I can hear you’re getting emotional

In the comments for my last post, J0ns1m0ns remarked that he thought the issue of mode of speaking at committee meetings was perhaps a bit of a red herring, but I fear inappropriate remarks and behaviour persist and shouldn’t, indeed mustn’t be ignored. In some senses they are the tip of an iceberg. Despite my relative seniority I am not exempt from being at the receiving end of them. I would like to share two recent examples, I hope appropriately anonymised, and see if readers have tips to share for how to handle these situations, any means they may have discovered which are effective. I know that, despite years of apparent survival in the academic world, there are still situations in which I find myself at a loss for an appropriate response to inappropriate behaviour.

The first example is summed up by the title of this post. It arose, not at a committee meeting, but during a phone conversation with a male colleague and within the last year. We were in disagreement. A document was being produced, the initial version of which I felt had serious flaws. It took some time to convince others in the decision-making chain of this, but once I did there was general agreement that the document must be modified to take these concerns into account. The phone conversation arose when two of us were subsequently discussing the amended document, which I felt still fell short of what was required. Clearly, some way into the conversation, both of us were getting frustrated. Nevertheless I was gob-smacked to be told that the guy at the other end could

hear I was getting emotional,

implying it sounded as if I was about to burst into tears. An extraordinarily effective ploy – for him – because it completely stopped me in my tracks, not least because it was so far removed from what I was thinking or feeling. I was even more annoyed with myself afterwards because, had I been more quick-witted, I could have said

and I can hear you’re getting angry

– which he was.  The standard double bind of women’s emotion being unacceptable (even had it been present in me), but men’s anger is apparently OK, the point I was trying to make in the earlier post. L’esprit de l’escalier always comes too late; it was a missed opportunity for me to counter his assertion. Unfortunately, whether his ploy was deliberate or unconscious, I feel it enabled him to win that round on the phone. Nevertheless, and in reality much more importantly, I won the battle since the document was duly changed further to remove the pitfalls I saw in it, despite his apparent attempt to throw me off course.

The second example also happened relatively recently, but exemplifies something that has happened too frequently to me in various guises. I was at a reception after an event – in this case outside Cambridge, although the location is irrelevant – and someone wanted to take photos for their own publicity purposes. At the time I was talking to a grey-haired complete stranger (I never discovered his name). What did he do at the thought of a camera being pointed in our direction? He put his arm round my waist! I muttered,

I don’t think that’s appropriate

and moved away but, the unfortunate truism that nice girls don’t make a fuss, meant that I didn’t feel slapping him round the face was procedurally correct, though I was sorely tempted.

It is not the first time that a camera being pointed in my direction has led to someone in the vicinity thinking that draping an arm around me is the correct thing to do. This floors me. Men, please, please realise professional women do not necessarily (ever?) think this is a compliment. A box of chocolates, with or without the camera being focussed in my direction, would definitely be better received if a compliment is what is in your mind. Otherwise, well I’m sorry I really don’t know why, in a professional situation, this is regarded as in the least way appropriate. But I also don’t know how to stop it in ways that are not perceived as aggressive and end up making me look at least as stupid as the male malefactor. I’ve had a long time to try to devise a strategy, because this happens – even with the grey strands in my hair – far more often than I would like, with or without a camera. Worse, it usually occurs in situations where the male is probably counting on me not being prepared to erupt in their face including, in one case, when I was sitting across the table from a vice chancellor (who didn’t bat an eyelid, which hardly improved the situation).

So Jon, I can’t agree with you, bad behaviour in committees or elsewhere, must not be tolerated and it does matter. These examples not only demean me as a professional, trivial though they are in some ways and certainly in comparison with the horrors some women get subjected to, but they are damaging because in effect they render me – or any woman in a similar position – powerless. And that may be the perpetrator’s intention. How can I continue a high level dialogue when someone is so infringing my personal space and treating me without respect? How can I look like a serious member of the academic community when I am reduced to bimbo status by that wandering arm? And if this happens to me, as a professor, what must the younger researchers have to put up with at these same hands (or arms)? Is it surprising we have such a leaky pipeline in academic science when this sort of thing is allowed to persist? I have kept silent long enough and at least my blog gives me a chance to voice my extreme annoyance whilst keeping names out of any complaint expressed. Men who behave like this should not have it all their own way. Suggestions please, for appropriate responses and put-downs!

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38 Responses to I can hear you’re getting emotional

  1. Steve Caplan says:


    It’s amazing how easily I can envision those 2 examples now that you bring them up, although they are as foreign to me (personally) as a language I don’t know. Even close friends from S. America know that I tend to back and shy away from any physical contact upon greeting (hugs and kisses are often a part of the greeting tradition), aside from a simple handshake–so in relating to your 2nd experience, my suggestion would probably be to first remove the offending hand in a rather non-gentle fashion. Having done that, I would recommend taking full advantage of your high stature and with your most commanding voice and accompanying frown, “I’m Professor Donald, Dame of the Order of the British Empire (*sorry if that’s not the accurate title)–who are you?”

