As a former lifeguard and current PADI Rescue Diver, I know what to say in an emergency:
“I can help you! Are you okay?”
This lets the victim know that you’re there for them. It informs other trained rescuers that you know what you’re doing. And it helps jog your first-aid memories.
But anyone who’s ever had a bad day — and any woman who’s ever been caught not smiling — is also probably familiar with the question, “Are you okay?”
And it’s like, Look. I’m the last person who would ever complain about a “microaggression.” According to Emory Professor Scott Lillienfeld, the evidence for microaggressions is flimsy at best. In Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence (2017), he writes:
Microaggression research program (MRP) rests on five core premises, namely, that microaggressions (1) are operationalized with sufficient clarity and consensus to afford rigorous scientific investigation; (2) are interpreted negatively by most or all minority group members; (3) reflect implicitly prejudicial and implicitly aggressive motives; (4) can be validly assessed using only respondents’ subjective reports; and (5) exert an adverse impact on recipients’ mental health.
A review of the literature reveals negligible support for all five suppositions. More broadly, the MRP has been marked by an absence of connectivity to key domains of psychological science, including psychometrics, social cognition, cognitive-behavioral therapy, behavior genetics, and personality, health, and industrial-organizational psychology. Although the MRP has been fruitful in drawing the field’s attention to subtle forms of prejudice, it is far too underdeveloped on the conceptual and methodological fronts to warrant real-world application.
In fact, microaggressions are so overblown that I once dressed as microaggressions for Halloween. (My date was a trigger warning.)
If you care about someone — and especially if you care about someone who you know is feeling disempowered in some way — don’t treat them like they’re helpless and broken.
Don’t ask them if they’re okay.
I know you mean well, but as I wrote in For The Love of God, STOP Asking People if They’re Okay,
When I first joined Quora back in 2010, I was asked to create a brief profile. Here is what I wrote:
Several people have asked me about the suitcase thing, and I thought it deserved an explanation — after all, empowerment is something I’ve always been passionate about.
Well… maybe not always. It’s something I started thinking about seriously in 2008, when I took a class called Interpersonal Basis for Abnormal Psychology with Professor Len Horowitz. If I had to summarize ten weeks of learning in a paragraph, it would be this one:
All of human interaction can be graphed on an X-Y axis, where X is communion (actions that show caring and bring us closer to others) and Y is agency (actions that establish power or authority. During social interactions, the behavior of one person invites complementary behavior from the other person — or else there is tension in their system. If I do/say something that is high in agency, the complementary response will be low in agency — we can’t both be the authority. Meanwhile, if I do something high in communion, the complementary response would also be high in communion — we like people who like us, and it hurts to be rejected. Read more >
This research is super interesting — and a little troubling. Because, by interesting coincidence, human depression tends to manifest itself in one of two ways: feelings of disconnection/low communion (e.g., “I’m lonely,” “No one loves me,” I don’t have a single friend that I can confide in,” etc.) and feelings of helplessness/low agency (e.g., “I feel helpless,” “I feel worthless,” “It’s hard to get out of bed in the morning,” etc.).
This leads us to The Dilemma of the Depressed Person.
Say you’ve got a friend who tells you they’re feeling depressed. You care, and you want to help. So the next time you see them, you say, “Sweetie, how are you?” “Are you okay?” Where do these questions fall on Horowitz’s X-Y graph? Well, on the one hand, they are high in communion, because you are showing that you care about your friend. But on the other, they are also high in agency — basically what you’re saying is, “I’m okay and you’re not, so let me help you.”
There’s, like, a 50% chance that your friend is struggling with feelings of low communion, and your actions will make them feel good. “Look!” they’ll think, “Someone cares about me, after all.”
But there’s also a 50-ish% chance that your friend is struggling with feelings of low agency — and your high-agency questions force them to make a choice: a high-agency response, which, as I mentioned, causes tension (“I’m FINE — WHY do you ask?” “Of COURSE I’m fine.” “Bug off!”)… or a low-agency response, which is demoralizing! And the complete opposite of what they need.
Likewise, many well-meaning friends, family members and partners try to offer their depressed relation advice. “Snap out of it!” “You should try getting more exercise — that helps me when I’m feeling blue!” “Try eating healthier foods!”
This, too, is demoralizing. Rather than expressing sympathy and understanding, you’re basically saying, “The problem is that you don’t know how to take care of yourself. So I will tell you how to take care of yourself.” Which is obviously very high in agency. Read more >
Learning about the Dilemma of the Depressed Person made me concerned about the way we “help” depressed people in our society…
But then I got to thinking. What about other groups of “disempowered” people? For example, people with disabilities? Sexual assault victims? Negatively stereotyped minorities?
About two seconds of research revealed that, yes. These people are regularly on the receiving end of high-agency behavior. For example, the United Spinal Association has to explicitly say,
Ask before you help
Just because someone has a disability, don’t assume she needs help. Adults with disabilities want to be treated as independent people. Offer assistance only if the person appears to need it. A person with a disability will often communicate when she needs help. And if she does want help, ask how before you act.
Be sensitive about physical contact
Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for balance. Grabbing them, even if your intention is to assist, could knock them off balance. Avoid patting a person on the head or touching his wheelchair, scooter or cane. People with disabilities consider their equipment part of their personal space.
Don’t make assumptions
People with disabilities are the best judge of what they can or cannot do. Don’t make decisions for them about participating in any activity.
But I guess that’s not that shocking. I see it all the time.
For example, let’s revisit the time I let a boy with only one arm carry his own suitcase.
Pretty much everyone who witnessed this called me a terrible person afterwards.
“Why didn’t you help the poor boy? He only has one arm!”
