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What Can We Say to Each Other at Work Now?

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“So, what can we say now?”

I have heard some version of this question so many times in the last month, as the shockwaves from the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and others rattle our daily interactions.

It’s a question asked by people making an earnest effort to wade into a difficult conversation about the better way we can structure workplaces, now that the hideous flaws in the old model have been brought into the open. There’s something vaguely absurd about the premise, as if removing the possibility of abuse leaves us all with nothing to talk about: If I can’t ask work associates to watch me masturbate anymore, what am I supposed to say to them? But it’s also, for many men, the awkward start of a long process of of examining how individual behavior can inadvertently support the same culture one condemns.

There’s something else gnawing at the edges of this question, though. It’s a fear of change, certainly, but also a note of suspicion that the anger women are finally expressing is going too far, that men of benign intentions could soon be cast in a sinister light by oversensitive, overreacting women. It suggests an impatience with those now objecting to harassment that they are failing to quietly laugh it off and deal with it in the way that women have been conditioned to do for generations.

The question at its core supposes that there is a way in which inappropriate conduct at work can be dealt with that saves face for everyone, especially for the person acting inappropriately. It’s an assumption that puts the burden of the interaction on the harassed, which, objectively, is much easier than the very hard work of thinking through how things should be handled instead. It doesn’t surprise me, but what does worry me is how I hear at times this note of doubt creeping into women’s voices, particularly those of us at least a half-generation older than the millennial women who entered the workforce in the last decade and named a broken system for what it is.

At 37, I don’t think I am the only woman around my age who hashtagged #MeToo reluctantly, not because we do not all have mental ledgers full of things that angered and shamed us but because the expectation to brush and laugh off such things is so deeply ingrained that acknowledging the pain they caused somehow seems a failure.

Of course, we’ve said to ourselves, you should speak up if you are physically violated, or directly propositioned by someone in a position to obstruct your career. But the unspoken corollary to this is that anything that falls short of those standards (and if you’re rationalizing things hard enough, almost everything can fall short of those standards) are best deflected with silence, and stoicism, and ideally some smart talk that shows how fun and resilient you are while letting everyone involved save face. Everything else is Small Stuff, and the price of women’s admission to the workplace is accepting the uncomfortable inevitability of the Small Stuff.

I have been stunned and disheartened to find rising in myself the reflexive impulse to maintain that status quo, to draw a line between “real harassment” and the collective weight of uncomfortable interactions and subtle disrespect that accumulates through a woman’s career, as if the latter was somehow in any way worth defending. I’m surprised that I accepted for so long the idea that this is just how things are, without seeing that it’s just a set of rules invented by the people who got power first.

***

Some months ago, long before it was widespread public knowledge that Harvey Weinstein stands accused of using his company and his power to commit serial rapes, a colleague in her early 20s mentioned here at work that she rarely looks at her LinkedIn messages, given how “creepy” many of them are. A male editor asked what made such messages creepy, and the question surprised me. Even though LinkedIn wasn’t popular early in my career, I understood immediately the kind of leering, overly solicitous contact she was referring to. And he honestly didn’t have any idea. I didn’t realize before all this how little most men knew about the things women accept as inevitabilities.

The first 10 years of a woman’s professional life are a gauntlet of inappropriate behavior: the business lunch where you can’t escape comments about your legs, the supervisor whose arm lingers too long on your shoulders, endless questions and speculations about your personal life. Women are harassed at every age and every stage of life, but women spend their 20s and early 30s under near-constant intrusion and objectification.

“What is it at 35, Howard?” Donald Trump mused to Howard Stern in a 2002 interview. “It’s called checkout time.” The one good thing—literally, the only good thing—about having a president who has spoken at length about his sexual predilections is that we have a record of what men rendered grotesque by privilege say when they don’t care who’s listening. A lot of men like talking to younger women; while women tend to find older men more attractive as they age, men prefer women in their early 20s until well after the point when they’re old enough to be such women’s fathers. But men looking to abuse whatever power they have will intentionally target those with less: less status, less leverage, less experience, all of which come with being early in one’s career.

