A post on the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation made me cry this morning. It was by a young woman of color working as a Staff Assistant in the U.S. Congress sharing her exhaustion and despair.

I stopped writing about politics on this blog six months ago for a couple of reasons.

First, the sheer volume of blog worthy political activity seemed to quadruple over night. The constant churning of the news cycle meant I was still ruminating the implications of some development when the next one dropped center stage. I could never make it as a journalist with a deadline. Props to those who do!

The second reason I stopped writing about politics was my kid. My strong, compassionate, deeply political, social activist daughter teeters on the edge of an existential crisis because she sees the potential for disaster in her future.

Current events now make previously far-fetched outcomes frighteningly possible in the USA. Things like authoritarianism, populism, decreased civil rights for women and minorities. (Frankly I don’t understand how anyone watches “The Handmaid’s Tale.”) And always the spectre of nuclear war.

As US politics is currently dominated by white men of the generation prior to mine, my daughter has a very real fear that she may not have a chance to do the work in the world that she is driven to do.

The woman in the post this morning wrote, “But I can’t leave this [work] … To leave would be disrespectful to the communities that supported my journey into politics.”

Yes, please stay. We need you. Each generation relies on the next to fix our mistakes.

As I cried tI added some words of encouragement to the 7,000+ comments already on her post. Maybe the outpouring of love and caring from strangers will help.

I think what all the young people dedicated to public service – this woman, my daughter – need right now are trail maintainers not trailblazers. People dedicated to chopping brush, moving aside storm-tossed obstacles, and placing fresh markers so they can see the path.

Ranting in outrage about injustices, or analyzing political maneuvers, feels to me like creating obstacles rather than removing them, so no political rants from me for the foreseeable future.

There is other work to do.

 

In my current love/hate relationship with social media its easy to forget why I liked it in the first place.

Facebook was a great solace during the three years when my office was isolated and I could go entire days not speaking to anyone except by email. Have I mentioned I’m an extrovert?

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Insta linked me to the outside world. And Pandora.

One big benefit of working alone in an almost empty building was that I could play music as loud as I liked – electronica & jazz for writing workshops, grants or  PowerPoints,  classic rock & funk for collating binders.

Social media connected me with folks I’d never meet in person (friends of friends, journalists, activists etc.) and more importantly created a much larger circle of information. I know we all live in our bubble of self-selected media, but having FB friends outside of my regular friend group continues to introduce information I might otherwise ignore or miss.

For instance, a Native artist I follow  introduced me to Indian Country Media so I learned of the DAPL protest actions long before it surfaced in the New York Times. Social media introduced me to, among other things, emergencies and issues affecting women of color, the LGBTQ community, Black Americans and native peoples.

I’ve read perspectives that I agreed and disagreed with from Libertarians, Bernie progressives, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and international citizens, activists and journalists.

So it’s not all bad.

However.

Since the election I have decided that social media and journalism has to be balanced with conversations In Real Life (IRL).

I’ve started reaching out to old friends and acquaintances to schedule chats over coffee, phone, or Skype. I’ve started reaching out to make new acquaintances and friends to meet and chat. Did I mention I’m a shy extrovert who doesn’t make friends easily?

It’s hard to be the initiator all the time (no one likes rejection), and time is as limited as ever, but committing to In Real Life is helping me feel hopeful in a way that liking folks social media posts isn’t.

Hearing opinions and updates accompanied by voice and body language puts me back in the “I – Thou” that I know I need.

So hit me up for a coffee date or drink.

Meanwhile, this brilliant animation my inspire you to join me IRL.

 

It’s not quite time yet for looking back on the highs and lows of 2016, but going to the Board of Elections and voting today threw me into a reflective mood. Off the top of my head I counted five unexpected milestones in my life so far this year.

#5 – Charging what I’m worth.

When I started consulting years ago it never occurred to me that I should be paid. I was very invested in helping people and using my skills for good. I was doing people “favors.”

One day a good friend expressed shock  when he found out that I didn’t charge for consulting and it woke me up to the fact that I was perpetuating another female stereotype by not valuing myself. Of course I started by charging ridiculously low fees and being embarrassed by the transaction.

I have been slowly creeping up to industry norms for coaching and consulting even though my impulse is to offer a discount to every nonprofit, or women’s organization, or client who I imagine is paid poorly.

It was never about the money but now that I have quit my job to consult, the reality of paying bills and a kid soon to be in college means I am biting my tongue and charging what I am worth. And so far no one is complaining. Which brings me to…

#4 – Quitting my job.

