Monday, January 13, 2014

The Perils of Stand-Taking

Highminded virtue is, well, a virtue, right? Except so often it makes you feel like an asshole.

image courtesy of back to zero
This is on my mind because I recently had a temper tantrum over a colleague's behavior. I don't know this person (which is its own danger; see #1 below) but I was mad enough to do something about it - a Note. I signed said note (see #2) but sent it via email - it would have been far more satisfying to send it written longhand (remember cursive, kids?) on good quality letter paper, sealed with wax, stamped perhaps with an iron insignia of a crow in scarlet wax that dripped on my wrist, the burn further fueling my rage, but *whatever*.

Now I feel bad.

Here's the problem with trying to live with a set of ideals nowadays: our society is not arranged to support you. Not only do we not agree on what an acceptable standard of behavior is, many of the best among us spend a lot of time defending the rights of all of us to reject those standards and live according to a principle-set of our own making.

But some things are Just Wrong. And one of the gift/curses of middle age is that you feel unfettered enough to say so. Except you (I, rather, and many of my middle-aged female ilk) still get the backwash from our just-be-nice decades, of which we are forced to endure far more than the fuck-it-i'll-say-what-I-want years.

Who among us hasn't been through this:

  • You say your piece.
  • At first you have that glow of the righteous and you look around smugly if surreptitiously to see if those on the sidelines are applauding your bravery/joining you in disparaging the offender.
  • They're not. No one cares. (Side note: awesome rule for living, that - no one cares as much as you fear. Or hope. So you might as well just be yourself after all.)
  • Except for that one person. Who's looking at you as if you might be kind of a dick for saying it.
  • Unease sets in.
  • Suddenly everyone seems like they might be judging you. Worse, like they're having a thing at their house for the return of Downton Abbey, with appetizers, and they invited that bitch who did the thing, and not you. And further that they're going to talk about your big comment/breakdown/outburst at the party, like, "I wonder if it's a menopause thing."
  • And then you wonder if you were even right. Maybe the fabric of society was rewoven while you weren't looking and now up is down and publicity earned by twerking is good publicity and Cormac Macarthy is helping direct bad TV…maybe the stand you took is as hoary and embarrassing as insisting, say, that if its not in the American Heritage dictionary that your dad gave you in college it's NOT A WORD. (Which i have done.) In other words, maybe the bitch in that two-party bitch slap wasn't who you thought it was.
  • Insomnia.

But here's the thing. I *was* right. And despite the comment by a well meaning friend that, to paraphrase, if you can't defeat odious self-serving industry behavior, you might as well join in - it's still wrong. And we do still have to have standard bearers, despite their conspicuous absence (everything's gone downhill since Letitia Baldridge died) - and if we all take up the yoke from time to time, especially those of us who've been around the track a few times and know what we're talking about, well, we might yet make the world a bit of a seemlier place.

(Unseemly - an underused but very useful word which can serve as a test. If a thing you're about to do is legal, even becoming accepted practice, but strikes you as the least unseemly - for heaven's sake, sister, refrain.

I'll close with...


  1. Make sure it's actually your issue. Are you affected directly or indirectly? If not, back off.
  2. Got an issue with a specific person's behavior? Talk *to* the person, not about her.
  3. Doing it anonymously is cowardly. You don't want to be a coward, do you? (Hint - if you are over 50, you have NO excuse.)
  4. Don't get all hung up on the fact that you once did something uncomfortably similar. We make mistakes. We fuck up. If we had to be perfect before taking up the yoke, we would have no standard-bearers. But this *might* be a good moment to promise yourself that you'll try to set a good example whenever possible in the future.
  5. Denigrate as few people as possible. No casting wide nets to catch others who you have issues with; this is about *one* concrete instance of poor form.
  6. (This one is tough.) If at all possible, do it in a collegial fashion. Genuinely. Meaning: remind yourself that you are trying to help someone change a harmful behavior, and so you are going to keep it to yourself, and offer support going forward. If the behavior doesn't happen again, it's done and forgotten.
  7. If you get called into a debate, stay firm - what's the point of a stand if you don't stand behind it? - but remember it's about an *issue*, not about you or her or people in general.
  8. Let it go. You said your thing. People reacted, or didn't. Move on, you've got other things to do. IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU.


Regina @badassbookreviews said...

Sophie you really nail it exactly with this post. You describe the feeling before the confrontation - the compulsion really -- and the feelings after the confrontation perfectly. I have gone through that myself. Great advice. I am sorry you have been put in this position.

Mysti said...

I'm a huge fan of confrontation, wish we had more of them!

For me the issue is: will it do any good? We like to believe people want constructive input, but more often than not they don't.

So, I'm trying to

Mysti said...

oops, that is, trying to figure out earlier when someone doesn't give a hoot if they're shooting themselves in the foot.

Janet Reid said...

Well, Soph, I got your note and I knew it was from you even without looking at the lovely penmanship because it exuded the faint air of fire AND brimstone, and If I Had But Known you didn't approve of my swilling gin in waterfront dive bars whilst singing slightly off-key, well, I certainly would have ceased and desisted. Or invited you.

All jocularity aside, I think you're spot on with this one.

Pat Coffey said...

I love your advice. I do agree standards must be addressed. I too feel that sometimes the world has gone to rack and ruin.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Thanks, everyone. I guess we all share this common experience - and I admire anyone who makes a go of it despite the discomfort. Janet - can't wait until the next dive bar. :)