Have a stock response prepared, put the onus back on the speaker, and try using humor, experts told Moneyish.
Some have turned the global reckoning on sexual misconduct into a punchline.
Pageant queen Maude Gorman, for example, stepped down as Miss Plymouth County 2018 last week over a skit during the final competition of Miss Massachusetts that mocked the #MeToo movement. (Gorman, 24, is a survivor of sexual assault.) And Bill Cosby, months before his April conviction on three counts of sexual assault, told a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter after shaking her hand, “Please don’t put me on MeToo.”
President Trump, meanwhile, mentioned the movement during a Montana campaign rally last week — working it into a quip about tossing a kit to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to test her Native American ancestry. “We are going to do it gently because we’re the #MeToo generation, so we have to be very careful,” he said.
#MeToo dynamics aren’t any less awkward in the workplace: 51% of people surveyed earlier this year by Pew Research Center — 55% of men and 47% of women — said the heightened focus on sexual misconduct had made it harder for men to interact with women at work.
“I think we expected some backlash,” employment attorney Paula Brantner, a senior adviser to the nonprofit Workplace Fairness, told Moneyish. “And I think this is what people do when something is happening that they don’t feel completely comfortable (with), or maybe they feel vulnerable or worried that they, too, have engaged in harassment — or that they might need to give up some of their power.”
If you’re the target of a #MeToo joke in your personal or professional life, here are some tips and strategies from experts on possible ways to respond:
Pick your battles. “I am certainly not telling anyone to be pretend a joke is OK, when it isn’t,” said clinical psychologist and Yale University associate professor Joan Cook, who works with trauma survivors. “But there are times when it might not be our best option to be fully honest with another person.” If you’ve previously tried to assert yourself with someone in the past and found they couldn’t or wouldn’t hear you, for example, is it worth it to assert yourself again? “That also doesn’t mean we have to tolerate the behavior — we can walk away, tell a superior, etc.,” she added.
Have a stock answer prepared, Brantner suggested — one that you’re comfortable saying without thinking about it too much: “Something like, ‘Wow, that was really inappropriate.’ Or ‘What do you mean by that?’ Or maybe teasing them out in some way, like ‘Why does #MeToo bother you?’” Cook also advised having a couple of pat responses up your sleeve, like “I cannot tolerate that” or “That is so not OK with me.” “You can obviously go up the ladder and intensify the response” depending on the situation, she added.
Don’t waver. “The thing to do is never to drop your gaze, never to look away,” Gina Barreca, a columnist and University of Connecticut English professor who studies how women use humor, told Moneyish. “Don’t take yourself out of it — (that) makes you the victim, makes you the object of somebody else’s humor. They’re not telling a dirty joke in front of a woman, they’re actually telling a dirty joke to a woman — and they need to understand that she’s there as a participant.”
Put the onus back on the speaker. By responding with something like, “I wish I could find that funny, but I just don’t,” you shift the focus from your taking offense to the joke-teller’s doomed attempt at humor, said educator and author Jackson Katz, whose work focuses on preventing gender violence. In other words, “your telling of this joke misfired because you didn’t understand the context, the dynamics in the room,” he said. “It’s not that I am too sensitive and therefore I can’t find it funny, it’s that you failed in your attempt at a joke — and I gave it a shot, but it doesn’t measure up.”
Try to start a conversation instead of shutting the person down. Assuming the joke wasn’t too outrageous or offensive, Brantner said, consider a response “that invites a conversation, opens the door, encourages listening, shares mutual experiences, and is a moment to teach and educate.” Does the joke-teller think people are falsely reporting sexual misconduct, or that it doesn’t happen? How would they feel if someone sexually harassed them, or if they had to leave their job because a boss hit on them? You may be able to open their mind to how common a problem this is, the harm it causes, and why they shouldn’t be dismissive, she said.
Try using humor. “When somebody hears a joke … you have a connection,” said Barreca. “It’s in every culture; it’s in every generation; it crosses everything. It’s sort of an essential language. Because when you can make somebody laugh, even if they disagree with you, they understand you.”
If humor doesn’t come naturally to you, Barreca said, try the line, “I’ll forgive you for telling me that joke if you forgive me for not laughing” — drawing a line in the sand that #MeToo isn’t something to make light of. “You can’t spend your life biting your tongue … if something is offensive, you’ve got to call it out,” she said. “For years, somebody couldn’t speak up for herself because she got smacked across the face or thrown across the room. … And now we can speak up. I think it’s imperative that we speak up. Because the most we get now is a dirty look.”
State the consequences. It can help to emphasize any positives about the person, then tell them what will happen if they keep engaging in this behavior, Cook said. You might say, for example, that you really value their friendship — but if they continue making jokes like that, you’ll have to start limiting the amount of time you spend together.
If you choose to speak up, Katz said, “you’ve got to know that your words are advocating for yourself and for so many others.” “Get comfortable making yourself heard, and understanding (that) if you believe something needs to be addressed, you’re not the only one who’s thinking about (it),” Barreca added. “You are showing leadership and strength by being the one to say it out loud.”
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