A few evenings ago, I sat around a table filled with women ranging in ages from early twenties to late fifties. While sharing conversation over food and drinks the topic of gender expectations came up. We were discussing how women are taught that it’s not okay to accept compliments. Not surprisingly, that conversation led to a discussion of other areas where women are taught differently or have separate expectations put on them for “appropriate” behavior; eventually this led to the topic of confrontation.
Last week we spoke about defining what confrontation is and some of the basics of handling confrontation well. As a reminder, confrontation is a healthy conversation with another party intended to resolve an issue or a misunderstanding. We looked at how it is important to be able to confront ourselves before we are able to be able to do the same effectively with others. To that end, we left off by asking ourselves a few questions meant to help us become more self-aware about how we deal with conflict. Hopefully, after some introspection, you were able to identify how you have been handling conflict in your life. Self-awareness is key to successful confrontation. If you are self-aware, you are better able to identify situations in which confrontation is both helpful and needed.
The first area of confrontation we will deal with is confrontation with strangers who overstep bounds – whether it is a personal boundary or a societal one. We are beginning in this place because it is often easier to speak up to people who don’t know you (and therefore have no expectations of you) than it is to speak up to those you are closest with. As with any skill confrontation gets easier the more you practice it. Those who are most successful at confrontation are those who make the skill a part of their everyday repertoire in interacting with others. These are the women who are confident in who they are and their place in the world and should you attempt to undermine that, will be able to tactfully remind you of that without making you feel small.
Before you are able to confront a stranger, you must be able to identify those situations in which a confrontation is helpful. It is not practical or necessary for you to confront every person you meet who is overstepping their bounds – if you do so, you become the one overstepping a boundary. A helpful way to think about this is to consider the outcome of your confrontation. If saying something will contribute to the growth of the individual you are confronting or to the well-being of another person, it is likely a good situation to say something. If saying something will do nothing but upset you, others, or put you in harm’s way, it is best to avoid the confrontation (although, as a caveat here, if you see someone actively harming another person, even if you are not able to speak up for the victim you can always call for help).
One situation in which you might find yourself in often is that of witnessing a stranger being rude to service personnel such as wait staff or clerks. I was once in a situation where I was purchasing an item in a clothing store with only one employee who happened to be Asian. The credit card machine was running very slowly and there was another patron in the store who was very annoyed by this and very impatient to have her question answered. She asked the clerk once, and the clerk responded that she would be with her as soon as she finished my transaction. The other customer, another woman, huffed and rolled her eyes. After a minute or two she turned to me and said: “I can’t stand all these Asians. Can you believe this, how rude? Why did she even come here if she can’t do her job?”
I was aghast. This woman was making a blatantly racist comment in front of a clerk who was actually doing her job quite well in light of being the only employee there. In this moment, I had a choice, I could either ignore the comment, or use it as an opportunity to confront a stranger who was clearly in the wrong. I chose the latter. I turned to the woman and said: “Actually, you’re the one who is being rude. This woman’s ethnicity has nothing to do with your impatience. I think she is doing an excellent job and I’m sure, if you give her the opportunity, she will give you the same level of service she has given me.”
I’m not sure that my comment had much effect on the woman, since she huffed and turned on her heel and left the store, but it did have an effect on the other people in the store, especially the clerk. She had appeared upset (understandably) at the racist remark, but when she heard my response, she looked at me and said thank you. A few other of the patrons even took it upon themselves to apologize on behalf of the rude woman. This was the best possible outcome to what had happened, but please keep in mind, that this won’t always be the case. Sometimes, your successful confrontation will still fall on deaf ears. That’s okay, confrontation is more about your ability to handle yourself in difficult situations than it is about others. Yes, it can (and often is) a way that problems and misunderstandings can be resolved, but that doesn’t need to occur all the time for confrontation to be a good thing. Confrontation, at its heart, is about your ability to speak up for yourself.
What about the things you shouldn’t confront? As mentioned above, you should never put your own safety in question solely for the sake of confrontation. It is okay to choose to walk away from situations that make you uncomfortable – even those situations that might deserve a confrontation. Sometimes, the actions of the person needing confrontation can even render you unable to act. In that situation, leaving is the right action. Even as a woman who is comfortable with confrontation, I still find myself in situations where I choose not to. Most often, it happens when I’m out in public, alone, and find myself the target of catcallers. These are men who suffer under the erroneous presumption that it is flattering to call out to a stranger on the street and “compliment” her on the basis of her physical appearance.
Catcalling is not a compliment, it is an objectifying and uncomfortable situation to find yourself in. It is also an issue that deserves confrontation. However, the confrontation for catcalling will be most effective coming at a societal level, where attitudes and views can be changed on a larger scale. When alone, faced with the comments of multiple men, choosing to confront invites more comments, that often can take a turn to the derogatory, and even possibly physically aggressive behavior. Unlike the previous situation, being catcalled and confronting does not end up helping others, instead it can lead to more upset and even possible harm. This is the situation where you walk away.
As you can see, confrontation can be a difficult subject to navigate, but it is a worthy skill to develop. Just as you took time of the last week to become more self-aware and to understand how you tend to handle conflict, this week take time to look for situations in your day to day life where you have the opportunity to confront people you don’t know. Also, identify situations where confrontation is not a good idea. As you become more confident in your ability to speak up for yourself, try speaking up to a stranger who deserves to be reminded of how we should treat each other as fellow human beings.
If you have questions, comments, or if there are other topics you’d like to address in this series on confrontation, join in on the conversation below. We’d love to hear what you think about this issue.