Regarding Rhetorics of Comfort

The word “uncomfortable” makes me uncomfortable.

Sorry, let me double back a bit and explain.

The words “(un)comfortable” make sense, as words, to convey a sense of feeling cozy and at ease (or the opposite) with one’s surroundings.  Couches are comfortable.  Bar stools are uncomfortable.  When the words are used in that kind of way, it’s all good, no problem.  But in social situations, when someone asks if I would be “comfortable with that”, I’m immediately uncomfortable with even answering the question.  And I don’t know why.

a picture of a chair that is covered in nailsI don’t think it’s a bad thing to check in with people on their boundaries, obviously.  I do want people to ask rather than assume.  But, for me personally, this particular choice of words is not the most effective way to do that — always putting me on the defensive no matter how nicely it’s said — and I’m still mulling over what the reasons for that could be.

Possible Factors:

1) Framing my reaction in their terms.  These phrases (“Would you be comfortable that?”, “…unless you’d be uncomfortable with that,” etc.) are usually presented in yes-or-no terms that preemptively characterize my potential feelings (as either “comfortable” or “uncomfortable”) rather than allowing me the choice of how to explain my sentiments.  I have to either agree that my reaction fits the preemptively-offered mold of “uncomfortable”, or I have to indicate that I would be “comfortable” with the thing (in effect, agreeing to go along with it), with the word “comfortable” meaning not so much “cozy” or “pleasant”, in this context, but something more along the lines of “willing to tolerate”.

This is already irritating, because what I’m actually comfortable with is not the same category as what I’m willing to tolerate.  The phrasing of these inquiries is not an accurate way to approach what’s actually a pretty significant distinction.

Nor does it leave much room to communicate about gray-areas of comfort or willingness to tolerate (or the difference between the two) without seeming like you’re ducking the question or being pedantic.  Too often, the way the question is posed (and the way the people I’ve known tend to ask it) isn’t so much about “what can I do to ensure that you’re comfortable” and is more interested in “are you going to react negatively if I do this”, two questions which express two very different sets of priorities, and I wish the latter wouldn’t masquerade as the former.

2) Making me feel like a wuss.  Which is ridiculous, of course.  But even in situations where I would be genuinely uncomfortable, it also makes me uncomfortable to say, specifically, “I’d be uncomfortable with that.”  It feels like an admission of weakness — which only makes sense if you believe it’s possible or even healthy for someone to not dislike anything or to know of no conceivable experience which would put them off.  That’s silly.  It’s all silly.

But I also know I come from a culture in which the more you’re “comfortable with”, the more tough and resilient that makes you in many people’s eyes, and those traits are valued as virtuous qualities to aspire to.  The more you can tolerate, the more you can take on, the more you can brush off without it affecting you, the more impressive and admirable you are.  Except sometimes when it comes to gay flirting, probably, although then again, that’s probably why some straight guys like hitting on each other and playing at gay chicken.

So when I admit that I would be “uncomfortable with that,” I’m hyperaware of the possibility of that confession being read as a personal failing — a failure to be tough, to endure, to not be adversely affected by things that don’t bother others (or that are even enjoyed by others).  An obvious conflation of “comfort” with “tolerance” (of an active positive with the forbearance of a negative) is inscribed into the question itself: when people ask “if you would be un/comfortable with that”, they’re never asking it to mean “Would you enjoy this?  Would you feel relaxed by this?  Can you take pleasure in this?  Are you at ease with this?”  It’s never about finding out what you like.  It’s about presuming you might dislike it, and then asking you how much.

3) Making me feel like a wet blanket.  Even when I don’t feel like a wuss for wanting to decline, sometimes I like the people who are asking, and I don’t want to let them down or stand in the way of their good time.  Because, in effect, that’s what I’d be doing — I’ve never heard this question posed in a way that came without the insinuation that “I’ll respect your choice if you don’t want to, but I want you to.”  People only ever ask me this sort of thing because it’s something they want permission to involve me in, and the act of saying you wouldn’t be comfortable is a kind of social imposition, blocking your participation in what they may have hoped to make a group activity or shutting the whole thing down altogether.  Even if the answer just translates to “I won’t be going with you,” it’s going to come as a disappointment on some level.  I’ve never known a situation where it hasn’t.

Sometimes that’s inevitable, and all the people involved are sweet and well-meaning, and there’s no malice or hard feelings.  I know for a fact, though, that variants of this rhetoric get used for manipulative purposes, to try and pressure people into doing things they don’t want to do (cw: link involves manipulative sexual requests, for lack of a better term).  People don’t like to feel like they’re letting someone down.

That’s something I feel uncomfortable with — with being a social imposition.  And if someone as outspoken as I am has trouble saying no, I can only imagine what it’s like for people who’ve had it worse.

Although the concern is a general one, this issue has serious relevance to sexual situations, especially for people who aren’t enthusiastic about sex for its own sake.  Concerns #2 and #3 apply doubletime, not only because declining anything sexual would be taking away The Big Funtime that all other pleasure is measured by in comparison, but also because disliking something that “everyone” wants is incomprehensible to many people, so much so that disinterest is pitied and aversion pathologized — and even when an indifference to sex is acknowledged as okay in its own right, it’s also desired that people should be resilient for others’ benefit, or else they’re seen as being oversensitive and pathetic.

Granted, these problems are largely just products of stale sex-normative views, but the phrasing of “comfort”-based questions in this cultural context still fails to moderate these concerns’ impact or keep them at bay in the way (I presume) some people would like them to.  There are, I believe, plenty of askers who are genuinely concerned with making others feel comfortable and finding out how XYZ would impact their fun levels.

I don’t have a solution — partly because I’m still working out the problem — but one thing I’d ask for, as a start, is for people to practice asking more open-ended questions (“How would you feel…” instead of “Would you feel ________ …”) and, where applicable, seek out what people actually would want or would welcome, rather than just what they would put up with.


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