'm slowly filling up with resentment. I need to be a bit more open about my mental health issues (hence starting to blog about it), but I must also be careful about who I hand that power over me to. In hindsight, I have come to realise that a large fraction of people are alcoholics, probably without even realising; they will react, with aggressive defensiveness, to anything that might call their use of alcohol into question.

I don't think complaining to other people is necessarily the solution, anyway. Spending all my time suggesting that people offer nice smoothies as well as coffee as a reward for something because not everybody likes coffee gets tiring, and I don't want to be That Guy who complicates everything for everybody. I know I'm a minority, and I think there should be some kind of trade-off between the current situation and some hypothetical world where every decision has to take into account every possible weird edge case; I think I wouldn't mind being left out if I didn't feel like people were making assumptions. "We could only afford the time/money to organise one thing so we got coffee as most people like it, please give us suggestions for other stuff you might like in future" is fantastic. "We got a reward budget and we spent it all on coffee, isn't that fantastic?" isn't. But explaining that distinction to busy people every time this comes up would be rather tiring. What energy we have for changing the world needs to be focussed on fighting more pressing problems, like sexism, hompohobia, transphobia and xenophobia, or better disabled access; these are things that affect large groups of people, so effort spent there will have a greater improvement on the average quality of human life than worrying about weird edge cases such as myself.

Instead, I think we need to just broaden our minds in general. People like to make assumptions about other people. If we learn to stop doing that, then things will be a bit better for everyone who's a little bit different. I don't mind being weird in itself - life would be pretty boring if everyone was the same. It's just people making assumptions that hurts!


  • By John Cowan, Sun 25th Feb 2018 @ 3:39 am

    First, let me say that I strongly resonate with almost all your points, and indeed share your history, with the exceptions of vegetarianism, parental unemployment, and the fact that my one-eyedness is relative and not absolute: I was amblyopic until I had surgery in my 40s to correct it, but my left eye vision is still 20:200. I never got any of those name-labeled chotchkes either, but that was because the 'John' rack was always sold out. For most of what else I have to say about this, see my previous comment.

    But there's a new element here I want to remark on. It is Just Wrong for you to assume that because nerds are a smaller minority than blacks or women or QUILTBAGs, that scorning them is not an equally serious social problem. It really is. Suffering by one's unjust exclusion from society is every bit as bad, both for the sufferer and for society, whether the reason for it is broadly or narrowly based. It is not the average quality of human life that matters, but the quality of each distinct human life as it is lived.

  • By alaric, Sun 25th Feb 2018 @ 9:52 am

    Thank you, John 🙂

    I think that different kind of minority-scorning show an equally serious underlying flaw in society, but the magnitude of the pain generated (insomuch as we can really try to quantify the pain felt by others, let alone truly define membership of these groups in ways that lets us count them, but we can work out ballpark rankings with a bit of hand-waving!) varies between groups.

    But, you're right, that shouldn't matter! The point I was trying to make was more that I think it's flawed to try and identify a list of all repressed groups and fix their problems individually, because where do you draw the line? I'm sure there's people out there who have phobeas of specific colours; do we ban paints and colour TV?

    I think we need to fix the root cause: we need to be more understanding of the fact that people differ, and avoid assuming that broad-brush statements will apply to everyone (with the insidious subtext of "...will apply to everyone who matters").

    But the consequences of that change in attitude will be changes to fix the current, specific, problems in society. The consequences of assuming that women are sex objects/housewives/not engineers are all over society, and there's still a lot of effort to be put into changing those - effort that will be repaid with increased happiness (and economic efficiency!).

    Towards the middle of the spectrum, there is compromise; my wife is intolerant to gluten, so her food options are even more limited than mine (and I could probably overcome having being raised as a vegetarian with sheer willpower, but she can't stop getting sick if a crumb of bread falls into her food). Any shared dining experience is dangerous for her; if no explicit gluten-free option is there, she has to either go without or risk that something not obviously gluten-based hasn't used a dash of flour as a thickener somewhere, or just been stirred with a contaminated spoon. And even when there is an explicit gluten-free option, she runs the risk that some other diner has dropped a crumb in there. Now, this risk could be removed, at some cost; separate cooking facilities for GF food, and GF items being set out on a different buffet table, and gluten-intolerant people eating at a different table out of crumb-spraying range - or gluten being eradicated from all food (oh, how I would miss freshly-baked croissants!). Those are probably too large a cost to society as a whole, so the optimum is probably a compromise; a few things could be made better to decrease the chance of accidental contamination (which is just a matter of education), gluten-based additives that aren't crucial to the recipe could be replaced with alternatives at perhaps a small increase in the price of production, and so on. We're not far away from a decent situation that means coeliacs can eat safely without the price of food going up noticeably, and I can still eat delicious croissants - I just can't kiss my wife until I've brushed my teeth 😉

    Right, where was I going before I got sidetracked on examples? Ah, yes. I do think that the cost to society as a whole of adapting to individual restrictions should vary based on how widely those restrictions are felt and how restrictive they are, for sheer pragmatic reasons; but if we address the root problem of people making assumptions about people, then the surface changes we need to make to society will rapidly become obvious, and life will still be better for people that society as a whole can't easily change to accommodate - because their local communities (friend groups, work teams, etc) will change further than society as a whole can, and for what still can't be accommodated, they will at least have understanding, support, and sympathy.

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