When I resigned from Case Western Reserve I had been employed there in one position or another since 2001. I was hired one week after I’d finished my Masters and two weeks before my mother died. It was a big transition year.

I loved many things about my work at CWRU, and I accomplished a great deal over the years, but it was time to move on.  Letting go of the habit of over work has been the strangest transition so far. Between consulting nights & weekends, and volunteering various places, I was working a 60-70 hour week for about five years. Now working 40 hours feels lazy. If I take on more clients that may change but right now it gives me time for …

#3 – Separating from my kid.

Along with the frenzied senior year activities of college visits, applications, essays and, of course the FAFSA, I am getting a glimpse of the future where our daughter is no longer a satellite in our orbit, and we become a satellite in hers. This is a very good thing and a very deep lesson that won’t be mastered quickly.

In the meantime because I am working from home I can generally stop what I am doing and have lunch with her and hear about her day when she gets home. I joke that for her senior year she gets the stay-at-home mother she craved when she was in elementary school.

It’s actually an unexpected and lovely byproduct of quitting my job that we have extra time together for the next 10 months. Even though she is spending a great deal of time out of the house taking some college courses, doing her extra curriculars, and volunteering as a fall fellow for the Clinton campaign. Which brings me to …

#2 – Voting for Hillary Clinton.

That was one for the books. Even though our entire family and almost everyone we know is donating money and working like crazy for the Clinton campaign, I paused before I filled in the bubble on my ballot. I suddenly felt emotional that I was actually voting for a woman for president.

And specifically this woman who I admire and respect and disagree with.

So far during this election cycle I have cried three times. First during Hillary’s acceptance speech at the convention, and then while watching some particularly disturbing reporting and awful backlash about sexism, and today when I filled out my ballot. I didn’t think this would happen in my lifetime.

#1 – Milestone for 2016

I am planning to add the final milestone to this list on November 9th with something else that I didn’t think would happen in my lifetime. And I’ll probably cry.

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I was forced to buy a new wallet recently. I don’t invest much in accessories like wallets, handbags, phone cases and such so this doesn’t happen very often. I think this might be the fourth or fifth wallet I’ve owned in my lifetime. All my previous wallets has slots for school photos. Which I sort of miss.

Cleaning out the old wallet, which had considerably more nooks and crannies than the new one, I found something my mother gave me back in 1991.

My mom was a religious person, a person of faith, and a big believer in miracles. Back in 1991, the year before my dad was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him a year later, I was in a place of flux.

When I was laid off from the theatre I worked at for years, I took a job as a temp for a publisher. Within months I was hired full-time and was making more money than I had ever made  in theatre. I think the salary was a whopping $18,000.

Seeing as this was thousands of dollars more than I earned in theatre, I actually paid down my looming debt and felt “rich”. I had savings for the first time in my life and still managed to act and direct  at night. The stamina of youth + coffee.

In 1991 I was weighing the decision to return to a theatre position full-time, which I ultimately did. Sitting at my moms kitchen table obviously moaning about money worries and trying to decide between what was safe and what was authentic, she pulled out a piece of paper and wrote me a note.

It said “Pay to the Order of Amanda T. Shaffer. Paid in Full. The Law of Abundance.” She dated it, had me sign it and told me to carry it in my wallet always.

I don’t know if her talisman worked but the next year I met Mr. Man who became my friend and husband, and the years following the abundance flowed – I founded a theatre, bought a house, had a child and continued to find interesting, fulfilling work in and out of theatre for the next 25 years.

There were many dips in the road, losing my dad in 1992, and then mom in 2001. Followed by the death of my brother, my husbands grandparents, and my father-in-law. But the abundance and richness of my life has never dimmed. And I am grateful.

Sunday was the anniversary of my mom’s death and I am still vaguely surprised by it every year. So I was happy to find the tattered paper talisman she gifted me with – dated on what would be my daughters birthday eight years in the future – and put it in my new wallet.

Where I will carry it always.

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I took a 30 minute walk outside today.

A lunch time walk may not sound like big deal but I have an unhealthy habit of forgetting to get up from my desk for 5 hours at a time. I always have the best of intentions to take a break and walk outside in the middle of the day. And I have never done it until today.

Self-care, those intentional choices we make to nurture our bodies, minds and spirit, are the first items on the chopping block when time gets tight and the to-do list gets long. For me the first thing to go is “taking a break”, followed by writing, “seeing friends”, eating “healthy food”, and ultimately exercise. This past year I didn’t even plant any annuals because I knew I would have to water them. It was a bleak garden year.

