Saturday, August 29, 2015

Don't Tell me to be Careful

Here are a few of the people who have told me to "be careful":

  • Every single member of my family
  • My neighbor who traveled out of the country once 50 years ago
  • My orthodontist 
  • The man renewing my passport
  • Waitresses
  • Boyfriends
  • Friends
  • etc.
It often comes with a sigh, a shake of the head, raised eyebrows. 

This is what my mom tells me when I drive to the grocery store, what my dad tells me when I go to my first college party, what my boyfriend tells me when I plan to go out drinking with the girls. You tell me this because you love me. Because it's a reflex. Because it feels good to say it, like you're somehow actively aiding in your loved one's safety and well being. Because it feels good to hear it, to be reminded that I'm loved, cared for, that someone has left the light on for me.

It doesn't feel good when a stranger says it. In that condescending tone that says "I know it's not my place to say anything, but you're making a bad decision and I want you to know I am judging you."

It doesn't feel warm and fuzzy when the bureaucrat stuck in the worst civil service job imaginable renewing other people's passports on rush order so they can jet off somewhere while he sits behind his bulletproof glass says it. He is saying "I've seen you before. I've seen the documentaries about the wild college girls who get drunk in the islands on Spring Break and end up on the news; the tragic stories of idealistic young aid workers who walk unarmed, unprepared, and unaware into the heart of civil wars and get kidnapped or worse. I have seen it- you must not have. You can't take care of yourself, you're weak and naive."

It doesn't feel reassuring when the old woman at church says it. The woman who looks down her wrinkled, white nose at you, holding defensively onto her lifestyle of country club brunches and vacations to Florida or New England, her lifestyle of homemaking and child raising, her lifestyle comprised of fulfilling society's expectations- which I am now breaking, her lifestyle whose validity I threaten. She says "You're one of those rebellious children, aren't you? I have gathered a lifetime of wisdom from my viewing of Fox news and that one time I went on a cruise with my daughter's family. You think you can break free from the social norms that defined my life, but soon enough you'll be back, doing the same thing I did, and realizing your attempts at a different life were futile. I heard ISIS is going to take over that country soon anyway."

"Be careful" can be full of love, or it can be full of condescension- or some of both. 

You think I haven't been told to be careful before? I have.
You think I haven't been told be careful enough? I have.

Maybe you don't know what else to say.
"Have fun!" sounds hollow and reveals inexperience, your lack of knowledge, the unbreachable gap between you and I.
"Be careful" seems more appropriate, it gives you weight as an authority figure, a guide, a guard, a warning.
You can't advise me on anything specific because all you know about Russia is that Sarah Palin can see it from her house (or can she? you were never really sure...), and that "that Putin fellow" is for some reason the enemy. 
Are you really concerned for my safety? I don't know. I suppose as far as any of us are concerned for any other person whose path we cross. I don't think you're staying up at night worrying for me, or saying a prayer for my safety and enlightenment before bed, or writing me heartfelt letters. Liking my photo albums on Facebook doesn't count.

So now you know what I hear when you say "be careful." Is that what you want to say? Maybe. Probably not. But what else can you say? What other messages can you convey?
May I suggest:
  • "What are you looking forward to the most?"
  • "What are you most nervous about?"
  • "What would be the ideal take away from this experience?"
  • "I think what you're doing is __insert honest opinion here__"
  • How have you been preparing for your trip?
Not everyone will like these. I think they're fine. Almost anything is fine if it's genuine. 

Specificity is key. 
If you really are concerned for my safety (dad), a generic "be careful" is not going to help anything, or improve my safety. It's not going to make me more cautious or aware or smarter- I am already exercising my very best judgement at every moment. If I wasn't, I wouldn't have made it this far.
Give me some real advice, some real tips, or engage ME in OUR conversation- ask me ways I keep vigilant while walking in a strange city at night. Ask me how I decided whether or not a trip is safe. Give me the benefit of the doubt. Assume I have a good head on my shoulders. Assume I make good choices. Assume I have a strong instinct of self preservation.

So, I know you mean well, really. I try not to get angry, I try not to ball my fists up at my sides, I try not to grab you by the shoulders and shake you and shout, but please...don't tell me to be careful.

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