How Not to Explore Your Feelings

I recently read this article by Evan Porter, I spent a week sharing my feelings with everyone. Here’s what happened.

Initially, I was like, yeah! You go, guy! Share your feelings! Open up! Woot! In the first section, he shares this anecdote that made me actually laugh out loud, because I immediately related to it and thought of relevant examples from my own life. I love this quote:

“Ronald Levant, a professor of counseling psychology at Akron University, told me a story about a man he once treated early in his career that sums up this whole thing pretty nicely:

“[He] came in complaining about how his son had stood him up for a father son hockey game. Being relatively naive back then, I said, ‘So, how did you feel about that?’ His answer was ‘Well, he shouldn’t have done it!’ I said again, ‘Yeah, he shouldn’t have done it, but how did you feel?’
“He just looked at me blankly.”
Levant recalled similar sessions where women, by contrast, were able to walk him — in detail — through their emotional reaction to a situation: how anger turned to disappointment turned to worry, and so on.

“Among the men I was treating or working with there was a singular inability for many of them to put their emotions into words,” Levant said.”

I spent a week, by Evan Porter

Porter goes on to talk about Ryan Mckelley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse and Tedx presenter on gender research. In his research, McKelley has found boys actually tend to show a broader range of more intense emotions in infancy and young childhood than girls of the same age, and the change in displayed emotion comes later.

Porter talks about the studies McKelley has looked at, which polled American attitudes on which emotions are culturally acceptable for each of the genders to show, and how McKelley found that generally speaking, Americans are comfortable with women displaying pretty much every emotion across the spectrum, while men are expected to express only pride, contempt, and anger.

Interestingly, Porter also says McKelley’s research found our brains process emotions approximately the same, despite these cultural expectations. McKelley found that when both genders are hooked up to equipment measuring our physiological responses (breathing rates, sweat, heart rates, etc) and shown images that inspire strong emotions, there’s no gender difference in physical responses. On gender and personality, Porter quotes McKelley as saying, “I do not deny there are biological differences. However, the degree to which it influences all that other stuff, I believe, is overblown.”

All very cool stuff, which I like. So far, woot! On board! Yeah, man! You rock, Porter!–Get in touch with your feels, upset the gender binary, destroy the patriarchy! Great research!

~*~

Then he gets into his actual, personal “experiment”, and that’s when things began to get a little …. ehhh. Basically, a pretty upsetting pattern became evident fairly quickly, just in the one week of his attempt to emote to strangers. I’ll make it easy by quoting the relevant sections.

Day One

On my way home, I stopped off at a grocery store to grab an energy drink and, potentially, to share this happy moment with a stranger.

I chose the line manned by a fast-talking, bubbly woman. And when I got to the front, she teed me up perfectly with a sincere: “How are you?”

Day Two

I walked inside and stood in line at the customer service counter for what felt like an eternity. Finally, one of the tellers called me up. She had a shock of white curly hair and kind eyes. A grandmotherly type. “How can I help you?” she asked. Not the exact question I wanted, but we’ll see where it goes. “I have some returns,” I said.

Day Three

I headed out to grab a coffee at a local establishment (OK, it was a McDonald’s, but I really don’t need your judgment right now). There was a young, freckle-faced girl working the counter. She was probably 19. When it was my turn, she gave me a shy “Hello.”

“How are you?” I started. “Good. How are you?” she responded, on cue.

Since I hadn’t had any major emotional breakthroughs at that point, I just … told her the truth. “I just had to get out of the house a little bit. It’s so gray and crappy today and I just needed a break. You know?”

She gave me possibly the blankest stare I had ever seen in my life. I quickly filled the silence with my order — a large iced coffee. To go.

Day Four

When I reached the cashier at the Walgreens down the street from my house, a small pack of size-five Pampers clutched to my side, I saw she was a young black girl. She asked how I was doing. And I told her, with all honesty, that I was sad

On day five, he decided not to talk about his feelings to anyone, saying, “I didn’t want to be the guy at the fast food restaurant telling the cashier about his knee replacement or his swollen feet or his bunions or whatever, totally unprompted.” Then, as it happens, his wife IM’s him and asks about his day, so he emoted to her instead.

