Setting boundaries in 15 words or less

// 21 December 2009

What do you do when someone says something sexist – or equally when someone says something racist, transphobic, homophobic, etc? In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to find the right words to call someone out.

ZorraThinkTank linked on Twitter to this post which has some ideas for “setting boundaries in 15 words or less”, over at Stop Sexist Remarks – a blog which is new to me, but looks like it’s full of useful stuff like this.

Here are some of their suggestions for what to say in these circumstances:

  1. “What do you mean by that?”
  2. “Do you really think that?”
  3. “It doesn’t seem like you to say something like that.”
  4. “No, I don’t think about it that way.”
  5. “I don’t find that funny.”
  6. “That doesn’t sound nice to me.”
  7. “Would you want to have that said to/about your wife, daughter, or sister?”
  8. “I would rather not talk that way about women.”
  9. “I don’t like to think about women that way.”
  10. “That type of remark about women makes me uncomfortable.”
  11. “I’m sure you don’t realize it, but that comment sounds like a put-down of women.”
  12. “Wow, I didn’t know you felt that way about women.”
  13. “That sounds sexist. Is that what you intended?”

Some of these I agree with, some I’m not so sure would work, but some good ideas there too. I also really recommend Carmen Van Kerckhove’s suggestions on how to respond to a racist joke in the workplace.

The blogger at Stop Sexist Remarks goes on to say:

A book I recently read, Encountering Bigotry, refers to sexist, racist, and homophobic remarks as “invitations.” The authors write that “an invitation is a call to participate in something, whether it is an invitation to a wedding or an invitation to laugh at a joke. The listener is forced to respond in some way.” When people make sexist remarks, they are inviting us to cross a boundary into their world, one in which women are perceived as less than equal.

A simple declaration that addresses sexism helps spread an alternative vision of the world, one where people are judged on character, not on gender. Sharing that vision is a gift to those around us—both those who know that equality is the better path, and those clinging to old ways of thinking.

Comments From You

nick // Posted 21 December 2009 at 1:20 pm

Yep , sounds good …..

I would change the comments depending who made them

ie no 8 …

‘ I would rather not talk that way about men’ .

women say things about men which are not very nice as well …..

sexism works both ways ……

Rita // Posted 21 December 2009 at 2:39 pm

I might need some of those quotes. Coz sometimes i find it really frustrating especially when racist remarks are made and i tend to go into an abusive rant. But i know sometimes it is a frstration coming from the realisation that some people say things deliberately to hurt and do not want to see it any other way and would rather have it that way. Anyone who engages in a further discussion is usually not that bad and because they are open to learning.

Josie // Posted 21 December 2009 at 3:20 pm

Thank you so much for this and it couldn’t have come at a better time for me…. At a Xmas drinks party last week, the conversation turned to George Michael on X Factor. Some people said they were fans of his, others said they couldn’t stand him, one person said ‘well, he’s queer anyway”. Cue my jaw hitting the floor…. All I could think of to say was ‘And?’, which was met with ‘well, it’s not natural, is it?’ said in a ‘light-hearted-but-still-seriously-meant’ fashion. I have to say I was equally disgusted by the other 3 colleagues who heard this comment and all found something very interesting to look at on the floor at the exact same moment…

I felt really torn between pulling someone up on a disgusting remark, and not wanting to mark myself out as the office reactionary (I do have to continue working with this bigot, unfortunately), especially since it seemed no support would be forthcoming from the other colleagues. I feel my response was really weak, but hopefully next time (and I’m fairly sure there will be a next time) I’ll have some useful lines at my disposal! Much as I feel that no-one that bigoted is going to have their mind changed by me or anyone else, I also feel that there is no excuse for staying silent in a situation where someone is spreading pure hate.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 21 December 2009 at 4:57 pm

I agree with Josie here in that one of the assumptions in all these reponses is that the person telling the joke had no intention of being sexist, racist, homophobic etc or at least didn’t think it was sexist or racist etc enough to be offensive. Whereas I find that most sexist and racist jokes are said in the context of being ‘shocking’- the bigotry is at the heart of the joke. We are all supposed to be scandalised that it was said, which is why it is [supposed to be] funny.

