Just over a year ago I pressed the ‘publish’ button on a post with some trepidation. I felt I was exposing some inner anxieties that maybe were better not exposed. Your collective response to the post in question ‘I can hear you’re getting emotional’ amazed me. I realised the power of speaking out about situations that made me feel very uncomfortable (wandering hands and sexist verbal put-downs); collectively we could share experiences and bring out into the open things that too often stay under wraps. I am not sure I really learned any tips I felt I personally could utilise for how to deal with inappropriate behaviour – verbal or physical – but it opened my eyes to a variety of things, including just how ubiquitous such behaviour is, and how it is subtly culturally nuanced which makes it all the harder to discuss and handle.
Many anecdotes came forward in the comments, which smack of the currecent rent furore in the press – those about AA Gill’s comments about Mary Beard’s appearance and about the misogyny pointed in Louise Mensch’s direction, where gender becomes a convenient focus for vitriol – but rather than reproduce those comments from the previous post here, I suggest you go back and look at them yourself if interested. What I want to look at in the present post, building on that earlier one, is what the best way to deal with inappropriate behaviour is. For me, tempting though it may be to turn on the individual concerned, confront them explicitly with why their behaviour strikes me as offensive, I have never been convinced it is a fruitful strategy even if I were quick-witted enough with a suitably pithy put-down. Furthermore, particularly when the individual is going to continue to cross one’s path regularly, it may be a case of unwisely burning bridges. An alternative strategy that was clearly used by some of the commenters, was trying to turn the offence off light-heartedly with a joke. In other words, the hypothesis was that humour rather than confrontation is an easier/better way to handle someone who is behaving inappropriately.
I was reminded of this discussion when reading the book Coping with Minority Status (edited by Fabrizio Butera and John M Levine) recently. The relevant chapter, Managing the Message by Swim, Gervais, Pearson and Stanger, specifically looked at the consequences of different methods of dealing with verbal discrimination – sometimes in the context of sexist remarks, but other situations (such as racist ones) too. Now this is a book written by serious psychologists; their analyses are not based on anecdote but on controlled studies, where subjects try out different courses of action under specified circumstances. I leave it to others to judge how well this mimics the sorts of situations I alluded to in my earlier post, or whether the conclusions based on ‘lab-work’ can easily be carried across to the lab. But, with those caveats in mind, here is what they conclude if an individual tries to confront a perpetrator.
Three strategies for handling the situation were explored, closely mimicking the different strategies commenters proposed: ignoring the remark completely, making a joke about it, or directly confronting it. The analysis considered how the perpetrator reacted as a result of these strategies, specifically looking at how ‘competent’ and ‘likeable’ the confronter was perceived to be as a result of their actions. The news is not all good. Although the confrontation may have had an impact on the perpetrator, reducing the likelihood they will repeat similar remarks, it was also likely to change their perception of the person doing the confronting. In other words, as women in this position have often intuitively felt, there is a cost associated with ‘making a fuss’. Those who tried to turn the remarks off with a joke, were felt to be less competent, whereas those who directly confronted the situation were seen as less likeable and viewed with hostility.
All confronters were seen as more complaining and less likeable than if individuals did nothing. Telling a joke decreased the likelihood of these negative impressions, but those who told jokes were seen as less competent than those who made more direct confrontations. Although the joke could possibly have other effects that would help prejudice reduction, such as conveying that the perpetrator has strayed past a prescriptive norm, the light-hearted nature of the joke may make this violation seem trivial. In contrast, those who made more direct responses were seen as more competent than those who told jokes. Yet direct confronters were seen as more complaining and less likeable than those who made a joke.
So there’s the informed position, which rather confirms many people’s fears that you can’t win if put in this position by a colleague. When faced with some personal attack, or at least infringement, you have a split second decision to make, which roughly can be represented as: do I want to be seen as likeable or competent or is it simply not worth making a fuss? In practice, such a cost-benefit analysis will be the last thing on one’s mind, and how one reacts will depend on everything else going on around one. But, if the behaviour is persistent, then possibly it is more useful to take time to consider what strategy is most beneficial. It is also interesting to note in the book that it is clear each of us has a very different threshold as to what provokes us, based on prior social interactions and support systems (in other words one’s self-identity), another point that the earlier post discussion made very clear.
There we have it. The limited anecdotal information provoked in the comments by my description of my failure to cope with inappropriate behaviour directed at me, has a formal mirror and place in the psychology literature. I am not sure it helps me work out strategies, but it is always good to go beyond anecdote. Nevertheless, I am pleased to say that in the year that has passed since my original post, I haven’t had to deal with any extreme situations where the tips you collectively passed on could be put to the test. Indeed, I notice that men (always men I think) sometimes seem as if they’re about to pat me on the arm and then visibly back off. Perhaps I now ooze noli me tangere so strongly they wouldn’t dare, even in situations where it wouldn’t have caused me any offence. However, my own personal experiences do not give me optimism the world has radically changed, so much as I may have done. A year older, a year tougher and perhaps those wanting to harass are finding easier victims – the young and less secure – to target. I would love to believe that wasn’t true, but….