D’ya see the common trend here? Guy decides to get in touch with his emotions by, “opening up to strangers,” but doesn’t choose social peers or males to open up to. Instead, he chooses female cashiers in retail establishments. Pretty much the definition of emotional labor.

Break it down real quick. He didn’t choose, say, a stranger shopping in the aisle. He didn’t approach a fellow parent, selecting a similar brand of cereal. He didn’t approach one of the other parents in the pick-up line at daycare, who would (presumably) be of a similar social location to him.

Instead, he specifically chose non-threatening (bubbly, kindly, or young) female (not male) cashiers– individuals held captive by their employment situation, required to engage with him as customer service representatives of the establishment– relying, implicitly and perhaps unconsciously, on the customer is always right fallacy. This belief, common in USian culture, originates from a 1920s marketing slogan and now permeates nearly all retail/ service interactions, often in incredibly toxic ways.

In my opinion, one of the worst ways is the way it intersects with job security. The lack of just cause employment protections in most states and/ or employment contracts means it is not uncommon for managers or supervisors to placate an angry customer by simply firing the employee in question– a practice that is perfectly legal in states with at-will employment.

As a result, low-wage retail and service sector employees are all too aware their job security relies not only on job performance, but their ability to skillfully massage the egos of emotionally fragile and difficult customers. Since on-the-job/ worker training is more and more a thing of the past, such skills (which a therapist, counselor, and psychologist pay good money to learn in higher education) are, for retail and service workers, either innate or skills the employee has learned over a period of trial and error from dealing with years of emotionally difficult and needy customers.

So, in that context, when a customer comes through the line of a cashier wanting to chat about his day– realize the cashier doesn’t have a choice. They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. They have a job to do– metrics to meet, numbers to match up to. The customers in line behind might complain if they malinger too long talking with Mr. Chattypants, but Mr. Chattypants might complain to management if they brush him efficiently through. See the problem here?

He comes through wanting one thing– emotional breakthroughs, to get in touch with his internal emotions, to break the social conditioning laid down by the patriarchy which has restricted him to expressing three basic emotions.

The cashier is expecting a different interaction. They’re at work. They’re in work-mode. They’re solving-work problems. They just want to do their job, collect their paycheck, and go home. At home, they have their own families and problems and emotional breakthroughs to deal with, but this right now? This is work. They’re in work-mode. They just want to take your order, sir.

Look at it, day by day– day one, at the grocery store. The kindy, bubbly woman who teed Porter up with a “perfectly sincere,” greeting of, “How are you?” as she rang up his energy drink, then in the “next instant” cut the interaction short by summoning over another customer. Dude! You had one item! You weren’t buying a conversation, you were buying an energy drink! She wasn’t actually trying to initiate heartfelt conversation, she was being polite and efficient, because that’s her job!

The day two customer service teller, she of the kind, grandmotherly face and white-hair. She literally asked, “How can I help you today?” instead of “How are you?” and Porter still tried to misread a customer service experience as an opportunity for emotional interaction between two people freely choosing to engage/ converse with one another, as he gripes, Not the exact question I wanted, but we’ll see where it goes, and details the specifics of his customer service return experience. Basically, the transaction took awhile because a large storm almost knocked out the store’s power, and all the computers were malfunctioning.

From his perspective, the length of the transaction– due to the malfunctioning equipment– was nothing more than an opportunity for conversation. He seems irritated by the customer service representative not asking how his day is going, even when the transaction runs long, and says he “takes the initiative,” which is how he “stumbles” into a pleasant conversation, which turns out to be about weather and computers rather than the one he wanted about emotions. He leaves feeling okay about the interaction, and thinking that talking about your own feelings is pretty weird even when you’re trying.

Apparently, it doesn’t occur to him that she was working, not socializing, and the transaction was taking longer because the equipment was malfunctioning– requiring more rather than less of her concentration. All in all, the worse set of circumstances to talk about anyone’s feelings. The whole thing was clearly (from her perspective) a customer service interaction between a client in a place of business seeking services from a customer service representative; whereas he was seeking something entirely different, something the business doesn’t even sell.

