A slithering scaled road.
February 13, 2012 3:36 PM   Subscribe

How to keep my cool when others challenge/question/judge me based on my [hobby]?

First of all, my hobby is something I am extremely passionate about, but not something that I disclose to everyone I meet nor that I am constantly talking about it/bringing it up to others. Given the reactions I've had in the past, I would say I am somewhat careful about mentioning it outside the general circle of people in the hobby itself. That said, the hobby is herpetology/reptile keeping, and I simply love it.

At the moment I live in a country without many restrictions regarding this type of exotic animal owning and I'm blessed enough to keep a couple snakes. I find them to be incredible animals and am glad I can keep them so close to me. I also believe I provide them with the best I can and lead them to live happy lives (or as happy as a reptile can ever be) with food, shelter, a proper environment, etc.

I have, however, found it that keeping exotics, well reptiles in general (snakes, more precisely) does seem to ruffle many people's feathers, and that I often get verbally abused by others while trying to stand up to my hobby and my beliefs. Even if I try to educate others on what I'm doing and how it's not such a terrible thing, I am usually met with a wall of deafness and disgust in extreme (albeit, sadly, not uncommon) cases. This is a problem since I find it very very very difficult to ignore others when they 'diss' my hobby (therefore myself) and tend to get defensive/argumentative about it. It doesn't help that people would rather believe the huge amount of misinformation out there rather than someone who's been keeping these animals for years.

Basically, I really don't enjoy being called an horrible person because I keep animals besides your usual cat/dog (I have cats, which I looooove as much as I love my reptiles), and I don't know how to react besides trying to explain and being irrationally angry when my attempts at explaining are met with me being ignored or called an even more horrible person.
posted by Trexsock to Human Relations (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You could reframe it to yourself this way:

"Why are these people so uncool about reptiles? What's THEIR problem? Their loss, do not engage..."

You're not doing anything wrong or even particularly weird. If people react that way, basically ignore them. However, if they seem amenable to hearing some good info about your hobby being cool and not actually bad in the ways they may have heard about, ok. If not, next.
posted by devymetal at 3:42 PM on February 13, 2012

Thing one might be not to call it a hobby. Saying "I have two pet snakes" makes it sound like you have a warm connection to your cold-blooded friends, which you do. If you call it a hobby, here's how it sounds to me...

"As a hobby, I keep wolflike creatures. They really are quite docile in captivity. Harmless, really. In the wild a pack of them could take down a deer (they specifically target the weak and helpless) but I have trained them not to attack human children."

Put it that way and you could get dog ownership banned within a week.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:47 PM on February 13, 2012 [32 favorites]

I have to confess being a little puzzled by this. As you've described it, this doesn't necessarily sound like a weird hobby. Some questions:

1) Do you keep poisonous snakes actively producing venom?

2) If you do, are they caged, or do they roam about freely?

I think that some people may have issues with the hobby, possibly, because of their perception of risk, and their perceptions of how you mitigate that risk. If so, you might be able to address their fears, and then tell them the cool bits about snakes. Also, the above poster is spot on the money.
posted by corb at 3:49 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, calling it a hobby is sort of weird. My cats are pets, not a hobby.
posted by jeather at 3:50 PM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think you need to address people's concern that you may buy live puppies and happy hoppy bunnies and cwute widdle animals to feed dem.

Snakes eat vermin. Assure folk that you're feeding them vermin...and broccoli. And then tell them you don't wish to discuss it.
posted by taff at 3:57 PM on February 13, 2012

I'm a biologist. I have a number of friends who have pet snakes and/or other herps and a few friends with PhDs in herpetology. I've never seen one of them get the kind of reaction you're describing. On the contrary, most people are pretty fascinated, even if they themselves don't want a pet snake.

You don't say what country you live in, so it may be cultural (I'm a USAian biologist). Or maybe it's just the type of people you spend time with and you need better friends.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:00 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I call it a hobby because that is what most everyone in the community calls it. My snakes are my pets but they are also my hobby , my passion (one could put it like that). I also do breed a couple species though not commercially at all.

And no, I do not keep venomous nor do my snakes free roam.
posted by Trexsock at 4:01 PM on February 13, 2012

I also am surprised that people react badly to this hobby. In fact, I reread your question to see if maybe you were keeping several hundred snakes and komodo dragons in your bathroom or something, but no... it sounds very normal and not particularly obsessive.

Are you hanging out with people from a particularly snake-phobic culture?
posted by small_ruminant at 4:05 PM on February 13, 2012

Response by poster: hydropsyche - I am in the Netherlands and to my experience so far it's a small amount of people who respond with curiosity /apprehension versus disgust.
posted by Trexsock at 4:05 PM on February 13, 2012

"Even if I try to educate others ... I find it very very very difficult to ignore others when they diss my hobby (therefore myself)..."

