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I'm a 29 year old male. Sometimes find myself in a situation with a male coworker who I've just met, or a male stranger who I'm talking with (at a bus stop, for example), and they make a comment about a woman that I find to be in bad taste.

For example: "Have you met the new secretary? She has an amazing body doesn't she?"

Or a stranger in public: "Check out that girl ... I'd like to get some of that!"

My goal is to simultaneously communicate these two things:

  1. I feel that their comment is demeaning and objectifying of women

  2. I'm not trying to put them down, and I don't think I'm morally 'above' them. I don't think less of them as a person and I haven't become less interested in having discussion/friendship with them.

Clarification: I'm not suggesting that it's disrespectful for a man to simply find a woman attractive. What I find demeaning and objectifying is when a man verbalizes his sexual attraction to a woman's body as a topic of casual conversation - especially when the man clearly has no knowledge or interest in any character trait of the woman. Also demeaning and objectifying are comments made about sexual things he would like to do with her.

Update: At least one answer to this question notes that I didn't mention anything about wanting to change the way the person thinks. But that is really my greatest hope in the way that I respond - that I would help the person to think more critically about the way they talk (and think) about women; that their perceptions of women would not be reduced to sexual preferences and fantasies.

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    As I see judgment like sexual, harassing or whatever, I think you should give a real example of what those people say. Is it really the "amazing body" only? I'd say at least in western regions this is far from a sexual or inappropriate statement. Are there other facts about this, like the coworker being a macho or something else we should know? This discussion needs to focus on one common situation. Can you give your region? Then things could become clearer. – puck Mar 22 '18 at 15:33
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    @puck That "amazing body" statement is actually the exact situation that happened to me last week which lead to me asking this question. Also, the clarification I added to the question provides more specific information about what makes it inappropriate. – Josh Withee Mar 22 '18 at 17:58
  • ok these additions are really important in this case because this has a huge impact on how the other person sees you and how serious you will be taken. I hope you all understand what I mean. The whole effort has no positive effect if they don't take you serious, only a negative effect on you. That's why I advise you not to overreact but take the whole situation into account. – puck Mar 23 '18 at 5:18
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This is something that I've discussed with a lot of people who are the targets of such comments, and the consensus is that we would like our allies to reply with a short disapproval. Not a long lecture; not an explanation (come on, the speaker knows why what they are saying is rude); not an alternate wording.

My preference is a simple

Not cool

But you might like "really?" or "seriously?" or "don't bring me into that" or whatever else feels right in your mouth.

Nothing to argue with. Nothing to escalate about. Nothing to move this into an argument between you and the speaker. Just express that you are not on board with that.

Do I think you should do it with a stranger at the bus stop who is commenting about some other stranger, perhaps one who can't even hear the comment? Maybe not. But a coworker? Especially if the comment is about another coworker? 100%! Please do. In the case of a coworker who is relatively new, (or someone at your user group or conference) you can also try "We don't do that here."

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    "Don't say stuff like that, man" is another similar but more specific complaint/remark that addresses the problematic behaviour directly :) – Tay W Mar 22 '18 at 10:53
  • It is worth checking the ethics code of the company, I bet there is something there about harassment. Then "this is frowned upon in this company" is also effective. – Mindwin Mar 27 '18 at 14:58
  • I like this. Just curious, why not say it to a stranger at the bus stop? – Josh Withee Mar 28 '18 at 13:44
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    I would say it to a stranger if the target could hear, to reassure them. But I would not risk a physical confrontation with someone I know nothing about, when the only benefit is that I might change their ways. The coworker is both more of a known entity and more likely to change by hearing my views, since I am a known entity too. With the stranger the benefits are far less likely and the high end of the risk is very high. – Kate Gregory Mar 28 '18 at 14:13
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    I think the last paragraph was mostly just unclear because some people (myself, at least) interpret it as a comment towards a stranger at a bus stop vs a coworker, as opposed to a stranger making the comment. While I think there's some merit in encouraging even strangers to be nicer (since such language does make the targets and others around uncomfortable), there's definitely no denying that you don't want to step in with a stranger who could have a short fuse. – Kat Mar 28 '18 at 15:51
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My Answer

Given you only care to express that you dislike it, you should ignore or make a gesture/noise dismissing it. He may continue to make these comments a few times more, but it'll naturally stop over time once you stop feeding into it.