The day three cashier, the 19 year old McDonald’s server, was the one Porter blurted out his bad day line to, and got a blank stare in response.

For a minute, put yourself in the server’s shoes. Just, imagine yourself in that age range, somewhere between the ages of 18 and 23. The things you were concerned about at that age. College classes, relationship drama, your parents health scares, paying bills your roommates had flaked on, your stupid co-worker who didn’t complete their tasks so you always ended up doing extra work, all that kind of shit. Maybe you had a kid, or were into drugs, or had your own health issues, or had siblings you were responsible for. Point is, everyone’s the star of their own story, and we all got our own stuff going on– that McD’s cashier had something important to them on their mind.

Also, the cashier is probably, unfortunately, all too used to customers mistaking her situational requisite politeness for something else. So when the interaction between the strange guy she’s never met abruptly and without warning veers into the personal, she’s responding in the way often advised as the least likely to encourage him and the least likely to get her fired.

Let me be clear. I know–because I’ve read Porter’s article–that his intentions were pure. I know he’s married and has a kid and wasn’t hitting on that 19 year old at McD’s. But she had no way of knowing that. From her perspective, if was very likely that responding to his crappy gray day line with, “Yeah, I do know what you mean–I’ve had a really bad day myself,” could have been read (and perhaps in the past had been read) as an “invitation” for more–like an “invitation” to ask for her number, or an “invitation” to ask her out for coffee.

From her perspective, staring blankly at him instead of engaging in polite conversation may have been the most politic response, because commiserating with him could have been seen (by him and many, many others) as an “invitation” and encouragement for his attention; while replying with a joke or sarcasm to deflect him, like saying, “And would you like prozac with your order, sir? Oh, wait, I can’t prescribe, because I’m not a doctor. Go to a therapist,” could end with a complaint and termination. There’s no assurance management would have her back in either situation.

She was staring, frozen, because she was stuck like a rabbit come unexpectedly face to face with a wolf. Sure, Porter is a vegetarian wolf in this analogy; friendly to rabbits, not planning on any hunts. He doesn’t want her to get fired, or ask her out. No plans to flirt. All he wants to do is go along, exploring his own internal emotions.

What he doesn’t realize none of that is apparent, externally, to rabbits. None of it can be communicated in the time of that interaction. All that exists between them is the customer-client dynamic, and he’s trying (unfairly, because he’s the one with all the power in this situation) to force it into a different mold, one that he wants.

On day four, his interaction with the young black Walgreens cashier (side note–does he know any of their names? He doesn’t note in the article, and I’m not sure if that’s because he didn’t bother to look, or because he’s protecting their privacy) is troubling not only in the context of gender and class, but in the context of race.

The day Porter interacted with her was the day Philando Castile was shot. However, because the cashier had been at work all day, she hadn’t been able to access the news yet. So Porter (a white male customer) talks to her (a black female cashier) about his grief, his reaction to the news of yet another incident of police brutality against a black person– clearly not considering the potential emotional impact this conversation could have on her while she is on shift, or how she might have a need to process it, or whether or not her management would be sympathetic to her taking a break to gather herself.

It’s obvious it never occurs to him that the black retail cashier might have had a strong negative emotional response she had to hide behind a bright smile; forced to suppress for the comfort of her customers and unable to deal with until the end of her shift, because she was all too aware that her managers wouldn’t be sympathetic to her taking a break to gather herself.

I wonder how white collar workers would feel, sitting in offices and working on projects, if retail and service workers treated them with the same breezy disregard. They’re in the zone, focused on their work, tip-tapping away at their keyboards, when suddenly and unexpectedly, the cashier from the grocery store, or barista from their coffee shop, or server from their favorite restaurant pops in and sits down beside them, no interview or appointments scheduled, to chat about their feelings and thoughts with cozy familiarity, expecting genuine interest and a warm welcome despite any lack of personal relationship.

How would they respond? Especially if was a daily occurrence?

How would their responses change if they knew there was a possibility they could lose their jobs, or future assignments, if they upset these chatty intruders?