It's possible that you are not defensive/argumentative actually in response to them, but that you start off defensive/argumentative and others are responding to that. And then you pick up on their negative reaction and try even harder to convince them.

Usually when people criticize a thing, they are only criticizing the thing, not the person who told them about the thing. I have a good friend who really truly doesn't like children, which is not only strange to me but also, since I have and love kids, something I needed to accept if I wanted to remain friends with her. She is not disparaging me or my children, she just doesn't "get" why people would want them.

Humor and cheerful enthusiasm will result in much more positive reactions than lectures and soapboxes, regardless of the subject matter. Try a different approach/response when the subject comes up.
posted by headnsouth at 4:30 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have some experience with something similar because we keep parrots. People like to say things like, "It makes me so sad to see them in their cages." Or they'll say right out that they don't approve of birds being kept at pets. Or they'll do this kind of veiled interrogation thing to see if we're taking good care of the birds: "Do they ever get to come out?" and so on. It's never my friends; it's always people who who are in my house for the first time for some reason. (It's not my friends because they've all heard me talk about aviculture and problems with breeding/smuggling and so on--they know that I'm not just cavalier about having parrots, but actually somewhat ambivalent.)

I think I got over being irritated by it because it's so predictable, like they're following a script. If they just say something like, "I'm not comfortable with birds being kept in cages," I just mentally roll my eyes and say, "Hmmm." If they ask questions, even if it's the veiled interrogation, I answer them most times. If I'm in the mood, I am happy to go on and on in an educational way. If I'm not in the mood, I shrug and give short answers with an undertone of "Duh." "Do they ever get to come out?" Me, slight eyeroll: "Of course they do."

It doesn't help that people would rather believe the huge amount of misinformation out there rather than someone who's been keeping these animals for years.

Oh, my goodness, yes. We used to have a friend who would ignore what we said--despite us being very well-informed and experienced--in favor of what some guy at work whose cousin used to have a budgie says. Drove us nuts.

I think the key here is acceptance: This is the way the world works. It is full of people who have strong opinions despite being very ill-informed. It is full of people who, for some reason, prefer the opinions of the ignorant over the opinions of the informed. It is full of people who think it's OK to rudely question the choices others have made, or to express disgust or disapproval while they're standing right there in your living room enjoying your hospitality.

So, ideally, I get to a point where, when somebody starts up with this, I just think, "Here we go again!" and it's almost kind of amusing to reflect on how completely predictable these folks are.

Another thing that helps me, any time I'm being faced with recurring ignorance and offensiveness, is to write about it on my blog. Not "these people are annoying me!" But "This is what I know about keeping parrots. This is what I love about it, and this is what concerns me about exotic pets. This is what I wish everyone who thinks about getting a parrot would know. This is what I wish they would do." Or write it up as an FAQ: "The 10 most common questions and reactions I get when people see my parrots for the first time." And then respond.

This helps because it organizes my thoughts and gets them out of my brain. And, of course, it vents emotions. And then, when people start asking questions or expressing opinions, I can say, "You know, I wrote a thing about that on my blog...have you seen my blog? No? Let me give you the URL." And then a Strategic Change of Subject. "So, you stopped by to pick up some papers for that committee we're on. What did you think of So-and-so's idea about the fundraiser?"
posted by not that girl at 4:32 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

If a relative stranger told me "I have pet cats and snakes" my response would be, "cool, what kind of snakes, the snakes and cats don't play together do they?"

If a relative stranger said "my hobby is herpetology and snakes are my passion", I'd be a little weirded out, just as if the same person had said they kept cats and cats were their life's passion. If they started getting defensive and argumentative about it, then I might start to be a bit leery of this person. The defensive/argumentative reaction is probably the chief problem here.

So keep it light, "yeah I keep snakes, I think they're neat. No they aren't everyone's cuppa, but that's ok...."

In what context are you telling people about your snakes? Are these friends, strangers, new acquaintances? If your friends react with disgust, that's really odd. If you approach strangers on the street and lead off with "snakes are my passion" weird looks are to be expected.

Maybe someone from the Netherlands can chime in about how herpetology goes over there. A contributing factor might be that you're a women, I know a number of men who keep reptiles, I don't think I know any adult women. Not that there is anything wrong with that, I think it's cool.
posted by pseudonick at 4:35 PM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

One of my hobbies is board games. Another is role playing games. It has taught me that getting together with some of the funniest, most socially interesting and in many cases successful people can suddenly be judged negatively by folks with preconceptions. Of course, with RPGs it extends into folks thinking it relates to satanism, demon worship and worse. It doesn't matter that there is absolutely zero truth to this, it is just what some people believe and in some communities it is so well entrenched as fact that it is worthless to confront. This issue is much bigger in the U.S. than in other countries due to specific historical reactions from the late seventies and early eighties that reverberate until today.

