Sunday, December 18, 2011

On Boundaries, Respecting Them, and Generally Not Being an Asshole at Parties

A few years ago, I was at a party where many of the guests decided to play with spray cans of whipped cream—that is, spraying it on each other, licking it off, etc. Since I'm allergic to dairy products, I figured it would be best if my skin did not come into contact with said whipped cream, and very clearly said so. Apparently when I said, "Hey, I'm allergic to milk, so please don't spray any of that on me," one of the guests thought that it would be highly amusing if he did exactly the opposite of what I had just said. In what seemed like slow motion, I watched him reach over to my exposed leg, poised with a can of what is essentially a toxic substance to me. Naturally, I flipped out. When he recoiled, he sneered that he was "just joking", implying that I was overly sensitive and, now, "mean" for yelling at him.

More recently, I was at a party where someone (who annoyed me for multiple reasons, but I'm just going to focus on this incident) was carrying around a craniometer. (Because...that's cute?) I was sitting on a bar stool talking with some friends when this person decided to show off the device and talk about how much ze enjoyed poking people with it. I started very clearly that I did not wish to be poked. Hir immediately reaction was to point the device directly towards my knee. Again, I flipped out, and reiterated that I did not respond well to being poked (especially by strangers, and especially with an old, rusty piece of metal that is probably filthy.)

Most of you know that I spend the majority of my time, energy, and money managing my disease. Weeks (or months) of things going well can be instantly negated by one small thing going wrong—notably, exposure to an allergen or unanticipated injury or stress to my skin. I'd never get mad at someone for accidentally injuring me, and I am certainly not adverse to receiving a variety of physical sensations (with someone I trust, who knows what they're doing) or even occasionally eating something that might give me a slight reaction. The main difference here is that in these cases the damage is done at my own decision, on my own terms, when I have carefully weighed the risks and benefits.

The fact that in both of these examples the offending people irritated me for many, many other reasons is probably not pure coincidence, but their behavior is indicative of a mindset that I fear is too common: "someone told me specifically not to do something, but they can't be serious, so I'm going to do it anyway." In other words, "no doesn't really mean no, and I should do whatever I want all the time." This (along with the usual reaction of "well, I was just joking, you're being mean") is utterly baffling to me. The fact that I have a disease that hangs in careful balance is actually inconsequential to the greater issue here: you need to respect other people's boundaries at all times, no matter how insignificant they may seem to you.

Make it your policy to always ask permission to touch anyone, for any reason, and if you make a mistake (we all do sometimes), do not act like the other person is mean or "no fun" for reinforcing their boundaries. It doesn't matter if I'm splayed out on a rack being prodded by 17 people. If you walk up, you ask before initiating contact, and when you have received your answer—positive or negative—respond in an appropriate fashion. Someone else's boundaries are their own, and notifying you of them is in no way an attack on your character. I firmly believe that this is one of the most basic levels of maturity one must display before interacting with other humans (especially me.)

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