Crossing the Road

If we do something but can’t observe it’s consequences, we feel anxious. This sentence struck me as raising an important facet of anxiety, how it is about fear of the unknown. I have always been troubled by not knowing how other people react to my behaviour, partly because I’m aware that I am unusual, so can’t rely on how I would react as a reliable means of assessing the likely reaction of others. Overcoming anxiety is not overly worrying about how other people react, as long as what you are going is reasonable.

Of course, having largely overcome anxiety I am still sometimes anxious. So I still haven’t quite worked out what is normal everyday anxiety and what is overly worrying, but I just feel that I continue to make progress with this, knowing that a welded down definition is impossible.

The problem in the modern world is that we communicate far less face to face. Face to face communication is much easier because you can assess reactions straight away in real time and instantly modify behaviour. For example realising someone doesn’t want to discuss a particular subject at the moment. Sending a letter an e-mail or a text is difficult as you have no idea how people will react, you don’t know what mood they will be in when the message is received and it is difficult to express your intent without being overly wordy and often your meaning may be misinterpreted.

A good general strategy for for deciding when you shouldn’t be anxious about an action is to ask ‘What is the worst possible outcome?’. If this outcome is very unlikely, which you can usually assess, then you needn’t be anxious. Sometimes that worst possible outcome will happen, low probability events do happen from time to time. However, this doesn’t mean your action was wrong as the alternative is to do nothing, which often means sitting at home not engaging with the world.

I was incredibly unlucky in when I first overcame anxiety, the worst possible outcomes happened. I basically wanted to thank someone for helping me realise that I need not be anxious and the worst possible outcome was that they would be upset. So i was completely shocked when they did seem upset, it made no sense to me, because they didn’t reply and blocked me on social media, so to me they were upset. In my assessment that outcome seemed incredibly unlikely, yet it had happened. This confused me as i was unsure how careful I needed to be when communicating freely and honestly, as this suggested I needed to be incredible careful, even to the point where I shouldn’t initiate communication, ever. Years later I discovered that she wasn’t upset by my communicating, but rather that she had interpreted my being gushy and emotional as seeking a relationship, to black-mail them into being supportive, which was never the case. The fault seemed to be the everyday sexism of male attention to females that to them suggested that 99% of the time my communication would have been manipulative. These 1% unlikely outcomes seem to have a habit of cropping up when they are important, because it is the exceptional case anyway which people try to deal with using everyday assessments. As humans we are kind of programmed to  see exceptional events as unlikely to be true. Yet it is only these rare events when people make great leap forwards.

This all suggests that anxiety assessments are about dealing with probability and in the real world we never have nice large data sets to play with to get towards the truth, we so often get one data point and have to ascertain if it is a rare event  we have stumbled upon or is there somethign unknown to us (such as an aspect of what it is like to be a woman) that we have hit which is completely unrelated to our motive.

I grew up with an highly anxious mother and grandmother and I am also an only child. I became an adult with a much more limited understanding of regular social relations than the majority of people. So instead of naturally building up a database of social interactions to guide behaviour I had to observe the world as an outsider and try and build rule systems that seemed to work. So social interactions seem more like a game than living everyday life. The problem with rule systems is they are not good at exceptionalism and if there is a big factor that has not been included in the model, it can break down frequently until that factor has been quantified. There isn’t always time to study these down to root causes.

There are other areas where there are rule based solutions and more organic, interactive, transactional solutions, such as the simple act of crossing the road in the centres of large towns and cities at zebra crossings. In Britain where there are rules they are strict and if someone is standing by a zebra crossing or is close and looks like they wish to cross, cars must stop and wait until the crossing is finished. So a pedestrian doesn’t have to think they just cross and the cars must wait.

I was in Italy recently and I never looked up the rules, leading to a few anxious moments as the cars do not automatically stop for pedestrians. Nonetheless when walking across a zebra crossing, the cars will stop whilst you are blocking their lane. Sometimes they will toot their horn to suggest you have broken the unwritten rules.

After many crossings, it seemed to me that what Italy has a more social transnational system. If you wait for a gap in the traffic and then cross, cars happily stop. However if it’s busy and there are no gaps you can still cross, but get glared at. However when busy and you wait a few seconds to cross with a group of people the drivers seem happier. Basically, it’s a social and democratic system, everyone has the right to cross if you cause minimum disruption to others. The result is that traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian can move about smoothly, once the system is complex interactions is inherently understood. Such a system appeals to me a lot, that you can do whatever you want provided you try and cause minimal disruption to others. Nonetheless, if you have anxiety you do yearn a little for harder more precise rules.

In another European culture, Germany, it is much more rule based. On a pedestrian crossing where pedestrians have a a green and red ‘man’ signal, it is illegal and finable to cross when the red man is showing. What happens is that on a deserted road at night a pedestrian will wait until a green man signal, effectively wasting their own time to conform to the rule. In Britain, for contrast, we only follow this rule when it is busy, at other times we cross on red men signals. So, in Britain we only apply the strict rules to busy intersections but not universally like in Germany.

I think most people understand that perfection is impossible so there has to be a sliding scale of when rigid rules are obeyed and when not. For example we accept loud music of Friday and Saturday evenings, but expect things to be quieter during the week. Though there is no actual law covering this. However legally, anyone who official complains about noise has the courts on their side, whether the complaint is generally regarded as reasonable or not.

Culture is diverse, not only is our society made up of incomers from other cultures, but all sorts of different kinds of people with different attitudes to rules from within that culture.  For example Italian culture is very rule based, but doesn’t seem so in a town centre where people race down narrow busy streets at night on their mopeds and the scenes can seem quite chaotic.

Social rules do seem better than strict laws, as laws are impossible to get absolutely right. However there are always those who will push the boundaries for personal advantage, and societies need mechanism for to ensure this code breaking doesn’t pay off to general detriment.

A visitor to a culture, such as myself in Italy, who doesn’t know the rules, in some circumstances can raise anxiety levels. Cultural rules, usually give some leeway to visitors because they don’t know the rules, and are not seeking advantage by not knowing them. However cultures tend not to give as much leeway to the anxious or otherwise different. If you don’t know the rules in your own culture you are looked down upon, despite not knowing all the rules isn’t your fault.

I have moved around a lot and broken many cultural rules I do feel a lot less anxious in Wales, as I understand the culture more deeply and am probably have less anxiety about throwing myself into foreign cultures than most people. At home i feel much less anxiety and comfortable, there are less unknowns. However, for work reasons, I have often lived away from my native culture and have to re-learn new subtle changes to the rules every time, to the point where I am less wary of not knowing the consequences of my actions as I know my understanding of these things is poorer anyway.

The other aspect of anxiety is fear of being judged by other people. I suppose I have become hardened to a lot of judgement as it isn’t relevant to me. Perhaps in reaction to that there are other areas where I care a lot more about being judged, yet learning that I am being judged because of the actions of others rather than my own actions just makes me feel less inclined to be bothered by others judgements of me.

Essentially what i am saying is that anything is fine as long as you can justify it to yourself as reasonable, or to a peer group. Yet, I am aware that this is quite a dangerous attitude as there is nothing but my own conscience or people who think in similar ways to me guiding my actions. And if in moving away from anxiety means that i spend less time thinking everything through so deeply then I will do bad things without realising it and be judged even more harshly than I ever used to worry about. This is the thing with living in a city, you never make much progress before there is another big road to cross.

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