To Confront or Not to Confront

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….

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10 Responses to To Confront or Not to Confront

  1. Kat says:

    I think I’d go for confrontation every time (or, if not outright confrontation, then exuding large amounts of froideur)- at least the harassment is less likely to be repeated. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to cultivate a reputation for scariness if it keeps the lowlifes at bay! This has been my tactic, and it’s worked pretty well for me (although I work in a relatively female dominated field, so harassment is less of an issue). I adore most of the men I work with, but every so often, that frosty shoulder comes in pretty useful. Sad that we even have to think about things in this day and age…..

  2. Sarah Bridle says:

    Helpful to hear of this analysis thanks Athene. I don’t recall specific incidents that involved me, but I think I would react by mentioning that some people would be offended by the behaviour/remark. Maybe this approach is a cop out cf confrontation and smears the “some people” unfairly though??

  3. Kate Adamson says:

    I found this a rather depressing start to this morning because it rang so true. I think confronting offensive comments is very much a matter of social capital, and for women in a junior role in a male-dominated field there is a definite feeling of personal risk in addressing inappropriate behaviour. It was helpful to have this described explicitly, because I’ve always felt it in my gut, and had a number of experiences when I was younger of sitting awkwardly through horrible conversations because I knew that I was going to take a hit in some way if I confronted.

    I eventually decided on a personal policy of
    a) if I feel I have enough social capital, confront
    b) if I don’t feel I have enough social capital, do anything possible to leave the room/conversation.
    I still feel really uncomfortable when I make a conscious choice not to engage – I feel like there’s a duty I’m not fulfulling.

  4. This is an interesting and upsetting problem and I am glad that you have raised it.

    I think I’d like to suggest a fourth way of dealing with unacceptable behaviour that I have seen others use and would always want to use myself.

    I think that there are two principles. First, unacceptable behaviour should never be accepted unless the alternative is even worse. Second, unacceptable behaviour is often aggressive or, I guess predatory.

    Confronting unacceptable behaviour with wit is very difficult. Unless the wit is utterly excoriating it may appear to condone the unacceptable behaviour.

    Confronting aggression or predation with anything that could be construed as aggressive (including excoriating wit, I guess) introduces the possibility of escalation. In my experience unacceptable behaviour is often reinforced with the threat of aggression. So, for this reason, I think that putdowns, witty or otherwise, and confrontations are risky.

    I think that unacceptable behaviour should always be named and the desire to continue the meeting without that behaviour should be expressed – assuming the desire hasn’t been killed by the behaviour. The best way of doing this is to identify a productive way forward that does not involve the behaviour. So one might deal with an insulting putdown by saying “Instead of calling each other names I’d like to look at the differences between our views of what should happen.”

    I have seen this work very well and move a meeting from name-calling to productive discussion. I have sometimes been level-headed enough to use it myself. And indeed I prepare for meetings that I expect to be difficult by mentally rehearsing statements of that sort.

    I have also, after trying this and failing to stop unacceptable behaviour, withdrawn from a meeting, saying “I’m sorry, I don’t think it is possible to continue in this way.”

    I think that I got the idea from an excellent book about negotiating that was recommended by my coach. It’s called “Getting to Yes”. Just google those three words and you’ll find millions of hits – it costs about £4 and I have no commercial interest although I have to say that if everybody read this book managing people would be a whole lot easier.

    I confess, that on occasion I have been so shocked by aggressive behaviour that I failed to respond. The problem is that when it happens it can be so shocking that it makes it difficult to act calmly.

    • Andrew
      Thanks – I’m sure what you describe is the ideal. But often, the sort of situations many readers will face will be considerably different from the ones I suspect you are describing, and are ones in which your strategy may equally produce internal fear. A PhD student facing ‘name-calling’ or worse from a professor may feel completely unable to walk away and say I’ll talk to you later; often there may be no place the two people are trying to get, it may simply be something approaching a social interaction. However, where the interactions are about achieving some end between two people of moderately equivalent status – as indeed was the situation my original post described – it does sound like a wise course. I shall have to bear it in mind myself though, as I say, I haven’t had to face anything visibly inappropriate in this way for a while. The advantages of getting older I suppose.

  5. I agree that sometimes a bully is so powerful that it is paralysing for the person on the receiving end. And I admit that even as a professor I have sometimes been so shocked that I have failed to respond to a hostile public outburst.


  6. Sara says:

    Isn’t there a fourth approach? That of taking it up the organization, and request/urge some kind of awareness event or discussion? If it is in a work environment, and if the outcome of any stop may be the “predator” moving on to a more pliable target, maybe this is a way to change the organizational culture?

    The one time I felt threatened I took it up with the HoD who handled it all very well.

  7. zinemin says:

    I am shocked about this analysis. Are you saying that this book tells us that confronting sexist behaviour might make the sexist person **like you less**?

    This is totally not the point! The person does not like you anyway! What is important is 1) to warn this person he cannot continue on this path without your resistance and 2) to keep your own self-respect and sense of self-worth!

    In a professional setting, being liked is not the most important thing. What is important is to be respected. And this will certainly not happen if one just accepts abusive or sexist behaviour. Even from an advisor.

    I believe that absolutely nobody is that dependent on another person that they should keep quiet if the line is crossed. Of course, where the line is varies from person to person, but one should have enough self-respect to defend exactly this line, wherever it is.

    Not doing this is the direct path to 1) depression 2) escalating sexism and abuse 3) total destruction of the relationship in question. It seems that many PhDs start to think like small children and see the advisor as all powerful parent that has to be pleased at all costs. That is totally not the case. Both the advisor and the PhD are adults and should treat each other accordingly.

    • Zinemin
      I think ‘like’ should be taken in a rather broader sense than the purely social. For instance, if a PhD supervisor feels that a student has confronted them, their feeling of ‘dislike’ can translate into bad references and hence have long-term consequences for a career. In a situation where the power of the two individuals is very different this can be very damaging for the confronter when they are the one lower down the pecking order. I think you are misunderstanding what is implied.

  8. Reuben Thomas says:

    An interesting and sobering read for this male ex-academic. A small typo: “currecent rent” → “recent”.