I’m having a social problem at work. I’m a female student in a physics PhD program. This means that I’m in kind of a weird spot where: (1) my coworkers are also kind of supposed to be my friends, and (2) the gender ratio is really, *really* bad (<15%).
When I first came in, I repeatedly made it very clear that I didn’t want to get involved with anyone in my department, and managed to get set up with a solid group of friends with a decent male/female mix (girlfriends, spouses, etc.). The people in my department seem decent. The problem is with our incoming class. There is a student in the incoming cohort who talks about how #metoo is overrated (Louie C.K. had his career unfairly cut short and is valiantly rebuilding it) and watches comedians who do blackface routines. He’s the only student who did his undergrad here, so he has a lot more confidence than most of the other new students. The incoming class is mostly international students, with a few domestic students scattered in. I hope (?) that a lot of the international students just don’t have the cultural context to understand what they’re laughing along with, but I’m not sure. Two of the domestic students were pretty quiet. I’m hoping that meant ‘uncomfortable’.
I’m stuck in this program for the next four years. I’d rather not have all of the professional contacts that I can make be tainted by these attitudes. It’s not the kind of culture that I want to take root, and I feel like if I’m going to do anything to limit it, I need to do it now while everyone in that year is still figuring things out and kind of wrong-footed. I’m one of only four girls in an active social group of around thirty people, which puts me in a weaker position. There are zero black people in the whole department.
What are the best ways for me to stop him from influencing overall department culture? I have strong social ties with older students I can pull on, but I don’t want to look like the bitchy overly PC woman bullying the new kid to the rest of his incoming class. I can’t be heavy-handed about this, but it’s also really not OK. What’s the smartest way to do this?
Don’t Want To Be The Funwrecker
Y’know that phrase “one bad apple spoils the bunch?” A lot of people get the meaning wrong; they tend to assume that it means the presence of said bad apple means that everyone THINKS the rest is spoiled; these perfectly good apples are unjustly associated with the one bad one. In reality, it’s meant quite literally: the presence of said rotten or moldy apple causes the rest to go bad. In produce, overripe fruit produces excess ethylene gas, causing the rest of the fruit to ripen early and begin to spoil. The mold on produce will cause the rest of the produce to go moldy as well as the spores spread and gain traction on the rest.
And one asshole in the class can give the impression that toxic, shitty behavior and attitudes are acceptable.
Which is why the cure is to cut that shit off at the knees as soon as you possibly can, before it has a chance to be normalized.
So the first thing that needs to happen is that you’re going to need to get over your fear of making a scene or confronting this kid. This can often be difficult; not only are women socialized to go along to get along, but would-be edgelords thrive by making confrontation uncomfortable. They want the people who’re upset by their shittiness to be unwilling to push things. They may play the “but my free speech!!!111!” card where they insist that criticizing them or pushing back is censorship. They may try to cast you as the funwrecking SJW who just can’t handle edgy humor and frame themselves as the iconoclast rebels pushing against a staid establishment. They’ll try to play to the crowd by insisting that nobody else — especially the students who are uncomfortable but not saying anything (and yes, those two students who were being quiet were almost certainly uncomfortable) — was bothered by this and so it’s really just YOU who has the problem.
And arguing with them about the points — in this case, why blackface is unacceptable and racist, why #metoo came about and what it’s actually changed — won’t work. Not only will they not listen, but they’ll often shift goalposts, twist meanings and otherwise try to derail the conversation with gish-galloping arguments and bad faith sea-lioning. You know: all the tactics that people think make Ben Shapiro seem smarter and a better debater than he actually is.
The key with all of that is that it requires two things: for you to engage with them in good faith and for you to miss that they won’t engage with you that way. It’s a curious game; the only way to win is not to play.
Not by their rules.
Instead, you want to use the advantages you have. To start with: he’s a first year in the program. That puts him at the lowest rung on the ladder. The fact that he did his undergrad at the same school honestly doesn’t carry much in the way of authority or credit, certainly not any that should cow you into silence or submission. You on the other hand, have both seniority and the stronger ties with the folks who are already there. That, in effect, gives you institutional authority that he doesn’t have. So wield it. When he starts going on about how #metoo ruined things (it didn’t) or how unfair it is that Louis CK is facing consequences for sexually harassing women, then wield that power with a simple phrase: “We don’t do that here”.