“How could you be so heartless?”
“Would it have killed you to carry his suitcase for him?”
No. It wouldn’t have killed me. But it would have killed him. Just a little. On the inside.
Think about it this way. This boy had been born a certain way. His whole life, he’d only had one arm. And, being able-bodied in so many other ways, he learned how to compensate and operate independently. And, certainly, he’d learned to ask for help when he needed it. So what message would I have sent if I had just assumed he wanted/needed my help?
“I don’t think you can do it.”
“You’re different from me.”
“I don’t see a person. I see a disabled person.”
Again, it’s pretty demoralizing, isn’t it?
But wait! I thought to myself. This isn’t exclusive to people with visible disabilities. It happens… to me! All the time. Read more >
As a woman, I’ve had to deal with benevolent sexism my whole adult life.
Just the other night, I was tired — it was 11:30pm! — and hungry and annoyed at the lack of progress I was making with a friend in the recording studio. (I’m working on this great new song called “Eroticism is Dead.”) So I told my friend I was ready to go home.
“Why? Just stay longer.”
“I don’t want to. It’s late and I’m not feeling it.”
“Are you okay???????!!!!!!!!!!!!??????!!!!!!!!!”
“Of course I’m okay — why wouldn’t I be?”
“Are you sure????????!!!!!!!!!????????!!!!!!!!!!”
Then he went in for the hug.
So I told him what I tell all my friends who ask me if I’m okay:
“Hey, Mark. I’m not mad, but can you never ask me that again? I hate that question. Like, unless I’m bleeding or just fell off a ladder, there’s just no reason.”
Another night, I was seated at the dinner table with the president of a prestigious university. Naturally, we got into a debate about infantilizing today’s young adults.
We both made our points passionately, though he was a bit political for me. I learned a lot, and I hope he learned something from me, too. (Though, just in case he forgets everything we talked about, I went ahead and submitted a well-researched proposal to his assistant.)
Later that night, I ran into a friend at the party.
“I saw you talking to Luke,” she said to me. “Are you okay? It looked like you were about to cry!”
I didn’t feel like arguing, but on the inside, I was like, “What the fuck? I looked like I was going to cry? Because I stopped smiling and dancing?”
“What the fuck? I had a grown-up conversation with another grown-up, and now you think I need your consolation?”
(It’s about as insulting as saying that women don’t like the scientific method. Which is a real thing “feminists” are saying — it’s horrifying.)
It’s never fun to be talked down to. It’s never fun to have your independence, autonomy, hard work or abilities doubted. It’s never fun to feel different, discriminated against, or less than. People who are disabled, depressed, Black, Asian, female, and a whole list of other things have to deal with this every. Single. Day.
And when you ask people if they’re okay or give them unsolicited advice, there is a large chance that that is what you’re doing — perhaps to someone you care about.
The other thing about the horrible, “Are you okay?” question is that… it can be really inconsiderate and uncomfortable for the person you’re asking. Like, I play ball, it’s inconsiderate because it’s like you’re telling me I’m not as fast or strong or good as you.
But when you ask it to someone who’s actually struggling through something, like depression or a sexual assault… You’re kind of bringing up something they might rather not talk about. Someone recently posted on r/depression, Does anyone else hate being asked , “Are you okay?” Users commented,
Lots of depressed people hate being asked if they’re okay. Which totally makes sense.
You wouldn’t ask someone you didn’t know that well, “Hey, how did your colonoscopy go? Are you okay?” “Hey, how’s the new birth control working out for you? Is everything okay?” So why inquire about an equally sensitive mental health issue? Or an extremely personal matter?
Every good blog post should offer clear and actionable solutions. So. Say you’re a well-meaning person who wants to express communion and caring… without the risk of offending, demoralizing, or embarrassing a friend?
Here’s what I suggested in STOP Asking People If They’re Okay:
There are so many better things you could be asking them. Questions that remind them that, just because they’re struggling now, they’re totally hanging in there and doing fine. Questions that show them you know they can do it. Questions that reassure them that they are still the person they used to be, and you totally still see them that way.
Questions that remind them that they still have agency, independence, and autonomy. But that you care, and are totally ready to support them, if and when they need it.
Questions (and, I guess, statements) like:
How’s it going?
What’re you working on these days?
Let’s catch up soon — like really catch up. What’s your schedule look like this week?
You’ve always been really good at ___. Can I pick your brain for a project I’ve been working on?
You’re an important friend to me.
If you ever need anything, let me know! You were totally there for me that time when _____.
Wanna go for a walk? I’d love to get outside for a bit today! We can talk about whatever. Or we can just listen to the birds.
I’m pretty much going to sit at my house alone and watch Netflix tonight. I’d love it if you’d sit with me. Or we can go to your place — you have that awesome couch!
Can I get some advice about _____?
You look great today!
It’s SO GREAT to see you!
Seeing you always makes my day!
I was JUST thinking about you! Remember that time we ________!?
Get over here and give me a huge hug!! (you know, if that’s appropriate in the context of your relationship)
I saw that you accomplished _____. Way to go!
I’ve been on this thing lately where I’ve been asking people, “What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?” What’s yours?
This is sort of random — but what are three things about yourself that are important to you?
To be perfectly honest, I haven’t done an experiment to see if these questions have a better effect on a depressed person’s mood or long-term well-being. So I guess it would be a little unscientific to say these questions are any better than, “Are you okay?”
BUT. Let’s be real. Whoever you’re talking to, anywhere in the world, each of these questions is better, more personal, and more interesting than some generic, scripted question like, “Are you okay?” Read more >
So. That’s what I think. What do you think?