And none of these reponses really deals with this- and in fact the power politics inherent in that sort of humour are really quite complex. How do you explain that knowingly being sexist is still sexist in less than fifteen words? And, ‘not getting the joke’ in this context is especially likely to get the response that feminists don’t have a sense of humour! Groan.

Furthermore, while racism or perhaps sexism are seen as unnacceptable ‘isms’- so you can point out the inherent problem in a joke- if the person is actually racist or sexist (or perhaps more commonly admitted to- in that some people still don’t think this is wrong) homophobic, then they don’t care that there is a problem there anyway. Pointing out that it is homophobic does not shame a person who is homophobic (which I think is at the heart of many of the strategies suggested).

Having said this, I think the bloggers are right that we are offered an invitation and we need to respond in feminist ways and in certain contexts these may well be appropriate and useful responses.

Kez // Posted 21 December 2009 at 10:34 pm

Some good suggestions there.

What really annoys me, though, is when you do say something back, and the person then goes “Ha! Knew that would get you going!” or similar, and feels all smug about having got a rise out of you. As if making a crass remark deliberately in order to wind people up, and supposedly as a big hilarious joke, somehow makes it all OK.

Jess McCabe // Posted 21 December 2009 at 11:11 pm

@Kez I feel like the key is keeping totally calm and unphased on the surface … easier said than done though!

Rita // Posted 21 December 2009 at 11:37 pm

@ Kez, sommetimes they reply in that manner because someone has onfronted them about it and have to get out of it without looking and feeling dumb. So. they turn it round on whoever pulled them out on it and they actually believe what they say. It is the mind games people like to play to see who is on side, so they can always have someone to do it with. I have witnessed this many a time, and once they get someone on side, whoever thinks different becomes a minority and a target of bullying. Which is sad.

Kelly // Posted 22 December 2009 at 12:00 am

My housemate was reeling rape jokes off some ‘sick’ site and I just sat there stone- faced and emphatically sighing. No one was laughing but he kept going on. He knew most of us were feminists. I think they prefer it when their audiences go quiet. They know they’re getting a rise without any chances of conflict. If they want an argument then give them one. They get the right message when you do what I did, and promise never to do again in retrospect.

I think actually saying something is better – sometimes it takes them back if said in a somber enough way, if you try to be the normal one. Face it if enough people got into the habit of speaking out in a normal way, sexist humour wouldn’t exist.

If it’s a war they want to make sexism tolerated, it’s a war they’ll get, but the offended need to speak out. Like the people sitting there not feminists but shocked, who choose to smile and ignore it. They should speak out.

If not we turn into a nation where vindictiveness is the norm in comedy, people like Frankie Boyle being tolerated, spurning bitter hatred of women with every joke as saturday entertainment.

sokari // Posted 22 December 2009 at 1:42 am

You have to simply tell the person 1) whatever you might think or feel “I” find that comment offensive 2) please do not speak like that around me. Refuse to discuss 1 & 2 as that will lead to justifications etc etc. I find it works – you have to be firm.

saranga // Posted 22 December 2009 at 9:38 am

I think sokari’s suggestion works – I have used that myself in the past, usually when people (friends) use words like slut or slag, and now they don’t use them.

I’m not sure how well it would work on a stranger though..

