One of the questions that I’ve gotten fairly regularly over the years, is how do you go about explaining a thing like therianthropy or otherkinism to someone with no frame of reference, without sounding crazy?
I’ve done a lot of experimenting with this, over the last decade. And I will be honest – with my method of explanation, I’ve only encountered a negative response a handful of times. Generally, it isn’t even an openly negative response so much as an “Okay then,” kind of response. The person grudgingly realizing that while the concept may sound a bit weird, I sound far too sane while giving my simplified explanation to actually be crazy. Therefore they find themselves giving credence to the idea, simply because of the way I come across.
The explanation that I generally use goes something like this:
A therian is a human being who has a very close, personal connection with a specific type of non-human animal. It doesn’t matter if the animal is currently living, or extinct, and in some cases even if the creature is mythological (though those people tend to prefer the term “otherkin” to therian). The connection is a deep, intrinsic thing, to the point that there is at best a blurred line in that person’s identity – human on the one side, non-human animal on the other. This duality of human and non-human is what it means to be a therian.
I’m very careful with my body language while I explain. I make sure to meet the person’s eyes, to hold myself in a confident manner – the same way I would while discussing a scientific principal, or a historical fact. The point is to get across to the person who doesn’t understand that this is very real, and something experienced by a large – if hidden – segment of the population.
At this point, it’s all about reading the person’s body language. In my experience, there are generally three reactions. The first (and most common – at least if my sample can be believed), is fascination and a desire to know more. This is usually indicated both with interested body language, and with an actual inquiry – such as “so what animal is it for you?”
Another fairly common response is shock – but not a negative way. I usually find out later that this is the result of what I described resonating with the person. After all, before we all heard the term “therian,” none of us had a word for what we are. The most common belief across the board of all therianthropes and otherkin is “I thought I was the only one.” In this case, you’ve opened this person’s eyes to realize that they are not alone, and perhaps helped them start their own path of self-discovery.
Indifference or outright violent disbelief is the third – and least common – of the three primary responses. This can be indicated by everything from a shrug and an “oh,” to open disbelief or even a sarcastic comment. However, the important thing to remember when someone presents this response, is to not rise to the bait.
I know, it can be very hard. A sarcastic comment on the heels of you having basically bared a piece of your soul to someone feels like a slap to the face or a knife to the gut. But you can not respond in anger. If you do, you risk destroying your own validity. Scientists that react viciously when their theories are questioned or scoffed at don’t generally end up changing any minds in the long run. And that’s what you have to remember – the person knows what it means now, whether or not they believe it.
The truth is, you don’t know what’s going through their heads. What questions or realities you’ve opened them up to by giving them this information. Perhaps reflecting on it later, they’ll have a personal realization – or even see the signs of it’s truth that they’ve witnessed by knowing you previous to knowing why you acted the way you did.
My wife has come to read subtleties of my expressions that I wasn’t consciously aware of doing, and that she didn’t notice until after she found out about me being therian. I perk up my ears when interested in something, and there is a completely different motion I make with them when I’m angry or embarrassed.
I didn’t realize for the longest time that when my phantom ears react to my emotional state, my physical ears were moving as well – but they do. I’ve since seen video evidence. It’s subtle, and something that’s easily missed if you aren’t looking for it. But like anyone who lives with non-human animals for any extent of time, human beings naturally begin to read other species. And once my wife knew I was a wolf, suddenly little things she’d been noticing about me since we first met in person made a lot more sense.
Now, my wife was not one of these doubting reactions – honestly, I’ve never experienced a doubting reaction from anyone except people who didn’t know me very well. By the time my therianthropy was mentioned in an essay or an art project while I was in college, my professors and classmates had already experienced weeks with me. Finding out I was therian, and what that was, answered more questions for them than it gave.
The important thing to remember when describing what being a therian means to you is to approach it as if you’re defining a scientific concept, rather than an intangible spiritual sensation. People react well when new information is presented with a voice of authority, experience, and knowledge – without an edge of defensiveness. Basically if you can deliver the explanation in such a way that it’s clear you believe it and see nothing wrong with it, then the person you’re explaining to will psychologically respond well to the information and move on.
Things to avoid are the stereotypical “weeaboo” type explanation, such as “It means my soul is the soul of an animal!” or “It means I’m a wolf on the inside!” That sort of declarative statement does exactly what we’re trying to avoid in these situations – it makes the person making the statement sound…well, a bit odd, to put it the nicest way possible.
Now let me be clear – there is nothing wrong with that being what it means to you. But they didn’t ask what it meant to you – they asked what a therian is. They’re looking for a broad, general definition – not your personal feelings on the matter. If someone walked up and asked you “what’s a dinosaur?”, you wouldn’t respond by describing only one type of ancient reptile. A Stegosaurus or a T-Rex doesn’t represent the idea that’s meant to be gotten across by the term “dinosaur.” Instead, you’d say something like “Dinosaurs are a large and varied group of ancient reptiles that lived millions of years ago across the globe, and are now extinct.” You only go into details if they ask beyond the initial question – and even then, you don’t volunteer information beyond what is asked.
In this way, the therian community can slowly begin to crawl out from under the stigma we’ve faced as a group that “originated on the internet,” and slowly disassociate our terms from those of Furries and other fandoms. There’s nothing wrong with fandoms. The problem is that…well, therianthropy isn’t a fandom – it’s simply a state of being. Something you are, not something you like.
I hope that, in time, if we can begin to describe ourselves in ways that lean toward scientific description and avoid over-eager exclamations of our personal beliefs rather than overarching facts, we will reach a point where saying “I’m a therian” will be greeted with an interested, “Oh? What species?” rather than a confused “A what?” Or worse, “Oh, one of those crazy internet werewolves.”
Because we aren’t crazy. We’re just us. And how we as a community explain that to those on the outside is exactly what can make that clear.