The first time you hear the off-handed comment, you let it go. You convince yourself you heard it wrong, or you took it the wrong way, or you’re being too sensitive and need to lighten up a bit. So you smile — and implicitly agree with what you know is wrong.
When you smiled your acceptance, the person who made the comment also smiled, which you took as a sign of their acceptance of you, but was actually an acknowledgement of their victory over you.
The second time you hear an off-handed comment from the same person it’s a bit more pointed, perhaps even directed at you. This confuses you because you thought you had established a “relationship,” a “rapport.” You thought you were “in.” You’re not quite sure how to respond because the comment was clear, and you would have to ignore whole swathes of common sense to make it be something other than what it was. The second comment was even less ok than the first — and this time it was made in front of people, all of whom now wait, breath bated, to see how you will respond. You don’t like the attention or the tension, but you like even less the idea of making a fuss. So, you smile and let it go.
And when everyone else smiles, you decide it’s a sign you did the right thing. But deep within, you know this isn’t right. And you tell yourself that if it happens again, you will say something.
And of course it happens again.
And of course you don’t say anything.
You may be reading this and thinking, “Oh, the treachery of men!” (Note: if you’re thinking in phrases like that, you might want to lay off the Jane Austen novels for a bit. Just saying…)
But maybe you’re thinking, “Yeah, been there, know all about that.” Except the comments weren’t from some treacherous male co-worker. They came from a woman — someone whom you initially respected and admired, and perhaps even thought could be your mentor. But now you realize she’s kinda Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.
Maybe it happened at the office. Or maybe it was at that party that you weren’t sure you wanted to go to anyway. Doesn’t really matter when or where it happened in the past, because you know it’s only a matter of time before it happens again.
What do you do when someone you admire turns out to be more Medusa than Madonna (the virgin one, not the vogue one)?
You can’t always avoid her, and now that you’ve smiled at her inappropriate comments, it’s as if she seeks you out as an audience for her performances.
You could attempt to say something witty in response, something that would turn the tables and perhaps silence or embarrass her. But your witty comebacks usually come to you at 3 a.m., which makes them kinda useless.
So you’re thinking, “What shall I do?” (And again, nobody says “shall,” so seriously, maybe put down the Austen.)
Here are two easy steps, which are kinda hard, but worth it:
Step 1: Don’t smile at the bad act.
Smiling implies the bad act is ok. If it’s not ok with you, don’t act as if it is.
Step 2: (And I’m going to give you options here because I’m a giver.)
a) Walk away.
And yes, that might make people think you’re uptight or easily offended or not a team player. Be ok with that. You shouldn’t have to compromise your integrity to prove you’re cool.
b) Acknowledge the comment. Ask her if she actually meant what she said.
Yes, that might create instant tension. Be ok with that. If she says she meant it, now you know the kind of the person she is, and it’s up to you to decide if that’s who you want to associate with. If you do want to associate with her, stay where you are, and you can pretty much stop reading this now.
If this isn’t the kind of person you want to associate with, see step 2a.
If she says she was just kidding and/or meant no harm, tell her that it sounded otherwise and maybe she should reconsider making such comments.
Will both options require guts and a bit of boldness on your part? Yes.
Will she and a few other people start to avoid you? Probably.
Are you 12-years-old and unable to handle the fact that someone doesn’t like you? (Spoiler alert: She already doesn’t like you.)
You may be thinking that it’s just not that simple, that taking either of these steps will cause you more problems than it’s worth. It’s just easier to grin and bear it. But that’s what she’s counting on — your weakness, your fear, your compelling need to be loved by everyone. Being complicit makes it’s easy for her, but difficult for you. Can you see what’s wrong with that picture?
You might be thinking that it’s too late for you to take these steps because you’ve already smiled your acceptance. In fact, you’ve been smiling your acceptance for so long that your jaws are locked in a bad Botox freeze and you think there’s no way out. You may have even joined the mean girls crew and feel like you’re forever trapped in the evil entourage.
Regardless of where you are now and how you got there, there’s no law that says you must stay there. Anne Hathaway’s character got out of Meryl Streep’s car — in Paris! — and walked away. Make a choice to stop now. You have absolute control over your actions and you’re not a tween whose entire existence is tied up in the acceptance of the mean girl and her gaggle of cacklers.
The next time you hear or see the bad behavior, activate steps 1 or 2.
Will it freak everyone out that you’re doing something different? Yes.
Is that a scary, difficult thing to do? Yes.
Will certain people stop inviting you out for drinks? Most likely.
Can you handle that? Of course you can. You may not feel like you can, and it may sound scary, but you’re stronger than you think. And you’ve seen the alternative. You’re tired of that, remember?
So there you have it. This is how you start shutting down the bad behavior. This is how you start to participate in the movement.
And remember — even if you feel like the whole world has turned against you for doing what’s right, Mr. Darcy will always be there for you.
Better yet, forget Darcy (he’s completely clueless, but that’s another story). Come hang out here with us. This is where the really cool people are.