Please help me stop talking like a female chauvinist sow.
October 27, 2014 10:46 AM   Subscribe

Please talk at me about the kind of terminology, phrasing, best practices and thought processes that help you not stick both feet in your mouth online (or IRL) when you are speaking to someone and are unsure of their gender, sexual orientation, relationship status, etc.

On most topics, I am pretty good about framing things with a minimal amount of biased assumptions. If I know that X thing is associated with a 90% chance it will mean Blah, a 9% chance it will mean Yadda and a 1% chance it will mean some wild off the wall thing I have not thought of, I am pretty good at not talking like "Well, obviously, you are a Blah or you are Blahing." But the nanosecond someone indicates, for example, that they are a full-time parent, I start blathering on about MOTHERHOOD and how, OBVIOUSLY, they are a MOM (and, clearly, straight woman in a hetero relationship, almost certainly married, and all that stuff). Sometimes I stop to check their profile before hitting post and have a chance to think better of it and sometimes I don't. I would like to get better at this.

I have a metric f*ckton of baggage on such things. I have an excess of relatives of both genders who are very committed to the idea that a good relationship starts with some Cro-Magnon male bonking a woman on the head hard enough to concuss her so he can drag her to his cave by her hair and get her promptly knocked up, but not so hard as to cause serious brain damage that might interfere with her cooking like a gourmet chef and cleaning his mancave to within an inch of its life (there is a fine art to concussing a woman the exact right amount -- if you need lessons, my relatives can probably help you with it). I am not asking you to help me put down my baggage. That's a tall order.*

But: A) Please don't suggest therapy, talk about how obviously screwed up I am, etc. This is not that kind of question. I just want help talking with people without making an ass of myself. B) I mention the baggage so as to help you understand that I need a bit more than just a list of PC/gender neutral words. So I would appreciate it if people indulge me a bit and be a tad chatty about their thought processes and what they go through when working on framing in situations where this is a potential issue.

I welcome feedback from full-time dads, career women, LGBTQ people and anyone who does this fairly well for any reason. I am not looking to make this a discussion of trans issues or gay issues or whatever, but, I think realistically, good answers to this will take such things into account if I am to stop talking like OBVIOUSLY the entire world is populated by career breadwinner straight males and pink collar ghetto straight moms (or wannabe moms).

But I am also shooting for sounding polite to everyone, and not sounding like an SJW, if that is possible (which maybe it's not).

Thanks in advance.

* I actually had my sons take over the majority of the "women's work" post divorce when I had a corporate job. I don't think I am completely backwards here. But I sometimes sure as hell SOUND like I am.
posted by Michele in California to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The best general tip is to delete your first comment and return later and see if you still feel the need to comment. We all make the mistake of making threads about ourselves. Stepping back will solve some of this issue. It is commendable to be aware of how you're perceived online and that sensitivity can go a long way. Take it further by deeply considering your words before hitting 'post.'
posted by maya at 10:58 AM on October 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It's a process, of course. I'm somewhere along the path and I think a lot of other people are too. Some people are uninterested in the path, think the path is foolish, or were on the path and then got off the path. Other people think the path is this whole other thing (and a thing I might not agree with) so it's tricky to figure out where to put your feet, given all that. I have a few things that help me.

I have an excess of relatives of both genders who are very committed to the idea that a good relationship starts with some Cro-Magnon male bonking

First off, I'd stop indulging in this. If you don't like your relatives and think they have backwards ideas of how the sexes relate, that's fine but it's easier to be more mindful of your own language when you're just stripping the judgment out of it, not just judging in the "right"direction. The nastiness in this set of sentences is just bad mojo even if it may serve a purpose for you and even if your relatives are truly awful people. Don't give in to the easy dishing and snark.

Secondly, think about goals. Do you want to be welcoming? Non-offensive? Supportive? Making a point? Something else? Sometimes tactically you'll want to find ways of getting your points across slightly differently depending on these things. For example, if I'm in a situation where I'm trying to agitate for more equal gender balance for something (speaker panels at tech conferences maybe) I may highlight the notion of BOTH genders as opposed to ALL genders (which is more my way of thinking about the gender spectrum) if my goal might get mired in nitpicky details otherwise. This is something that sort of shows off my privilege and I'm not always proud of this, but it's a tactical choice. Similarly using terms like "cisgendered" is a thing I do more often when I know that it's already an understood term because for many people who are not as interested in gender politics tossing unfamiliar words into a discussion doesn't actually keep the conversation moving forward. To me, you have to pick the times to be more activist about language and not. In situations where I think people are receptive to learning, I'll not only use the term but talk about how it was tough for me to start using and why I think it's important for people to use and understand.

