I was speaking with a classmate recently about an assignment and without him realizing it he said something that made me feel very uncomfortable. It was not with malintent and I knew that immediately but it did not change the way I felt when it happened.
I had a choice to make here, as we so often do when presented with these kinds of microagressions in life, either speak up or let it slide. This is rarely an easy decision to make because by choosing to say something the situation could become even more uncomfortable based on how you address what happened and how the other person reacts to what you say. The other option doesn’t seem much better though. By not saying something this person may never know that this behavior is something that makes people uncomfortable and will continue to do it. In this case it didn’t take much thought, I knew I had to say something.
So having made the decision to speak up I had another decision to make, one that is equally as important as the first. In bringing up this transgression do I call my classmate out or call them in? I read an article a while back that helped me understand how to navigate these very situations in a compassionate but assertive manner and knowing when to call people out versus calling them in is a very big part of having a successful outcome.
In this case I chose to call my classmate in. The cringe worthy act that took place was my classmate calling me sweetheart while thanking me for something. Some people may not give much thought to this pet name, they may not have flinched at all but I did.
First of all I do not know this classmate that well, we are not friends or have any kind of personal relationship. Him saying this was not coming from a place of familiarity. Second, that’s not my name. My name is Jill. I am willing to bet he would not call my brother who is in the program sweetheart, please do not think it is okay to do it to me then. Although I am sure it was coming from a place of good intentions to me it feels condescending and unprofessional. Plus I worried that if I did not saying something it would set a precedent. What if in future exchanges he continues to call me sweet heart? Better to put a stop to it now to avoid negative feelings going forward.
This scene from the movie Tootsie outlines what I am talking about perfectly:
(Dorothy’s boss, Ron, just referred to her as tootsie.)
Dorothy Michaels: Ron? I have a name it’s Dorothy. It’s not Tootsie or Toots or Sweetie or Honey or Doll.
Ron Carlisle: Oh, Christ.
Dorothy Michaels: No, just Dorothy. Alan’s always Alan, Tom’s always Tom and John’s always John. I have a name too. It’s Dorothy, capital D-O-R-O-T-H-Y.
So back to how I handled the situation in the moment.. He calls me sweetheart while thanking me for my help and I say oh you’re welcome I am glad I was able to help, before I go can I share something with you real quick? He gave me an affirmative response of some sort so I continued to say, I am sure you did not mean anything by it but in the interest of keeping things professional I prefer to be called Jill please.
You never really know how someone is going to react when you have to call them in/out so I prepared myself for anything in terms of how he would respond. At least I thought I did until he managed to surprise me anyway. He apologized to which I said thank you and that it was okay. Then he shared that recently his professor told him the same thing. I was confused at first, did he really call a professor sweet heart? I responded by simply saying, Oh really. He went on to explain that he was doing a role play with a female student in front of the class, he was the social worker and the female student was the client. During the role play he called the client sweet heart. Apparently the instructor stopped the role play for a moment to discuss why that is not okay.
He and I talked for a few more minutes about why some women feel uncomfortable when this kind of thing happens. What I learned from him is he was raised thinking that this type of behavior was chivalrous. He definitely seemed to have some knight-in-shining-white-armor ideals going on. My perception, based on a lot of what he shared about his upbringing, is that he seems to think women are delicate and need saving. I was actually pretty surprised, I would not have known any of this based on my previous interactions with him. He certainly seems pro-equality across the board, and I still think he is, there is just this other side that kind of conflicts. I took everything he shared in stride, a person doesn’t know what they don’t know. However, I took the opportunity to explain that what he was talking about could very well be interpreted as oppressive and sexist and the reasons why.
The conversation went well. I definitely feel that we both learned something from the each other. I think he has a much better handle on why sweet heart is not appropriate now. I think calling him in was the right choice. I did not shame him for his statements, I did not make assumptions about him like he should know better, I approached him as an ally that just made a misstep.
That was my biggest take away when I read that article about how to approach these types of interactions. Regardless of if you decide to call someone out or call them in, treat them as an ally who made a mistake. It is a lot easier to approach the situation objectively with compassion for the other person if you see them as someone who is on your side instead of as enemy.
The book I finished recently on dichotomous and hierarchical thinking touched on this as well. If we stop labeling everything (including people) as “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong” or (any other type of binary where there are only two options instead of a spectrum) then we will find it much easier to find common ground.
My classmate was not a bad person, this was not an issue of right and wrong. My experiences, thoughts and reality are no more or less real or important than his. My experiences are different from his, my thoughts are different, my reality is different. Different does not equate to bad, it does not equate to wrong. I think this is where people get stuck.
It would be very easy for me to have gotten angry with him when he called me sweet heart because he lives in a place of privilege where he is less likely to have to earn respect, it is given based solely on his gender. I could have schooled him on how he doesn’t understand my struggle as a woman and lectured him endlessly about his privilege. But what would that kind of tirade gotten us? Would we have found common ground? Would he have had this break through about his place of privilege and what his words mean to those of us who don’t live in that place? No, I don’t think so.
As our program faces what seems to be an uphill battle in the area of cultural competency I am thankful for common ground. I am thankful for conversations that come from a place of respect and a want to understand experiences that are different from our own. I am thankful for moments that prove we all have potential for growth. I am thankful.