Many days I am hanging on to my exercise class by my fingernails. I work out distracted and unfocused, with headaches and colds, coming in late and leaving early to accommodate clients, trying to fit in at least two classes a week.

But that’s not really self-care. That’s just enough fuel to keep going.

Last year my coaching business nearly doubled, I tried unsuccessfully to bring on associates, and was forced to both raise my rates and turn down clients to make it all work. Sounds like a success and feels like a disaster.  And almost all self-care disappeared.

I decided this morning that I would put a walk on my calendar every day and set an alarm just like a meeting. I don’t miss meetings and I have a Pavlovian relationship with my iPhone calendar alarms, so I booked five walks. I still have too much work, and am finishing (or starting) things right up against the deadline, but truly another 30 minutes is not going to make that big of a difference.

I am also planning to scheduled one writing hour per week.

This is the simple technique I start my clients on when they are overwhelmed and need to make change: Make it small. Make it concrete on your calendar. Make it repetitive.

But I forget to take my own medicine sometimes.

I used to be dismissive of the concept of self-care when I was younger because it sounded so basic – eat decent food, sleep, see friends & family, get some exercise. Either I didn’t understand the concept of overwork at the time, or I maybe I bounced back quicker, whatever the case I am currently quite respectful of the concept and need for self-care.

Now that I’ve learned my lesson, I plan to spend more time being intentional in scheduling my breaks, my visits with friends, and my “purpose & joy” to quote a wise friend.

Snowdrops I discovered on my walk today.

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Snowdrops, February 1, 2016

 

I discovered years ago that when my thoughts are racing too fast, and for too long, that I lose complete touch with my body. I become a head in a jar.

This is different from the “brain in a vat” of Matrix movie fame. Which, on some days, seems really pleasant – float in your isolation tank while the imaginary world takes care of itself through the computer.

What I’m talking about is my habit of living from the neck up. It creeps up over the course of months until I’m caught off guard by some physical reminder that I have a body. Usually in the form a crick in my neck or a swollen knee.

My go to method for finding my whole self again is to get a massage.  In some fantasy one-percenter future I would indulge in a massage once a week rather than once a quarter.

Over the twenty years that I’ve enjoyed massages I have only used a male masseuse twice. They made me uncomfortable and I’ve skipped getting a massage if only a men were available. I felt like a male masseuse couldn’t really understand how to work on me and they wouldn’t have that Zen, I-am-communicating-with-your-body-through-my-hands thing that I look for in a good masseuse

A couple weeks ago I couldn’t take it anymore and needed someone to put my trapezius back in order and rub all that cortisol out of me. My usual person was not available so I ended up agreeing to use the man.

All the reservations I just mentioned were compounded when I met him at the salon and discovered he was very big and powerful looking. Oh no! I thought, not the dreaded “sports massage” that’s “good for you” and leaves you sore rather than relaxed.

Fortunately for me, what I experienced instead was the massage I have been dreaming of since the woman I preferred ran off to Bali ten years ago. (Part of the salon name is “Dream Spa” so its fitting.) Carlos’ hands managed to put my head and body back together and I’m grateful I changed my mind and tried him.

And that’s how bias works my friends. It’s as simple as that. Preconceived notions, possibly from limited experience, left un-examined, and used for decision making. Happens in everything from casual interactions to business decisions every day.

So what’s the answer? For me, its reflecting on choices and calling myself out when I notice I’m operating from bias.

And also being an ally in situations where bias might be present. Sometimes being an ally is complicated because I’m not “speaking from a place of cultural authority”, but, I hang in there and try to be appropriate rather than appropriating. The reality is we can’t can make progress reducing bias if only those who experience it are considered capable of countering it. In some circles that’s still a standard position.

I know I can’t know the reality of lived oppression, but I feel – perhaps incorrectly – that I can still stand up, say it exists, and fight to change it. And of course admit when I’m wrong. Going a little deeper than just calling #WhitePriviledge or #FirstWorldProblems.

The upside of this small personal revelation is I now have a fabulous new masseuse I can go to. Who works on Sundays!

May he never quit the salon.

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I recently described the last six months of my life as a time of “unprecedented stress.”

