Coping: What could make someone think so little of me?
A conversation with a man who felt he was superior to me got me thinking
Dylan Thomas: a Welsh poet, apparently. Photograph: Picture Post/Hulton Archive
I recently found myself at one of those restrained, impossibly adult wine and nibbly food affairs where people discuss respectable topics in staid tones and with an air of intolerable self-confidence.
I found myself in conversation with a man of a certain age who felt it important that I – and possibly everyone in the world – register that he had knowledge to impart. He did this by trying to point out that he was in every respect a superior sort of person, and that I, by comparison, was inferior in some way. He repeatedly used the phrase “you understand?” at the end of sentences, and gave me gems of knowledge such as, “Dylan Thomas was a Welsh poet. You probably didn’t know that.”
This has happened to all of us. It happens a lot if you’re young, even more if you’re female. Obviously, any person who dismisses your value or intellect on sight is narrow-minded and probably self-absorbed. But to be judged on so little and found wanting can be hurtful.
As he wittered on about his vast wisdom, I thought about how often in a day the average person is judged casually or unfairly by others. How frequently we dismiss someone we sort of know or don’t know at all on the basis of one experience of them or on second-hand information. How often we pin beliefs we have that might be lazy or ill-considered on someone else, or take in a person and say that they are “just (something)”, reducing their whole being to one characteristic, and saying that their behaviour is caused by one motivating factor. Everyone does it. You do it. I do it.
Some people would refer to the man’s behaviour towards me – presuming I’m dense and asking why “a nice girl like you is here all by herself” – as a microaggression. I wouldn’t describe it that way. Foolish, self-absorbed people are a part of life. They will crash into us, sometimes intentionally trying to make us feel bad about ourselves, sometimes doing it just by virtue of being themselves in our presence.
I’m not responsible for what others say or do in my presence, but I am responsible for how I choose to react. It’s quite easy to come out of an interaction where you have done nothing at all wrong feeling sullied and bad about yourself.
What is it about me that makes someone think so little of me? The answer, of course, is nothing. What someone else does in relation to me doesn’t necessarily say a single thing about me. It says a lot about them. It is interesting that someone finding us inadequate in some way – even when they are very poorly informed – makes us feel inadequate.
When these things happen, I think of Michel de Montaigne, one of the weirdest and certainly one of the most fun philosophers. He had a suspicion of the academic philosophy of his day, and was the first person – bizarre as it may seem now – to write in essay form.
His essays were published in 1580, and they were like no philosophy that had come before. He swore a lot and talked about his bathroom habits, but was also a towering intellect.
Always useful, Montaigne writes eloquently for people whose self-esteem has taken a bashing, or who feel like the least important person in a room: “Even on the highest throne, we are still seated upon our arses.”
You have to admit, it’s a pretty striking image. Wonderfully open-minded for his day, Montaigne recognised that cultures differ, and a trait that is considered wonderful or terrible in one place is thought of quite differently somewhere else. He certainly wasn’t a multiculturalist – he believed firmly that some cultures are morally better than others – but he was providing context for those of us who don’t feel good enough.
When people decide what is good or bad about you on the basis of what they are told to believe by tradition or by someone else, their opinion is uninformed, irrational, and meaningless. An uninformed perspective is never more valid than your informed one, and no one is more informed about you than you are.