Coerced Enthusiasm

Somebody greets me in passing, saying, pleasantly enough, “Hi, how are you?”

Regardless of how I “am,” before I can even take stock of myself, and answer is forming on my tongue, one of a handful of automatic scripted answers (“fine,” “good,” “alright”) that will always suffice.  Sometimes the answer slips from me before I can even think, as natural as blinking, and I’m alarmed at how easily I can be made to talk before I even decide to — like a machine prompted at the press of a button, sentience overridded.

“Good,” I say.  Or some part of me says, before the rest of me even recognizes that I’ve been asked a question.

Sometimes I hear slower than other people.  Sometimes it takes me longer to process speech than the short window of time in which I’m expected to respond.  Instead of teaching people to treat me like I’m hard of hearing, I’ve unintentionally taught myself to talk faster than I listen.

Somebody says “How are you?” and I say, “Fine, how are you?” because rote memory knows how it’s done even when conscious thought is still lining the pieces end to end.

Why bother to think about it, anyway, when there’s only one right answer?

Even when I’m feeling crummy, even when I’m tired, even when I’m in emotionally dark places, even when I am irritated and don’t want to be there, even when I’m cold and lonely and weighted down with slimy obligation.  Even when I am not fine, not good, not alright, not okay.

The right performance moves the conversation along or brings the interaction to an end.  It’s what’s easiest.  It’s what glides like melted butter and gets me through to the other side.

But when I catch myself in time to be honest, and when I go off script… the other person frowns.  It starts something that’s a different, more explicit kind of uncomfortable.  Even when I am vague and understated in my subpar response (“kinda tired” and not “hurting and miserable”), it is an aberration, and it is worrisome.  The other person feels called upon to offer some brief reassurance or advice to put the matter to rest and get it out of the way.  They don’t necessarily care about getting informed and involved with my personal state of affairs.  It’s just a social script, a performance for displaying Friendliness — one that will get drawn out with more taxing, interrogative interaction until, one way or another, I reassure my friendly greeter that I’m mostly fine and there’s nothing to see here.

Usually when someone approaches me with a “How are you?”, I don’t feel like starting a whole conversation with them.  If I break the script, I create an awkward situation, and the two of us have to improvise an out.  “You break it, you buy it” — usually I’m prompted for an explanation.  Now I have to decide how much to reveal, to answer the question without delving too personal or scaring them worse — which usually ends in me playing down my problems for their benefit, despite the fact that they’re the one who asked.

One way or another, I experience the question is a spontaneous call to emotional performance.

It’s not a big deal.  It happens all the time.

Someone raises a camera and says, “Smile!”

It’s not a question.  The occasion will not be over until I cooperate.

Both of my parents are photographers.  Ever since I was a baby, they’ve taken pictures of me a lot.

Sometimes, they even let me know beforehand.

If I don’t smile, even if I’m tired or hot or uncomfortable or impatient because they’ve taken several pictures already and I don’t feel like continuing to standing there for them — if I don’t smile for any reason, I will be scoffed at and told, “Oh come on.”

I will be treated as disruptive.

And so I learn to affect the correct, “happy” facial expression upon command, or even without command, at the mere sight of a camera.

My sister is more stubborn.  She takes longer to cajole into smiling right.  It sours the mood of everyone and makes the whole production take longer.

Were I a more assertive person, I might have more frequently joined in pressuring her to cooperate and pose her face into the right expression of appeasement, so that we can get this over with and my parents can have their trophies of a happy family, to rot on untouched memory cards or, worse, to be passed around as the only evidence of what kind of life we’ve lived.

I look at an old picture of myself, seeing myself enthusiastically smiling back at the camera.  I look happy.  I don’t remember any of it happening.

The concept of “enthusiastic consent” was presumably developed to distinguish between begrudgingly-given coerced permission and ethically-valid uncoerced consent, by dividing the two on the basis that a real expression of real consent is the one that looks “enthusiastic.”

I can’t place my trust in a model like that.


8 responses to “Coerced Enthusiasm

  • jam

    basically my life?? in a post?? oh my god. the scripted response to “how are you” and the line about it just being an initiator for looking Friendly are both things i relate to probably too much.

    • Coyote

      It’s sad how much this resonates with other people, but it’s also encouraging that I don’t sound wildly hairbrained and off base. Helps me feel solid in believing, yes, this is a Thing.

  • Libris

    I think some of the weirdness with this model comes from the uncertainty as to its intended audience.

    Like. We had affirmative consent, yeah? And that could function both as a bare-bones legal model (as in, if someone didn’t say yes and is now pushing charges, stop saying that they must have secretly liked it; lacking a fuckton of nuance, but something that people could try to push to improve things a bit) and as a model for people who genuinely wanted to be better about consent in their daily lives. And it needed nuanced overlays and expansions and so forth, but it sat there as a fairly solid foundation that could be used in both places.

    And then we get to enthusiastic consent. And straight off the bat that sounds hellish for any legal function, because what the fuck is ‘enthusiasm’? It’s a direct lie if you say someone said yes and they say they did not, but people can create so much legal grey area about ‘enthusiasm’, because it’s not a well-defined word. So that is that function ruled out.

    And it’s definitely not for people who don’t care about consent, because, well, why would they be caring about models of consent? (Save for the people who don’t care about consent but want to seem like they care about consent, in which case, see above for the manipulability of ‘enthusiasm’.)

    So it must be for people who want to be better about consent in their daily lives, and to try and avoid coercion… but in that case, why does it lack so much nuance? If you’re trying to create a model that will help real, individual people, that already has individual interpretation in ‘what is ‘enthusiasm” – then why does it prescribe that everyone should be whatever definition of enthusiastic is listed here, and that that can only be genuine? Like, that will be true for some people, I’m sure, but there are also going to be /so many people/ whose ‘genuine’ doesn’t line up with someone else’s perception of ‘enthusiastic’ that the only properly-generalisable model that I can see is ‘try to learn about how your partner communicates and work in accordance with that’. But I guess that isn’t catchy enough? Or prescriptive enough?

    I am sympathetic to people working to try and promote better sex ed and better ideas about consent, I really am. I just wish they’d leave space for the rest of us.

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