What would have been more accurate is if I had said to my friend “I am experiencing a time of unrelenting pressure to deliver an increasing number of outcomes in ever shorter amounts of time.” Sort of like running in front of lava or a landslide. Funny in a Looney Tunes cartoon, less so in real life.  Maybe if I could make my feet do those fast wheelie things it would be okay.wile-e-coyote-3

There are a lot of reasons for the additional pressures and the explosion of work, some positive & some negative, but its important to keep in mind we have suffered no tragedy, no one is ill, none of the top 10 Life-Stress Events are currently present. (Touch wood)

Add to this mix the fact that my husband and daughter have also had a tough few months and we have a heady brew of cortisol and other assorted hormones making for one jagged household.

On top of the tightly booked calendar there always seems to be something that needs doing: a client that needs a follow up, laundry that needs folding, an email that needs a reply, so its easy to just go, go, go. And we get good at it don’t we?

The tough part is figuring out how to come out of it.

Last night after dinner I changed into my robe and lounged on the couch and re-read a favorite Terry Pratchett book (Making Money) and realized that it felt like a vacation day.

Home on time, no meetings, no events, no four-more-hours-of-work waiting for me before bed. Just decompressing with a thinly veiled sci-fi fantasy commentary on modern banking and economics.

It was a reminder, not of the mythical work life balance we all strive for, but what a danger it is to let urgency become the default groove. Sometimes it’s necessary and you have to push through and get it done (Hello January through June 2015!), but we humans love our habits and emergency mode is as addicting as any other form of adrenaline.

I’m a creature of words. I need time to think. And write my blog. And lots and lots of time to socialize and talk about what I think. And when the schedule is this heavy and the stress is this steady, I can’t think properly anymore.

Time to step back and see how to lower the stress level.

Because crazy busy is not a thing, it’s a habit.

Over-scheduling is either a choice, or it has a solution called “cutting something.” Everything feeling like an emergency because of over-scheduling is also a choice. I can’t always control my schedule, but I can control my attitude.

My goal for June – December of 2015 is surface tension rather than “crazy busy.”  Float delicately on my calendar (and life) like a water strider, poised and professional. And the house may have to clean itself.

I’m not sure it’s ever done, but I’m strongly considering a blanket email to my entire contact list as a kind of apology – “I’m sorry I’ve become that person who hasn’t replied to your email for six weeks. It’s not you its me.” But maybe everyone has forgotten what they wanted and moved on by now.

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Anyone needing an easy laugh should come to my Jazzercise class on days the instructor works in routines that require clapping. Since I have yet to master the ability move my feet and clap my hands at the same time, the result is an earnest yet ridiculous, Jerry Lewis-like flailing.

Thankfully there is never more than one of these per class.

A bigger issue than my lack of large motor skills is the way I lose my rhythm when someone in my family is out of sorts. My instinct is to sidetrack even my most important and essential activities to do whatever needs doing, or shore up whatever needs reinforcing.

Let me be clear that my husband and child are NOT standing in front of me screaming for me to be self-sacrificing. It’s my own super clever brain that tells me that I’m a selfish person (and a bad mother/wife/sister/friend/human) if I don’t put others first.

Work-life balance (ha!) is manageable if and only if (iff) nothing is breaking down, screwing up, or spinning out of control due to unforeseen circumstances.  So that means never.

I know this.

I teach this.

And under pressure I forget this as quickly as everyone else.

That’s one reason the tag line for my coaching & consulting biz is “Nothing endures but change. Be here now.” To remind myself and my clients that the only control we really have is over our own minds.

Whether you follow the Four Noble Truths, Oprah and her vision boards, a religious community, or just positive thinking – getting your head back in the present moment can help get you back in the rhythm of your life. And all its various beats.

For me, its remembering even if I can’t clap along I know the song won’t last forever.

A rhythm related side note: Once upon a time I watched My Sister Eileen (a mostly dreadful movie), and saw a very young Bob Fosse doing some of his signature moves, but because I had recently seen Cabin in The Sky I noticed that John W. Sublett (“Bubbles”) must have been an influence on Fosse. Its an amazing movie. There’s also a scene where Ethel Waters sings Taking a Chance on Love and Bill Bailey does the Moonwalk. Before Michael.

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While I was facilitating a discussion about race this week it came up that some people “didn’t want to get into it” because black people are “always so angry.”

There’s a lot to address in that statement.  I chose to see it as an open door and put aside any discussion of white privilege. Instead, I raised the concept of anger being a response to repeated pain. If the injury is familiar, if it happens over and over – sometimes every day – when it happens again, its possible the response is anger.

Or flame.

I always hesitate to respond too quickly to racial events in the news for two reasons: first, because I want to be thoughtful and not throw gasoline on any fire, and second, because current events take a few minutes to evolve even in our instant world.

