There are a lot of choices that a person makes in their life before deciding to invite a new acquaintance to a hotel room, and greet them wearing only a bathrobe.
As professional, working individuals, one of the best things we can do is to start calling out those earlier behaviors or actions when they happen, in real time. If you are made to feel uncomfortable, you need to stick up for yourself and say something. And we need to cultivate an environment where it’s okay for anyone to say it.
Things like — inviting a professional contact to a “work happy hour” (that’s actually just a date), or hitting on somebody while they are manning the booth at a tech trade show, or having the contract photographer hired for your office make inappropriate comments about your dress, or making assumptive comments to your face about how you “don’t look like the kind of person who would work in this industry,” or referring to you in endearing terms like “honey” or “darling” or “dear” or anything else you do not want to be called — are all slippery slope behaviors.
All of these things have happened to me over the years. And when they do, I don’t like to let these little micro-aggressions slide by. I call them out. Whenever possible, face to face.
Of course, the onus is on the harasser to be able to recognize and ultimately stop that behavior. But we aren’t born with a perfect understanding of how to relate to the biases and social cues in our culture. Behaviors are learned, not built-in. And just like learning anything new, it takes practice to get it right.
I’m not going to lie, calling out people is hard for me. And it’s certainly something I actively avoided the first few times that incidents like this happened. But the older I get, the more confident I become over the quick interruption and polite: “Hey, I’d prefer you don’t do that here.”
It’s a constant work in progress.
Sometimes (if I’m lucky) and this incident happens within earshot of somebody else, they call it out for me. Even one comment from a male peer like, “Dude, you can’t say that” really goes a long way. As bystanders to incidents like this, it’s also our obligation to call this out. (And by the way, when this happens, thank that person.)
But even if I am alone, I try my best to find a way to communicate my discomfort. Since I don’t like direct conflict, I prefer to communicate in writing first, to get my thoughts on paper, and have a bit more control over how they come across. So I use this to my advantage and use emails a lot to help me with this.
The day after the “fake out” office happy hour turned date, I sent a note to that individual and mentioned that I found it entirely inappropriate to use a professional event as a ruse to actually just have me join them for a private drink at a local bar. The week after a big tech conference where my colleagues and myself were harassed on the expo floor, I emailed the conference organizers and explained how their event attendees should absolutely never “stalk” women working at booths or make verbal comments likening marketing associates passing out startup promo codes to scantily-clad women passing out “calling cards” for Vegas Strip clubs.
Yes, there can be a downside to this. Sometimes you annoy people. Sometimes people think you’re uptight. I’m fine with that. I don’t work as hard as I do so that people think of me as the most fun person in the world. And in professional contexts, I don’t expect (or want) everybody to be my best friend.
And at the end of the day, that small downside risk is miniscule compared to the upside — knowing that maybe your calling out that one action gave that individual enough pause to not say something stupid the next time. Maybe they will think twice about whatever unconscious bias snap judgement they made.
As humans, we need feedback to learn. This is a natural part of any change process. It’s how we grow.
If we fail to give feedback to those around us when their behaviors contribute to moments that make us uncomfortable, we silently allow these norms to persist.
So if you see something, say something. And if somebody says something to you, don’t clench up and get immediately defensive. Don’t try to rationalize or explain your behavior. Don’t assume that somebody was misinterpreting your actions or skewing your words or out to get you. Just take a deep breath, and will yourself to stay quiet for a few extra seconds.
If somebody tells you that you did something that made them uncomfortable, here’s the only response you need: “I’m sorry. Thank you for that feedback.”
It doesn’t matter who you are or where you work or what you look like. By modeling good behaviors on both sides, we can normalize this important social feedback loop for each other.
Let’s all work together to be smarter, braver, and more direct in giving (and receiving) feedback to each other as we get through this phase together. This is how we will bring about collective change for the better.