Despite the near-universality of this early career experience, it’s often the case that by the time women reach a position of influence in their professions, the ferocity of this particular type of disrespect has diminished (replaced, instead, with questions about their ability to balance work and family responsibilities). It’s too easy in hindsight to question your memory and to downplay how uncomfortable it all was, to forget how deeply disappointing it was to learn that a professional contact had motives that had little to do with work. And so it’s too easy to downplay the labor of brushing these things aside.

Of course, that’s a privilege available only to those who aren’t sidetracked completely. We are all recognizing now the careers that men like Weinstein thwarted and destroyed along the way. There is no tally of the women every industry has lost to abuse and harassment, how much broader the ranks of powerful women would be were they not forced out by men’s impulses or their own disgust with the system.

It is deeply troubling to pick up a defensive note among those of us fortunate enough to emerge from the swamp, the suggestion that this is just how things are, and we managed, so it’s fine. We so deeply internalized the contract that if we brushed off the small stuff, if we laughed at the right times, if—God forbid—we never allowed a man in our presence to feel embarrassed by his own behavior, we would be allowed to play. We failed—I know I failed—to question why it was necessary to accept such rules in the first place.

Because the truth is, the small stuff matters. It matters because once a man has shown himself willing to cross one boundary, we no longer know where he will be willing to stop. The matters because small stuff can escalate with astonishing speed to big stuff, and if it does, women know they will be judged for the failure to notice and halt whatever small thing preceded it. It matters because the careers we say “turned out fine” despite all this bullshit maybe would have been even better if we hadn’t been squandering so much energy trying to accommodate other people’s bad behavior.

***

That question from earlier—what can we say now?—is also about a breakdown in communication, the fear that an innocent gesture or word will be misinterpreted and escalated to HR or Twitter or an anonymous viral spreadsheet.

We do need to be able to have human conversations with one another in which we can tell people that we’re uncomfortable. A lot of the time it’s only the behavior we don’t like, not the person doing it. As my colleague Olivia Goldhill wrote in Quartz, “I don’t want these men fired: They can be great mentors and friends. I do want them to stop.” I get the sense that a lot men want to know when they’ve crossed a line, but they also want to know it’s happened before anyone else does. Fair. We need those conversations, yes, but we also need to acknowledge how often those conversations have failed us.

It’s been a hard few weeks for everybody. It’s hard for those who have bravely stepped forward to share incredibly painful experiences, and it’s hard for those who have struggled to speak at all. Everyone has experiences and interactions they keep chewing over.

My mind goes back most often to the boozy extended happy hour a few years ago with a group of former colleagues, including a man I had been on friendly and collegial terms with for years. We left the bar at the same time, and when he pulled me toward him for an awkward kiss, I pulled back and put my arms in front of me. I made a joke. I took him out for another drink and steered the conversation to how we met our spouses. It felt like a mark of maturity, the ability to brush off a drunken miscalculation in a way that didn’t embarrass anyone, as life had taught me to do.

Then the door closed behind us in the cab taking us to our separate train stations and he became a different person, or perhaps the one he was all along, someone physically aggressive who did not listen to “no” and “stop it” and “you should be ashamed.” What he kept slurring as I protested was: “It already happened.” I think he meant that because he had attempted a kiss earlier and I only said no, and did not—what, break his nose? Pull a fire alarm?—I had forfeited the right to really say no to anything. The things we’re told to do don’t always work.

What bothers me the most is that I know that if a woman told me that morning that she had endured this kind of experience with this particular man, someone I had long found to be kind and warm and sweet in a self-deprecating way, I would not have openly questioned her account—but privately, I would have struggled to believe it. I would have wondered if something had been misinterpreted. I would have thought to myself that perhaps she was overreacting. I would have continued to play a game whose rules were set a long time ago, and are well past time to change.

This system is broken. What are we supposed to say to each other now?

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