    As for the first comment, that’s a real machoistic-style put-down for women, and I don’t believe it was unintentional. Therefore it deserves a suitably subtle reply. How about turning everything around, as though you heard incorrectly, “Listen, this is too important to let emotions get drawn in–if you feel that YOU are becoming emotional about this, perhaps we should take a break and you give me a call when you feel you can deal with this in an entirely rational manner.”

    To my way of thinking that should do the trick.

    Pardon me for the next comment: Those two people are real “Ass-halfs” (as Robin Williams once said, they don’t even deserve the “whole”…)

  2. Jenny Koenig says:

    Thank you for posting this – it’s so important to hear a senior, tenured woman saying this. It happens so often but more junior women obviously feel much less able to stand up and say anything. As you point out it’s not so much the individual incidents as the accumulated effects of several over a period of time.

    The incident that stands out in my memory the most was the time that I was having a discussion with a senior male academic after a talk at a conference only to be interrupted to be told that I was wearing such a beautiful red jumper that really suited me. I was so gobsmacked that I couldn’t think of anything to say so I just got up and left.

    This is where mentoring is really important: to have someone else to listen and to reassure you that it’s not your fault.You may not be able to think of a witty or appropriate response at the time but at least you can attempt to lessen the long term cumulative effects.

    And it’s important for senior men and women to realise that they have a responsibility to recognise these situations and intervene.

  3. Nice post – and good points – In principle I think we should always (meaning men and women) stand up to people when they say things like this – but that is so much easier said than done. For many of the reasons you mentioned – sometimes it is just so surprising it catches you out so you don’t say anything and other times at least I check what I am going to say because you can be labelled as ‘hysterical’ if you get angry about something or just a ‘bitch’ which isn’t a label anyone wants I think – and ultimately detracts from the real points you are trying to make.

    One of my more eye-opening experiences as an undergrad was there was a very amazing woman who Professor in my department. A friend of mine did a project with her and was joint supervised by this lady and another (I think) man, this friend was in the Professor’s office and listening to a phone conversation between this woman and the male colleague about her project – the man started yelling at the professor about something and she said simply:

    I will not allow you to comprimise my dignity by allowing you to yell at me in such a manner, if you can speak to me about this in a civil way then we can continue the discussion, if not then I am putting the phone down.

    I learned alot from this, she maintained her composure and drew a line – this has helped me when I have been in nasty situations to try and not let me loose my cool. I am not sure the thing itself always applies but the principle of it does, I think to many situations.

    now if I could always do this that would be a lovely thing…..

  4. j0ns1m0ns says:

    Powerful and moving post, Athene. I do feel a little ashamed, however. As we’ve since discussed over twitter, I certainly didn’t want my comment on your previous post to be interpreted as in any way excusing the kinds of behaviour you describe here. My comment was meant to be specific to the committee meeting situation you used as an example in your previous post where, in my (perhaps highly unusual) experience, talking over others at meetings is typically not tolerated, whoever is doing it. I may just have been lucky in the committee members (and, perhaps more importantly, chairs) I have encountered. In any case, the situations you describe in this post are, I absolutely agree, grossly offensive. I’d hate anyone to think that I would in any way seek to excuse that sort of behaviour.

    I hope very much that what you describe reflects, in part at least, a generational issue on the part of the buffoons who have behaved in this way towards you and others. I cannot imagine that it would occur to any of my peers to even think of using such language or actions. Maybe I am being hopelessly naive, but I certainly hope that is true. Either way though, when it does occur, it is right for it to be condemned as totally unacceptable.

    • Sophie Scott says:

      I don’t think you need to be ashamed, Jon, as I don’t think your comment suggested at all that you would condone any of this sort of disrespectful behaviour.

  5. Anthony Ward says:

    I came across this article after following a link from Maggi Dawn on Twitter and decided to butt in, if that’s okay…
    In the first example I would say that if him saying ‘I can hear that you are getting emotional’ stopped you in your tracks, then you may lack a little resilience. I would have simply said ‘No, not emotional but I do feel strongly about this’ and carried on putting my case. No human being can be devoid of emotion anyway (or else they would be Dr Spock from Star Trek) and a certain amount of passion is allowable in debate.
    Men and women are biologically different anyway. We have more testosterone and that makes us more competitive. Testosterone gets a bad press but it is actually very useful, as it is responsible for the male drive to prove themselves that is behind every male invention, discovery and advancement. I believe there is some scientific evidence that males have less verbal dexterity and emotional intelligence than females. If you insist upon calm speech and emotional intelligence then you may be tipping the playing field against men.
    As for the arm around waist situation it sounds rather unusual that a complete stranger would do this. Just tell him not to do it. Do you really need to ask the advice of the blogosphere? I have females invade my personal space from time to time. One woman at work kicked me!