This is both your sword and shield. It keeps him from arguing about how “it’s all in good fun” or “he’s just asking questions” or “nobody means anything by it” because the answer is “that may be the case, but we don’t do that here.” Because now you’re not trying to debate the “facts”, nor are you coming at this from a place of equals (or appearing to seek his approval or permission); you’re coming at this as The Voice of the Institution. By framing the conversation as “we don’t do that here”, it’s not about society and social justice run amok, it’s about the custom and culture of the institution and the community. In a very real way, you are reminding him that he is new and you are not; you have the authority by virtue of seniority.
And if you can use those social ties to the other senior program members to get them to back your play and agree: “We don’t do that here”? Then you’ve effectively created a barrier that he can’t get around. It’s no longer about morality or oversensitivity or even logic; it’s simply the fact that there are rules and boundaries to the program and as a newcomer, he has no standing to challenge them.
Another effective tactic is to take away the refuge in audacity. Rather than argue that blackface is unacceptable, you want to put him in the position of having to acknowledge the racism inherent in the jokes. It’s one thing to try to position oneself as the Iconoclast, the person who Isn’t Afraid To Walk The Line and Defender of Free Speech; it’s another entirely to have to take ownership of the fact that blackface is fucking racist. So whenever he brings up blackface — or shows videos in class — then simply ask: “Why is this funny? Explain it to me. What’s the joke here?” Don’t allow him to weasel his way out of it. Ask: “But why is that funny?” “What makes this funny? Explain the joke to me”. If he tries to claim that you don’t get humor or that you just don’t understand, make it even more uncomfortable for him. “But you clearly think it’s funny, so you clearly get the joke. So explain to me why wearing blackface is funny”. Keep it strictly to WHY he thinks the joke is funny; bringing up racism yourself is just going to give an opening for him to make grand pronunciations about SJWs and similar horse shit. But by forcing him to explain it, you’re putting him into the position of either admitting he’s racist or that he’s ok with racist humor. And even to hard-core bigots, openly admitting to bigotry is still socially frowned upon and deeply uncomfortable.
And here’s the thing: by openly voicing your disapproval, even without saying “you’re wrong” or “this is bad”, you’re taking away his other advantage: bystander inertia and conflict aversion. A lot of folks — especially when they’re young — don’t like causing a scene. Many of us had it drilled into our heads that the one who points out the drama is somehow worse than the person who’s causing it. Bullies and edgelords rely on this. They need people to stay quiet, so that they can point around and say “well nobody ELSE is complaining”. By speaking up, you create the first crack in that wall of silence, that empowers others to feel like they can voice their discomfort too. And by speaking up, not just as a woman or as a person who’s offended by casual racism and misogyny but as A Voice of Authority, you lend weight and cover for others to speak up too.
All it takes for shitty attitudes like this to take root is for good folks to say nothing. Edgelords thrive on the silent acquiescence of others and whither in the face of social disapproval. So take away that silence and leverage your social clout against him. You may not change his mind, but that’s not the goal. The goal is simply to keep his bullshit from poisoning the entire program. By creating an environment that’s inhospitable to his attitude, you keep it from taking root in the first place.
Hey Dr. NerdLove,
So, I’ve been hanging out with a girl for a while now. We’ve known each other for two years via mutual friends. She’s a very upbeat, open person, and oftentimes we’d have fun dancing in nightclubs together. A couple of months ago, however, after we both went through our entrance exams for university, she asked me out for drinks. I got a little excited, as I’ve never gone that far with a girl before, but I kept my cool. When we met up, we found out things about each other, and it really seemed we had a lot in common. We shared a similar mentality about life and politics, though she is not that into politics for important reasons I will explain later (neither am I really, doesn’t bother me). In any case, I felt much more comfortable around her than even with my friends. We hugged goodbye after our night out.
In the month and a half (we were on vacation with our families) between the first and second time we met up for drinks, I started developing rather strong feelings for her. I began really looking forward to meeting up with her again. I just really liked how friendly she was, and how less emotionally detached she was compared to my other friends. That rush died down a bit a few days before we met up, which I chalked up to being confident (I still feel a bit that way).