It sounds like keeping snakes has a poor reputation in the Netherlands. Is it possible that there is a similar history? My experience is that once folks have written your hobby off as weird and uncomfortable, arguing with them about that interpretation isn't productive.
posted by meinvt at 4:38 PM on February 13, 2012

Keeping wild caught exotic pets is socially unacceptable in the EU these days so that might be part of it, if people think they are wild caught.
posted by fshgrl at 4:51 PM on February 13, 2012

I think that maybe you should step back from trying to "educate" strangers so much? I love snakes, I have lived with snakes, if my health permitted I would have snakes living with me right now, but someone giving me an unasked-for lecture about snakes would freak me the fuck out.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:57 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Answer A:

[Bad reaction]

"Oh really? Why do you say that?"

[Misinformation or prejudice against snakes]

"Ah, that's a common misconception. The truth is that…"

They won't really care about what you say, but they'll be put in their place for looking ignorant. And maybe, once and a while, you might educate someone.

Answer B:

If it's something you truly enjoy, stop giving a damn what others think.
posted by Ookseer at 5:37 PM on February 13, 2012

I'm also a biologist with lots of friends with snakes and a corn snake of my own. I agree it's a cultural thing made worse because snakes are one of the taxa that people have very negative opinions of. My own mother was shocked when I said I got a snake and asked if I had become 'one of those people?'. I have no idea what kind of people she thought had snakes but I wasn't it. Some people are just terrified of snakes, some people think they're mean or dirty or whatever, more rarely you'll probably get curiosity.

I'd overplay the pet-ness of your snakes and downplay the hobby. I send my mother cute pictures of my snake, refer to her by name (Hera), describe her personality (like a sullen teenager who doesn't want to be looked at), comment on how big she's getting. All the stuff that people do with furry pets, I do with my cold-blooded one.

I mean, what is the difference between a hobby and a pet? A hobby seems like something you're taking a logical approach to, maybe buying a lot of equipment, going to shows, reading up on. You're doing that but the best thing about your hobby is your pets (right? maybe not, maybe it's the hobby but pretend). Like if your hobby was brewing beer, you'd talk about the awesome beer you made, not the new bottle capper or whatever. Unless the person you're talking to has signalled that they're more than superficially interested. So just talk about your cold and warm-blooded cuties.

Anyway, sorry you're having to deal with such negative reactions and people that don't believe your experience/knowledge. That is the very worst. I have no idea how to deal with it, sorry, but you have my sympathy.
posted by hydrobatidae at 6:03 PM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

If I examine my own prejudices (shame on me), I find that in the US, the stereotype of a creepy snake person is someone who keeps them for the intimidation factor -- who hopes to impress or intimidate people because snakes are so bad-ass. My stereotype includes someone who doesn't actually know how to best care for snakes.

That contrasts a great deal with the zoologist approach. That sounds to me like someone who takes great care of their snakes and has a lot of respect.

Thinking this way is stupid, of course, but there it is. If you can swing conversation toward the scientist-respect-for-nature angle, you might get further along.

Now, if you were in the US, I'm pretty well convinced that you could simply say you do "snake rescue" and everyone would be in awe and back off completely, because, you know, moral high ground...
posted by vitabellosi at 6:46 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's "weird" to have a passion of any kind. Most people do not have anything that they feel passionately enthusiastic or curious about. It's hard for me to wrap my mind around that, but it seems to be true from what I can tell.

I recommend the movie "Adaptation" -- it is based on a book called "The Orchid Thief" which may be even better, but I haven't read it. It's a true story about a man who is obsessed with orchids and the very talented top-of-her-game writer who is fascinated by him because, despite all of her successes, she can't imagine feeling about anything the way he does about orchids. That man is lucky because he is in love. You are fortunate too because you have your snakes and they sound wonderful.