  6. Re the first comment, I agree. Very very irritating and you always think of the put-down too late.
    re arm round waist, I don’t think I would have thought twice about it, unless it was done in a creepy gropey sort of way. I actually regard it as a fairly normal thing for people to do when being photographed! If the hand were to stray up, down or round I’d certainly have given it short shrift.
    I find this all very fascinating as my first ever blog post was prompted by an incident where everything hinged on whether or not a male academic had sleazy intent in an interaction with a female colleague.
    http://tinyurl.com/3cuec5m But I guess what I am saying is that I would only worry about this kind of incident if I thought the perpetrator was using the incident as an excuse for a grope, but not if he was just being friendly. But I can see that many people might dislike an invasion of personal space by a stranger even if there is no sexual intent. I’m now worried I might have upset other colleagues, both male and female, by being too inclined to cosy up when a camera is pointed at us!
    There are also big cultural differences here. I have a (female but decidedly heterosexual) South American colleague who greets people of both sexes with a lot of touchy feely kissing and hugging, and we have discussed how the typical Anglo Saxon response is to be pretty inhibited about such invasion of personal space, whereas in South America it is just standard behaviour. Perhaps she has desensitized me a fair bit – I have now learned to enjoy her effusive greetings and reciprocate!

  7. It’s interesting that Steve thinks the first example was deliberate. Anthony appears to feel even if it was, that I ‘lack resilience’ if I can’t deal with it. That smacks to me of condoning remarks that should be simply regarded as unacceptable. My colleagues would probably not regard me as lacking resilience, but being gob-smacked is a different matter. As Girl, Interruptin says standing up to these sort of situations is easier said than done. I’m sure the professor she cites who wouldn’t let someone ‘compromise her dignity’ is the role model we should all follow. My problem is that if someone annoys me I am too inclined to respond impetuously or feel the only safe thing to do is not to reply at all – neither are good solutions. I actually think role-plays, much more than mentoring per se, are the solution, and we so rarely get the opportunity to try them out.

    Anthony’s other point about testosterone and his statement “If you insist upon calm speech and emotional intelligence then you may be tipping the playing field against men.” could be read as implying that doing so would be ‘unfair’ to men, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that’s not his intention. I do think calm speech should be insisted on if at all possible, but we’re all human and shouting should be no more (or less) acceptable than getting upset. That isn’t how it is currently. This comes back to j0ns1m0ns original comments about committee meetings for my last post and above: as long as the chair of a committee treats outbursts equally then maybe it doesn’t matter, but I hear stories of where that very much isn’t the case. The upset woman is treated with much less respect than the loud-mouthed man.

    I was much heartened by Jenny’s response, and other remarks that have come to me by other routes: that this is something that needs to be said by a senior woman. Women can feel threatened and demeaned by such behaviour, and it mounts up over time and is particularly tough on the less senior women. Dorothy is obviously more comfortable with the hand round the waist than I am, and for me to speak out and say how much I hate random vague acquaintances or indeed, complete strangers doing this, took me some courage. Maybe I look like a wimp or a spoilsport – I know people have different comfort zones in this direction. However I would make a very clear distinction between friends cosying up when a personal photo is being taken, and the professional situations I was referring to. There is no room for hugging, kissing or arms-round-the -waist at formal occasions by casual acquaintances or distant colleagues – let alone complete strangers – in my view. I have had it done in some very public and formal places but, in order to stick to my principles about anonymity I can’t spill some quite funny beans on this front! Nevertheless, to be greeted by a highly respected professor, 10 years my senior, and whom I’ve only met a handful of times with the phrase ‘oh I do like kissing games’ and acting it out beggars belief (again this was in the last year). But with royalty in the room – as there was – I am hardly going to create a scene! These people do this knowingly I’m sure, maybe it gives them a perverted sense of power; it is completely unprofessional and needs to be stamped on.

    Is it generational, as Jon asks? How can I tell – I’d be astonished if a 30 year old approached me in this way, but certainly some of the instances I can think of are from men younger than me by up to 10 years. Younger readers will have to answer this question, but again the comments suggest they are still victims of it though whether from their own generation or not I don’t know. And make no mistake, people can feel like victims in this situation, whether or not the perpetrator intends offence or not. As Jenny says it is important for all of us to intervene where we can – I would find it much easier to do it on other people’s behalf than my own!

  8. MGG says:

    Great post.
    These situations are so complicated and I have internal arguments about whether I should ignore them or react and many a times, the moment passes and I become so confused. That I am from a different culture adds to my overall confusion.

    One time while I was a first-year post-doc, I had an argument with an older Chinese post-doc, he was trying to tell me what to do and I did not agree with it. In the heat of the argument, he remarked that women were stupid, a remark that completely stumped me (I am also from the East, so I can understand men behaving this way, but this was unacceptable). I asked him if the he thought the Director of another department, a woman, was stupid. I guess that brought him back to the ground. I then walked out of the argument saying I would not talk to unreasonable people. Another time when he made a sexist remark, I turned around to him and told him that if I again hear such a comment from him, I would walk up to HR and complain that he was harassing me. That stopped his comments, but the guy had gotten under my skin and I had to use all of my will-power to not get into a heated argument with him at the slightest chance. My PI did not want to waste his time listening to me and was of the opinion that we should sort out our differences over coffee. Thankfully, another male post-doc joined the project and I strictly avoided any discussion with the older post-doc and was eventually able to not be affected by him. Each argument always left me feeling drained and helpless and I used to cry in frustration. However, in between all this I realized that he felt threatened by me and that gave me some satisfaction.