This is a decision I've made which reasonable people may disagree with. They are not wrong and I am not wrong. I'm open to listening to people I think are wrong. I'm open to telling people I think they may be going about something wrong. Being open to the "many ways to be right" way of looking at things beats the heck out of the "many ways to be wrong" circular firing squad that we sometimes see in activist circles. It's tough.

Lastly try to separate normal from normative. That is, while boy-girl coupling may be statistically more highly represented, this does not have to mean that people create ideas of normalcy from this. You don't have to. Other people don't have to. Poly families don't have to be "poly families" they can just be "families" same for stay-at-home-dads, unmarried parents, lesbian grandmas, whatever it is. Gay marriage is just marriage, most of the time, except within a political context where it's helpful to split it out to explain some things.

So listen more, talk less. Try to remove the judgmental words from your descriptions. Try to open your heart to people who feel and do things differently. Be gracious with other people's mistakes and be graceful with your own. Make every effort to not make it about you if you're trying to make it about other people. Your path hasn't been "normal" or standard, there's no real reason to presume that anyone else's is either.
posted by jessamyn at 11:09 AM on October 27, 2014 [15 favorites]

Response by poster: A couple of things:

I think I do a pretty good job already, most of the time, of knowing when to shut up and walk away. Without going into a lot of details, recent events have made me feel I have things of value to contribute on topics like "how to get a job after an extended period of unemployment" but my tendency to frame it in gendered terms is interfering with my ability to do that well. So I am hoping replies here will focus mostly on on how to talk with people rather than knowing when to shut up.

First off, I'd stop indulging in this. If you don't like your relatives and think they have backwards ideas of how the sexes relate, that's fine but it's easier to be more mindful of your own language when you're just stripping the judgment out of it, not just judging in the "right"direction. The nastiness in this set of sentences is just bad mojo even if it may serve a purpose for you and even if your relatives are truly awful people. Don't give in to the easy dishing and snark.

The above was humor. There was no intent to be nasty. It somewhat referenced a previous Ask of mine, and, in both cases, the intent was to capture in a nutshell that my life-experiences are extremely old fashioned, even for someone of my age. On non-gendered topics, I have also said things like "when I had a pet dinosaur and rotary phone." I was a homemaker for a long time, which is unusual in this day and age, even for a woman my age. Unlike some people, who seem to think women should do paid work/have careers and being a full-time mom is a bad thing, I am okay with having been a homemaker for many years and I think society would be better off if there was generally more support for parents giving the best of themselves to their children while the kids are still young. If there is any sense of real invective, it is, perhaps, rooted in my discomfort with how hostile the world is towards homemakers and full-time moms -- ie towards people like me for being a straight white woman who got married and had kids at a young age and happily doted on them, instead of being something else, apparently anything else.

I would appreciate if future replies are more mindful of my request to not get into "you have baggage" territory. I know I have baggage. I appreciate the information contained herein that, as is often the case, my sense of humor has wildly missed the mark. But I don't have any need at all for comments on "if you really think so poorly of your relatives" and so on. I don't think so poorly of them. I think I have a significant track record of speaking in respectful terms of my relatives and my ex-husband, in spite of things like having been raped at age 12 by one of my relatives. Based on that track record, I had hoped, apparently erroneously, that people would realize it was lighthearted humor, not to be taken as anything ugly.

I hope that is clearer.
posted by Michele in California at 11:51 AM on October 27, 2014

Best answer: Find a set of neutral words/phrases that become your default. Encounter a woman with a wedding ring at a cocktail party, and the topic turns to household dynamics? Ask "I see you are married. What does your spouse do? How does that impact your division of chores?"

It may feel weird at first to use such generic words, but eventually it will feel natural. As you get to know specific people, they may "correct" you and say "oh yes, my HUSBAND blah blah blah" So in that case, you can use the word husband without guilt because that person has indicated a preference for a specific word. Absent that, continue to use your generic defaults.

You can also remind yourself that just because the person fits into that 90% majority on one axis doesn't mean they fit into the majority in every other category. Stay at home mom? Doesn't mean she's straight.