Jess McCabe // Posted 22 December 2009 at 10:24 am

@sokari I’ll have to try that one. I usually get caught up in explaining why what they said was offensive.

gadgetgal // Posted 22 December 2009 at 10:28 am

Sometimes I’ll lay into people if I think they’re being deliberately offensive to get a rise out of me (because I don’t care and it publicly shames them if you do) but mostly my response is this:

1. One of my friends/colleagues tells a joke

2. I lean forward as they’re telling it, turning my head slightly to one side as though I can’t hear it very well

3. When they finish, I lean back, making sure my face gets a more and more disbelieving facial expression as I go (kind of like I’m aware it’s crap, but I don’t know how to tell the person who told it)

4. I look them in the face without laughing and say something like “Oh – very good…” or “wow – another corker…”(again, dart your eyes round like some kind of uncomfortable Ben Stiller moment from a movie)

5. I then look at other people with that disbelieving expression, sometimes shaking my head as I do it – this then brings them into the joke, which has now completely turned around and everyone will start laughing at the joker, not the joke (I let myself have a bit of a giggle at this point – it’s ok since the joke is no longer the offensive piece of crap they’ve come up with but the idiot who said it in the first place)

Sarcastic, yes, a little mean, true – but also highly effective, and no one ever accuses me afterwards of taking offense easily.

I think the direct approach can be good in some circumstances (like if the person isn’t aware that what they’re saying is offensive), but as Feminist Avatar pointed out there are a myriad of other issues when you do it, a lot of which are to do with the person telling the joke deliberately trying to be offensive in the first place, and actually believing what they say.

This is going to sound dismissive and horrible, and I know we’re talking humans, but I sometimes think of it in the same way I do when I train my cats. They can’t understand me telling them to do things – they speak cat, not human. So I just do things repetitively to get them to start doing what I want – if they’re not using the litter tray I say “no” pick them up, put them in it, move their paws in the gravel, and eventually they learn that that’s where they go. I have done a similar thing with certain people making offensive comments around me at work – subtly belittle them each time they do, and you may not change their personal opinion, but you’ll eventually get them to shut up, which then leads to other people not being swayed unfairly towards their opinion because they don’t hear the jokes!

Kit // Posted 22 December 2009 at 11:40 am

wow gadgetgal, I wish I worked with you :) I’d love to see that kind of response in action where I work.

I don’t know how effective any of those other responses would be in a situation where people have moved on to deliberately saying offensive things to get a rise out of you. I tend to go with just ignoring it and not giving them the satisfaction of a reaction when they say something sexist (but I still end up stewing in anger for a good while so it doesn’t really help any), if it’s something else I call them on it.

Mobot // Posted 23 December 2009 at 11:15 am

@gadgetgal – good call, I think your strategy might work better in the context of offensive jokes that I usually come across.

The ‘pointing out what’s wrong with this picture’ idea only works, imo, if so many people engage in it that it becomes more of a risk/pain in the ass to even bother telling bigoted ‘jokes’. Without this being commonplace enough, I think sadly it just reinforces all the crap about ‘over-sensitive’ feminists with no sense of humour.

Friends (perhaps that should read ‘friends’) of mine used to mercilessly wind me up because I’d fly into a rage, apparently proving that I was irrational after all and not to be listened to. I’ve chilled out a lot (and given due consideration to who I spend time with) and find that, while everyone around me knows where I stand, my former tormentors feel less inclined to bait me as they know they’re less likely to get an ‘amusingly’ angry reaction.

Jess McCabe // Posted 23 December 2009 at 11:38 am

@Mobot My experience is there can be some use to interjecting, even if you are the only one doing so. The reaction may be defensive and annoying, but if nothing gets said, then the notion that whatever was said was acceptable and ‘no-one’ finds it offensive just gets magnified. Obviously we can’t fight every battle, and sometimes it’s just not worth the time and energy to engage of course…

I try not to worry too much about being labelled over sensitive – it’s just a defensive reaction to being called out IMO, and now I tend to expect it; people are not going to be all ‘oh yeah, you’re right, I was being an arse’ – at least 90% of the time. Particularly if they’re reacting in the moment, in front of a group of people. So, the easiest rebuttal is to say you’re being oversensitive, much easier than admitting they actually are being sexist (or racist, homophobic, etc, whatever applies in a particular case).