    Other times when I had disagreements over experiments and I would try to put across my point, I would get comments like “calm down, don’t get emotional, don’t get carried away”. And I would react with “I care about my work and I AM emotional about things I care about, so deal with it”.

    Now that I am an older post-doc, I hear complaints from female students about how a male colleague (again from the East) yells at them for trivial things. The students (not from the US, I feel American women are much more capable of dealing with such behavior. Once when a male collegue (from S.America) commented about the long legs of an American undergraduate student, she turned to the guy and looked him in the eye and said she thought that comment was inappropriate. The guy backed-off and apologized. This guy is a nice person, and meant the comment as a compliment. Again it shows how people in different cultures don’t understand the nuances of correct behavior and get in trouble) don’t want to bring it to the attention of the PI and are confused about how they should react. Many want to forget the episode and limit contact with the guy in question. I usually encourage them to report it to the PI and to tell the bully that they do not like to be talked to that way. One or two students have bravely confronted the bully, but most avoid him and this results in the bully feeling more powerful. I feel that each woman should learn to deal with these things as it is comfortable for them. If older women just listen and tell their younger colleagues about their options to deal with such things, younger women will feel more in control of themselves and learn to navigate such situations not feeling helpless and cornered.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      When I arrived from Israel as a postdoc at NIH, on my first day the lab was empty. When I asked where everyone was, I was told that the entire lab, postdocs, technicians, and PI, were all doing a course that explained sexual harassment and cultural differences. Aside from jokingly telling my friends back in Israel that this was what I did on my first day at work at the NIH, there is a serious lesson to be learned.

      This is back in 1998, and already there was an important awareness that different people from different cultures have varying ways of looking at things. However, the point was that this is the US–and different cultures are fine–as long as they do not breach the American codes for proper conduct (which at least on paper promote full equality and take a very strong stance against gender discrimination in any form).

      One may disagree with the issue of equality here–and argue that the existence of “beauty contests” and “cheerleaders” continue to interfere with the fight for true equality (and I agree with this, and think that women also need to fight against these horrific ways of perpetuating gender bias). Nonetheless, I think that imperative training for foreign and local students/postdocs/workers in science (and outside) would be very helpful to clarifying that this type of behavior described has no place in our society.

      • MGG says:

        Everyone in the US is told about harassment—but one needs to keep this in mind. In many Eastern countries, there are similar policies (in paper) to ensure that harassment does not take place. However, women are strongly discouraged from complaining about harassment and even if they complain, somehow in the end they fear that their character would be called into question. So for many non-American women in the US, all this lecture about harassment is confusing at best. Also, they turn to fellow-nationals and parents for advice when something happens and they are uasually adviced to not rock the boat, to bear it and finish their PhD or post-doc and get out of the place.

        There is also the opposite situation.

        There was this very attractive girl (from the East) who came into the lab for a rotation. She wore skimpy clothes which I thought were inappropriate for the work environment. She had a very distracting influence on the lab. Everytime she walked in, everyone’s eyes were on her. One day she came to me and was almost in tears when she described how she was stopped by some men in a car on the street and how they gestured to her and made obscene comments. She could not understand why she would get that treatment and wanted me to help her. It was hard for me (being older and not as attractive) to tell her what I thought was the reason for such treatment–that her inappropriate dress-sense was getting her in trouble. However, I explained it to her as best as I could (without sounding like moral police). I don’t think she got it as she continued to dress that way. I think I also told an older woman in administration and asked her for help.

        Later, she joined another lab and a male student from that lab mentioned the following conversation to me. It seems this particular girl had asked him what the secret to being successful in science was. He had told her that plunging necklines and rising hemlines were a sure pathway to success. He thought it was a great joke as she continued dressing this way. I was at loss as to what to say. I reprimanded the student that he shouldn’t have said that.

        In another place that I worked, there were guidelines as to appropriate clothing for work and all new people in the lab were given the guidelines. It clearly mentioned that if anyone wore inappropriate clothes to work, they could be asked to go home and change. At that time I thought those guidelines were a bit too restricting…..It is almost like Jenny’s complaints about lab-safety…what is a reasonable middle ground?

        I cannot comment on the intentions of this particular female student, but I feel that such behavior adds to the stereotypes that academic women have to deal with. I am sure that there are plenty of similar instances that others could quote.

        • gerty-z says:

          I don’t care what she was wearing, there is no excuse to catcall or assault a woman. Professional attire can be…tricky. Especially in a lab. As long as what she was wearing was not a safety hazard, then I think it is fine. Those who are “distracted” should get over it and grow up already.