You could even make a game out of it - how many different ways could this person, about whom you only know a handful of things, be different from society's (or television's, or your family's) version of "normal" or at least statistically average? When you do encounter someone who matches one of the scenarios you came up with, instead of just "average" - reward yourself for having the mental openness to predict that person's traits as a valid set of traits all on your own.
posted by trivia genius at 11:53 AM on October 27, 2014

Get as comfortable as possible using words like "SO", "partner" and "spouse" to refer to someone's family unit in a non-gender-specific or non-orientation-specific way. When you only hear "partner" used in the context of a homosexual couple, it's easy to feel awkward using it as a vague term, but I find it useful for all sorts of situations where your new friend refers to their weekend plans as "we" but you have no idea if your new friend is dating someone or married or what gender that person is. Using these words as often as possible about people who you do know are in heterosexual relationships will help desensitize you and make these into easy gender-free judgement-free words.
posted by aimedwander at 12:07 PM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You sound like you're being really hard on yourself. The self-castigation seems really high in this question, did you recently have an embarrassing incident? That's how we all learn, and it's OK. I don't think anyone's going to suggest therapy for this or suggest you're "obviously" screwed up. These ways of talking are pervasive and natural (doesn't mean they're good; but it is natural for our brains to connect the dots and attempt to make novel situations fit the patterns we most commonly encounter)--in fact, I'd suggest putting your foot in your mouth and making assumptions about what is normal for you is a pan-human, cross-cultural phenomenon we all have in common.

What's great is that it sounds like you're identifying that there is a problem and trying to fix it. You sound like a sensitive, kind person who wants to do the right thing but is noticing a disconnect between how you were brought up and the language used by the people whose values resonate with you now.

Honestly, the way which works best to make it natural is to actually have it become normal for you. I got much better at doing these sorts of things without even thinking about it when I went away to a different part of the country to college and met all kinds of people who did not at all fit the molds I had already learned. It's not always practical or possible to actually self-immerse, though. So you do what you can. I'm sure other people will be along with suggestions for blogs to read and podcasts to listen to. I'm with Jessamyn on needing to pick your battles and not let the perfect (always using the most activist language, no matter the audience) become the enemy of the good (effective communication with the actual individual you are trying to have a conversation with). And when you screw up, you apologize, and you let that embarrassment help you next time. It's OK.

One of the simplest things I've noticed a lot of people doing, which I was very late in adopting, was using the singular 'they' as a non-gender-specified alternative to "he" or even "she," e.g. "My spouse and I got married ten years ago. They still bring me flowers on our anniversary." Yes, it's grammatically incorrect according to older standards, but it's an easy way to avoid the (IMO) greater evil of exclusion.

Another knee-jerk thing that I've been trying to teach myself to avoid is to shift my "easy" topics for small talk. For instance, a pretty common conversational tactic is something like asking a teenage boy you don't know well "So, do you have a girlfriend?" He may very well have a boyfriend, but you just reminded him about your set of assumptions. So you go to something else, like "What's your favorite class in school right now?" The past few years' economy has been bad for nearly everyone, and I found myself encountering more and more people who didn't have jobs, or who didn't have jobs that at all encompassed their identities, through no fault of their own. So I took to asking at parties some variation of "So, what do you like to do?" or "So what sorts of things are you interested in?" instead of the typical "What do you do?" to avoid reinforcing the message that they were defined by their paycheck. Little things like that will probably go a long way.

Finally, when you encounter these things yourself--knowing how difficult they can be from experience--give other people the benefit of the doubt, which you probably already do. When people accidentally assume that, as a scientist, I must be a man, I usually gently correct them and move on. Obviously there are people who will be a jerk about it, but most people mean well and will try harder next time. We're all part of the system and it's hard to fight that conditioning, but we do the best we can.
posted by spelunkingplato at 12:29 PM on October 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Given your update, I think one way to deal with this issue is to make it clear in your contributions to these discussions where you're coming from/that you recognize this isn't a universal for everyone. For example, it sounds like your particular expertise in the question of "getting back to work after long unemployment" would come from the perspective of a voluntary unemployment while being a housewife/mom. The dynamics of getting back to work after that is likely going to be quite different for someone where the unemployment was not voluntary vs. a stay-at-home-dad, vs. someone who was unemployed while caring for a sick parent, etc. etc.. So, I think I would try to lean on phrases like: "At from my experience, one thing that can be helpful as a woman returning to employment after staying home as a mom is....[fill in your advice here]."
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:39 PM on October 27, 2014

Best answer: A thing that helps me in wider ranging ways is consciously verbally swapping gender from my assumption when I notice a situation where gender doesn't need to be one way or the other. (Since you mention kids, I'll mention that I do this A LOT when reading kid's books.) The more I do it, the easier it becomes to see not-explicitly-stated cases as such. (Obviously this works better with fictional characters and theoretical bosses than actual people.)

