How do you respond to problematic comments made at family gatherings, parties or other social interactions? We’re letting you in on some of our tricks.
Before even figuring out how to respond, you first have to determine if to respond. When deciding, here are some things to consider:
1) Who the speaker is and your relationship to them
Some people find it easier to engage when the offender is a close friend or family member, someone with whom they experience unconditional love. Others fear damaging the relationship most important to them over something seemingly small. But you know your relationships best and can figure out what everyone can handle.
2) Who else is around to hear it
We got feedback from our readers that it really matters who else is around. And we agree! If two women start fat-shaming each other in front of younger girls, standing up against internalized sexism sets an important model for the next generation.
3) How you’re doing/feeling in that moment
“I prefer to respond when I can be chill about it,” replied one of our readers.
Trying to explain how the history of colonialism continues to play out today might be more difficult after the longest week ever. You are the best judge of whether or not it’s time to engage.
4) Knowledge of subject matter
Readers reported preferring to have enough information. Don’t feel like it’s a subject you can take on? Check out our resource guide for more 411 on all sorts of topics. Also, if you’re having a gut instinct that something is wrong, you can always share your opinion and follow up with more information later.
5) Personal relationship to subject matter
Did someone just say something that directly insults you, your relatives or partner? Depending on how painful the subject is for you personally, your response in that moment may need to be more about self-preservation than education.
Did you decide to go ahead and engage? Here are some strategies you can try out:
It doesn’t always have to be serious. Try combatting racist jokes with jokes about racism itself. Or say “I always love comedians who actually expose racism instead of just perpetuating it.”
2) Pretending you don’t understand/Asking questions
My friend Julie has a favorite example: a male acquaintance referred to another woman as a JAP. Fully aware of the meaning of the slang Julie asked, “What’s a JAP?” “You know, a Jewish American Princess,” he said. “Did she live in castle?!” Julie asked with joy on her face, effectively employing both strategies number 1 and 2, and forcing the man to reconsider his language.
This strategy can also be used more seriously if humor doesn’t feel appropriate. When people say “I prefer not to walk in that kind of neighborhood,” asking questions about what they mean can lead to the underlying classism and racism ingrained in those statements and can produce a genuine conversation.
Often most successful in producing empathy is just telling a personal story. “I don’t like when people say negative things about women’s bodies. My mom used to do that when I was a kid and it made me feel bad about myself. I’m now learning to heal from that and part of my healing is trying not to engage in negative talk about other women.”
4) Flagging for later
Sometimes you can keep it simple if you don’t have the energy, time, or necessary information. For example: “We don’t have to get into it now because I know we have a meeting agenda, but I want to come back to this assumption that only rich people donate to charity. I’m pretty sure I’ve read some countering statistics that we don’t have time for. But I’ll be sure to look and send them out with the notes.”
5) Straight talk
The scariest for some, the easiest for others. (Bear in mind: humans are strong and capable and can heal from anything.) It would be okay to say, “Hey, when you talk about the Muslim people like that it feels bad. There are over 1 billion Muslim people in the world, the vast majority of whom preach peace and love. As a Jew I know what it’s like to have my people hated and I’m just not down with perpetuating that for another religion. What’s your feeling on that?” And then engage.
What’s the worst that can happen? (And if the answer is: something truly awful can happen, see #6).
6) Self-preservation/Boundary Setting
As I said earlier, sometimes the topic might be too painful for you to even be around. You can say you will need to leave if the conversation continues like this. You can actually get up and leave. Another reader provided a few short phrases she uses: “ouch,” “too far for me,” “can’t hang out with those thoughts.” If you’re up for it, you can also try, “When comments like that are made it triggers these feelings inside me. It may not be your intention for me to feel this way, but I want you to know how I feel in response.” You get to take care of yourself, and you know how to do that best.
Having trouble thinking of a response? Feeling stuck? There are still strategies for you! Readers provided responses including “Ok! Moving on!” and the “specifically vague” phrase: “Well, now, that’s a thought!” (which is reported to lead to a subject change). One reader said, “Sometimes I feel that just gently not participating in the conversation or giving any response is enough to register that I’m not agreeing or colluding.” Others reported using body language to show lack of interest in continuing the conversation. Other phrases to try: “That statement doesn’t feel right to me. I don’t feel like getting into a debate about it now, but maybe we could just move on?” “I’m pretty sure that’s inaccurate, but I will look up more info about it and send it to you later!” “I think this conversation is better continued just the two of us at another time.”
Hard stuff, right? The good news is that we don’t have to be perfectionists about it. Maybe we’ll come up with a great response, maybe we won’t. Maybe someone will appreciate what we say and maybe not. What matters is that you made the assessment, you tried something (because even not responding is trying something) and then you will learn from the result. If it’s not the result you wanted, oh well! The good (er bad?) news is that you will have plenty more opportunities to try again. Additionally, it sometimes feels like the very moment it happens is the only opportunity to respond. While It is often is easier in the moment, it’s not your last shot. “Remember yesterday when you said that thing? It actually upset me because…” is also valid.
This stuff is also really cultural. People from different class, race and ethnic backgrounds might have different ways of handling tricky moments. Our way is not the only way, and ideally we all get to learn from each other.
I think the best advice we can offer is just to notice. Does your heart race? Do you sweat? Do you get really angry? Do you repeatedly choose not to engage? How do people generally respond to what you say? Try to notice without judgment and keep track of patterns. How come I usually feel tongue tied? What am I most scared of? Start collecting information. The more information you have, the more likely you can make rational decisions in the future (hm, I notice that I’m having that body sweat thing again. I remember that that means I’m scared. But there is no real threat here. Okay! I think I can respond!). Be gentle with yourself and keep at it. And if you yourself said something offensive, you can be gentle on yourself too and learn about it for next time.
There’s also something in all this for you: every time you speak up, you get to have the experience of seeing yourself as someone who acts on the things you believe in. This is not for self-kudos, but for the experience of inner-alignment. And the more you practice, the more you build the muscle.
By the way, if you are an educator, we lead a workshop on this stuff! It’s called “Evaded Issues” and was originally developed by Naomi Less and Shira Epstein. The workshop is designed to help educators with strategies to engage when tough topics unexpectedly arise in educational settings. Let us know if you’d like to schedule a workshop for your school or organization!
Written by Ma’yan staff: Talia Cooper, Shayna Goodman, Andrea Jacobs