  9. As ever, cultural differences come to the fore and add an additional layer of complexity. But there are some things that go beyond national norms. Continental Europeans who greet me with a peck on the cheek I’ve got used to. It doesn’t cause me offence, although I can never remember who is going to kiss me how many times, since this does vary between 1 and 3 as far as I can tell. I just try to be prepared! I also recall an American academic here who got very affronted when technical staff referred to her as ‘love’, and she had to have it explained that they meant nothing by it – same sort of unexpected cultural norm that can trip you up. But I think sleaze, as Dorothy put it, and deliberate attempts to bully and put down, as MGC describe, are a real problem. I think it sounds as if MGC has found a good way to deal with the ‘don’t get emotional’ response, though she doesn’t indicate whether it was a successful strategy. Jenny’s earlier remarks about her clothing being commented on, rather than her science (I’ve heard similar complaints expressed before) look like another clear attempt at a deliberate put-down, taking the conversation outside the professional context, rather than an innocent compliment. Maybe some of these people are gauche rather than ill-intentioned, not recognizing the need to differentiate between social and professional interactions, but some are definitely trying to exercise power to neutralise the woman – perhaps seeing her as a threat as MGC described.

    Thanks, Dorothy, for highlighting your post about Dylan Thomas. I hadn’t followed the fruit bat fellatio furore in any detail, but had tended to assume it was all part of an ongoing scientific debate, a view your post certainly questions. It’s all the more interesting for me as I’ve just signed up to take part in a debate at Hay (Howthelightgets in – the Philosophy Festival, rather than the simultaneous Literary one) on Commodification of the Body – with none other than Dylan Thomas, as well as Susie Orbach! Could be interesting….

    • MGG says:

      It was a successful strategy for me. Not that I did not hear that comment again from the same person, but I could simply dismiss it with “Like I said some time back, I care about my work, blah, blah, blah….” and continue the conversation, without getting affected at all. So that comment stopped working and the person stopped saying it.
      And personally, being emotional about something I care about is who I am, why should I apologize for it? By emotional, I don’t mean to burst into tears mid-sentence or anything like that– but more like a lawyer arguing in court–they don’t speak in constant robot-like monotones, but they speak forcefully-I would say emotionally. But nobody describes them as “emotional” in a bad way. So why use it that way on women?

  10. deevybee says:

    Dylan Evans, not Thomas! Though one wonders what Dylan Thomas would have made of it all.
    I should add, incidentally, that Evans won a claim against his university: see http://tinyurl.com/43nzaog

    • Whoops! I’m not going to be a very successful debater if I can’t even get his name right. I’m not sure if it counts as a Freudian slip that I implied I was debating with a long dead poet rather than someone interested in the sexual mores of fruit bats.

  11. stephenemoss says:

    It seems the onus here should be on men to learn how to behave properly, rather than for women to have to devise strategies for responding to male transgressions. I think the various suggestions for how you might have reacted are reasonable, but it’s doubtful whether there exists a generic fits-all solution to deal with the unexpected situations of the type you describe.

  12. Katielase says:

    I think it’s fantastic that a senior professional woman is prepared to stand up and say that she is unhappy with this situation. This should be the norm, everytime something like this happens to a woman, she should feel comfortable standing up and saying that it is unacceptable, and the fact is that she isn’t. I think women are worried about being labeled as “hysterical”, “bitchy” or “emotional”, but the fact that women have this concern in the first place is an indictment of the system. Hysteria is a commonly misused and misunderstood concept, bitchiness is not a uniquely female trait and is also often misapplied, emotion is normal for both men and women, so why are these traits applied negatively to one gender and not the other?

    In addition, I don’t believe Athene is lacking resilience because she was stunned by the “getting emotional” comment. It reads as a deliberate attempt to undermine her position in the debate, which I imagine came as a shock, and you can note that she didn’t eventually lose the debate, so she was clearly resilent enough to persist with her point of view.

    “Getting emotional” shouldn’t necessarily be a negative comment, but when used against a woman it almost invariably is. Both Athene and her colleague were probably angry when he accused her of getting emotional, the difference is that he implied that her anger was making her unable to continue discussing the point in a rational manner. The fact is that strong emotion can affect rationality, but that is in no way a uniquely female trait and the implication that it is is undermining to women everywhere.

    Well done Athene, for standing up and saying this. I hope this proves an inspiration to many other women in your situation, and that one day this behaviour can be treated as unacceptable.

    • chall says:

      ““Getting emotional” shouldn’t necessarily be a negative comment, but when used against a woman it almost invariably is”

      I thought the same thing reading it… that “emotional” when directed at women makes me remember the whole “hysteria – women” link and that it somehow makes women weaker to have emotions (as tears me thinks?) whereas anger is an action emotion and therefore male and acceptable.

      Ah well, it might be too ingrained in me – the feministic analysis?!

  13. Julie Calder says:

    Hello Athene!
    I personally don’t have a problem if people put their arms around me (male or female) when we’re having our photo taken, but if you feel uncomfortable with this you should feel perfectly entitled to explain firmly and clearly that you would prefer not to be ’embraced’ in this manner,

    To my mind I feel that women have ‘two strings’ to their bow as it were. We can appeal to people with our looks and our figures, but more importantly with our mind and our intellect! And I love your comment about ‘and now you’re starting to get angry’ as a retort to ‘and now you’re getting emotional’ – I will definitely use that in future!!

