Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

When ‘You’re Too Sensitive’ Means ‘Stay in Your Place’: Part 2 of Why I Do What I Do

Sometimes it’s not personal, it’s something bigger

It has been less than a day since I posted "Why I do what I do, Part 1: Every stereotype in the book," and already the response has been amazing. Check out the comments that have been posted - just about every one of them is worth a post of its own in response. Today, though, I'm going to focus on the comments made by "Ann," because her response is an example of another reason why I do what I do.

My post was about a person who emailed me saying, "I strongly doubt many singles are happy. Most who claim they are, IMO, are either putting on a brave front to save face, or are still closeted homosexuals." It went on for a while in the same manner. (Read the whole letter here.)

Ann said she thought I was being overly sensitive in my response, and seeing slights where none were intended. Ann also told another commenter that her reaction was angry and prickly, that she (Ann) felt sorry for the commenter, and finally added, "You obviously have issues."

I thought the commenter who was getting this criticism was actually quite witty and insightful. But that's not my point. I'm not going to argue about whether Ann was correct about me or about the other commenter. On a case by case basis, it is hard to ever know where the truth really lies. (Plus, the person Ann described as having "issues" responded graciously, discussing the importance of empathy and compassion.)

What is important, though, is a dynamic that too often gets set in motion when single people speak out, when they try to stand up for themselves, and when they try to talk about their lives in ways that do not fit the "poor me" stereotypes. The reaction these singles elicit is often along the lines of:

  • You're too sensitive
  • You are seeing slights where none were intended
  • You are angry
  • You are prickly
  • I feel sorry for you
  • You have issues
  • You are bitter
  • You are selfish
  • You are just envious of married people

Again, to be clear, I'm not talking here specifically about Ann or any other particular individuals or instances. In any one example, who knows what the "right" interpretation actually is, or whether there even is just one correct meaning. Instead, I'm talking about a pattern of responses. Sometimes (not always), what these kinds of responses add up to is this message (directed to single people trying to stand up for themselves):

Stay in your place.

We see this sort of dynamic develop whenever a stereotyped or stigmatized group starts getting restless about their place in society, and they and others work on consciousness-raising rather than accommodating to the prevailing views. Feminists are called angry and humorless. African-Americans are called uppity. And now singles are told that they are overly sensitive, angry, and have issues.

One of the reasons I do what I do in my research and writing about singles is to take these matters beyond the personal. Often, single people write to me about ways they are treated unfairly in the workplace (for example, they are expected to cover the holidays no one else wants to work, or to wait until all of their married coworkers pick their preferred vacations times, then take what's left). If they take their case to their boss, they are often told - you guessed it - that they are being bitter, selfish, envious of married people, overly sensitive, and all the rest.

Bosses can make these discussions about the individual single worker because we have so little societal awareness about issues of singlism. It is different with the other isms that are more often topics of our cultural conversations. When a woman stands up for herself or for women in general and gets put down for it, we know what to call it - it's sexism.

Consider for example, this recap of an exchange that took place on CNBC:

"In a discussion of the blown call during Wednesday night's almost-perfect-game, [Erin] Burnett argued that the umpire and pitcher's ‘graciousness' were so ‘beautiful' that it made for a ‘more memorable moment' than a perfect game would have.

"‘See, this is why women aren't in charge of sports,' [Mark] Haines shot back."

The recap ran under the heading, "Mark Haines Makes Sexist Comment on CNBC, Refuses to Apologize." The story wasn't about how angry and humorless and bra-burning Erin Burnett was - it was about how sexist Mark Haines was.

That's why I do what I do. I want single people who stand up for themselves to have a safety net. Maybe years from now, they will still hear comments analogous to the ones Erin Burnett just heard, but the person who will be put on the spot will be the insulter, not the insulted.

Of course, it is possible for singles to be overly sensitive and for women to be overly angry. No one - myself included - should dismiss critical feedback out of hand. But nor should we dismiss out of hand the reports of single people who are happy with their lives, or the requests of single workers to have the same access to time off as their married coworkers.

When I was writing Singled Out, I thought very hard about how to address the criticism that I was making something out of nothing. What I settled on became the first two pages of the book. They are the pages I wrote last. If you are interested, I included those pages in this previous post. Or you can just go to the Amazon page, click "Search inside this book," then "first pages."

[Among the comments that I will address for sure in the future is the one from "JSS" asking me to write about singles who are somewhat happy being single but still interested in coupling. I'm reading a great book, based on many interviews with singles, that addresses that issue. When I finish the book, I'll probably write several posts about it.]

 

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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