Now, I applaud, absolutely, Porter’s desire to explore his emotions and upset the status quo. I think that’s fantastic. Near the end of his piece, he says,

“Many of us are risk-takers. We go skydiving, wakeboarding, speedboating, or even shopping-cart-riding (full-speed into a thorn bush on a rowdy Saturday night, amiright?).

But we won’t tell our best friend that we love them.”

— I spent a week, by Evan Porter

I wish he’d done that instead. That would’ve been great. He posited a week telling strangers, which he didn’t actually do. He very specifically (although I believe unconsciously) chose a class of “strangers” bound by their social location (economic class/ employment situation + gender/ social conditioning) to respond gently to his attempts at self-exploration.

Remember, there are male cashiers–but he didn’t choose male cashiers. He selected women. There are male and female shoppers and diners, but he didn’t choose shopper or diners, he chose cashiers. Four days in a row, he ignored all the other people in a store or restaurant to specifically seek out conversation with women sequestered behind a counter and register–an audience held captive by their employment situation, and a gender automatically perceived as “safe” for confiding in, and whose ages and physical appearances he specifically describes in non-threatening terms.

Porter’s article could have been really fascinating if he’d actually sought out strangers–maybe his little-known coworkers around the office, or other parents at daycare pickup, or shoppers at the market, or engaging in a Pokemon Go outing with his daughter and talking to other players at the park–people whose interactions with him would be voluntary, and not arbitrarily limited by the constraints of a customer service interaction.

If he found it too intimidating to risk rejection by putting himself out there through voluntary spontaneous interactions, he could have tried committing to structured-activity interactions, like going to a Meetup group even a night for a week, or signing up for a daddy-daughter playgroup, or looking up the local college/ community arts/ playhouse schedule for his city and attendings some theater or comedy events. There’s usually a solid crowd, and it seems like everyone ends up discussing their emotions when the arts are involved.

Or maybe he could have tried something closer to him, that doesn’t risk the censure of strangers–he could have tried opening up to the men in his life. Telling his best guy friend he loves him, or talking to his brothers/ brothers-in-law about emotions, or calling up his dad/ father-in-law/ male mentors and telling them honestly about the positive impact they’ve had on his life.

Or, if that’s too much (which, if you’ve had a lifetime being emotionally locked down, I can see how it might be), he could try journaling to get in touch with his inner self, like a gratitude journal.

Or, hell, even dropping acid or shrooms or going on an Ayahuasca trip. Hallucinogenic experiences are supposed to encourage emotional breakthroughs, right? So that could’ve been a super-interesting, offbeat way for him to explore the question with low social risk without all the problematic dynamics of classism and sexism that he ended up stumbling on.

That’s like five ways he could’ve tried his experiment that didn’t involve trying to rope female retail/ service cashiers into unexpected one-sided emotional interactions.

Mind you, I do think Porter was coming from good intentions in examining the limited socialization of emotions–the research he presented was cool, and, I mean, all working parents take the lazy/ easy route sometimes. I bet it was definitely easier to beeline the cashier’s line than try to strike up a conversation in the cereal aisle, and I’m willing to bet he didn’t even realize he was consistently targeting lady cashiers. I suspect this informal little experiment went astray because he stayed in the safe zone, rather than risking rejection. Which I get! Baby steps and all that.

It’s just, as a rule of thumb, if you find you need to utilize paid employees in order to avoid rejection as you explore untapped emotional depths, I’d suggest a therapist or counselor rather than a service/ retail employee.

Therapists are trained to deal with that all that psychological emotive stuff, and went into the line of work of helping people working through their emotion because they have the desire to do it. They want to talk about your feelings with you.

Service/ retail employees are generally being polite because they have to in order to keep their job, and it’s the default human-mode in a civilized society. They just want to complete the customer service interaction without issue, finish the shift, and go home. They’ve got their own lives and their own problems. They don’t care about yours.

Trust me: They don’t get paid enough to care about yours. They don’t even get paid enough to care about the stuff you’re buying. Retail and service work are among the top five industries for job growth, with among the lowest wages. They’re not your untrained, underpaid therapist.

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