How can I be a better communicator?
March 13, 2013 7:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to enter a second-degree program, and I expect that my small cohort group and I are going to be very different people. I'd like to bridge the gap, but I worry that my weird, assertive, and outspoken tendencies are going to alienate me. Help.

I'm a female in my mid-20s, entering a stereotypically female-dominated field. My world-view could be described as 'acid liberal', and though I do not think that it's the case, I suspect that some would describe me as radical. I'm in the process of my personal development where I am dealing with my privilege and casually racist/sexist/phobic upbringing, and as a consequence become easily upset by privileged behavior in the form of casual shows of racism, sexism, homophobia, shaming, etc. I've been trying to moderate my reaction to these kinds of behaviors a little more actively, but at times I can get frustrated and emotional. I've been working on my filter but I still have problems and can react in a knee-jerk fashion.

We've got a small forum set up for students that will be entering the program, and already a member of the group (a former police officer) has expressed some pretty negative opinions about marginalized people, insinuating that they exist to mooch off of students and steal bicycles. I was upset by the remark but was able to moderate my response due to the nature of the online medium. I can sense, however, that in another setting I may not be able to silence my disgust. Due to the small cohort, the odds are good that I'll be working with this person in the future.

Intellectually, I know that these problems are not mine to deal with, but emotionally I still have difficulty accepting this kind of behavior and feel like ignoring it makes me -- and this is an extreme phrasing, but I'm not sure how best to describe the feeling -- complicit. I understand that this is the crux of the problem. So, given the likelihood that I will speak up, I would like to be able to approach the situation in a professional, friendly, and effective way.

I see that these goals may be at odds with one another. If your answer is that I should mind my own business, please include an anecdote about the most difficult situation you ended up forcing yourself to ignore.

I'm looking into non-violent communication, but I'd be happy to learn about other communication or conflict mitigation techniques. Feel free to recommend a book or article or wikipedia rabbit hole. Share your experiences about how you dealt with filterless-ness or your consciousness crisis. Call me an egomaniac.

Thanks in advance.
posted by sibboleth to Human Relations (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe it would help to think of it this way: It's a kind of privilege to be incoherently pissed off, to not have to control yourself. And you're a better, stronger ally if you can challenge people on their shit without blowing up and losing their attention. (See also Jay Smooth.)
posted by liketitanic at 8:01 PM on March 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

Go ahead and challenge people. That's what college is for.

But first you should recognize that at that age, people often have a combination of ignorance and arrogance that makes them infuriating to deal with, but it might not be their fault. My parents were fairly racist/sexist,etc conservatives, and so was I when I was in my early 20s, just because I didn't know any better. It was because of people that challenged me to my face in college that I started to change my opinions on pretty much everything (and just general exposure to people from other backgrounds).

So, have patience, and challenge them with kindness rather than out of anger. You are helping them be better people.
posted by empath at 8:10 PM on March 13, 2013

Would you be able to respond more calmly if it were a work environment where (ideally at least) part of the job is to treat people with respect and civility, even if they're expressing horrible opinions about third parties? I'm just wondering whether prioritizing what to address is possible for you or whether what you mean by knee-jerk emotional actually verges on an anger management issue.

If you can be cool about it, what I'd suggest is hold yourself to a rule of expressing facts, and I mean citable facts, stated plainly and where possible with attribution, although facts of personal experience could sometimes work. This has all kinds of merit to it. People are generally going to say, "Well, I still think X," no matter what you say, but if you've modestly cited a fact, it's not a contest of wills--you can shrug and move on, knowing that perhaps you've planted a seed of doubt they can reflect on later and that, if someone won't concede a fact, an argument would have been even more pointless. Another bonus to this is it might cause you to look into every place where "reality's liberal bias" intersects with your field, offering you a wealth of relevant facts to bring up.

If you can't be cool about it, I once mentioned to a friend with road rage problems something I heard on the radio about anger management. A road rage therapist said they advised their patients to repeat this mantra while driving: "They're doing the best that they can." My friend later told me this actually worked for him and brought significant relief to the stress he felt while driving.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:43 PM on March 13, 2013

I'm a librarian. I can't speak for all female-dominated professions, but I can say that many of them are pretty liberal. Librarians are generally liberal. So are social workers. Nurses, too, I think, generally.

As a raving feminist, I'm completely comfortable amongst my librarian peers.

Is it possible that this other person is the outlier? I raise this issue because you might find that your views aren't really the minority.

I would try not to get too caught up in pre-arrival drama. I'm not saying ignore rude comments about marginalized groups. But spouting off on the the internet might not seem any more tolerant or open-minded to your classmates and may not communicate what it is you really want to say. So there's also some maturity here, in knowing that it's okay to step back, take a deep breath, and consider the best way to approach something. (Which, actually, is what you're doing, isn't it?)

