It’s easy to revel in the festive trappings of the holidays. We string lights, we make plum pudding, we play songs pledging “joy to the world.”
It’s easy to forget that the impossible-to-meet expectation of a Rockwellian holiday – combined with the combustible, multi-generational mix of conflicting worldviews that is any family gathering – can quickly convert all the good cheer into a reality television producer’s dream set.
Last year’s gathering has stayed with me. It was long before Roy Moore was national news, long before Harvey Weinstein was excommunicated from Hollywood, long before Matt Lauer was fired. I was the only woman in a circle of five men a generation older than me, clutching cocktails and making polite chitchat at a family dinner.
At one point, one of the men took a sip of his drink, grinned and declared, “I’m so glad I never had to deal with a ladyboss.”
The comment got a few awkward laughs before the subject was swiftly changed. Stunned, I excused myself with a smile and took refuge in the bathroom.
As I ran the water from the faucet to feign hand washing and considered yelling into a towel, I thought of all the burning retorts I wished I’d had the courage to say. “It’s actually just called a boss,” I said into the mirror, followed by: “Is that because you feared a ladyboss would fire you for gender discrimination?” I thought about how this particular man, who had served as a powerful corporate officer for decades, could have marred the careers of worthy women.
Not wanting to cause a scene, I ultimately swallowed the insult – and my feelings – and returned to the party angry and defeated. Like many women, I have countless stories just like this one.
We have learned in recent months that women who speak up can create necessary change. As a result of women coming forward with allegations of being sexually harassed by powerful men, we seem collectively more willing to object to inappropriate behavior and to support victims of harassment.
When it comes to the far more minor issue of a misogynist remark at the dinner table, or a subtle sexist joke told with a smile, things are a little murkier. Many of us have been willing to absorb these invisible insults — perhaps because we didn’t think we could change family members or family dynamics, or maybe because we didn’t want to be labeled too difficult or too emotional.
But it’s a new era. Time magazine’s Person of the Year is “The Silence Breakers.” Powerful men are sure to continue falling from grace well into 2018. If women like Leigh Corfman and Rose McGowan can risk their reputations and careers to call out men for sexual misconduct, why can’t the rest of us voice our discomfort in the face of sexist remarks?
Let’s make a pact: If you feel something, say something.
Every situation has its own unique complexities, but here are some general suggestions for breaking the silence in your own microclimate of predation.
It can be mind-clearing to over-prepare. While showering or driving, imagine the conversations you’ve had in the past that have made you angry. Now rehearse how you wish you had responded. I wish I’d responded to the ladyboss comment by saying, “Women have proven to be great leaders. I’m curious to understand more about your point of view.” Like writing an angry email without hitting send, these ruminations can release the built-up frustration, lightening your mental load before you even sit down.
It’s common to freeze up in a moment when you feel disrespected, but your response doesn’t have to be Emmy-worthy. It just has to be honest. Saying “That hurts my feelings” is a simple way to communicate that you feel insulted. As any good therapist will tell you, feelings are impossible to argue with.
Speaking up isn’t about embarrassing someone. It’s about respectfully offering your point of view. Rather than trying to win, try to get them on your side. I could have earnestly asked Mr. No-Ladyboss, “Are you implying you don’t think I could be a good boss because of my gender?” Sometimes a calm but direct question can knock the wind out of their sails.
If communication goes nowhere, it’s more than reasonable to set boundaries. Do what you need to do to maintain your own comfort. If this means not participating in the conversation, or never eating with this fellow again, that’s making change, too.