A while back I was waiting for a lecture to start with a friend when I casually used the word “God” in a sentence. I don’t remember the exact sentence, but it was probably something like “oh my God,” certainly not an uncommon turn of phrase. She then asked me, politely, if I could not use the word “God” because it goes against her religion. Well, for that lecture at least I stopped using the word, but that’s probably because I wasn’t really using any words, it stunned me into silence. I was caught totally off guard and, as an atheist, felt like it was wrong for her to request that. Even so, I felt bad about it after, to the point that I was paranoid about telling other friends I have with views similar to mine, because they could agree with her and slam me down. I’m still friends with her, and it’s never come up again, even though I know I’ve used the word again, in much the same way. I didn’t want to be confrontational about it, she’s a good person, even if I believe she’s a bit misguided, but it’s stuck with me for a while now. I still feel like I missed a beat and I should have said something.
Could you please advise me as to how I should have handled the situation? Not because I want to confront her, but because I’d like to know how to deal with that sort of situation, should it arise again.
Strong but Silent
Dear Strong but Silent,
It would appear from the outcome that you handled the situation quite well. You said nothing, and since then, when you have used the word “God” in a similar way, your friend has raised no further objection. What you said sounded pretty colloquial, so maybe while in a less fussy mood she shrugged it off. Perhaps she has relaxed her feelings about it, realizing that for American conversational standards, she was being unreasonable. Or maybe she’s simply given up on that issue with you. So you were passive about it, and it seems to have blown over.
But that only worked because of a change in her. There is a change in yourself that you need to make, because being passive will only work some times, and you want to have better ways of dealing with the demands and requests that people make of you. I think that what feels unfinished for you is how you muffled yourself both with her and your friends, and things got better only because she somehow adjusted. You’re dissatisfied because you didn’t take an active role in the situation. I think that dissatisfaction means that you’re coming to a point where you will be more able to take that active role. It will take time and practice.
I get the impression that you are very sensitive to the feelings of your friends, and equally sensitive to criticism from your friends. You even kept quiet to those of your friends who share similar views, for fear of their disapproval. Such sensitivity is an admirable trait only when you balance it with being able to freely express yourself. That balance will be different with each friend, and it will change with different situations.
So what should we do when a religious friend asks us to curb our speech or behavior in some way that we think is unreasonable?
Firstly, we should avoid the extremes on either side. Being aggressive, and telling them to go stuff their objections up their lower digestive tract is counter-productive if you’re interested in preserving the friendship. On the other hand, being passive and censoring yourself into muteness will be counter-productive to keeping your sanity. The balance that I’ve discussed in another post is called assertion. Read the assertion bill of rights there and imagine yourself applying it when someone like your friend makes a similar unreasonable demand.
Perhaps you would say to her in a warm and friendly way something like,
“Oh come on, you’re going to hear “Oh my God” a hundred times a day. You know I’m not saying it to be disrespectful, it’s just a common expression. If it really bothers you, I’ll try to avoid it, but please don’t get on my case if I slip. That habit is not out of disrespect. I care about your feelings, but you don’t want me to start tip-toeing around you, do you? We have to respect each other, but we also have to accept each other as we are.”
By saying something like this, you will have brought up the point of what was your intention by the God remark. You are establishing a general understanding that you and she have a shared intention to respect each other balanced with a shared intention to accept each other.
That balance of being mutually willing to adjust because of respect, and to relax because of acceptance can and should apply to your other, like-thinking friends as well. You need to have them as allies with whom you can confide without inhibition, because being an atheist on your own is tough. Comrades are essential.
Strong but Silent, when you recognize that you really are strong, you won’t have to be so silent. As time goes by and you successfully negotiate more of these assertive balances in your friendships, you’ll gain a greater general self-confidence. You’ll see that you are strong in a mature way that means you can be in command of your behavior without stifling yourself, and you can also fully express yourself without deliberately offending others. You’ll be able to hold your tongue when it’s appropriate, to speak out when it’s appropriate, and to do both in ways that are not hurtful to yourself or others.
If ever someone does have some criticism for you, you’ll be able to hear that criticism without humiliation. From that mature strength you’ll also be able to offer criticism to others without crushing their self-esteem.
Your friends will benefit from such relationships with you, and you will benefit from them.