I’m a bit of a people pleaser.
I mean come on; doesn’t it feel good to be agreeable sometimes? To feel like you’re making others happy? Well, in theory, it’s great. However, in practice, it can be dangerous.
There are particular instances when in good conscience, I can’t be agreeable with somebody. Primarily, if a person says something sexist, racist, classist, homophobic or just plain mean. Negotiating how to handle family members and friends in these instances is a bit trickier as compared to confronting acquaintances or strangers. You feel compelled to stay connected with your family, and in a stereotypically begrudging Irish family like mine, a minor misunderstanding can turn into years-long silence. Seriously. With friends, you have already established a degree of commonality and rapport with that person for a reason, and when they say something problematic, it’s hard to just throw all of that out the window.
I won’t pretend that I have a precise, cure-all approach for these types of situations. Every family or friendship has its own history and dynamics, and it really depends on the nature of the particular relationship, and your own judgment as to what you are willing to tolerate. Maybe if your cousin says something sexist, you can make a joke calling him out in return—keeping things light, but making your message clear. Maybe there’s enough flexibility in a friendship where you can state plainly that you don’t agree with what he or she said, and your friend can acknowledge it, apologize, and move forward. Sadly, most people don’t respond well to criticism—I certainly don’t. And people become naturally defensive, and the conversation goes nowhere.
If you’re someone who finds confrontation distressing, it’s difficult to develop a strategy for how to address these predicaments. Women especially are socialized from a young age to “be nice” and “act ladylike.” It conditions us to avoid confrontation, so by the time we enter adulthood, a lot of us don’t have enough practice at handling it. Your conscience says you must say something, but another part of you doesn’t want to start an argument. You may feel intimidated, threatened, or scared by what might arise from calling them out. Developing ways of being less sensitive can be helpful too; I just know that this is usually easier said than done. When you’re a habitual people pleaser like me, you may often be frustrated with how flustered you get at the thought of confronting someone. However, the worse alternative is inadvertently appearing like you just condoned the bigoted thing the person said.
Typically, when I have encountered these instances with family and friends, they are speaking out of total ignorance. In other words, they don’t even realize just how offensive they are being. If someone habitually behaves in a bigoted manner, it’s unlikely that I would have any qualms about cutting them off. Who really wants to be around a total jerk anyway? So when you correct somebody who typically doesn’t behave in a prejudiced way on an ignorant remark, their natural reaction is often that you’re judging or labeling them.
Deejay and social justice advocate Jay Smooth offers a great strategy for how to handle this situation, particularly with people who say something racist. He says it’s important to focus on what the person specifically said, and not to make any statements about who they are in terms of their character. It’s the difference between: “What you just said is racist” versus “You are a racist.” He argues that the former will be more productive, and won’t provide the person with an opportunity to launch into a defense with examples of why they aren’t a racist. The latter detracts from what they just did in that moment, and they can avoid considering why they shouldn’t say things like that in the future.
As far as strangers, this is where my confrontational side shines. If I don’t know the person, it’s very easy for me to call them out for what they said without much of a second thought. I still get a bit of an adrenaline rush every time it happens—yes, sadly this happens that often—but with people you don’t know, you feel like there’s much less at stake. The idea of confrontation still produces a stress response, but it’s one that is short-lived as compared to family or friends.
I use these opportunities with strangers to help train me for the stickier situations with family and friends. I’m getting better at confronting and challenging people confidently, but I still have a long way to go. But in the end, as unpleasant as it may be, it’s much, much worse to let prejudice go unchecked.