Some ways you could dismiss it:

  • Ignoring the comment completely or immediately changing the subject
  • Making a "Hmm" sound acknowledging the comment but not responding to it
  • As CrazyCucumber said, suggesting that thinking about your coworkers that way is weird ("Eh, I feel weird thinking about my coworkers sexually")*

* I'm not a huge fan of this one in all situations. If the person is very macho/overbearing, this might come off as looking down on them while a more logical/mindful person won't.

The reason I suggest dismissing it instead of directly addressing it is because addressing it will definitely put them down even if it's a subconscious feeling to them. It also has the potential to have him label you as a spoilsport.

Why?

Let's take a journey into the mind of someone who makes these comments. I wouldn't necessary call this person a sexist, but rather someone someone who is rationalizing their sexist behavior. This person views objectifying women in this way as normal human male behavior. This person does not share the same fundamental views as you and does not think the same way as you.

When you tell someone what they have internalized as normal is bad ("Not cool.", "You can't say that.", etc.), you're challenging their concept of normal and of themselves. You're challenging something that is core to them in some way. This type of person does not take kindly to being told some core aspect of themselves is "bad". They get defensive, shut down, and stop listening. Think about how many times this has happened during a political, ethical, or religious discussion; it's the same concept.

Instead of being issued a direct challenge, this person needs to feel as if they are challenged by their own perceptions. They need to look at a situation and put the pieces together themselves to figure out what they did wrong. This person needs that moment of "Oh crud, what did I do wrong?" that inevitably leads them to the thought "Maybe commenting on the secretary isn't cool." They need to come to that conclusion themselves and won't accept someone else coming to that conclusion for them.

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    Please don't ignore it. Not saying anything can be taken as approval, or at least not disapproval. And the men need to disapprove too. – thursdaysgeek Mar 21 '18 at 22:53
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    @Arthas - for sexist comments, especially about co-workers, ignoring it makes you a bystander who isn't doing anything. That doesn't help shut it down. Until the guys are also telling them they are uncool, there is no real reason to stop. In other words, it IS worth responding to. – thursdaysgeek Mar 21 '18 at 23:58
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    @thursdaysgeek Ignoring it IS doing something. You create an awkward situation in which the other person might realize, "Hm, I just said something that this person literally didn't even bother to respond to." instead of "Hm, this guy just called me a sexist. I'm not a sexist. Screw you, coworker!" – Arthas Mar 22 '18 at 0:03
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    @Arthas I have trouble believing that someone who makes things awkward for others by making sexist comments would notice or care about the awkwardness of getting no response. Since apparently he finds making those comments normal I don't think silence would be taken as disagreement - rather as confirmation of the normality of the comments. – AllTheKingsHorses Mar 22 '18 at 9:05
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    @AllTheKingsHorses I have the same trouble believing that someone who does that will take being called sexist in a way that might actually promote change outside of not doing it around OP. Putting people on edge and making them defensive does not lead to change. If making people defensive worked, we wouldn't have any sexists/racists/X-ists left. – Arthas Mar 22 '18 at 13:28
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You should probably focus on telling him how the comment makes you feel instead of trying to dissect it in great detail and talk about the broad societal implications. You could be 100% right about everything, but regardless:

  1. People are more likely to listen to personal requests than they are to moralizing (and despite your #2, I'm afraid it will be very hard for those sentiments to not come off as superior moralizing.)
  2. The more they encounter people who express personal disapproval with an attitude, the less likely they are to express it and (maybe) the more likely they are to reevaluate the attitude behind the comment.