As for set words, I tend to default to spouse, sweetie, child, parent, and singular "they". None of those are (as far as I know) considered made up or over-PC, and except for "they", I use them regularly even when gender is known.

Lastly, as someone who gets misgendered a lot I'll say that admitting error and dramalessly correcting yourself when you mess up is way preferable to kind of... martyring yourself on behalf of your mistake. Not that you do! I've just had people make their mistake be something I end up needing to comfort them about rather than the other way around. Or comfort some friend of mine who is super outraged that some very busy cashier called me sir when I don't care a whit. Sort of a real life "flag and move on" situation.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:03 PM on October 27, 2014

Best answer: I agree with the suggestion of making it a game (in your own head). Like the classic surgeon/son brain teaser. Read/listen as much for what isn't there as for what is.

I tend to find the exception to the exception to the exception in my mind automatically-- probably as a result of being a lawyer. So, maybe try to think more like a lawyer: if someone says they're a parent, but do not define or clarify the word "parent," then come up with all of the plausible/reasonable definitions for "parent" given the context of the statement. Another example: "I'm a stay-at-home mom" ---> speaker does not state that they are unemployed, they could be breadwinner of the family, making money through a home business or passive income

I also notice a lot of people (at least in my extended family) make gender/orientation assumptions about their (or others') young children. Little Susie, 18 months old, will have a husband some day and kids of her own, obviously. Little Joseph, all of 6 weeks old, will clearly be into sports and marry Margie down the street. OR (as I no longer try to tell them) maybe Susie might end up marrying Margie, and Joseph might end up being Josephine. While (most of) these relatives are now accepting of the fact that people may be gay or transgender, they haven't quite realized that it may be their own kid/grandkid.
posted by melissasaurus at 1:14 PM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

A large part of it is simply not talking so much. Make one point, in a few sentences, and leave it at that. The more one talks, the more assumptions one tends to make about (1) why the listener/reader should care about what one is saying, (2) how what one is saying directly applies to the listener/reader, (3) the similarities between one and the listener/reader, (4) the relevence of the similarities between the listener/reader, and (5) the irrelevence of the differences between the listener/reader.

Say one or two things, briefly. Then ask questions. Pay attention to the answers.

I also try to think, "What are the worst possible circumstances that could have led to this situation? What are the best possible circumstances that could have led to this situation? How can I phrase my (short) answer in such a way as to sound supportive of someone going through the bad situation but non-dismissive of someone in the good situation?" In my case, that thought process leads to a lot of sentences that use "If," "Maybe," "You might try," "It's possible that," or "If I were in your situation, I maybe might try..."
posted by jaguar at 2:22 PM on October 27, 2014

I should have expanded: Phrasing things in questions and conditionals tends to (I think) make it clearer that you are not claiming to have definitive answers about what's going on, in general, and therefore makes it less likely that your listener/reader is going to feel that you're forcing them into boxes of your own making. I think it's helpful to just generally indicate that you're open to the possibility that what you're saying may not be in any way relevent or on-target, because it gives people the impression that you're self-aware enough that they can easily correct you without it turning into a fight.
posted by jaguar at 2:31 PM on October 27, 2014

Best answer: Not sure how to say this without sounding harsh but, avoid boxes. Those primary things like sex and gender and inclinations are so common. Basically, every human being is gendered in some way. Ignore that noise. I try to relate to people on the basis of smaller sets like Dr. Who fandom or having a green thumb or being really insecure about being the only monolingual person in their family.

And don't be so hard on yourself. I am a woman. I am not a fan of chocolate. Every server ever who has tried to sell me a dessert has started with the chocolate dessert. That's not really denying my identity, but it's still something that would irk me if I didn't just let it go.

The worst you do is probably assume the lady would like the chocolate. And then you apologize and ask about the cheese plate or apricot tart.

Apologies count for a lot.

Compare yourself to the server who just knows that all women really prefer chocolate, and women who ask for something else have an eating disorder or are trying to compete with other women by being that special fraulein who'd rather have caramel.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:38 PM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think turning down the attachment to the images in your mind of what something must be and instead looking out your eyes and tuning your vision and hearing towards better understanding what the situation in front of you is trying to say is helpful. basically, objects exits in your mind, subjects exists in reality in front of you, focus more on the subject, less on the object.

