thick v. thin (as in skin).

feet in tidewater.A confession: I am having an affair with the ocean.

It hasn’t always been this way, mind you. I was once actively against salt water. My marine indifference began in childhood, while inhabiting hotel rooms with post-Spring Break holes in the walls (also known as vacationing on the Texas Gulf coast). After the family drive from San Antonio, I remember putting on a suit and promptly burning myself raw in spite of my mother’s relentless sunscreening. And mistaking chunks of jellyfish on the sand for ice cubes. And fleeing rising clouds of mosquitoes. Also, realizing the implications of my cousins feeding alka seltzer to seagulls, watching bulldozers push mountains of seaweed, and marveling at exploded tar bubbles (which seriously predate the Horizon disaster) on the soles of my feet.

I have few memories of actual swimming on these trips, and these are similarly fraught. Through my trial by saline I maintained a love of water, but only its fresher incarnations. Mt. Hood snowmelt in Oregon summer, limestone creeks in Austin, and, in Ohio, a handmade lake on the women’s land trust down the road from my cabin, complete with floating dock and leeches (large and small, respectively). Nowadays, the Pacific is my poison. At Stinson I shred my knees on boulders, in the Bay I watch the grayscape, and at Swami’s I poke at anemones. Seaweed and dolphins are ever-present, high tides wash over the highway and pull huge slabs of cliff onto the beach. I go as early and as often as a day permits, freezing myself numb in unseasonable displays of bathing.

grayscapeDespite this newfound adoration, I will never completely cease my sea fearing. Mostly because I know that I shouldn’t. The ocean, however beautiful, is not opposed to eating you alive, especially in winter and/or northern California.

I recently bought a wetsuit to avoid hypothermia and other dangers, which I have found transforms the experience of swimming. Instead of tossed around and bone-deep chilled, you are buoyant and impervious to cold. You are also one degree removed from the element in which you are immersed, unable to actually feel the water.

deep discursion

There is, of course, an analogy drowning in this aside. Regardless of what ocean you find yourself in, the thickness of your skin (whether born, borrowed, or bought) is a matter of no small importance. Consider, for example, engaging in public discourse academically or professionally. Airing ideas in a community of any kind is an exercise in calculated vulnerability, and one that invites equivalent measures of joy and jetsam. Like my younger self, it is more common to anticipate negativity at the outset of any unfamiliar venture, which can create either confidence or tough scars. With persistence and a series of subsequent chances, the latter can be transformed into insight about how deep to wade in the murk.

You should never become so assured that you forget to fear the element in which you are immersed: everyone else. The more you write, speak, or teach, the more you must learn to anticipate and respond to the opinions of others. An interlocutor empties the contents of their brain in order to achieve certain results, and while a majority will be supportive or justifiably challenging, a minority may be intentionally harsh. Both types of feedback must be dealt with, and this is where skin comes in (sometimes in the pound of flesh sense).

sea of snark

Consider two polar approaches to commentary: critique and snark. The former is the communication of an impression, the latter is negative personal digression. Critique is objective, snark is subjective. Critique can be challenging, but it moves the conversation forward, whereas snark stops it in its tracks even when embedded in an otherwise valid contribution.

A relatively tame example from my own experience, culled from feedback on a recent series of short talks on presentation skills:

Now, I would have loved to dialogue about how this short preso might better have hit home with this individual (and my door is always open, btw). Alas, anonymity. A colleague checked in with me with an offer of omitting the comment when posting publicly, which I appreciated and certainly would have done in their place. I admit that this was momentarily tempting in a face saving, I-hate-the-ocean-because-I-stepped-on-a-jellyfish sort of way. The thing about snark is, however unpleasant it might be, it is as unjustifiable to censor as any other type of expression. Same as the ocean, it is what it is. (Unlike the ocean, however, it is not particularly dangerous to turn your back on.)