When we met up again, things were going well. She was talkative as usual, and I felt at ease, too. We were having some semi-small talk, which didn’t bother me, stuff about friends, what have we been up to, etc. Then, after a while, things went deeper. She talked about how her mother seemed to like me (I met her briefly while at that girl’s place in the country – she invited me there). I told her about how my mom seemed to like her as well, and that she noted what an emotionally open person she was. Then the girl told me that she doesn’t always feel that way, because of her relationship with her dad. Her dad is a rather emotionally detached person, and spends most of his free time talking about politics with his buddies at the bar, never really making time for her. Because of this, she said, she never really knew how to express love to other people. She feels that she either overdoes it, because she worries her friends will get offended (and I have noticed first-hand that those friends need way too much of her attention), or that she doesn’t express it enough (she is not very active when it comes to messaging). She also said that that was why she’s more comfortable hanging out with men (our mutual friends) because she is more at ease with them and has more space. I gave her advice, telling her that she needs more emotionally available people in her life, and that people shouldn’t completely ignore her needs. She agreed. I know about stuff like this, because it was my dad’s experience with his parents as well, in fact it was even worse. I thought to myself that this was good, that she was comfortable enough around me to open up.
Then the conversation died down a bit, and she moved on to small talk again. This is where I started feeling weird. Bearing with what she told me in mind, I got the feeling that she was talking just to fill in silences. I’m generally a pretty quiet person, but not awkward. But I did start feeling awkward after our intimate conversation, and I felt that she wasn’t being so genuine with me. I told my own mom about this, and she says I’m overthinking it, that she was just a bit nervous, that she also seems to overthink like I do and that I should continue hanging out with her (we already agreed to meet up again, but, again I am worried she was just being nice). I’m starting to have mixed emotions about pursuing a relationship with her. I’m not obsessed with it, and I don’t wanna force things, but I simply feel less at ease with this girl now, despite her opening up to me, which was a great thing per se.
For what it’s worth, we’ve also been pretty handsy with each other. She’s short and likes the presence of larger, taller guys like me. She likes to grab me and lean into my arm sometimes, at one point at a party she even asked me to lift her up and she entwined her legs around me while I held her. During our drinks together she’s been a bit more serious but we still touch each other by the arms.
I also gotta mention that I’ve never been in a relationship before.
You’re overthinking things, US and you are definitely reading way too much into everything. Here’s what happened: she trusted you enough to open up and get real with you. You two’ve hung out enough and have enough emotional chemistry and intimacy that she feels like you’re somebody that she can trust and rely on. So she did something with you that I suspect she very rarely does: she let you in and shared some things that were deeply personal and meaningful to her — things that explain much about who she is as a person. The fact that she felt secure enough to open up and be vulnerable with you is pretty significant. That’s a very real testimony to the kind of guy she thinks you are and the kind of relationship she feels like she has with you.
The fact that she moved back to small talk after all that deep realness? Well, partially that’s like a pressure valve, letting off a little of the steam. You had some heavy conversations about life, the universe and everything and now going back to silly pointless stuff is a way of relieving the pressure and intensity of the moment. In a way, it’s like a joke in a horror movie; it’s a release that keeps everything from being just too much. But the other reason is that, in all likelihood, she was a little embarrassed. Letting your guard down with someone, even someone you trust and feel comfortable around, can be uncomfortable. It’s more than a little like suddenly realizing you’re naked. Now that she’s had that moment of realness, she’s kinda babbling because it’s a way of trying to push past the awkward and not dwell on the fact that she just gave you some serious realness about her and her inner life. If you’ve ever made jokes after having realized you said something that was a little too revealing, then you know exactly what it feels like.
So I’m not entirely sure why you’re suddenly feeling weird about things. There’s nothing in this that sounds like she’s just being nice or just filling the air with flack, nor does it sound like she was no longer being genuine with you. It’s that it’s hard to stay that vulnerable and deep unless you’re already in a pretty intimate relationship… and while you’re clearly close, it doesn’t seem like you’re there yet.
I think the best thing for you to do is just slow your roll my dude and accept that you’re reading things into that conversation that weren’t actually there. There really isn’t any reason to be uneasy around her; she clearly likes and trusts you and wants to see you again. I don’t know if this is necessarily going to lead to a romantic relationship, but it sure as hell sounds like this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.