I have my personal reaction to the actions of Baltimore mom Toya Graham, but I’m more concerned with the way the narrative about her is shaped to match the agenda of politicians and talking heads all over the political landscape.

How we get our information, what bubble we choose to live in, impacts our ability to process in the present, as well as in the future history books. And even Howard Zinn sometimes left things out.

I am still thinking. And watching. And reading. And processing.

In the meantime, I found Claire Potter’s perspective to be very worthwhile. On the heels of our daughter remarking today, “Why are you guys always talking about such depressing things every morning?” this sentence hit me hard – “because I grew up to study violence, and race, as historical phenomena, I have access to even better informed despair than I did as a child.”

I may have to buy her book Doing Recent History.

Read her blog post Teaching Baltimore, Teaching the History of American Violence.

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Given their druthers race is not usually the go to conversation topic for most people. It’s not hard to understand really, when you think about the ever present fear of saying or doing something that will get you called a racist.

I can say from experience someone calling you a racist (or homophobic) feels awful. I’ve been called both.

You can’t really defend yourself when someone calls you racist because its their perception of who you are.  Based on whatever facts they are using (assuming words or actions), our intentions, motivations and back story are no longer relevant.

What ever you say ends up sounding like a “but I have black friends” excuse.

When I have the opportunity to lead workshops about race I usually pull out the Jay Smooth video. This does a couple of things: gets some very important ideas in the open quickly, lets everyone look at a screen rather than each other while they hear those ideas, and puts an African-American voice in the room.

The fact that I am a white woman can work for or against me when talking about race. Again perception.

The other day someone introduced me to a new tool for my tool box.

Amandla Stenberg, a 16-year old actress, made a video about cultural appropriation for her history class: “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows – a crash discourse on black culture.” I give it an “A” for its ability to raise issues in a meaningful way that leads to further discussion.

Don’t know why this feels like progress in the face of continual reporting of black men and women being shot to death by police, but it does.

Given my druthers I’d wade into a tough conversation every day if could. Anyone need a workshop?

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One of the most painful things I watch my clients experience is not losing a job to a more qualified candidate its discovering that they were the “paper candidate.” Sometimes people suspect they are included because HR rules require x number of finalists, or women, or under represented minorities.

Sometimes they leave the interview with evidence.

Interviewers texting during group interviews, side conversations during their answers, questions so general you can find them on Ask.com, questions that show they never looked at your resume. Lots of clues.

Being used to round out a candidate pool or satisfy an HR requirement is not death by a thousand cuts as much as that ancient punishment seems to fit, because you don’t actually die from being rejected for a job.

These are paper cuts. Shallow, bloodless, painful and in places you’ve been cut before.

Unfortunately, in order to apply for any new position you have to be “in it to win it” or don’t bother. You need to care enough to revamp your resume or CV, write a thoughtful cover letter, do a little networking, and get your references together.

So it’s a delicate balance to encourage clients to not give up, keep their eye on the big picture, keep making progress where they can, and yet not be a source of false hope.

Paper cuts also suck because you don’t get any sympathy (except from your coach) for picking yourself up and starting again. Bloodletting would be dramatic, paper cuts are expected to be shrugged off.

By now the whole world has heard about tracking “Small Wins” to note progress, but I am not finding any HBR articles about the impact of “Small Losses.”

I’ve started writing an article Small Losses: A Tool for Understanding Setbacks. I’ve been told that I “give away” my content too readily. Apparently self-publishing an Amazon single is a marketing tool I should become acquainted with for my coaching practice.

I don’t know. Would you pay $1.99 to read Small Losses: A Tool for Understanding Setbacks?

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Bloodletting; thumb lancet, illustration of use.

 

As Women’s History month drifts to a close I feel like we are running in place with once step forward, two steps back on improving gender equity.  And don’t get me started on intersectionality.

I read the article reposted below and agreed 100%. But I can’t count the number of times I have advised women clients on how to be more assertive without crossing the invisible line into being “a bitch.”

Saying ‘Stop interrupting me’ sounds like a good idea until you get called uncooperative and hostile. And saying ‘I just said that’ may feel good until you’re told you always try to take credit for everything.

It’s a dilemma, and a dance, and a lousy reality. So please don’t tell me that we don’t need these “special months,” or that we should have a “men’s history month if we are going to be equal.” I write a lot about gender and racial equity in this blog, so you can look up all my radical opinions that support my argument if you like.

Or you can ponder the fact a post tagged “Girly Things” gets double the click rate of a post tagged “Feminism.”