(When you said you breed them, it made me wonder what snakes look like when they're having sex. Do they do it doggy style somehow or is there a snake style or what?)
posted by gentian at 9:38 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your hobby is rad. Don't bother explaining it to people who hate snakes. Just tell them it's their loss and change the subject.
posted by ead at 10:44 PM on February 13, 2012

I know quite a lot of people who have a real phobia of snakes; some of them have such a weird perception that it's like they think snakes are evil or something. I've always thought snakes were pretty cool...
I think your hobby sounds really cool and you're lucky you have something you enjoy so much!
People who show a negative reaction are probably either scared/grossed out by snakes to begin with ( which seems to me to be a lot of people). I think if you bring up the topic with someone you don't know well, just make sure to try and explain it in a way that others can relate to. Rather than referring to "your hobby" as if it is something that only you understand, perhaps come out with an interesting fact about snakes and go from there? A la " Did you know that [species of exotic snake] can [something that said snake can do]?" And then when they ask how you know that, you can casually explain that you actually know quite a bit about snakes, etc...
Also perhaps connecting with others in your area who share your interest could help you feel more secure. Maybe you need to find others who have a similar passion for snakes- I think it would help with feeling more secure about your particular hobby. I bet they have snake parties and stuff...
posted by costanza at 12:20 AM on February 14, 2012

I agree about the 'hobby' angle possibly being the cause. I'm always slightly mystified by any kind of pet keeping where the beast is not free to come and go. That includes birds, reptiles, hamsters, rabbits, basically anything that - for any period of time - is retained by barriers that it itself has not constructed. I also go a bit strange about house cats that aren't allowed outside, and tank fish make me very upset. I just can't bear the thought of keeping a creature restricted in any way - to me this is akin to treating living creatures like delicate toys, which just feels wrong on a very deep emotional level that I can't adequately articulate.

I totally understand that this is a fairly extreme view and not everyone feels this way so I generally keep my thoughts to myself, but if you were raving about captive breeding being an awesome hobby I could see myself getting irritated and possibly challenging some of your assertions, especially if you were being defensive about it. If however you just said 'I have two pet snakes' I'd be probably be more interested to find out more about snakes, which are very cool, rather than how much you enjoy 'keeping' them, which (to me) is not.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:28 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing you may have noticed about the Dutch: they can be very direct, which often reads as rude to Americans. They're also not at all reluctant to argue strange points of view. (For example, I once had an older colleague tell me in all seriousness that it was not OK to keep a dog in an apartment.) If you try to counter-argue you may get sucked into an involved discussion you'd be happier not having. You may have the most success answering with a neutral topic-closer like "huh", "interesting", or "well, I like them." And then change the subject. And don't take it personally! The Dutch norm is to express one's opinion freely--it (probably) doesn't mean they think you're terrible people.
posted by myeviltwin at 5:36 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Like if your hobby was brewing beer, you'd talk about the awesome beer you made, not the new bottle capper or whatever.

Nope. Disagree. When you are passionate about something, the minutiae and detail of the process is just as important and exciting to you as the creation. What you do have to do is filter your conversation based on the audience. Being defensive isn't helpful, and it's unfortunate that anyone would judge you for this but trying to educate them is most likely not going to go over well... They don't care about the facts and have through their background and preconceived notions made a judgment about you as a person that is not easily changed.

If you notice that someone is unreceptive when you bring up your hobby, dial it back a little on the detail. I like snakes and think they're cool, but I don't want to hear about their environments or diet or personality. A better talking point is why YOU are interested (and not why the person you're talking to should be). Keep the focus on why you like them and not why the other person is wrong for not liking them.
posted by sarahnicolesays at 7:41 AM on February 14, 2012

A lot of people feel a lot of revulsion and fear towards snakes. Revulsion and fear are gut-level feelings, not rational opinions. All of their verbal abuse stems from those feelings. You cannot change those feelings by defending your hobby.

Just try to see through their abuse to their irrational feelings and try to feel sorry for them instead of getting angry.
posted by callmejay at 10:27 AM on February 14, 2012

Ok, so I'm afraid of snakes. Let me try to explain how I experience that fear.

When I see a snake, my insides feel really cold, my heart starts pounding, and the nerves all up and down my spine go crazy. Basically, my body wants very badly to get away from where I am. This can also happen to me when I can't see a snake but am aware that one is nearby. Also, and this is important for your question, it can happen to me from just talking or thinking about snakes. In fact, it's happening to me right now.

This fear is not rational, and I know that. But that means it can't be educated away. There's nothing I could learn about snakes that would make it go away. It doesn't matter whether or not your snakes are poisonous. I'm not afraid of something that they're going to do to me - I'm afraid of them. On a visceral level, I'm horrified by their existence.

Now, I know that not everybody feels this way, and I don't think anything less of you for keeping snakes. But if we were to become friends, I could never come over to your house. And when we met I might say something about your snakes that would offend you. Not because I'm trying to be a jerk, but because I'm distracted because I'm desperately trying to keep it together while my body freaks the fuck out.

So, consider that this may not be personal, and that the people who say these kinds of things are probably coming from a place of fear, and of fear that they likely can't do much about. Looked at in this light, it may not bother you as much.
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:13 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

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