At least that's something I try to do everyday in my own life that makes a huge difference in lessening the number of assy things I say.
posted by Annika Cicada at 4:34 PM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a really good question, Michele in California. Sometimes I feel that thinking about "terminology, phrasing, best practices and thought processes" is exactly what makes it difficult to relate to others and get to know their feelings better. Sometimes we are so caught up in making a good impression, in getting someone to like what we say and therefore us, or in being a perfect listener catching every subtle hint, that we do not take the person for what they are.

I compare it to school where we face pressure to take the most random phrases and dissect it in a new way none of our peers have to get the best marks. At times we really stretch assumptions because we want an "A" so badly, and we know our interpretation will goes over well in the class. In real life though it is not about good grades, real life scores us on very different things.

If you meet a new person, try to take them on their own terms and to not inject any deeper meaning in the words they say (perhaps they themselves are struggling to come across in a pleasing light which will throw off a strangers analysis). At times this strategy works out well, and at other times the person does not feel comfortable with you because they are used to meeting someone who tries to uncover the secret meanings in their words and unlock how they really feel. Maybe because they do not know the answer and need genuine help, which even a professionally trained stranger cannot do on first meeting, or because in this way they are the centre of attention which is an ego boost. You have no way of knowing their personality. For some (on both sides of the equation) this is a very exhausting kind of relationship. For others it is symbiotic and both parties get pleasure out of it. If you are not comfortable in this role definitely take a step back. And realize no matter what approach you take there will be those who dislike you. Even if you do everything with kindness and respect you will attract a lot of people who simply dislike you for no "reason". And that is fine.

If you suspect you cannot deal with someone without accidentally insulting them, before you decide to just not engage with them at all, think about how you can engage with them in a way where your desire to establish yourself as smart, witty, caring etc. takes backstage to just listening and facilitating what they have to say. If you still feel uncomfortable in that role, or think that even if you try you will upset someone, then avoid getting too deep into the conversation. In real life, this would mean taking a more passive listening role, and I guess on the internet it would mean avoiding comments in certain topics. It is frustrating with the latter because sometimes we really want to say something that we are passionate or sure about - believe me I have felt that way many times - but sometimes the immediate thrill of getting it all out is not worth the amount of argument or hurt that could result. In a way it is about picking your battles, no only in terms of the good will you can generate or lose amongst your peers (whether online or in real life), but also in terms of your energy which is precious and should not be expended on futile squabbling.

This makes me think of situations where people will ask loaded questions like "what did you major in" / "where do you work" because they are trying hard to force a connection and get the new person to talk about themselves (not out of maliciousness). Or, they want to manufacture a conversation where the asker can talk about their own subject of interest (again not out of maliciousness). None of these lines of discussion take the other person being asked the question on their own terms. I use this example to suggest that instead of trying to direct conversation, or make comments that change the course of conversation, it can create more goodwill to take a more laid back and gentle approach, by letting others speak and building respectfully on that.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 5:43 PM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: First I want to thank everyone who has replied so far. AskMe is such a great resource for something like this and I kind of wish I had had it much sooner. Perhaps my life would not have been quite so hard in the last decade.

For example, it sounds like your particular expertise in the question of "getting back to work after long unemployment" would come from the perspective of a voluntary unemployment while being a housewife/mom.

Thank you for bringing this up. But, if it were as simple as that, I don't think I would be asking this question.

The fact that I was a military wife and full-time mom helped me sweep two decades of being unemployable due to mental health and medical issues under the rug and get a full-time paid job for the first time at age 41 with a very prestigious company. When I made small talk with cashiers and the like, mentioning who I worked for got oohs and aahs. They didn't even ask my job title. No one cared that it was an entry level job that I could not get promoted out of for the five plus years I worked there. Simply getting one's foot in the door at that company in that town was impressive.

For me in that instance, gender bias played in my favor. But it took a lot more than playing the "I was a wife and mom" card to finally get employed, after many years of stubbornly refusing to try to get a job because it was clear to me it would be a disaster and then, later, several more years of fruitless job hunting before it ultimately panned out. Sometimes, I can't quite figure out how to get at that other stuff because I get tripped up on this detail. And then I end up not answering a question that has very few other answers.