The post below is long. And true. And makes me wonder if teaching my daughter manners has hobbled her for life. Bad feminist. Bad mommy.


By Soraya Chemaly / alternet.org

“Stop interrupting me.”  “I just said that.” “No explanation needed.”

In fifth grade, I won the school courtesy prize. In other words, I won an award for being polite. My brother, on the other hand, was considered the class comedian. We were very typically socialized as a “young lady” and a “boy being a boy.” Globally, childhood politeness lessons are gender asymmetrical. We socialize girls to take turns, listen more carefully, not curse and resist interrupting in ways we do not expect boys to. Put another way, we generally teach girls subservient habits and boys to exercise dominance.

I routinely find myself in mixed-gender environments (life) where men interrupt me. Now that I’ve decided to try and keep track, just out of curiosity, it’s quite amazing how often it happens. It’s particularly pronounced when other men are around.

This irksome reality goes along with another — men who make no eye contact. For example, a waiter who only directs information and questions to men at a table, or the man last week who simply pretended I wasn’t part of a circle of five people (I was the only woman). We’d never met before and barely exchanged 10 words, so it couldn’t have been my not-so-shrinking-violet opinions.

These two ways of establishing dominance in conversation, frequently based on gender, go hand-in-hand with this last one: A woman, speaking clearly and out loud, can say something that no one appears to hear, only to have a man repeat it minutes, maybe seconds later, to accolades and group discussion.

After I wrote about the gender confidence gap recently, of the 10 items on a list, the one that resonated the most was the issue of whose speech is considered important. In sympathetic response to what I wrote, a person on Twitter sent me a cartoon in which one woman and five men sit around a conference table. The caption reads, “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” I don’t think there is a woman alive who has not had this happen.

The cartoon may seem funny, until you realize exactly how often it seriously happens. And — as in the cases of Elizabeth Warren or say, Brooksley Born — how broadly consequential the impact can be. When you add race and class to the equation the incidence of this marginalization is even higher.

This suppressing of women’s voices, in case you are trying to figure out what Miss Triggs was wearing or drinking or might have said to provoke this response, is what sexism sounds like.

These behaviors, the interrupting and the over-talking, also happen as the result of difference in status, but gender rules. For example, male doctors invariably interrupt patients when they speak, especially female patients, but patients rarely interrupt doctors in return. Unless the doctor is a woman. When that is the case, she interrupts far less and is herself interrupted more. This is also true of senior managers in the workplace. Male bosses are not frequently talked over or stopped by those working for them, especially if they are women; however, female bosses are routinely interrupted by their male subordinates.

This preference for what men have to say, supported by men and women both, is a variant on “mansplaining.” The word came out of an article by writer Rebecca Solnit, who explained that the tendency some men have to grant their own speech greater import than a perfectly competent woman’s is not a universal male trait, but the “intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.”

Solnit’s tipping point experience really did take the cake. She was talking to a man at a cocktail party when he asked her what she did. She replied that she wrote books and she described her most recent one, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild WestThe man interrupted her soon after she said the word Muybridge and asked, “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?” He then waxed on, based on his reading of a review of the book, not even the book itself, until finally, a friend said, “That’s her book.” He ignored that friend (also a woman) and she had to say it more than three times before “he went ashen” and walked away. If you are not a woman, ask any woman you know what this is like, because it is not fun and happens to all of us.

In the wake of Larry Summers’ “women can’t do math” controversy several years ago, scientist Ben Barres wrote publicly about his experiences, first as a woman and later in life, as a male. As a female student at MIT, Barbara Barres was told by a professor after solving a particularly difficult math problem, “Your boyfriend must have solved it for you.” Several years after, as Ben Barres, he gave a well-received scientific speech and he overhead a member of the audience say, “His work is much better than his sister’s.”

Most notably, he concluded that one of the major benefits of being male was that he could now “even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

I’ve had teenage boys, irritatingly but hysterically, excuse what they think is “lack of understanding” to [my] “youthful indiscretion.” Last week as I sat in a cafe, a man in his 60s stopped to ask me what I was writing. I told him I was writing a book about gender and media and he said, “I went to a conference where someone talked about that a few years ago. I read a paper about it a few years ago. Did you know that car manufacturers use slightly denigrating images of women to sell cars? I’d be happy to help you.” After I suggested, smiling cheerily, that the images were beyond denigrating and definitively injurious to women’s dignity, free speech and parity in culture, he drifted off.