The problem with giving such people a detailed explanation like this:

What I find demeaning and objectifying is when a man verbalizes his sexual attraction to a woman's body as a topic of casual conversation - especially when the man clearly has no knowledge or interest in any character trait of the woman. Also demeaning and objectifying are comments made about sexual things he would like to do with her.

...is that you're potentially opening up a can of worms.

I personally find such comments to be tedious and boorish even when they aren't outright offensive, and yes they are commonly used by misogynists, but these aren't simple testable facts like "water boils at 100 degrees Celsius"; these are abstract, complex value judgments that people can and will argue over.

And here are the sorts of responses you're likely to encounter after saying such things: What constitutes a "casual conversation"? There are males and females who enjoy casual sex without getting to know each other (swingers); are these people "objectifying" each other? And, as they are consenting adults, is that ok or is it harmful to our society? Why is it only objectifying to talk about something you'd like to do sexually, but it's not objectifying if you said that you wanted to, for instance, play guitar with Buckethead? (There's a lot more to his personality than his guitar playing, after all. And isn't it highly presumptuous to imply he'd ever want to play with you?) And why is it apparently not "objectifying" to openly talk about using people for money, or for their professional services, or any of the other one-dimensional ways in which people often talk about interacting with their casual acquaintances in everyday life?

You may have a good response to every single one of those, but this isn't the time or place for debate. The only point is that it IS a debate. And is debate the best way to change the behavior of individuals in your day to day life?

If someone disagrees with your analysis, as you can see they can find plenty of nooks and crannies to hide in. And they will probably find the implication of moral superiority insulting, no matter how many disclaimers you use. Especially the ones who do not consider themselves to be misogynists (rightly or wrongly.)

So instead of trying to win the full nuclear war of ideas with every single individual you come across, maybe just try to win the battle. Just ask him to cut it out because it bothers you. And if enough people do that, maybe he will. (And if he doesn't, if he sees the social consequences of not cutting it out...)

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Let's say Steve tells you at work:

"Have you met the new secretary? She has an amazing body doesn't she?"

Answer: (laugh) "That's not very professional, Steve."

Rationale:

The other proposed answers, like "Not cool" and its variants all mean you're judging Steve according to your own personal moral and cultural standards, and you're attempting to shame him relative to your standards.

Steve has different standards than yours (LOGIC: if he had the same standards, he wouldn't have commented out loud on the secretary's assets).

Therefore, the shaming tactic will not work. If you want to shame someone, you have to use something that they find shameful, not something that you find shameful.

Steve will instead come to the conclusion that you're a killjoy and a spoilsport, ignore your judgement, and probably act hostile in the future. Enjoy the toxic work environment you just created!

On the other hand, "That's not very professional" shames Steve using the standards of professionalism (not your personal standards)... and Steve will have a very hard time trying to justify that commenting on the new secretary's rear is, in fact, professional...

Additionally, telling it like a joke makes it a lot easier to swallow and less aggressive, but the most important thing is that you're not judging Steve directly, rather what you are doing is like calling a neutral third party (like the referee): pointing out that his behavior is not appropriate according to the generally accepted rules of the game in a professional setting.

I put a laugh in front, try not to sound like you agree with him, rather you find him a bit ridiculous (let's be honest, he would be a bit ridiculous to make such a comment on the job). But don't go too hard on him... don't want to scare him off!

Another good line would be to appoint the secretary as the referee:

(chuckle) "Sure! I wonder what she'd think if she'd heard that though..."

This one has an added feature: there is no way to know what she'd think, so Steve has no counter-argument. But please don't make it sound like you're 100% agreeing and egging him on to make these comments to her face! Maybe you want to change the phrasing a little bit...