If the types of questions where this tripped me up got, like, 60 other answers and most of them were really good answers, I would feel like "whatevs -- they don't really need my 2 cents worth." But since people with disabilities who have trouble getting a job at all often get few replies at all to their questions on how to overcome that issue, I am not comfortable with saying "Welp, better to just keep my big fat mouth shut lest my foot land in it again." Thus, I would like to up my game.

You sound like you're being really hard on yourself. The self-castigation seems really high in this question, did you recently have an embarrassing incident?

Yes, I did recently have an embarrassing incident. But I don't feel the self-castigation is high in this question. For various reasons, I do at times read like Drama Queen without really being as up in arms about something as people think I am. However, yes, I am hard on myself on such topics -- because the shoe has been on the other foot a great deal in my life, so I cringe when I do this because I know how seriously damning it can be. I know how much this issue of language and the unquestioned assumptions it expresses can just completely shoot someone down before they even get to the starting line, never mind the finishing line -- because I have had this very thing done to me and I am still suffering the effects of it .

So it isn't neurosis. It is awareness that this stuff really matters. It isn't some "nice to have." It isn't a cherry on the top. It isn't simply considerate of someone's feelings. It is a subtle gatekeeper that keeps women unemployed and underemployed (and in abusive relationships and on and on) and the LGBTQ community marginalized in a way that can literally help kill them. I am sure it also harms well-paid successful career men, though it's a lot harder to readily quantify that or communicate it (and a lot more controversial -- many people are openly hostile to the privileges successful men have and have little or no sympathy for the very real downsides involved.)

I am hard on myself because I believe in things like "be the change you wish to see in the world" and "light one candle rather than curse the dark." I believe how I comport myself matters and if I can figure it out better and do it a bit better, it can also help others do it better. Giving people an example of what actually works well instead of a lecture about how they are doing it wrong is the most powerful force for constructive change that I know of.

I also have a bit of influence in some places. Because of my position of a bit of influence, when I get these things wrong, it both hurts other people and tends to seriously come back to bite me. It simply works better to try to up my game than to whine to other people that they need to understand me or something like that.

I very much appreciate people taking the time to respond.

(I am quite tired today. I am not done marking best answers and what not. But it may take me a bit to get to it.)
posted by Michele in California at 6:27 PM on October 27, 2014

Best answer: I am hard on myself because I believe in things like "be the change you wish to see in the world"

This is a favorite of mine too and at the risk of being didactic, here's a thing I trot out when I'm giving talks to libraries, trying to help them get stuff done that they think is outside of their wheelhouse or otherwise really difficult. The real quote is longer and, I think, even more affirming and inspirational. Let me copy and paste here....
Gandhi is quoted a lot as saying "Be the change you want to see in the world", but it's a bit of a paraphrase of his longer statement.

"We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.... We need not wait to see what others do."
So it's partly being the change but it's also being confident and mindful that as you are being that change, the things you want to change are slowly sometimes imperceptibly, budging. And finding ways to celebrate that and enjoy it even as you try to continue to work, is also part of it. Because in reality we are all part of the world and so as we change, it changes. Not fast enough for my liking and definitely not fast enough for people who are getting a really raw deal, but it moves.

I was at ComicCon over the weekend in Vermont, just a teeny con, first time in the state, and seeing all the people in their costumes, and seeing a lot of people choosing to play people who weren't their gender or build or race or whatever, and seeing that be okay, with everyone, was affirming. I go into that stuff all squint-eyed waiting for people to be terribly or give the transgender Grumpy Cat a hard time and it's difficult sometimes to notice the absence of dis-ease in these things, among people who are so often used to getting a bunch of crap from a bunch of people.

And so my other advice besides being kind to yourself about this, is to try to find and enjoy and hold close those moments and seeing if you can, in quiet times, see them multiply and then you know that what you and everyone else is doing is slowly, inexorably, but certainly, working.
posted by jessamyn at 6:40 PM on October 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's hard to answer this without bringing in your history here, so forgive me if I'm overstepping, but I'm looking at your latest follow-up and thinking, "OK, that's that thing she does that makes me feel like she's not paying attention to what anyone else is actually saying." And I really think that's where you're getting tangled up, because screwing up gender/relationship status/etc. is fairly common and doesn't have to be a big deal; what gets people's backs up is when one starts telling them who they are, or spending all one's time describing one's self, rather than listening to them describe themselves when they're asking for help.