You know who deals with conflict in a super constructive way? Jessamyn. I'd take some time and read through a bunch of her postings to see one approach for being able to tackle really tough, button-pushing issues in a way that seems complete sensible and effective.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:44 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can you calmly and rationally push back on the biased comment? People sometimes say dumb things on the Internet for a bunch of reasons, but that may not represent who they really are.

Is it significant that the person who made the tasteless comment is a former police officer? Do you perceive a power dynamic (former or present) that makes you uncomfortable? Because those are great things to process in the context of a liberal arts program.
posted by SakuraK at 10:34 PM on March 13, 2013

So if I understand you correctly your rage at others is an attempt to distance yourself from your upbringing and your past ignorance? Like people who recently lost weight can't help obsessing about other people's body shapes?

Maybe think about what you want to achieve. I understand your anger. But how cool would it be to be able to use your new found understanding to change the world for better?
After all, knee jerk reactions serve no other purpose except blowing off steam. Maybe forgive yourself your past privilege. And forgive others for the same. And think about what words to use to change the way things are.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:53 AM on March 14, 2013

I just want to address the pre-communication mental prep: my parents emigrated from a part of the world known for its turbo-retro inclinations. I not infrequently encounter young, more recent immigrants who are the product of that culture (which I think has actually gotten worse, around all that, since my parents left), and who sometimes say outrageously regressive things.

What calms me down enough to engage with them (when I'm feeling martial, which frankly isn't often) is remembering that it's only accident that kept me from developing their instincts. And I think about their models, their news, the profound insecurity that energizes their worldview, which takes the shape it does for clear historical reasons. That's the best I can do, in terms of stretching myself, to further patience. I think I'd do better if I could more vividly imagine what it feels like for them to have those views, but it's enough to chill me out.

I think if you can go far back/deep/broad enough in your efforts to explain 'awful' behaviour, it's hard to stay angry about it, which leaves you freer to choose a different response.
posted by nelljie at 2:12 AM on March 14, 2013

Please continue to challenge casual shows of racism, sexism, homophobia, shaming, etc. This behavior is hard, because we are not taught how to address these issues. As you do it more and more, you will learn techniques that are more effective for you, and you will be able to respond with less and less emotional upset. However, I am hoping that you are not judging your level of effectiveness by the reaction it engenders in others. In my experience, challenging micro-aggressions and other forms of casual/subtle discrimination, regardless of the amount of emotion you bring to table, will be met with extreme reactions from the person you are challenging. The majority of people who participate in these casual acts would respond, if asked directly, that they are not racist, sexist, etc. When you point out their action/behavior and name it in that way, you are often challenging their perceptions of themselves. They will then feel forced to defend their self-perception, typically by attacking you. Eventually, if their actions are challenged enough from enough varied sources, they may move into self-reflection, but if you are the first person saying it to their face, you will get an angry response most of the time. It is part of the price of awareness. And, as others have suggested, you are privileged to be able to pay that price.
posted by hworth at 3:25 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you want to react, but not start a fight or be accused of being "humorless", 1) don't attack them i.e. don't call them racist, a jerk, a liar, because they will be more likely to defend themselves than a statement 2) Don't say "that's not true" or "that's not funny" because these will be called opinions and can be anecdotally argued (plenty of people laugh at that joke, my brother had his bicycle stolen...). Do say what you believe, and that you believe it because of what you have experienced (not from the liberal media). Love the sinner, hate the sin.
posted by 445supermag at 6:30 AM on March 14, 2013

When I was in my twenties, way back in the 1970s, I took some classes at a community college in Charlottesville, VA. One required class was public speaking. Several of my classmates were local cops, all white macho good ol' boys with beer bellies. Another classmate was a young man named Joe who had spent a year+ in jail for possession of a joint, or something equally minor.

So one day Joe gave a beautifully crafted passionate speech to the class in which he argued that teenagers convicted of minor offenses shouldn't be locked up- like he had been- with older hardcore criminals. Joe was so brave: he told us he'd been raped. After his speech, the professor, an overdressed dandy southern boy who referred to his "darling" wife quite often, asked the cops if men could get prosecuted for raping other men. They all said no, and one of them said he didn't believe women got raped, they were just asking for it. I stood up and told them they were mistaken, and they were paid to uphold the law and maybe they ought to learn it a little better. Joe and the other students who weren't cops applauded. The professor, who was always sucking up to the cops, did nothing. I walked out and never went back.

Now I know better, if something like that happened again I'd not walk away. Instead, I would have looked up Virginia law on rape, looked up information on rape of men, and presented it as a speech in class, a speech aimed at informing law enforcement officers of their duties. Thankfully, things have gotten somewhat better since then.
posted by mareli at 7:10 AM on March 14, 2013

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