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I had a friend in college who (for religious reasons) didn't swear and didn't like to be around people who were swearing. Her process when someone would swear around her was to

  1. Point out that she thinks their swearing is inappropriate or disrespectful
  2. Explain why she feels that way
  3. Ask them not to swear around her in the future

With the exception of one person (who just really wanted to be a thorn in her side), everyone that my friend used this approach on would agree not to swear around her. You can take a similar approach in regard to sexual comments. To use your example:

Coworker: Have you met the new secretary? She has an amazing body doesn't she?

You: I don't really talk about women like that, because I think it's disrespectful to women to talk sexually about them in casual conversations. I would appreciate it if you didn't speak like that around me.

When I stopped swearing around my friend because she asked me to, I got into a habit of not swearing and I found that I ended up swearing less when I wasn't around her as well. You won't necessarily be able to get your coworkers to stop objectifying women entirely, but this approach can help them begin to build the habit of not objectifying them.

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    To your citation. That's what I tried to point out. "amazing" is NOT disrespectful or sexual. Acting like this will give the OP a bad image. Always keep to reality. – puck Mar 22 '18 at 15:30
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Refuse to engage. "I don't want to go there." You don't really want to start a value showdown or get people in the mood to prove to others that you have a stick up yours. You have no duty to explain yourself and none to defend yourself. This can be repeated with modifiers: "I don't want to go there, is all." "I don't want to go there. Let's leave it at that." "In case I have not been sufficiently clear about this: I don't want to go there." Of course, the more you have to insist, the higher the likelihood that you'll end up on the "imagine what a spoilsport" list.

If this happens frequently to you, chances are that you are the odd man out. Your chances to have your boundaries respected increases with you not passing judgment but making clear that this is a matter of your personal boundaries. You cannot change the world alone, but you can increase the likelihood that people realize that there are more people like you.

And in the meantime, you still deserve others heeding your personal boundaries.

0

When someone tries to involve you in an inappropriate comment - whether it be sexist, racist, or whatever - any inaction on your part can be interpreted by them as tacit approval. It may come back upon you at a later time - for example if it is a workmate rather than a complete stranger and they feel you approved they may go on to say it to someone else who strongly objects. Further, they may defend themselves by naming you and saying that you didn't mind when they said it.

I appreciate the two goals you have set in your question and both are important - but hopefully you will agree that the first point is more important than the second. I cannot guarantee how people will react to whatever you choose say, but it should at least achieve the first goal of showing your disapproval and hopefully achieve the secondary goal of not closing the door on a discussion or friendship.

I would suggest that you smile, but say:

You can't say that.

The smile will indicate that you are not so offended you cannot continue speaking to them, but the message is pretty direct.

Now, some may say that this could still be interpreted as tacit approval - that you perhaps mean "I secretly think that too, but society doesn't allow us to say it". However, it is a fact that some people (rightly or wrongly) think it is okay to say things in an "ironic" way for humour value. Others simply do not know how to express themselves any other way. In your example, perhaps the guy making the comment really does think the woman is attractive (which is fair enough) but doesn't really know how to express it acceptably and so defaulted to an archaic, sexist comment. I think my suggested approach gives them the benefit of the doubt and is most likely to achieve both of your goals. If they are a decent person then this is gentle nudge in the right direction.

You may find that they apologise! In which case you can follow up with...

No apology needed.

...and then change the subject. Moving onto a different subject shows them you are not offended beyond recovery and achieves your secondary goal.

Alternatively, if the person is really behind what they said then they may argue with you, which indicates to you that they were not being ironic or short of a better expression - they really are sexist, or whatever. In this instance, I really wouldn't care about the secondary goal as I don't want to talk to sexists or racists. In this instance you can go on to state...

Well I was trying to be polite, but really - I don't believe you should say that.

This makes it clear that you don't approve, and while the secondary goal may be lost, I don't think you have lost any friendship that you would really wan't to keep anyway. I also believe that in the workplace it is highly unlikely you would get to this point. Most people know that you cannot get away with inappropriate comments in the workplace these days, and the first gentle reminder from you will probably be enough to put that right.

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