Things not to take literally: “What do you care what other people think?”

Trigger Warning: General

What Do You Care What Other People Think: Further Adventures of a Curious Character is the title of an autobiographical book by physicist Richard Feynman. He was indeed quite a character, so one might reasonably suppose that he felt the former sentiment applied to him, and that’s why he chose it as the title of his book. (I highly recommend his series of autobiographical books, by the way, they’re funny, engaging and I think most intelligent people would enjoy them – except that if you are anti-nuclear-weapons you might not like his views on those, which are in a very real sense a product of his time and of his working on the Manhattan project. Likewise with his attitude to women I suppose, although I wasn’t as sensitive to that – certainly not when I read the books as a teenage boy, anyway.)

I think it’s important, especially if you are the sort of person who might take “What do you care what other people think?” too literally at least sometimes, not to take this idea too literally. Or to put that another way, not to take it to extremes.

Now, I’m going to do the standard thing of ignoring what the writer actually meant – because it’s a common enough sentiment in Western society, after all – Richard Feynman’s ghost can’t lay exclusive claim to it or anything.

I think it’s helpful to see it as a genuine question, as a starting point for reflection on whether what other people might think actually matters to you and why. So in that sense, do take it literally – as a literal question, not merely a rhetorical one. I don’t think it should be seen as a command or guidance to just simply ignore what other people might think, because it’s somehow “manly” or “brave” or “hipsterish” or “idiosyncratic” or “anarchist” or whatever else it might be that you want to be, or think you are. (I’ve certainly never thought of myself as an anarchist, at least, but I put that one in there because I think it is highly relevant to people in radical milieux, for fairly obvious reasons).

And certainly it should not be seen as applying in all contexts, in all social situations, with equal vigour.

Yes, not for the first time, this blog post is partly aimed at myself – but also to anyone else who might be a bit overzealous about “not caring what other people think”. Oh, I know I’m not the only one.

One example of where I think this sentiment really has value, is supporting someone who wants to “break the mould” socially in some positive or (you think) legitimate way, and is actually aware of the potential social costs of doing so and what that could entail, so they’re attempting to be brave in full (or at least partial) knowledge of what they could be getting into, and not just foolhardy.

One example of where this sentiment could be harmful, is if it leads you to ride roughshod over other people’s feelings. To take one extreme – but therefore compelling – example, if someone is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (and remember you don’t actually know if any of the people in your social circles actually are survivors, but haven’t chosen to tell you), they may be particularly sensitive to all sorts of things – words, concepts, expectations, even just their perceptions of what you are implying or what you expect – that you’re perhaps not fully aware of.

Yes, it’s hard to guarantee (well, impossible to guarantee 100%) that you won’t offend. But, life is hard, and remember, if, like me, you’re not such a person yourself, it’s especially hard for them. So have some empathy. One thing that might help a little bit, is writing Trigger Warning (or TW for short, useful on a tweet), which can act to give such people a choice to avoid things that may trigger traumatic memories and/or make them highly emotional. Which is what I’ve done on this blog post.

Now, that’s just one example. I don’t mean to imply that that’s the only context in which you shouldn’t thoughtlessly ride roughshod over other people’s feelings (and, as I said, you can’t ever know for sure that you’re not in that particular context anyway).

It’s often been observed, in as many words, that it’s easier to ride roughshod over other people’s feelings online (I’m not going to link to the coarse version of this that is initialled GIFW, just because I personally choose not to swear very much online). Some of the reasons for this are obvious: for starters, no facial expressions or other body language (unless you’re on a Google+ Hangout or something video-based like that), so we don’t get the same social cues, and as a result it can be necessary for people to be more blunt to us to get through to us, than they would have to be in offline interactions. Well, maybe you’re really really good at online interactions and never need body language to interpret how someone is feeling. I would seriously question that idea, however! Not least because they may not want to show you how they are feeling when discussing something online, for various reasons!

Finally, it’s also worth asking yourself, if you are tempted to follow the principle “What do you care what other people think?”, whether you aren’t simply “not caring” about one group of people’s feelings, in order to “look good” or “look cool” or bond socially with the person or people who have just told you or suggested to you not to care what other people think – and therefore, you are in fact caring a great deal about what that second person or group of people think? Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that! But is there some in-group versus out-group effect going on here? Obviously, it’s perfectly commonplace for people to think in terms of in-group and out-groups – it’s probably part of our shared evolutionary psychology as a species, but…

No links because this post is long enough already. See, I’m thinking of you, the reader!

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