“Focus on the message rather than the delivery” part 1 is here. I wrote it back in July and it was never intended to be a part 1 of anything, and when I wrote it I had in mind the kind of arguments you get against women speaking up for themselves and being criticized for being too angry, rather than having their points responded to. You know, blowing off what’s actually the problem and inventing a problem with how a woman presents her thoughts, insinuating that what she has to say is not nearly as important as controlling her emotions.
Turns out there’s a flip side to that.
You know what I’ve started to notice a lot lately? Women who speak about sexism being answered with a prim “Thank you for being so polite to me,” or “I appreciate that you are keeping a civil tone when you address me.” It’s the same crap, different attitude. Instead of addressing a woman’s points, it’s still addressing a woman’s tone, and it usually also manages to get a dig in at all the other women who are being angry, or huffy, or sarcastic, or even–gasp–name-calling (which, for the record, is just straight up name-calling and not ad hominem attacks, so you can stop waving that fallacy around during these types of discussions). And it’s addressing a woman’s tone in a patronizing way that is not gracious and not civil and not polite. It’s just another way to tone troll.
Politeness and civility in conversations are standard forms of discourse, and not really remarkable. It’s sort of taken for granted that people will engage in polite discussions, however heated they might be, and it’s hardly paid attention to at all (unless people are being very emotional, and then its absence is noted). So stopping a discussion cold so you can go out of your way to thank a woman for being so nice to you instead of putting what she actually said first indicates that you really do care less for what she thinks than for how she behaves. If you’re in the middle of a conversation with other women who are not being polite, pointing out the woman who is like patting her on the head for being a good girl who knows her manners, and showing the other women what kind of behavior you’re looking for. It also puts your feelings at the center of a discussion that until that moment probably was not about you at all. It probably started with the woman trying to describe things that happened to her, but you’ve turned it around to you–even for just a split second. She wasn’t being polite and civil out of consideration for you–she just wasn’t angry or emotional enough to express anger and emotions (yet)–but by thanking her for treating you well, you can frame it in a way that suggests she’s trying to help you as much as help herself. And it helps you feel better, instead of maybe feeling worse because you had to listen to the ways women are hurt by sexism and how you might be complicit in that.
Don’t believe me? Think about all the times you’ve thanked a woman for being polite when it’s just been the two of you talking. Probably never. Because nobody does that unless there are other women not being polite who need to be taught a passive-aggressive lesson on how it ought to be done, and the women who are being polite need to be reminded that’s how it’s preferred women speak, no matter what the topic. You know, positive reinforcement? Like in preschool?
Which puts people in a tricky spot. I can certainly imagine it’s a relief to find a civil voice in a conversation that has a lot of anger directed at you or your ideas, and it feels good to express relief, but it isn’t necessary to interrupt a conversation about injustices that have been perpetuated on women to let them all know how good you feel that one of them is keeping your feelings in mind, too (especially when she really wasn’t keeping your feelings in mind at all). So what to do? How can you engage in a civil conversation amidst a heated discussion without being patronizing by commenting on a woman’s tone?
Here are some suggestions:
1. Say nothing about anybody’s tone, good or bad. If the people being polite are the only ones you want to engage with, only engage with them and only engage with the points they are making.
2. Say nothing at all. If you are a sensitive person who really does have trouble separating tone from content–and those people exist, and there’s nothing wrong with being one of those people–back away. If you don’t want to just vanish without explanation, admit that you are having trouble separating tone from content and want to wait until you are able to focus on the important parts of the conversation and you’ll see them later.
3. Ask for clarification. If you are finding yourself very unwelcome in a community that you expected would treat you with politeness and civility, ask why. Say that you are surprised what you are saying has generated so much emotion–don’t lecture them on being emotional, but you can certainly acknowledge emotions when they happen–and ask what you did to trigger it. Someone will probably speak up and tell you (although no one owes you an answer, so don’t make petulant recriminations if you don’t get one). Listen to the answer and take it seriously. If you don’t want to make the people you are trying to talk with emotional, don’t do the things they said were causing it. You can even go so far as apologize and promise to try to do better.
4. If you actually do feel grateful that someone treated you politely and civilly, remember her name. Later, find a way to send her a message saying that you know it was a tense conversation and that talking with her was a bright spot, and maybe that she gave you a new perspective to consider, or whatever nice thing you liked about her that isn’t a lie. But whatever you do, don’t comment on her polite tone in private and don’t thank her. She doesn’t need or want your approval, but everyone likes to hear that their ideas were received well enough to be remembered.