    The real reason why I decided to contact you is to do with your studies on Alzheimer’s patients. Do you also look at the brains of MS sufferers? And would this involve using MRI scanners by any chance? If so, I would be very honoured if you would contact me by email so that we can discuss this further.
    Yours sincerely
    Dr Julie Calder

    • Cara says:

      To my mind I feel that women have ‘two strings’ to their bow as it were. We can appeal to people with our looks and our figures, but more importantly with our mind and our intellect!

      Note the use of “people” to mean “straight men”.

  14. Ciarán says:

    There has been a lot of interesting comment here, which I couldn’t possibly hope to better, so I will return to the plea of the last line of the original post – suitable put-downs. As one who, not only would be more likely to give, rather than receive, this type of treatment (for I am a man), and also as one who neither suffer fools gladly, nor ever steps back easily from an argument or slagging match of any kind, and also as a psychologist, I think I might be well-positioned to give such advice.

    You have been accused of being emotional. It is going to be difficult to convince this person that you are not being emotional, regardless of what strategy you use. Any response which gives this statement ‘you are being emotional’ any degree of credibility is putting you on the backfoot, meaning you are essentially losing. In military terms, it’s ceding territory.

    So you have two options. One is to cede even more territory, and draw your opponent into a trap; the other is to cede no territory at all, and to outflank. The former is more difficult, more manipulative, but a lot more satisfying. The latter, which some of the above suggestions have alluded to, but not really nailed, is difficult enough, but more polite.

    I’ll explain the basic principle of the first one, which, as I say, somewhat devilish. Your opponent says you are getting emotional. Then get emotional. Raise the tone of your voice. Drop to a whisper. Trail off. Then hang up. When they ring back, start crying and hang up. (Note: no matter how much of a ‘man’ this man is, he won’t be able to handle this. Guaranteed. It’d work on me.) Hang up again, acting confused and distraught. Then simply be ready for him. If he rings back a third time, or calls over to your office, be completely composed, let him apologise, look him in the eye and say ‘Gotcha’.

    The acting part is easy, but you have to know when to stop drawing him out – otherwise it can get out of control. Half an hour of this treatment maximum – this is very important. It’s best if he realises himself that you have been playing with him – if you still have him on the phone and are able to pull off crying (without laughing!) come out with something ridiculous so that he will twig it. Anything along the lines of arson, suicide or murder will probably do the trick. Be ready for when he asks if you are winding him up to be able to respond deadpan.

    Then simply inform him of all the comments about dignity which were said above. Conclude by telling him that if he wants to play emotional blackmail again in the future, that he should think twice. But hang up as soon as possible – don’t get into an argument. He will have gotten quite emotional by now and if he’s not a good sport, he will want to continue – last word wins.

    That’s one way of responding, which is using one female archetype which most men can’t deal with – the crazy girlfriend. There is another one, and in this case it can be used as an outflanking manoevre. You are accused of being emotional. You may well be tempted to responded to this sarcastically, and you should, but you should also invoke the mother archetype as soon as possible. You outflank, by taking the higher ground, by talking down to them. ‘Now why would you think that? And why would I be getting emotional? Oh very good.’ It might be stretching it a bit to ask them what their mothers would think of them speaking like this, or talking to a lady like that, but it will get their back up straight away.

    As soon as they either deny something, or speak either faster, or at a higher pitch, you can simply say ‘Now I can hear that you are getting upset, perhaps you should call me back when you’ve had a chance to calm down’ said as patronisingly as possible, and then hang up.

    The reason why this will work better than simply throwing ‘and I can hear you’re getting angry’ straightaway, as you have mentioned, is because to do that is an emotional response. On the contrary, to deliberately work at making him angrier (and more emotional) is a rational, calculating response, which is why it wins.

    These types of responses work best with the ’emotionality’ accusation. For the inappropriate hands, you could either return the favour ten times over by hugging and squeezing him all over (crazy girlfriend) or smack his hand like he’s a naughty boy (mother). Either will be tricky, because of your position, and depending on the situation. Not breaking eye-contact is most crucial.

    Of course this is all very psychologically manipulative, but the simple bottom line is if you respond emotionally, regardless of whether you are right or not, you’ve lost the argument (unless you’ve held onto the high moral ground). The basic way to win is to stay calm and speak slowly and rationally, and try to return the focus of the conversation onto your opponent.

    Also, to anyone reading this and thinking about using this material other than how it is intendend (as a line of defence against bullies), do bear in mind that if you play emotional games with people, they are extremely likely to return the favour at some point in the future.

    For more information see:
    Robert Cialdini’s ‘Persuasion’
    Robert Green’s ‘The Forty-Eight Laws of Power’
    Niccolo Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’
    Arthur Schopenhauer’s ‘The Art of Always Being Right’
    Sun-Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’

  15. stephenemoss says:

    Your comments are interesting but is your solution practical? Is it really necessary to spend half an hour raising the emotional tension in an elaborate and frankly manipulative mind game? I imagine most people (male or female) would need more than just a moment to gather their thoughts before embarking on such a complicated strategy. Would Athene be able to launch her response instantaneously, or would she have to say “Please hold, your call is important to me, and I will respond shortly”. I stick to my earlier (if optimistic suggestion) that the onus is on men to change their ways, and not for women to have seek advice from Machiavelli.

