Trying to detect dehumanization



I’m really good at telling when people don’t quite think I’m a person, but I’m not quite sure *how* I detect this. I’m trying to figure it out.

A good part of what’s in this post is probably wrong, because this is really hard to get a handle on. And *some* of these things are sometimes the result of other things, like communication problems.

But here’s a draft list of things I think that I detect as signs that someone doesn’t see me as a person:

  • There’s kind of more of a pause than usual, and then what they responded to wasn’t really in reaction to what you said. They’re reacting to some imaginary person.
  • They don’t seem to understand what you’re saying, but they don’t ask any clarifying questions.
  • They don’t answer your clarifying questions.
  • They look at each other a lot, but not you.
  • They try to insist on talking about your feelings rather than the problem or concrete thing you want to talk about.
  • They tell you in authoritative tones what you are thinking or feeling or need or want, and they’re not open to corrections.
  • They completely ignore you when you say things that don’t fit their agenda, to the extent that you start doubting that you actually said it.
  • They go on and on about how smart you are, but they don’t seem to want to discuss anything else with you.
  • They expect effusive gratitude for mundane acts like getting something down from a shelf they can reach that you can’t.
  • Their body language shifts dramatically when they’re interacting with you; it’s really different than how it looks when they’re interacting with others. 
  • They have a voice they use with adults, and a voice they use with young children, and they use their little-kid-voice with you.

Thoughts, anyone? Which of these things am I wrong (or right) about? What other signs are there?

I think a good percentage of y’all know exactly what I am talking about, but it’s really hard to pin down.

I don’t think you’re completely wrong about any of these, but some of them can definitely be caused by other things besides dehumanization.  Your second point sort of jumped out at me, because I do that sometimes.  I have trouble understanding people when there’s much background noise, and sometimes I get fed up with saying “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” so I pretend that I’ve understood when I haven’t.  I do want to understand, but I don’t want to slow things down by asking people to repeat themselves over and over, and sometimes people seem to think I’m being rude when I ask.  I think there are some situations where it’s better for me to guess instead of asking (like, I can be reasonably sure that what the cashier at Subway says when I get to the register is “What kind of sandwich is it?  Do you want it as a meal?”) but I guess I need to be aware that it can seem disrespectful.

Oh, yes, absolutely that is a different thing. I’m not talking about situations in which you can reliably assume based on context that everyone is working off a script. Then it’s ok to respond to the script even if you can’t actually hear the script clearly, so long as you’re open to corrections if you make a mistake.

When it’s not that kind of situation, though, and it’s actually substantively non-scripted interpersonal interaction, I’ve found that it often really helps to disclose when there’s a problem. If you just ask people to repeat stuff over and over, they tend to get annoyed because they’re doing what you asked and it’s not actually working at getting you to understand them.

It helps to explicitly say that you want to understand/hear/listen, what the practical problem is that making it difficult, and what would help. For instance:

  • It’s too loud in here for me to understand you. Can we step out for a minute?
  • You’re getting drowned out by all the noise; could you turn towards me?
  • I want to understand, but I’m not processing it right. Could you try using different words?
  • I’m having trouble understanding with all this background noise; could you write it down? (this one is harder, but works sometimes)
Also, if you’re guessing, it can help to say explicitly what the guess is. For instance:
  • Did you ask me where to find the drinks?
  • Did you say you know my friend Joe?
  • Did you say physics or fabrics, or something else?
Because then people know that you are listening and trying to understand, and can get a sense of what the communication breakdown is, and maybe find ways of correcting it. Sometimes that can backfire, but it often works.

And then there are people who just can’t be bothered to communicate with people who need non-standard things. There’s not much you can do about how those people perceive you, except to be aware that it is not your fault.