Nov 3, 2019 | Hunting for the happy people
This fall I was traveling quite a lot. I was attending small evening conferences, local meetups here in the Netherlands, but I was also traveling abroad to attend international events – as a guest, as a speaker, or even as an organizer. And, I met a lot of new people on the way. I like the bare experience of meeting new faces, and learning personalities that hide behind them – and for the most part, these numerous encounters were overwhelmingly positive to me. But I also realized that there is some gradual, global change in the society which is worrying. Namely, if you took a conscious decision to be a happy person, you are in serious trouble.
I enter a large room full of people. Screening the crowd with my eyes from the left to the right, and then to the left again. There is no soul in the room I know. People with extravagant hairstyles, wearing a lot of jewelry, standing in small circles. I proceed towards the food counter. Almost all meals are vegetarian, vegan, or something even more sophisticated. Eco-cutlery and eco-boxes of course. Well, I am a plain carnivore so I just line up in the shortest line. Then, after I get my food, I cannot postpone it any further, and I finally need to make an active effort and open my mouth to someone I have never met – otherwise this will be a really sad evening as no one seems interested in approaching me. So, I am making this active effort. Kindly asking people where they are from, and some people chatting back to me but in a little weird way – without making too much eye contact, answering in short sentences, looking disturbed. They usually give me short answers. I need to lead the conversation and ask questions almost all the time, as otherwise the conversation immediately dies.
And then I realized that I represent a minority. A group I would call a plain, happy minority. I have no pink hair, and I wear no jewelry or extravagant clothes. I do not represent any ethnic minority, I have no unusual sexual preferences, and I do not have any cognitive disorders or traumatic stories to share. Of course, in a way, I am a minority as I am an Eastern European woman in the Netherlands – but, I do not find it an important part of my identity. Honestly, I never even think of this aspect of my life. I also do not have any special dietary requirements, and I never complain about the food I get on my plate. I do not know where are the best pancakes in the city, and where are the best cocktails. I cannot do a small talk on food because honestly speaking, I do not find my food preferences any important.
It all causes that I do not have good attention grabber when speaking to others. I am just too plain. And, I soon realized that most people’s faces light up only when you talk about how different and mistreated you are, how life is hard, on what you can complain about together. As they can then tell you about their struggles, and about bad feelings they foster. Other than that, it is really hard to make any new friends – and if you do not have any traumatic story at hand, you will be classified as a member of the privileged group, and you will be salt in the eye to many.
I experienced this in a particularly hard way very recently, when attending one of the aforementioned events. Namely, I was talking to a young woman who was from an underrepresented minority in a country where she lived. She was telling me that she experiences inequality because, in public places, people often judge her by her looks and address her in English rather than in the local language, even though she has a perfect command of it. I tried to rationalize this problem, advice her something, and come up with some solutions. I told her that the human brain is Bayesian and most likely, the most of the people she had encountered, had good intentions: they had met hundreds of people who looked like her before, and those people only spoke English, so they spoke English to her to make it easier for her. I also said that at the end of the day, people have their biases and that she would be better off in the long run if she was less sensitive to these little, mostly unintended misbehaviors. In response, she jumped on me in anger and said that such behaves should be called out and that people like me make it harder for the community to solve this problem. I could not finish any sentence anymore, because she never let me finish, and she was just yelling at me in anger. People who were standing around joined her and they were simply yelling at me in a group – even if they were not for unrepresented communities, and they obviously could not have the same experience as her. They were not willing to process any rational arguments, and my explanations that I only care about their level of comfort, and that people usually have better motivations than you infer from their behavior. At some point, I thought ‘these people are fanatics, but what can I do? I can’t just walk away, while I cannot make them calmer either’. So, I came up with the idea to quickly come up with a deceptive story, as I did not see any other way of getting out of this conversation. I said that I had often been mistaken for a sick person or a junkie, for the way my face looked (namely, for the fact that I naturally have deep, dark shadows under my eyes – which I like by the way). This story is partially true as some friends during my undergraduate studies, were concerned about my lifestyle and sleep deprivation, and they could see it from my face. Anyways, I never felt too bad, or harmed, about their concerned comments. But for now, I started crying over myself. I said that I was also judged based on my looks and that it was also harmful to me – which was not true. But, the girl’s face immediately changed. In split second, she turned from violent anger to compassion, reached out with her arms towards me, and said that she was very sorry for me. And, she was kind to me ever since.
‘So, this is what I am supposed to do: cry over myself and complain’ – I thought. ‘If I am just a rational person trying to look at the positive aspects of life and people, this makes me the bad guy’. It was madness to me. I felt like there is a witch hunt for plain people who just decided to be happy, instead of digging into their lives trying to find some problems to fixate on. Happy people are given the label of ‘privileged’ – while happiness is a conscious decision. We all have things in our lives that make it annoying but it is up to us what we focus our attention on. I also had a few major disappointments this year. I was rejected for a lot of jobs I applied to, and for some of the jobs I was accepted for, I was offered substantial less payment than men accepted to the same position (and I mean 300% difference rather than 30% difference). Some of my papers got rejected. Some of my applications to startup accelerators were rejected. My boyfriend left me saying that I work too much, and I cook too little. All my savings were stolen by some greedy people who closed a cryptocurrency exchange where I was just trying to sell my stuff. I could fixate on all these things and cry over myself but I decided to be happy and go forward instead. Happiness is a conscious decision. So, please do not discriminate happy people, and do not call them ignorants!
And besides, this whole movement-oriented at inclusivity is so fanatic that it often works the opposite way from expected: instead of encouraging for the members of the majority to mingle with the majority, it causes unnecessary tension and resistance. I personally never had any problems with inclusivity; I come from a very liberal family, I had a girlfriend in high school, I dated a half-Hispanic, half-Afroamerican guy when I was 22, and I was always working with a lot of foreigners from all possible ethnicities. I never even thought about people’s assignment to any majority or minority groups when making decisions on whether or not to talk to them or make friends with them – I was just picking intelligent people with bright personalities who could teach me something. Now, I am scared to do approach anyone, regardless of the circumstances. Before I approach someone, I ask myself a few questions: ‘is this yet another fanatic who could publicly jump at me every time I say something wrong (or at least, wrong in their eyes)? Do I need to put myself in this danger? Do I want to expose myself to this never-ending stress? Maybe it would be better to save me from this possibility, and not approach at all?’ This is the dark side of activism, and it hits me hard how far this already went.