28 March 2013

Leaving your comfort zone(s)

You know how it's the first time you're at a party at Lucy's and you don't really know anyone? Or your first day at a new school? And somehow it's all just slightly uncomfortable and you feel out of place and it's such a relief to go home and close the door and listen to your normal music or talk to your regular friends. After a while you get to know Lucy and her friends better and enjoy the parties more, and you get to know your classmates, you find out where the restrooms are and you finally pick up on the paper-hand-in-system. All is well. You have made these new places somewhere you belong, they have become part of your comfort zone, places where you feel at ease.

Now, that doesn't always happen for everybody. If it does for you, you're a very lucky person! But most of us have place where we simply do not and cannot feel at home. There are ways of dealing with this; the most usual one is, probably, just staying away from there and be blissfully unaware of stuff outside your own horizons. Good on you.
Another way of handling it is .. well, learning to deal with the newness of it all. Even making the place somewhere you belong, whenever possible. (It isn't always.) In this piece, I wish to argue that leaving your comfort zone may be a very valuable and informative experience, when done with proper respect, and something to at least be attempted. At a new school, you often don't really have a choice, but in many cases you do have.

It's no secret that I'm the sort of person to just go out there. Some would claim I was brought up to do so, but I don't think that's all there is to it. In any case, it takes more than details such as a foreign language and a weird alphabet to keep me away. While ABBA wonder, ”leaving now, is that the right thing?”, I'll be out the door already. So my view may be biased in that direction. That doesn't mean, however, that my point is necessarily irrelevant for everyone else.

Thinking about this consciously began many years ago when I went on my very first anthropological fieldwork in, you might not be surprised, a gay bar. (It was not my idea, but I let them talk me into it.) So on our first night of studying drag shows (overall theme was ”rituals”, go figure) we set out, four girly girls in our nicest clothes, and crashed the predominantly male bar. Needless to say, people were weirded out by what on earth we were doing there, requesting alcohol-free strawberry daiquiries on a Wednesday evening. Perhaps even more needless to say, we were even more uncomfortable, and never have I felt so relieved and at home as when we left and I was waiting for my train in good old dirty Nørreport Station. Back in straight space. My space.

But we persisted and went back in the next day. It was already better. People had figured us out, we were figuring out the place, and the guys were totally cool about bathroom lines and such. Fieldwork lasted 4 days, and the week after we went back with a box of chocolates to say thank you, and the other girls had a long talk with a transgender woman there about high heeled shoes and where to buy them. It took us a shock like out first night to explicitly realise something so simple as, ”this bar is her safe space – every time she goes outside, she must feel approximately as we did in here on the first evening”. Just a tiny tiny inkling of what intersectional oppressions may feel like in practice. No small achievement for a very first fieldwork, even if I can never pretend to comprehend fully.

We managed to somehow integrate this bar into our respective comfort zones, even if only for a few days. And we learned what privilege may mean. I sometimes think back to that woman, and what I learned from her. I also do my best to act with respect when in other people's spaces, even if I shall forever be a clumsy person who doesn't always pick up hints until it has become embarrassing.

I have mentioned both safe space and comfort zone so far, though I do not mean to conflate them. A safe space is
an area or forum where either a marginalised group are not supposed to face standard mainstream stereotypes and marginalisation, or in which a shared political or social viewpoint is required to participate in the space.”

Having a gay bar as a safe space would mean that you're not supposed to be there if you hate gay people, to put it simplified. The term also denotes the use of trigger warnings on top of blog posts etc., when they contain discussions of something that might bring back unpleasant memories and trigger people. While it seems to be used predominantly when speaking of online activity, I would extend it to places where you're not afraid of physical attack. To some, this might seem like a superfluous statement – good for you! Unfortunately, it is not so for everybody, hate crimes are still rampant.
While it overlaps with comfort zones, they're not the same thing. According to wikipedia"A comfort zone is a type of mental conditioning that causes a person to create and operate mental boundaries.” It's the construction of a space where it's easy and routine to be, both physically and mentally. So we stick to there, unless we're made to go outside it – for example when starting at a new school or whatever, or a friend convinces us to go to a party full of near-strangers. A difference lies in the fact that our personal safety would not be compromised by going outside, it is pure convenience.

Including a place in your comfort zone with routine takes practice. A common strategy seems to be to show up and hide in the corner so many times that people begin to recognise you and say hi, after a while. My personal one is: to pretend like I own the place (in the sense “I've totally been here before and know how things work”), in the hope that no one will notice that I feel lost. So they treat me like I'm not a lost intruder. All is well.

But I'm also pretty much default how people are expected to be, in terms of a lot of variables, so I get less shit than many others. I was even complimented for my courage when being the only non-gay person at a gay party – not sure why, I guess due to the suddenly being the minority when I'm used to not being it. But would you ever compliment a gay person for his/her courage as the only gay person in a non-gay space? Not so much, they're just expected to suck it up. 

Even if I didn't feel too much out of place on that occasion (I was pretending to totally own the place), being the minority when you're not used to it can be highly educating. That uneasiness? It may be likeable to how some people feel every day. It can open your eyes to other views and experiences, even if it takes courage and understanding. I've hinted at respect – knowing that your pretending to own the place might not be received well, if you're telling people they're wrong, or their experiences invalid. This should go for each and every space, obviously, public space ought to be safe for everybody, but being outside your own comfort zone may mean that you're in someone else's safe space. They likely won't appreciate having it violated.

A way to make everybody feel uncomfortable at the same time is to make a gender-switch party. (Heh. Maybe I should arrange for one soon ;)) Girls pretend to be guys, guys pretend to be girls. While the dynamics of how we behave when we dress as a different gender are highly interesting and deserve a thorough exploration of their own, it is also clear from what I have been able to observe that leaving your comfort zone may be done by something as simple as wearing a dress or putting a sock into your pants to look like a guy (ho ho). It doesn't necessarily require a physical movement of yourself from A to B.

But it can also be moving from A to B. Buy a one-way ticket to Spain and see what happens. Or a one-way ticket to South Korea. Who knows? Somewhere out there there's something you don't know that may be exciting, instructive, or maybe it won't be, but if you don't try it, you'll never know.

And you'll never get the chance to gain an understanding of how it feels to not be you. Or to use that understanding to make the world a nicer and safer place for everybody. Let this be my encouragement: get out of your comfort zone, get out there, and kick ass. If all you need is that last push, I'll be happy to help you!


  1. About suddenly being the minority: when I was in Africa and everybody stared at me all the time for months, I really realised something about looking different. Being able to totally blend in at home if that's what I want, I got a taste of how it might be like to wear e.g. a niqab in Denmark.