    • Ciarán says:

      I read this blog post a few days ago, thought about it, and came back with what I know would put me in my place. I don’t regard this approach as particularly pleasant, but it’s better to stand up against a bully than take it lying down. I simply intended to answer the call for suggestions, and appropriate put-downs, and as Athene asks, ‘not letting men have it all their own way’.

      Of course the onus is on men to change, but that hope won’t be much good in a specific situation like the ones mentioned. Plus, there are any number of approaches which could be used to educate men in the workplace, about latent chauvinism and appropriacy, which may well work in the long run, but in a single instance, for an individual, I think taking a shot like this, especially the less complicated patronising/sarcastic route, will be a good defence, which I believe the OP was about.

  16. Uta Frith says:

    Aren’t we all sitting in the glasshouse? That is why I am for forgive and forget. I don’t think we want to escalate a war of the genders. In fact, can’t we leave gender out of this debate? Even the best of us, just like our collaborators and competitors, make upsetting remarks from time to time. And regret them afterwards. Remember Emma? This also applies to clever retorts, as these are even more upsetting. The tit-for-tat strategy is commonly adopted, so social psychologists say, but the tit-for-2tats is better. Because this bit of forgiveness – together with politeness – provides some of the much needed oil for the machinery of social interaction.

    • Cara says:

      No. Gender is part of the “debate”. It’s the reason these ridiculous put-downs are used in the first place–to keep women aware that we’re in the workforce on sufferance.

  17. Ursula Martin says:

    One very firm response to the “getting emotional”, if you chose to address it rather than letting it go by, is not only to say “I don’t find this a professional way to engage ” or similar, but also to add “and I am now taping this conversation” or “if you continue I will …”. (easily done on an iphone).

  18. Austin says:

    I’d be tempted to go for something like:

    “I’m not getting emotional – I’m getting exasperated. Emotional would be if I threw something at you, or bit you on the leg.”

  19. Athene, thank you for raising this subject. It seems to me that between your post and the comments there are examples of three situations. First, situations in which the person giving offence did not realise that their actions were inappropriate either through cultural differences or through poor mentoring or poor role models. Second, situations in which the person giving offence really should have been able to work out that their actions were inappropriate – if you would not treat a male colleague that way in a professional setting then it is inappropriate. Third, people who are accustomed to a combative culture for whom it is second nature to probe for other people’s vulnerabilities and exploit them. In an ideal world, the first and second type of situations could be dealt with by the person offended simply saying ‘I don’t think that is an appropriate remark/behaviour’ and the person responsible apologising. Unfortunately, all too often what happens is that mentioning that we find something inappropriate is taken as an invitation to lecture us on how we should be less sensitive, more-broad-minded or develop a sense of humour and in any case other women have not objected. People with managerial responsibility need to be willing to tell their staff and students that they expect that anyone who feels uncomfortable with someone’s remarks or bevaviour is able to say so and that the correct response is not to get defensive but to simply apologise and stop doing whatever was causing a problem. We should not leave establishing standards of behaviour to trial and error. The third situation is more difficult. If people have spent most of their lives in a combative environment it is very hard to change their behaviour. Unfortunately, this sort of environment leads to tolerance of bullying and harassment. I think how how one deals with any particular situation depends on the context and what one is trying to achieve. The only way I can see of dealing with the underlying culture is for there to be more open discussion of what is and is not acceptable behaviour in the workplace. I hope the discussion initiated here continues.

  20. Hey, I am so glad that pretty much everyone else has this problem, I spend far too much time after the event thinking of the really clever put down that I should have said!

    In my fantasy moments, my responses are usually humorous instead of withering, as I think in the end that is more effective at showing (a) it has not affected you and (b) highlighting the behaviour in sharp relief. It is also deliciously patronising and superior to be able to rise above such a thing with humour. In response to the first, maybe something along the lines of an airy laugh, and ‘that’s a bit neanderthal in this day and age, accusing me of being emotional George, perhaps you might like to express yourself differently?’

    In response to the second, perhaps a withering look a raised eyebrow, and a comment as you firmly disengage with a smile that this is for the Natural History Museum In house newsletter (or whatever) not Hello magazine.

    However, as I keep telling my 10 year old son, every minute spent simmering over some perceived injustice or the bad behaviour of another person is a minute which you have given to them of your precious time. It could be much better spent having fun or doing something positive with the experience. I am getting there now, but I wish I had been able to when I was younger. I wish my husband would to, he spends WAY too long, like years, donating his time and mind to someone else!

    • “In my fantasy moments, my responses are usually humorous instead of withering, as I think in the end that is more effective at showing (a) it has not affected you and (b) highlighting the behaviour in sharp relief. It is also deliciously patronising and superior to be able to rise above such a thing with humour.”

