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It’s cool to argue ruthlessly about inconsequential things, but when the topic is serious tact and tone are under scrutiny.
A quick note: I wrote this story in 2016, and I read it again and decided I wanted to share it with you. I updated some of the references, included additional notes, edited some of the confusing sentences, and included screenshots of the emails I received, which I omitted last time because I was afraid.
I took a road trip recently with a college friend. We’re both blunt and argumentative, and he asked me why the rhetoric of gender and racial politics is so hostile. Very light car talk.
“If people are trying to make a point and convince people that they’re right,” he said, “shouldn’t they adopt a more conciliatory tone?”
People in tough situations are often asked to be conciliatory, even when their identity and ability to excel are stifled by a hostile and unwelcoming culture. Sometimes that requires calling people out. This is not always well received.
Recently, I made a private comment to the hosts of a popular podcast. They asked a question about women in the coffee industry. I expressed that both the question they posed and the tone they used presented the problem was perhaps too flippant. On top of that, the answer seemed obvious. So I wrote them an email.
update—I didn’t include the question at the time because I thought it’d be too easy to identify who the men are in this story. They asked, “Why don’t women want to work for us?” At one point they said, “We’re super married, so we won’t hit on you.”
It wasn’t very nice and it wasn’t very forgiving. I meant it to be scathing. I didn’t want to adopt the conciliatory tone I feel most women use when they defend themselves and make a point. In my tone, I meant to convey an argument as well.
Left, an excerpt from the email I sent. Right, an excerpt from the email he sent back.
I barely looked at the computer when I pressed send. My first thought was that someone would read this and think I was just some upset bitch.
My email wasn’t very nice and it wasn’t very forgiving. I meant it to be scathing. I didn’t want to adopt the conciliatory tone I feel most women use when they defend themselves and make a point. In my tone, I meant to convey an argument as well.
Another reason I felt the need to be harsh was because we are harsh all the time—just not about things that actually matter. Remember that article about how Aperol Spritzes are a bad drink? We all went to town attacking the author and attacking each other, each hot take stirring up more folks to throw in their two cents.
This example is topical, but at any point in time, we can find arguments like this. Folks decide to go all-in on seemingly unimportant things but step back when the subject actually matters. It’s ok to get riled up about drink choices, but when the topic actually affects people and outcomes, suddenly tone and tact come under scrutiny.
I got a response about a week later. The response I got was…confusing. While able to recognize some of my arguments, the author seemed to conflate gender discrimination with romance and heteronormative sexual relationships. It seemed as if he missed the point. And I told him so in my follow-up email.
In my follow-up email, I attempted to offer solutions. However, I wanted to make sure he understood he totally missed the mark. He still hadn’t addressed what I wrote.
Above, my response to his email. In this email, I tried to be a lot nicer.
The response that I got from him was curt and defensive.
I’m being vague. I’m doing it on purpose. Why? Because people told me to. After this person shut me down (and called me unprofessional) I sent the emails to a few people I know, asking them to weigh in and see what they thought.
The responses I got from my colleagues varied but averaged out yes, you’re right, but is it worth it to say anything? I was told I’d come off as a bully if I named names or leaked the emails. I was told that I had achieved enough by calling them out privately, even though they had missed the brunt of my argument. I was told it wouldn’t be worth it to publicly shame them. I was told that overall, they’re actually very nice guys. I was asked what my motivations were, questioned about what I was really going for.
Did anyone ask those questions to people going back and forth over Aperol Spritzes? What were their motivations, really?
Above, his response after the second email. Eventually, he apologized for his tone. I then followed up, saying we still haven’t solved or addressed the underlying problem. I proposed a number of solutions, like coming on their show to discuss this or opening up a forum for more women to chime in. They never responded.
This seems to be the underlying rhetoric of most power dynamics. We allow those in power to say and do certain things, but when we call them out we want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Instead, we question the person doing the calling out.
That argument is silly. Calling people out sucks—no one does it because they like to make people feel bad. Saying things like, hey! you’re being racist/sexist/classist! is very uncomfortable for the person doing the call out. On top of that, a callout is actually a huge show of faith. A callout says, You’ve been harmful, but I believe you can be better.
I tried to convey to them that I didn’t think they were intentionally doing anything bad. However, they said these things on a podcast, and they had to rectify it.
Intention doesn’t change outcomes. It does change how easily you can make an argument, though. Because harm might not intentional, it’s difficult to make an argument about systemic, unconscious, and underlying discriminatory modes of thinking without making someone feel bad. To accuse someone of doing something they don’t mean to do is hard. But it’s much, much worse to deny culpability simply by saying you didn’t mean to.
This argument took me back to that road trip. My friend saying wild shit like, I feel bad when I hear these arguments, and feeling bad isn’t going to motivate me to solve a problem.
But why should I be nice? As a woman, terrible shit happens to me every day—and I have tons of privilege. My lived experience is nowhere near how folks of other marginalized identities are treated by society.
If you feel bad because you got called out, imagine feeling bad every fucking day. Imagine questioning every wardrobe choice because someone will have something to say. Imagine being asked to smile on your walk to work. Imagine being behind the counter and a customer not asking you a question in favor of your male coworker. Imagine reading a newspaper headline that questions whether the world is ready for your gender to assume the highest political office, or to hear that you can feel safe around a man because he’s married and won’t hit on you as if that’s your only protection.
And that’s all the overt stuff. Imagine all the shit that happens behind the scenes — all the bro outings you’re not invited to, all the jobs you’re passed over for because your boss is buddies with the men on your team, all the money you probably aren’t making but your coworker is. It’s awful. It feels bad all the time.
This is a story I tell in parts. I’ve never felt quite comfortable enough to include more details. But I hope one day to find a resolution. Yes, to the story I shared above, but I also hope to find a solution to the daily hell that is biting my tongue so I won’t hurt a man’s feelings.
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