It’s not hard to fathom why so many men tend to assume they are great and that what they have to say is more legitimate. It starts in childhood and never ends. Parents interrupt girls twice as often and hold them to stricter politeness norms. Teachers engage boys, who correctly see disruptive speech as a marker of dominant masculinity, more often and more dynamically than girls.

As adults, women’s speech is granted less authority and credibility. We aren’t thought of as able critics or as funny. Men speak moremore often, and longer than women in mixed groups (classroomsboardroomslegislative bodiesexpert media commentary and, for obvious reasons religious institutions.) Indeed, in male-dominated problem solving groups including boards, committees and legislatures, men speak 75% more than women, with negative effects on decisions reached. That’s why, as researchers summed up, “Having a seat at the table is not the same as having a voice.”

Even in movies and television, male actors engage in more disruptive speech and garner twice as much speaking and screen time as their female peers. This is by no means limited by history or to old media but is replicated online. Listserve topics introduced by men have a much higher rate of response and on Twitter, people retweet men two times as often as women.

These linguistic patterns are consequential in many ways, not the least of which is the way that they result in unjust courtroom dynamics, where adversarial speech governs proceedings and gendered expression results in women’s testimonies being interrupted, discounted and portrayed as not credible according to masculinized speech norms. Courtrooms also show exactly how credibility and status, women’s being lower, are also doubly affected by race. If Black women testifying in court adopt what is often categorized as “[white] women’s language,” they are considered less credible. However, if they are more assertive, white jurors find them “rude, hostile, out of control, and, hence [again], less credible.” Silence might be an approach taken by women to adapt to the double bind, but silence doesn’t help when you’re testifying.

The best part though is that we are socialized to think women talk more. Listener bias results in most people thinking that women are hogging the floor when men are actually dominating. Linguists have concluded that much of what is popularly understood about women and men being from different planets, verbally, confuses “women’s language” with “powerless language.”

There are, of course, exceptions that illustrate the role that gender (and not biological sex) plays. For example, I have a very funny child who regularly engages in simultaneous speech, disruptively interrupts and randomly changes topics. If you read a script of one of our typical conversations, you would probably guess the child is a boy based on the fact that these speech habits are what we think of as “masculine.” The child is a girl, however. She’s more comfortable with overt displays of assertiveness and confidence than the average girl speaker. It’s hard to balance making sure she keeps her confidence with teaching her to be polite. However, excessive politeness norms for girls, expected to set an example for boys, have real impact on women who are, as we constantly hear, supposed to override their childhood socialization and learn to talk like men to succeed (learn to negotiate, demand higher pay, etc.).

The first time I ran this post, I kid you not, the first response I got was from a Twitter user, a man, who, without a shred of self-awareness, asked, “What would you say if a man said those things to you mid-conversation?”

Socialized male speech dominance is a significant issue, not just in school, but everywhere. If you doubt me, sit quietly and keep track of speech dynamics at your own dinner table, workplace, classroom. In the school bus, the sidelines of fields, in places of worship. It’s significant and consequential.

People often ask me what to teach girls or what they themselves can do to challenge sexism when they see it. “What can I do if I encounter sexism? It’s hard to say anything, especially at school.” In general, I’m loathe to take the approach that girls should be responsible for the world’s responses to them, but I say to them, practice these words, every day:

“Stop interrupting me,”

“I just said that,” and

“No explanation needed.”

It will do both boys and girls a world of good. And no small number of adults, as well.


Soraya L. Chemaly writes about feminism, gender and culture. She writes for the Huffington Post, Feminist Wire, BitchFlicks and Fem2.0 among others.

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This morning, I heard someone say “women hold up half the sky”, and I thought, “I would be happy if most people just held up their half of the conversation.”  I’m hosting an event this evening where I will spend a lot of time chatting and being charming.

It may not look like it but there is an art to introducing people, remembering and providing the right details to get them talking, so they can get to know each other, so they can have a good time.

Sometimes its a lot of work, sometimes its a lot of fun.

My mental RSVP list for every event I throw has two columns: 1) attending, and 2) “totally cool and fun”. The translation of “totally cool and fun”, in adult speak, is “interesting conversationalist.”

I am unfortunately stuck with “totally cool” being automatically the highest praise that comes out of my mouth, but I am able to translate it if I pause for a second.

Conversation is important to me. Not just for work events (mine or my husbands), but because it really centers and connects me in the world. I need to talk and listen and hear stories and new ideas. I am not now and never will be a solitary, introverted person.

I once had the privilege of attending a storyweaving workshop with Spiderwoman Theater. The sisters were powerful and funny and that day with them years ago gave me a way to see how the threads of my experience come together and are part of a larger design.

