Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare For The Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse. Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com.
I was in a public restroom on the Island the other day, and someone in one of the stalls sounded like they were crying. This being the Vineyard, I thought there was a decent chance that I would know — at least by sight — the person in distress. Should I have lingered and offered to help a potential friend or acquaintance, or should I have done my business and deserted?
As a general rule, I’d say anything that happens in a bathroom stall is happening in a bathroom stall because the person wants privacy. That’s especially true if we’re talking about a men’s restroom, but I’m guessing you, dear Anonymous, are a woman, speaking of another woman’s tears. So it might be a tad more nuanced.
How public was this restroom? Was it a place likely to have a broad cross section of people (SSA terminal, movie theater, bakery/café/restaurant), or someplace with a more specific demographic (yoga studio, Aquinnah Town Hall, the basement of the courthouse)? Having an attack of the sobs while out in public is probably always unnerving and uncomfortable — but for some people, it will be more so when they’re in the middle of the general population, while for others, it will be worse if it’s around people they’re likely to know. Don’t hazard a guess about someone else’s Personal Mortification Scale, because the outcome could be mortifying for the person if you guess wrong.
That said, the impulse to be kind is always a good one, and it would be sad to squelch it. The trick is how to actually be helpful (as opposed to simply well-intentioned) in this circumstance. So if you feel overwhelmingly compelled to be helpful, consider this. When you say “Are you all right?” or even “Can I help?” you are actually putting a burden on the person in distress — you’re asking them a yes-or-no question that they might not have a clear yes-or-no answer to. If somebody definitely doesn’t want to talk, saying no might be easy, but there’s a chance a question like that will trigger a deer-in-headlights, feeling-trapped-and-confused response. Instead, try acknowledging that the person is upset in a way that makes it totally OK for them to ignore you if they don’t want to talk. Something like: “Crying in public can be uncomfortable — I’ve been there,” or, “I find taking a deep breath sometimes helps.” Make it obvious that you are not awaiting a response — if they want to respond, they’ll respond. Wash your hands, and if the person has not spoken, leave.
This will only work if you are genuinely OK with being ignored; if you are not OK with being ignored, don’t try this. Also, don’t try anything else. Just give them space, because your impulse to help them is actually more about your wanting to feel good about yourself than simply being useful to a person in need. The most generous thing you can do for a person in need is to make it all right for them to reject your offer to help them.
This is especially true if you are dealing with Yankees.
Not that Yankees would be caught dead crying in a public restroom to start with, of course.
That’s my take.