I think there are three basic places from which to answer a question: "You should...", "I have..." and "What if...?" I know that you've switched from "You should" to "I have," which I think is positive, but it's still a premise in which the answerer can very easily project all their own baggage onto the questioner and can shut down further exploration. "What if you tried X?" opens up the conversation more.

I participated in a classroom discussion about race in which we were paired with different people to ask each other about various cultural traditions and such. I discovered that with people who seemed very different from me, I paid a lot of attention to all the nuanced ways we were different; with people who seemed very similar to me, I tended to tune out all the ways we were different and assume we shared the same beliefs and habits and such. It was really eye-opening to see how easily I stopped listening when I thought I already knew what the other person was saying, and therefore how much I missed of the actual content they were sharing. Since then, I've been much more consciously assuming that anyone talking to me (or posting online) is very much not-me, because that helps me listen/read in a way where I don't just gloss over the individual situation in favor of making an ego-gratifying "I know the answer!" remark. There's a humility required to listen well, and that humility goes a long way toward pre-emptively smoothing over any missteps.
posted by jaguar at 7:42 PM on October 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think... a lot of it is just exposure to particular narratives.

You need familiarity with the things that you do not think of automatically, and fortunately, with the internet, it is a lot easier to do that!
The tricky thing is figuring out your blind spots. Full time Dads. Solo by choice Moms. Gay families.

Then, find some blogs, tumblrs, or even Pinterest tags to subscribe to.
So, for example,

Every time you read about that topic, see adorable families, or feel frustrated at injustices someone else is going through, you are reminding yourself that *x topic* is a valid narrative for peoples lives. It probably won't take very long, feeling an emotional connection to a certain situation helps (so real life friends, even easier).

So, this wasn't raised about racism, but I've seen some partial evidence that the Pinterest/Tumblr approach can be good for challenging some types of subconscious racism (not something you asked about, but interesting as a related topic). I've seen people who don't have "anything against" a particular group (*sigh*), but don't see them as romantically/sexually interesting etc - exposed to say, a tumblr highlighting the group they didn't think of as attractive e.g. asian men, bigger women, and then, tada! They obviously do start to see particular people from that group as hot.
I'm kind of just mentioning this as a sidetrack, because I wish people would try it. Tastes develop like tastes for food develop.

For language, yes - I just refer to everyone's SO's as their partners, and tend to not use gendered language when talking about people. It's habit.
So, if I talk about a friend, and what they did, you may not even know by the end of an anecdote if they were a guy or girl. I think there is something useful in not revealing that sort of info til the end, because it's often not relevant.
Actually, if gender/race etc IS relevant, people have often connected with a story better if it's not revealed til the point where it is relevant.
E.g. 'So a friend of mine goes to sort out afterschool care for their kid...' blah blah... by the time you get to the bit where a "frustrated Dad is being told that shouldn't they check in with the MOTHER about all this stuff", people have usually identified with their perspective, rather than, if they are not a Dad, with whoever was being rude to my friend (usually, because of our culture, the problem is people identifying with the white male in the story, regardless of who the protagonist or victim is, but you get the idea). Practice.
posted by Elysum at 10:07 PM on October 27, 2014

Best answer: Personally, I think you do a great job of communicating here, Michele. You're always respectful and careful to word your thoughts in a non-threatening, non-superior/patronizing manner. I enjoy your comments and I learn from you even though you don't present yourself as the Person Who Knows All. You share your life experiences generously, which gives your comments context and substance.

Don't fret about isolated incidents - I don't think there's anyone here who works as hard as you do to be courteous. And never feel that you have to defend yourself for being a homemaker and Mom first - there's never been a young person who didn't benefit from having a good Mom.
posted by aryma at 10:27 PM on October 27, 2014

Response by poster: Re Elysum's comments: When we moved to Kansas, my husband made friends at work with someone and blathered on endlessly about "new friend this" and "new friend that" until it really got on my nerves in a "if you like him so much more than me, why don't you go sleep with him!" kind of way. Which is not to criticize him. It is just an attempt to make it clear that he never shut up about the guy.

Then the two of them arranged for both of our families to meet. And when hubby's friend and the family got out their car at the restaurant where we were meeting, it turned out they were black. In months of never shutting about the man, my husband had never once mentioned that. So this was News to me.

I was shocked and the shock showed on my face. I didn't have a problem with them being black but I did have a problem with the realization that, having grown up in the Deep South, this is the kind of thing that I expected to be told before meeting someone and my husband obviously actually did not care. To him, it was completely irrelevant. It did not even make his radar.

