Social Dynamics and the Politics of Helping People

0r How to not be “Helpy.”

The other day I was at an outdoor cafe and witnessed a scene that bothered me. A woman was sitting at a nearby table with a small dog of the inveterately yappy variety. A family passed by trailing kids of various ages. The dog took exception to this, sprang up to the end of its leash, and leveled a barrage of barking at the kids, one of whom (a girl of about 5-6) was startled enough that she sprang away, hit the wall beside her, and fell.

She was physically fine, but scared and crying as a result. The family picked her up, soothed her, etc. It was all good.

Except… the woman with the dog clearly felt bad. She got up and loomed over the little girl, saying “aw, honey, it’s okay. He’s really friendly; he didn’t mean it. You startled him. He was just as scared as you were.”

The little girl, reasonably, cringed away from this stranger getting all up in her face. The family led her away, the dog-owner trailing after them, still trying to engage the girl, still trying to tell her it was okay.

I said nothing, because it wasn’t my business, but lady… it is not that little girl’s job to assuage your conscience because you weren’t taking proper public precautions with your dog. Instead of being concerned with that girl’s comfort in the face of a trauma (mild to us, but to a little kid, yeah, that’s a scary damned experience), the woman was concerned with her own comfort and need to apologize and remove her own culpability.

So today, different coffee shop, different situation. A woman pushed past my table and knocked my tea over onto my keyboard. She didn’t even notice, just sailed out of the coffee shop without an apology. That’s fine. It was an accident, and I was too busy making sure my keyboard didn’t fritz-out to do more than glare over my shoulder at her.

But the guy in the line running past my table (the reason the woman had to squeeze close enough to knock over my tea) did notice, and after a few moments, he leaned over to offer his advice – that I should get a hair dryer to dry the keyboard.

Bryn calls this sort of helpfulness “being helpy.” That is, help/advice that is impossible to follow or more damaging than the initial problem.

I told him I didn’t have a hair dryer just then, but thank you for his help, and turned back to do what mitigation I could (I have lost one laptop to a water-knocking-over issue — fucking cat — so I’ve actually done a bit of research into how to fix/prevent damage). I was probably a bit short with the guy because… y’know… I had bigger concerns.

He took great offense at my dismissal of him. I don’t recall what all was said. I know I ended up diverting my attention from my real problem (the tea-drenched laptop) to assuaging the hurt feelings of some stranger. I know he told me I had to chill out, calm down, I was over-reacting, and that he was only trying to help, yadda yadda.

When did my problem switch from being potentially damaged electronics to being the ruffled feathers of a stranger? And why did he feel the need to make my issue all about him? Why did the lady with the dog think that the little girl would be comforted by a stranger looming over her?

I can’t control the actions of other people, so I suppose the learning experience here is to keep aware of my own actions: when I hurt someone, when I see someone who has been hurt, I need to remember to foreground the injured person’s needs and comfort over my own need to be helpful and fix things. Asking “What can I do to help?” and then accepting “nothing” as an answer is hard, and there’s always the issue of people being unable to admit or articulate their needs, but I think it’s a more respectful approach than imposing yourself on someone because you think they need your help.

Or something. I dunno. Mostly, I needed to get that off my chest so I could get back to editing. That helpy guy annoyed me and threw me off my game more than the tea-knocking-over lady or the danger to my laptop did. Real helpful.

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