For many of us, months of relative isolation have meant insular living, interacting for the most part with like-minded friends or family, working remotely, not experiencing those day-to-day meetings with people we would normally see in our work or social life. In some ways, this made life simpler, always on reasonably sure ground. No need to be on guard for words that would jar our sensibilities.
But when we are able to rejoin the wider world, will we listen with renewed apprehension, aware of how polarized and partisan society has become? Have we developed new defenses? Should we?
I think back to an experience described by a friend some years ago when he found himself at a loss for words.
Here’s the story: he met a colleague for lunch (who we will call Sam), who had just come from a business meeting where an important matter was being negotiated. The only woman at the table raised serious questions about a position Sam had taken, and his anger, though controlled, had flared.
Afterward, as both men slid into the restaurant booth, Sam remarked, “These lesbians can be relentless,” with a jocular, if you know what I mean grin. My friend was silent. They ordered lunch and the discussion shifted. The derisive comment was allowed to simply evaporate without rejoinder.
But my friend’s discomfort did not evaporate. Weeks later, he and I sat talking and wondering how he might have (and should have) countered that remark. We both have friends, colleagues and family members who are gay or lesbian and we were offended and angered revisiting that restaurant scene. Yet, we were at a loss for words that he might have spoken in response.
Oh, we had no trouble designing cutting insults that would have embarrassed Sam or labeled him a bigot. But Sam was someone with whom my friend would continue to work. And even if he were not, an aggressive remark that would have added to the discomfort of the moment was not in my friend’s repertoire. Yet by remaining silent he felt he had lacked courage and been defeated.
If the goal is to raise consciousness, or simply to be sincere and forthcoming, then surely confronting or demeaning would likely harden beliefs and enhance a defensive posture. Another approach is needed.
I took a survey of sorts, asked some friends how they would respond to an ugly remark, a pejorative identity statement. None could offer a rejoinder that worked, at least from my perspective. Most had experienced similar conversations and also remained silent, at best making their point by walking away if the setting allowed.
I realize that in a situation like this, I would feel defensive. Remaining silent, I’d start to see the other person as an adversary from whom, going forward, I would hide vital information about myself and thereby build an emotional barrier. What might have been a valued relationship is significantly harmed.
After much thought and some reading (including the fine book Taking the War Out of Our Words by Sharon Strand Ellison), I’ve decided on an approach I think is sound. A bigoted or otherwise troubling remark can be addressed with a non-defensive question, one that simply seeks further exploration of the person’s meaning. The question must express genuine curiosity and be non-accusatory. And it must be asked in an open, noncritical tone, an inflection that sincerely invites a thoughtful response, like, “Sam, tell me why you think that’s so.”
Even if he responds in the same disparaging vein, at least a conversation has begun, and the way is open to a sharing of experience and knowledge. Expressing genuine curiosity would appear to be the key.
On the other hand, Sam might simply answer, “I guess that was a pretty crude remark on my part.” Then, a simple, “yes” in response might suffice, with perhaps a smile as well. The message is delivered, viewpoints made clear, defenses relaxed. Now a conversation can ensue.