That weaving of connections, of people, of patterns is never far from my mind, especially when I am listening to clients tell me their stories.

I often tell my female clients to avoid describing their work as “weaving together” or “creating a tapestry” because these tasks are associated with “women’s work” and are generally devalued in mainstream US culture.

But that is what I do. And what I love to do. Help my coaching clients find their threads, stitch them together, see the value, the connection to humanity.

Women’s work.

Its a rambly post today, but in honor of the topic I’m not going to edit or try to fix it. Or even find the spelling and punctuation errors that I invariably make.

One last thing: If you have never visited the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC I highly recommend it. It was humbling to understand the vastness of what I didn’t know (and still don’t) about Native American cultures.

NewTribeLadies
The women of Spiderwoman Theater. Still going strong.

February 26, 2015 and I have completed all 7 stages of winter in Cleveland. I’m done. See you next year.

The 7 Stages of Winter in Cleveland

1. Shock and Disbelief: This happens in November when I realize fall is really over and I have to find the winter clothes and put away the last of the deck furniture. Sometimes overlaps with…

2. Denial: The front swing may still be out there in hopes of that elusive “last nice day”. I don’t need a coat, I’ll just throw a scarf over my blazer, I’ll be fine.

3. Anger: Why me!?!? Gridlock, because, hey, its SNOWING!!! Sequoia’s & F-150’s that think they have magic powers so they put everyone else in danger. Driving in general. And this stupid, bulky coat!

4. Bargaining: It’s just cabin fever. I just need to get out and DO more! Go shopping! Go hear music! See friends! It’s not Winter, its me! If I just try harder Winter will go away.

5. Guilt: I shouldn’t complain about the weather. This isn’t Boston. We aren’t in endless days of darkness. I should try harder to be cheerful. I’m making everything worse by complaining. My poor family.

6. Depression: Winter will never, ever, ever end. Its true. Why bother cleaning the car, sweeping the salt off the stairs, mopping up snow melt, shoveling the drive, or wearing anything nice because it’s just going to be smeared with slush and muck and have to go to the dry cleaner anyway. I’m just going to sit on the couch with a blanket, a book and a cat until further notice.

7. Acceptance: I’ll just buy a lottery ticket and, hey if I win, we’ll take a two-week beach vacation and get spa treatments and learn salsa dancing and parasailing. But that won’t be necessary. I know winter is almost over because the garden catalogs have started to arrive.

Time to take my coat to the dry cleaner.

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I asked my daughter what she might say to help a friend have the courage to do something new even though they were scared.

After clarifying that the scary thing wasn’t something I was trying to trick her into doing, she gave me some good advice.

“Tell them to remember that its only scary for the first few minutes and then when you get there, someone is usually nice and says hello. Or you will see someone you know that you can go stand with, or there is something you have to do like fill out forms, or find a seat. And afterward you won’t remember what you were so nervous about.”

I asked her advice for two reasons. First, because of her personality and style, she usually has a different perspective from me, and second, because I found myself on the receiving end of an invitation that I found scary, so I was gathering multiple opinions about what to do.

In my coaching practice I often work with clients who are attempting new and often scary transitions.  When that happens I help them question the assumptions behind their fears, so they can hopefully start to align what they say they want, with what they have to do to achieve it.

This recent “scary situation” helped me categorize some habitual excuses:

  • “They don’t really want me there, they just invited me to be polite”  (Protecting Self)
  • “I don’t know anyone, it’ll be awkward for everyone” (Protecting Others)
  • “I don’t really have the expertise to belong to this group” (Imposter Syndrome)
  • “I have too many other things I need to do” (Martyr Syndrome)

I ended up not attending for these and other reasons. Instead, I spent those hours, and days afterward, mentally berating myself for being so cowardly.

Then, as I was getting ready for meeting with a coaching client, I noticed that several times between sessions they hadn’t followed through on a plan, or “taken the risk”.  My notes showed we worked together to adjust plan or break it down into smaller steps. I helped them, encouraged them, provided additional tools and information.

I didn’t call them a coward.

In fact I can’t think of anyone I would call a coward for any reason. Except myself of course.

Ouch.

Based on this experience I think “learn to be nicer to yourself every day” will be my meditation for the next thirty days. I also forget sometimes to give myself credit for the risk I take every time I publish a new blog post. My opinions, flaws and ruminations are readable, searchable, and if we believe in the power of the NSA, permanent on the internet.

So maybe not totally cowardly.

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