It made for a very awkward meeting. They could tell I was surprised and I didn't know how to smooth things over and say "I have just learned that I have some de facto racist expectations because of where I grew up and my husband is honestly pure of heart in this area. It's not you." It was enormous food for thought for many years afterwards and I suppose it contributes to me coming across as being hard on myself in this ask, because I have been on both sides of the fence and seen firsthand how horribly unrecoverable such things can be at times. Whether you are the person making the egregious faux pas or the person on the receiving end of it, in that instant, it can be impossible to figure out how to get things back on track after such a derail. And that can have consequences for months or years afterward. It can de facto destroy opportunities and remain an obstacle to the kinds of outcomes you would like to see. It's one of those games where, if you really want to win, it is best to simply not play.

So part of my intent with posting this Ask (and anytime I post something like this) is just to further cultural change so that everyone has better tools available to them. My assumption in my twenties that "if I was not told someone's race, then they must be white" was a cultural artifact. It was something I was trained to believe by my life experience. It was not something I simply decided independently was some rule I wanted to follow. I didn't even realize I thought it was a rule until it was broken in such a highly memorable fashion.

In other words, on some level, I don't feel at fault or guilty. In some sense, I don't feel it is personal, about me (even though my gender bias is, in some sense, totally about how I have lived rather than culture per se). But I can't control this nebulous thing called "culture." I can only control (to some limited degree) what I choose to do, in spite of inevitable personal tendencies, in spite of cultural artifacts that can be problematic and so on. Thus, I generally try to look to the woman in the mirror -- which always risks getting interpreted by others as me making it about me, as me being a narcissist, as me being neurotic, and so on.

Que sera, sera.

After posting my long follow-up comment yesterday evening, even though I knew at the time it was probably going to be problematic in the way jaguar critiqued, I later thought "I kind of wish I had shortened that to something like "Yes, I am being hard on myself in some sense. I set a high standard for myself in certain regards. I am okay with the fact that it takes effort to achieve it and I have to work at it. I don't think that is neurotic and I don't plan on lowering my standard." (Of course, the fact that I posted the longer version is partly a case of "I would have written a shorter letter if I had had more time.")

I think the advice to not be so hard on myself comes from a well-meaning place, but I think it is also rooted in the erroneous assumption that I feel terrible about myself and the intent is to say "don't beat yourself up emotionally." I assure you, I am not beating myself up emotionally. I am pretty okay with who I am. That does not change the fact that I am keenly aware of the degree to which it can be a problem for other people when I frame things a certain way, even though there was no malicious intent on my part. So, I work on these things because it matters out in the world, in real terms, not because I am trying to assuage big negative feelings.

And never feel that you have to defend yourself for being a homemaker and Mom first - there's never been a young person who didn't benefit from having a good Mom.

Some of what happens on mefi kind of makes me feel like if I had been a heroine addict for 2 decades instead of a full time wife and mom for 2 decades, I would get more sympathy and acceptance. This discussion has made me realize I am, in fact, feeling attacked, dismissed and so on about that detail of my life. I think, in some sense, there is a need to defend my choices but I definitely would like to feel less defensive, if that distinction makes sense to people. I think I need to just keep it in mind a bit more that my status as a homemaker and full-time mom is in the past, thus it can't actually be threatened. It cannot be taken away from me.

Anyway, the responses here have been enormously valuable, every single one of them. It has me thinking about a great many things differently and feeling differently about some things (and doing things differently, and not just on mefi, and not just in terms of how I speak). In the interest of brevity and attempting to not overshare and so on, I will stop here. But I did want to make some attempt to say this has been extremely, extremely valuable and your efforts and willingness to stick your neck out are appreciated.

Thank you.
posted by Michele in California at 10:33 AM on October 28, 2014

Can I just say that I enjoyed reading your question? Cro-magnon, HA! You seem hilarious, and etiquette manuals never were written with the colorful in mind (or maybe especially with the colorful in mind...?). It sounds like you'd rather tone it down though, which makes me wonder a bit--why? Is there s backstory to this?
posted by neil pierce at 10:24 PM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I have three webcomics. I hope to someday channel my colorful side into my comics, where hopefully people can enjoy it and not get all up in arms about it. It has a long history of getting wildly misinterpreted and fostering shitshows and the like when I try to communicate that way in online forums.
posted by Michele in California at 10:19 AM on October 29, 2014

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