My post on "I don't know how you do it" as an othering statement got a little bit of traffic and commentary. Most of the quotes are from Facebook, so I'm not going to attribute them (unless one of the original writers should happen to read this followup and ask me to).
Some people felt that the "othering" is not necessarily a form of dismissal, but more "an acknowledgement of the skill set of someone"else that I seem to lack:"
We're talking about the skills that can and do develop out of necessity in times of necessity. The statement is, I think, more a statement about grace and hope - the hope that there are skills out there that I don't have; that there is grace for surviving... I'm not saying that it is something that should be said - because it does grate and feel like othering.
See, now, to that I would say that IDKHYDI is not the appropriate observation to make (out loud) because in this case it's not true. The writer of this observation does know "how that person does it," or at least she has a theory: out of necessity the skills develop. She calls it grace and hope. IDKHYDI is a statement of hopelessnessShe has put herself in that person's shoes and imagined "if I had to, I would be able to do that." This is the antithesis of IDKHYDI, which is a statement of hopelessness.
Others said as much:
If you think about it, there's a falseness to it in even those cases, though. After all, you admit you *do* know "how they do it"--by developing a skill set, by working hard, by surviving, by giving some things up (or having them taken), by relying on other's support, by making different choices. So it might actually help to mentally rephrase that into a more accurate statement: "I admire what you are able to accomplish."
Another suggestion offered was that "IDKHYDI" is sometimes simply true: the endurance is incomprehensible. A reply (not from me):
[T]here are situations where "I could never do..." can be accurate self-assessment. Given my neurological limitations, for example, I could never do anything that requires a great deal of quick memorization.
Of course, that's not usually what is meant by that statement. Usually what is meant is "I could never prioritize that goal the way you do."
And I think that's exactly right about what's meant. Another friend of mine jumped in to agree with this and added, that yes, that is what IDKHYDI means:
For everything from "I could never be a stay-at-home mom" to "I could never be monogamous."
That led to the reply:
I was thinking of fitness and diet when I wrote that, since that's where I've caught myself thinking, "I could never..." when the truth is really that it's not a priority to me now... I want to say "I could never" because being faced with differing priorities can be uncomfortable; I may admire them, but that challenges me to examine my own.
"I could never..." allows me to acknowledge the accomplishment without being challenged by it.
And some pointed out that yes, you can come up with examples where "IDKHYDI" (or its cousin, I could never do what you do) is literally true. (There's that plausible deniability again!) But most of the time it's not:
People say these things about all kinds of accomplishments that are not really incomprehensible--or are very easily answered (I don't know how you become such an accomplished pianist. Oh, it takes several thousand hours of dedicated practice? Good to know.
Someone asked me,
Out of curiosity--do you think "othering" is a verb that refers to intent, to something objective about the situation or statement, or primarily to effect?
That did get me thinking.
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Most of the time, however, I believe there are conscious and unconscious components to it. The othering is itself the conscious part: A conscious, however faint, identification and decision to verbalize "you are a different kind of person from me."
The fact that it is often a hostile and defensive choice of verbalization (compared to alternatives that would display curiosity, attempt empathy, or seek commonality) is, I believe, largely unconscious.
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I will not disagree with the notion that many people are just trying to say something neutral or kind when they pull out IDKHYDI. I stand by my statement that it is an instance of othering, at least unconscious, and frequently the othering is deliberate and conscious though it be without conscious malice ("you are special"). I think magical thinking is part of it sometimes (you are different from me and that reassures me that I will never be in your situation) and desire not to be challenged is part of it sometimes (I could never) and part of it is sheer tribalism (you're nuts, lady). The ambiguousness of the intent makes IDKHYDI akin to, if not as serious a social problem as, othering statements in the context of racial and gender differences. The ambiguousness provides plausible deniability that will be accepted as innocuous by members of the speaker's "tribe" and further serve as a marker of exclusion for those who object to the label. ("People like that are so sensitive, I was only trying to be nice.")
So what if, instead of IDKHYDI, we sought and acknowledged common ground? What would that look like? Humans are adaptable, we are capable of changing our priorities, and we are capable of intense focus on our identified priorities -- all of us are. We don't have to think that we would choose the same priorities in order to praise someone for doing the hard work that makes their priorities happen. Why on earth must we always get defensive when faced with someone who has done nothing more aggressive to us than arrange her own priorities in a different way?
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Later, on Saturday morning, I thought of an example. I was trying to get to the weekday (well, Saturday -- not Sunday, I mean) eight o'clock Mass at the parish in the first suburb to the south, but I'd been sluggish in getting out of bed. I was slurping down an espresso at 7:21 a.m., Italian-style, standing up in the coffee shop, hoping that this would get me under the wire for communion if the homilist wasn't too brief; and wondering how people (especially ones with small children) ever manage to get to a weekday morning Mass every single day. I'm a morning person and it seems insurmountable.
And yet I know that people do it. Because they have different priorities (thank you, Facebook commenter).
No -- wait -- they don't have different priorities, as if specially gifted people wake up and find themselves in possession of the appropriate priorities.
They make from the situation they are in, priorities that fit into that situation and that satisfy their values.
So in my imaginary dialogue with The Mother Who Is Something Like Me Except That She Goes To Weekday Masses More Often Than Only Once In A While -- okay, really it's a monologue --
-- I could say: I don't know how you do it.
Or I could stretch my imagination just a teeny bit and say: "Gosh, I think that if I were going to make it to an 8 a.m. Mass every day, instead of only once in a while, I would need to buy an espresso machine for my kitchen. What's your secret?"
That doesn't shut down a conversation -- at least not on purpose. It might start one. I think it's better. But it's probably not the only way.