At A Loss For Words

My friend was in a quandary, and when he told me what had happened, I joined him in his loss for words. For both of us, our livelihood calls upon our facility with language, but we were at sea.

The story: A few weeks ago my friend lunched with a colleague following a business meeting at which an important matter was being negotiated. No deal had yet been made.. The only woman at the table, who was participating for first time that morning, had raised serous questions about a position taken by my friend’s luncheon companion (we’ll call him Dick), and Dick’s anger, though controlled, had flared.

As they slid into the restaurant booth, Dick remarked, “these lesbians can be relentless.” His comment was made with a jocular, “if you know what I mean” grin. My friend’s response was silence. They ordered lunch and the discussion subject shifted, the derisive comment allowed to simply evaporate without rejoinder.

But my friend’s discomfort did not evaporate, for now, weeks later, we sat pondering how that remark might have been (should have been) countered. We both have friends, colleagues and family members who are gay or lesbian, and we felt offended and angered revisiting that scene. Yet, we were at a loss for the words that might have been spoken in response.

Oh, we had no trouble designing cutting insults to induce embarrassment, or to label Dick a bigot, but he was someone with whom my friend would continue to work. And even if he were not, an aggressive remark which would add to the discomfort of the moment, was not in my friend”s repertoire. Yet, by remaining silent he felt lacking in courage, defeated.

If the goal is to raise consciousness and not to simply confront or demean, which might just harden beliefs and enhance a defensive posture, another approach is needed.

I’ve taken a survey of sorts and asked some friends how they would respond to an ugly remark, a pejorative identity statement, and none had a sound rejoinder that worked, at least from my perspective. Most had experienced similar conversations and also remained silent, often walking away if the setting allowed.

After much thought and some reading (see the fine book identified below), I think I’ve come up with a sound approach.

Bigoted remarks can be addressed with a non-defensive question, simply seeking further exploration of the meaning. The question must express genuine curiosity and be non-accusatory, and asked with an open, non-critical tone, an inflection which sincerely invites a thoughtful response.

For example, “Dick, tell me why you think that’s so?”

If his response continues in the same disparaging vein, at least a conversation has begun, and the way open to a sharing of experience and knowledge. Genuine curiosity would appear to be the key.

On the other hand, Dick might simply answer, “I guess that was a pretty crude remark on my part.” Then a simple, “yes” in response might suffice for the moment, with perhaps a smile as well. That may well signal an open door for further conversation.


(Taking the War Out of Our Words, by Sharon Strand Ellison)