In some circumstances this is easier than others, but a strategy that has worked for me is that I refuse to get riled up – or at least refuse to show I’m angry/upset, and just keep as calm as possible on the surface. Especially in a workplace situation, that can be good. I’ve used Carmen’s tactics (linked in the post) a couple of times when it’s been humour-related, and that’s worked pretty well.

polly // Posted 23 December 2009 at 1:17 pm

I think the point is that not every approach works in every situation. In the workplace for example, if someone is really being offensive, it’s probably better to talk to that person, or their manager if they’re really bad, in private about it. Being sarcastic or trying to make a joke back isn’t a good idea tactically, because if it ever comes to the point where you need to make a formal complaint, it could be used against you.

gadgetgal // Posted 23 December 2009 at 1:31 pm

I agree with the comments here – a calm demeanor is the key, whichever tactics you use to counter these “jokes” – it’s unfair but sadly true that you always get taken less seriously if you get riled up before doing anything! And whether pointing out why a joke isn’t funny is your thing, or trying to out-funny the joker is, the main thing is to at least try and do something (if you can – it’s not necessarily something everyone can do depending upon where you work and who you work with).

Mobot // Posted 23 December 2009 at 4:20 pm

Hmmm. Read my comment over again and think it comes across like ‘there’s no point in reacting’. This isn’t *quite* what I mean – Jess, I think you’ve basically nailed it in saying that not getting worked up is the key. That’s often really hard (especially if you’re going out on your own and everyone else is being dismissive).

In my work with young people, I have a reputation for calling them – gently, for the most part – every time they use discriminatory language. This is really to give them the opportunity to think about the context of what they’re saying. I don’t tend to get worked up over their reactions, but with adults I seem to take things much more personally! And people make a big fuss about being ‘lectured’ so it comes down to reacting in a more light-hearted or at least calm manner. When there’s already popular belief that having an opinion about these things equates to ‘getting on your high horse’ or being part of the ‘PC brigade’, it’s a difficult balance between letting things go (and therefore colluding) and excluding people from dialogue by ‘preaching’ at them.

Kelly // Posted 23 December 2009 at 6:00 pm

I don’t agree with ‘not saying anything’, that’s what they enjoy and expect, and why sexists get away with so much. It’s just about being tactful with showing your opinion to be the majority view – and being consistent.

I find a good emphatic cough powerful. If they ask ‘Did I offend you?’ Just say, ‘No, needed to cough.’ and act like you don’t know what’s wrong. But keep rudely sharply coughing every time they tell the joke.

The above also works if you’re brave enough with comedians. A cough isn’t enough for them to pick you out… but it’s annoying and a safe heckle if clearly empathic.

Elmo // Posted 23 December 2009 at 10:38 pm

I personally take a Charlie Brooker approach when in the company of friends, (not so good in the company of others). This involves saying what you find offensive about the joke, but laughing while you do it, as if thats why you find it funny. “ahahha, thats funny, because they got raped! rape! Sexual assault and violation! ahahaha” Then you go “oh, wait” as if you’ve realised whats wrong, and stop laughing. It may be a bit pompous, but it really hammers the point, and creates wonderful embarrassed silences.

Victoria // Posted 24 December 2009 at 4:22 pm

“women say things about men which are not very nice as well …..

sexism works both ways ……”

Nick, sexism is not about individual people saying unkind things. The truth is that sexism is about power, and no matter how many women make ‘not very nice’ comments about men, men as a whole enjoy a lot more power and control than women do. Consequently they are in more of a position to cause damage. That is sexism. Saying otherwise is like a white person saying, “Well, people of other races say nasty things about me sometimes – racism works both ways!” I know some elderly Jewish ladies who grew up in the Polish shtetls and who heard pejorative terms for non-Jews being used all the time during their childhoods. Individual nastiness towards non-Jews does not change the fact that it was the shtetl inhabitants who were the victims of real racism, and the fact that they made snarky comments about Gentiles does nothing to redress the balance.

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