Saturday, March 20, 2010

Call and response: Tips for the hollaback girl

How many of you have someone in your life who says little things from time to time that rub you the wrong way? Mine can be filed neatly into two categories:

The “blatantly-sexist-but-hey-it’s-a-joke-ha-ha category”:

• “Sarah makes better coffee than Steve. It must be a woman thing!”
• “I hear the phone ringing. Why doesn’t Sarah answer it? She’s the only woman around.”

And the “seemingly innocuous-but-actually scary" category:

• “Smile! It doesn’t cost anything.”
• “You must work out! You have such a nice figure”

The two categories call for two very different types of responses. Let’s address the former first, shall we? The sexist jokes are blatant. But when people say them in a joking tone, they expect you to take them as a joke. You don’t want to come off like a shrew, so you play along, right? Telling people outright that they’re being rude has a tendency to alienate, and you can’t always afford that – what if the "joker" is your boss?

But you can't brush them off, or they'll just get worse. When I was younger, I used to play along because I wanted to be liked. Now I make an effort to point out what’s wrong with the comments in a way that mimics the tone of the conversation. It takes practice, but it’s a worthwhile effort.

The second type is trickier:

• “Smile! It doesn’t cost anything.”

The smile directive sounds innocuous enough, but it's inappropriate for the simple reason that no one has a right to dictate another person's facial expressions.

If you need an object lesson in what’s wrong with “Smile! It doesn’t cost anything!” all you have to do is respond with “Don’t tell me what to do.” Sit back and watch how quickly that “friendly” comment turns nasty. If you respond this way to the wrong person, you can risk actual physical harm.

Case in point: A man sitting on a stoop, drinking out of a paper bag, ordered me to smile one day as I got out of my car (“Smile, it can’t be that bad” were his ironic words). My lack of response was rewarded with him spitting in the general direction of my shoes before I skedaddled.

The second comment, “You must work out! You have such a nice figure!” is one that can go either way. Coming from a close friend, it is usually a genuine compliment. Coming from anyone else, it’s a creepy red flag. I had a landlord who said this to me, and often. One day, I told him he was making me uncomfortable with his constant remarks about my figure (I lived alone. He had a key to my apartment. Of course he was making me uncomfortable!). Thirty days later, my apartment was “reclaimed.”

Unlike the other “innocuous” comments listed here, the “you’re hot” variety has no grey area. When it comes from someone other than your sister or best friend, it is never OK to brush it off. Like with my landlord, the person who is saying it has ulterior motives, and no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise, you know it. The sooner you tell him or her to shut it, the better off you are.


  1. I used to work for a place where they'd scold the women employees for side-chatter about shoes, but not the male employees for side-chatter about sports.

  2. That sounds about right. Things that are categorized as "women's" non-professional interests, like crafts, fashion, beauty and childcare are trivialized in our culture.

    But "men's" non-professional interests, like sports, pop culture, playing the bass guitar while scowling, and beer-drinking, are considered genuine hobbies.

    It's enough to make a girl cranky, it is.

  3. I have actually responded to the "Smile! It doesn't cost anything!" demand once with:

    "No, I will not. I'm having a really shitty day, and I therefore DEMAND that *you* scowl in solidarity!!!"

    This shut the other person up. I think they were too shocked to issue retribution but I hope it gave them food for thought. In any case it made me feel smug and vidicated so there.

  4. You are a braver woman than I! It takes all my willpower not to give the ol' "pleasing smile" to people who occupy positions of power relative to me (boss, loan officer, police officer, wearers-of-tailored-suits).

    But if I were the sort of sunshiney person who went around demanding smiles, I should hope I'd also be the sort of person who'd play along and throw on a funny growly face in response to your directive, which could hopefully cheer you up, too.

    Since I'm not terribly sunshiney, though, I shall continue in my campaign to stop wanton meaningless smiling. Together, we can change the world!

  5. Yes, I don't suppose I would have said this if I were on the short end of the power dynamic. The hapless twit that got this response from me was a total stranger.

    I mean, really, just *who* did they think they were to make demands on my mood?

  6. Would you please give an example or two of how you've practiced pointing out what’s wrong with a sexist comment in a way that mimics the tone of the conversation?

  7. At my previous-to-current workplace, sarcasm was the order of the day, so it was pretty easy to point out sexist comments in a way that mimicked the tone of the conversation - ie "the girls are talking about laundry (ie 'fashion') again," is met with the rebuttal, "and the boys are talking about their balls again -- isn't gender stereotyping hiLARious?" This would be met with throat-clearing and a period of uncomfortable silence (always a good sign).

    At my current workplace, bluntness in the name of efficiency is the order of the day, so I can be a little more direct: "Why doesn't Sarah answer the phone?" can lead to a response like, "If Bob stopped cracking so many inappropriate sexist jokes, maybe he'd have more time to focus on his core competencies and we'd close more accounts."

    Then again, some comments cross a line so serious that gentle ribbing simply won't do. For example, a consultant started playing with my hair during a meeting the other day, so I shrugged my shoulders and commanded, "DON'T touch me" -- something I didn't do, but should have, a few years ago when a different coworker at a different workplace did the same thing.

  8. Such an awesome post and thread. Thank you so much, Sarah. Your examples are super helpful to me. I am autistic and have a lot of trouble speaking up for my personhood (we've all heard it) or speaking out against kyriarchy (big problem for us) or telling people no, in a way that doesn't lead to further social pressure and/or (threats of) exclusion. "No fun", "can't take a joke", "ruin everything", "can't talk about this around him", "doesn't understand", "not part of our community" (a Jew-on-Jew special), and many of these coming from the same individuals who are so happy they "feel like they can trust" me "for some reason" - it's my extra capacity for emotional empathy and diminished capacity for figuring out when I'm being used, jackasses.

    Sarah, your examples of responding to oppressive 'jokes' in tonal agreement are so helpful. I hope this doesn't sound weird but I would read 100 pages of them at the moment. So if you happen to have any other examples you want to share, I am all ears and I think I speak for at least some of my peers who are more shy.

    For my part, it helps that (1) I'm a male who would only be considered small in the NBA, and passes for straight and white; and (2) I got all of the emotional empathy and lack of understanding of social rules, with much less of the shyness than others. When my partner spent all week breaking her back to do hir siblings' work for them after a relative died, then putting in place the systems that would allow hir to enjoy the reception like everyone else (she was allergic to literally all of the catered food and alcohol being served at the event she had worked to make possible), her jackass brother and sister used one of those systems against her, trying to get her in trouble by moving her small, unobtrusive, barely-filled flask to the children's table, my response to them was "What the fuck is your problem?", which had the intended effect of shifting the focus to their behavior and the unintended bonus of inviting the entire room to listen in. The alpha sputtered a bit and then challenged me to a fight before leading the two of them to storm off. You can't do that in a workplace, though, I've learned, no matter how offensive the original remark. Little surprise that I'm not big on power...



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