Hi, Auntie SparkNotes.
I’m going into my third year of college, and the last two years haven’t gone exactly the way I would have liked. I’m really sensitive in weird ways. A lot of things make me uncomfortable really easily, but the main things I have to deal with are swearing and dirty jokes.
I know that most college-age people are barely bothered by these things, but I can’t help it. I think it has to do with the way I was raised. I only heard swear words on the rarest of occasions when adults got so angry it looked like they wanted to punch someone, but they swore instead. I was always taught that you should never swear, and everyone I knew followed that rule unless they were letting off anger or trying to hurt someone. My problem with dirty jokes is similar: I was completely in the dark until I got The Talk when I was eleven. It was uncomfortable for all involved, and although I was encouraged to ask questions if I ever had any, it was clear that this was a subject that should be handled delicately. I always saw it as something private, and I never understood why people think it can be funny.
I’ve been in college for two years, and before that I was hearing these same things in high school. After six years I still can’t get used to it. Lightening up is just not an option for me.
I’ve gotten to the point where hearing these things doesn’t surprise me anymore. Instead, my reaction is really soft. I never complain. I just get very quiet. Even if I had been enjoying the conversation leading up to this, as soon as I hear something like that my smile just fades. I've also noticed that my voice takes on a kind of hollow tone for a while. I basically lose interest in the whole conversation. Sometimes I try to escape by making up an excuse, but that's not always possible. The whole thing just makes me feel awful sometimes.
I thought that when people noticed my reaction they would voluntarily choose to tone it down a little, and that everyone would appreciate that I wasn’t annoying about it and that I hadn’t tried to force anyone to change just for my sake. Unfortunately, in two years, I’ve only met two people who really seemed to notice. One was somewhat considerate and at least showed that he cared about my feelings. The other seemed to find my unspoken attitude exasperating.
I know I'll have to learn to live with this somehow, but I would really like to know whether you think that my reaction is too subtle for most people to notice or whether everyone is only pretending not to notice. I really want to understand what's going on before I decide whether there's anything I can do. I could really use an outside perspective on all of this.
Yep, you sure could. Because Sparkler, I've gotta tell you: your upbringing might have hammered it home that sex isn't funny and swearing is terrifying, but it also seems to have neglected some pretty basic lessons about the dangers of passive-aggressive behavior—particularly the part about it being an exceptionally effective way to really annoy people.
And thought I can't say so for sure, I'm guessing that your intense discomfort with swearing and sex humor goes right in hand with your total inability to express your feelings in a healthy way. It's clear from your letter that you were brought up in a household where squicky topics were taboo, emotions were kept under wraps, and the honest expression of feelings was discouraged—and considering that, it's no surprise that you've ended up in a place where you'd rather passive-aggressively punish people for offending your ultra-delicate sensibilities than deal with your issues head-on.
But that is what you're doing, darling. And it's really not good.
Because when you go silent and sullen, and disengage from a conversation at even the slightest mention of sex or swear words, you're not being considerate—and you're definitely not being subtle. This behavior is known as "sulking," and it's obvious, obnoxious, and, yes, exasperating. And that's doubly true when, as you yourself said, you're hyper-sensitive about words and jokes that are a normal, no-big-deal part of everyday life for the vast majority of people. Your friends are no doubt aware that something's bothering you—trust me, your reaction is hard to miss—but it's up for debate whether or not they actually know what that thing is.
And even if they have figured it out, they're certainly not going to appreciate that you're not being annoying about it... if only because, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, you are being annoying about it.
I'm not telling you this to hurt your feelings, but because you seem genuinely unaware of how much you're sabotaging yourself here. It's not the job of other people to coddle sensitivities they don't even know you have. If you want people to avoid certain topics because you find them upsetting, you need to let them know, in actual words, what those topics are. And in doing so, you'd be wise to remember that this is your issue, not theirs, and that you're asking for a favor. Not everyone will be willing to change their behavior on your behalf—especially people who enjoy bawdy humor and aren't much good at censoring themselves—but being polite and direct will get you a lot more consideration than sulking and running away.
But wait! THERE'S MORE.
Because while you dismiss changing your attitude as "just not an option," I can't overstate this enough: it is. It is an option. It's just not an option you've been willing to explore, possibly because doing so would require digging into the scary, uncharted, uncomfortable territory of the emotional hangups you've spent your entire life being taught to avoid at all costs. But just because you were brought up to feel this way doesn't mean it's a done deal—and honestly, sweetheart, wouldn't you like it not to be? You talk about learning to live with your crippling discomfort as though it's a chronic disease, something you'd love to be free of but just can't shake. But it isn't. You have a choice.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting that you ditch your sense of propriety and start making penis puns at the dinner table. You may never be a person for whom sexual humor is particularly entertaining, and that's okay. But you owe it to yourself to unpack your emotional bags, examine what's in there, toss the things that have outlived their usefulness, and make some room for your own best judgment—and, ideally, to do it with the help of a therapist. You're a grown woman; you don't have to cling to the idea that sex is a delicate, humorless subject just because you had an awkward Talk ten years ago. And if you still prefer to avoid cursing and dirty jokes, then fine. But please, let it be because you, personally, find them distasteful, and not because you come from a family where cursing was always associated with explosive anger and sex was a subject to be tiptoed around like a sleeping tiger.
Which brings me to this: the way you were raised is a jumping-off point, not a life sentence. Our parents' values are like any other hand-me-down; some of them may always fit snugly and comfortably, but some of them are going to be outgrown, or worn through, or simply put aside in favor of something that suits you better. And that's okay. That's what it means to grow up. And college, with its breadth of new experiences and people and ideas, is the time and place to decide which parts of your upbringing you're going to carry with you into adulthood... and which parts are better left behind.
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