      I think that was the idea of my suggested line above – which, BTW, I would be delighted if anyone adopted for use. Obviously as a man I will have limited opportunities to employ it myself, though I have probably said slightly analogous things in “heated” discussions. I guess you could follow it up with “Do you really think you would have said what you just said to another man? Honestly?”

      I think Athene is right that such obvious assumptions and labelling (women/emotional) should be challenged, but doing it in a way that doesn’t cause escalating confrontation and permanent communication breakdown is the trick. I’m a great believer in humour as a way to do this as (again, analogizing) it potentially defuses the situation somewhat, while at the same time enabling the serious point to be made.

  21. This has certainly produced some interesting ideas and responses. However, I suppose what it has shown to me is that only a handful of them could I possibly use, being the person I am. Each of us will have our own style, but it’s good to know the full menu, as it were. I cannot imagine biting, kicking or playing the crazy girlfriend. I value my dignity too much! Being Machiavellian in the way Ciaran proposes and taking half an hour over it seems unimaginable in a normal day-to-day situation with people I may need to go on interacting with. This seems to be to be half the problem. People you may never see again – like the complete stranger whose arm suddenly encircled my waist – are annoying but on the whole irrelevant. I may feel angry that someone believes such behaviour is appropriate but at the end of the day I can walk away (although possibly leaving them to strike again another day, without having thought twice about their actions). But the person who behaves inappropriately but you have an ongoing interaction with is more worrying. Going crazy only gives them ammunition for the future I’m afraid, Ciaran, at least in the circles I move. But forgiving, as Uta proposes, is also not going to move things forward. I am all in favour of apologising for words said in the heat of the moment, we all are capable of saying things we subsequently regret. But if behaviour is coldly calculated and intended as a put-down, something needs to be done. As Esther says, context is all. Austin’s answer does seem to me to be sufficient, possibly being (briefly) sarcastic may work too. In some senses I suppose I want above all to get the message across to them not to play games and bully; in other words to thing twice about putting women down in this way again. I think I also feel that, now having acquired some status of my own, I am in a good position to challenge the behaviour in a way I would have thought inconceivable when setting out in academia – if only I could work out strategies I could both deliver and which were effective. Nevertheless, there is always the risk of being written off as hysterical, and (again Esther is spot-on) as needing to develop a sense of humour. It is very hard to do anything that won’t backfire on future interactions. It is a total bind. So roll on the day when this minority group of men have woken up to their own emotional (intelligence) failings.

  22. chall says:

    Athene, thank you for the post. It’s interesting to read other’s experiences and thoughts on this subject. I have ended up with the “sarcasm”/humour comments approach, since I’ve realised that if I get too upset (quietly) I get real angry and nothing good comes out of that… I guess it would be similar to opening the vent a little instead of exploding!? ^^ Then again, depending on the situation I have had a quiet shocked moment and been annoyed afterwards that I didn’t manage something witty since it was such an odd conversation/situation.

  23. mrr says:

    Finally, I find a place to discuss about gender issues within a department!
    First of all, I would like to make clear that I belong to the kissy-touchy southern European culture and therefore, the hand around my waist for having a picture taken, is something I consider normal, not sexist at all, as I would also do that with a man. However, I would definitely find it strange coming from certain circles. Let me explain.
    My origins have also brought onto me the whole ´you are emotional-hysterical all over the place´ speech far too many times for the mere reason that I use my hands to express myself.
    Being emotional, something I consider a skill rather than a fault, I guess the majority agrees that it induces mixed feelings in most men. But have you wonder why? In my opinion, those who feel “threatened” by women´s emotions suffer from a chronic problem, that is a woman is in their eyes a reminder of their own physiological condition, something that seems to haunt them through their lifes. As an example, some of my colleagues have in various occasions made remarks in a jokingly way about how I like man from a certain nationality simply because I study that nation´s language. I realise this may seem totally inappropiate so far, but they are friendly colleagues who just don´t know when to shut up on time. Nobody is perfect.
    My analysis of the situation is even simplier if possible, unfortunately falling into stereotypes. These colleagues (heterosexuals) happen to have had some relationship problems lately and they redirect their manlihood towards the woman they feel is open to them, i.e. me. The problem arises when they realise that my open friendliness is just that, friendliness. As I mentioned before, people seem to be misguided by my hand gestures and at this point is when I generalise. Different cultures, different attitudes towards tones of voices and human contact of any kind.
    So stamping on discriminatory behaviour? Yes, always.
    Reacting straight away in a defensive manner? No, never. Think about the situation twice and assess it before acting. That is how, I believe, you prove your intelligence whether man or woman.
    Being emotional? Yes, it is a virtue to be able to feel. It helps you to learn faster too.

  24. Esther Haines has recently posted her own thoughts about inappropriate behaviour on her blog which readers may find interesting. Her emphasis is on what institutions might be able to do to facilitate awareness of what may be deemed to be inappropriate, as well as considering some of the broader issues.

  25. gerty-z says:

    What a great post! I’m sorry that I’m so late to the game. Thank you for writing about this subject. It is great to see a tenured female standing up against these situations. It is too easy to let these types of things “slide”, but I don’t think we can expect to see any of these behaviors go away unless someone brings attention to them.

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