In addition to small slights of subterfuge, social media shittalking and conference backstabchatter waxes and wanes as reliably as the tides. Suffice to say that every presentation I have ever given has had at least one attributable detractor, not counting those who raise tough questions or debate a point out of honest interest. These experiences have helped me build my own defenses, and from them I have learned an important lesson. Not only it is unwise to catch flying offal, throwing it back makes an irreconcilable mess.

collegiality without condition

Cattiness is semaphore for the intellectually insecure, a handy way to flail defensive intelligence. The existence of snark (or avoidance thereof) comes down to confidence: as in having it or not, letting its lack metastasize into arrogance, and/or being compelled to fill a vacuum by taking it from others.

It must be said that reality dictates practice even in the face of idealism. I once received a sound piece of advice when starting a job in academia, “here, it pays to have thick skin.” This is an accurate measure of the nature of many thought-focused professions. Some operants conflate snark with critique, and giving as good as they get becomes a point of pride.

I am, alternatively, a champion of decorum in discourse. The reason is simple: because it is the sensible way of doing things, as long as you are the type of person that uses scales like painful or pleasant, inane or smart, operable or busted to measure sense. Civility strengthens the thoughtpool, incivility weakens it.

As necessary as handling the odd negative jibe may be, thickening your skin can have a wetsuit effect: the more you are able to deflect, the more you reduce the rawness of engagement, which further risks hardening into callousness. A borrowed layer against the elements reduces the fear of becoming wounded, but you risk more as you feel less. Thinning your professional armor from time to time may hurt, but it also helps you reorient to sensations long since discarded and work toward a more unconditional collegiality.

7 thoughts on “thick v. thin (as in skin).

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  1. Thoughtful discourse. I actually got sucked in my the ocean current not expecting an academic dialogue. It came through my RSS feed via a follower you reads your blog. How could it be I don’t have your blog in my feed (it will be shortly). I particularly appreciated the line “I am, alternatively, a champion of decorum in discourse. The reason is simple: because it is the sensible way of doing things.”

    I love Swami’s. In my younger days, much younger, loved smoking a joint and drinking a beer across the railroad tracks enjoying the sunset.

    1. glad the ocean hook worked, that was its tricky intent. amen on the swami’s tracks sunset tip, so gorgeous. ps, remember these?

  2. Char, as usual you offer observations at once laser-focused and multiple – what a talent. Divided from the Pacific as I am by this silly continent, I think your analogy between being in the ocean and being in the public is accurate and intriguing – and the implicit comparison between wetsuits and thick skins reminds me of getting my wetsuit and feeling protected but also less flexible. In academic discourse my artificial thick skin is the “objectivity” and remove of the professional historian who need not comment from the heart because her job is to reconstruct context and let Yahweh sort out the winners and losers. My question is, aren’t publics slightly different from oceans because the latter exists even when it isn’t being addressed, and the former have to be “summoned” up by discourse? Thanks for another terrific post.

    1. ah, ben. i love it when you comment in all your sharpness. in regards to your last point, i tend to feel as though the public is a low hum in my own background rather than a dormant presence: when writing or planning a talk, my anticipation of its reaction guides/hones my content (although i do tend to expect a less positive response than i receive)… interested to hear about your process in that regard.

      a second, smaller point: i have also found that, paradoxically, the post or topic that most motivates me to “summon” is usually the memo to no one seems to receive. learning this has helped me cultivate a useful minor detachment at the point of publication (rather than the usual major dread).

  3. My question is always: Do I want to be right, or do I want to be talking? When I think about the range of questions I ask myself in my work both academic and creative, as well as the ways that I structure my personal life, it turns out I’m pretty much interested in only one thing: strategies for keeping things in motion and resisting fixity. So, I sure can critique things, but I try to only ever say things publicly that I think will move a dialogue forward, that will generate an answer back. Because it’s always the minute we think we know, or have covered everything, or have dismissed something so terrifically snarkily that the opposition’s point cannot be defended, that we immediately swim through a poisonous jellyfish. That’s always where I trip and fall down, literally. So, learning to roll with criticism, and learning to give it productively.

    And having had several of my own projects met with near-deafening silence, I can say that is in its way even worse than meanie-meanie snark.

    1. So true. Decorum is really so much of what it’s about – who doesn’t have unfairly critical thoughts? It’s a metacognitive skill to be able to parse critique from snark.

      I get where you’re coming from re: the zounds of silence, but out and out rudeness irks my southern sensibilities lightyears more than polite silence.

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