how to recognize and defend yourself against "verbal attacks". So I thought it would be worthwhile to take each of these examples and show how one might handle such situations.
In the first hypothetical example, Joan has a problem with her department chair who assumes that when she is not in her office, it is because she is taking care of family business. In the interaction I described, her boss asked if her kids were sick, because he had not seen her all week. In reality, Joan was attending a conference, which the chair knew about beforehand. Apparently, the chair is in the habit of making such statements to Joan. Such interactions are known as verbal attacks (you know you are the victim of one when your gut tightens and you feel defensive). In this example, however, the verbal attack involves gender bias (against an employee who is a mother).
There is a very effective method for dealing with verbal attacks, which I will apply to this example. Verbal attacks contain two parts: the "bait", which is the obvious attack, and the presupposition, which is the less obvious attack. In Joan's case, the bait is the charge that she was out of the office because her kids were sick. The presupposition, however, is that Joan is not doing her job.
The best response to a verbal attack is to ignore the "bait" and respond only to the presupposition. Here is a revised version of Joan's conversation with her chair:
Ben asks, “Joan, are your kids sick? I haven’t seen you the past few days.”
Joan calmly replies, “Ben, when did you start thinking that I was not doing my job?
Startled, Ben says, “What? I didn't say you weren't doing your job!"
Joan says, "Well, I'm often out of my office for various work-related activities, such as teaching my classes, attending conferences, and doing my fieldwork....as are all the other professors in the department. Yet, I seem to be the only one you assume is out of the office for personal reasons. Why is that?"
Ben, now completely flummoxed, replies, "Uh, Ahh. That's not what I think....uhhh....I'm sure you are doing your job...." [clears throat and begins looking around for the nearest exit]
There might be other ways for Joan to respond, but the point is not to fall for the bait and instead directly address the underlying attack. The attacker is usually so accustomed to getting a defensive answer that s/he will be discombobulated, at least momentarily. Let's assume, however, that Ben quickly recovers and continues his plan of attack:
Recovering his composure, Ben says, "Actually, what I wanted to ask you about was whether you could pick up our seminar speaker at the airport at 5 pm this evening?”
Joan has plans to attend her son's softball game after school. She replies, with a hint of censure, "I have a previous commitment at that time. If you had given me more notice, I might have been able to work it into my schedule. Isn't this a bit late to be organizing the speaker's schedule?"
Ben frowns and replies, “Uhh, well, actually....I do have a schedule, but Joe, who was supposed to pick up the speaker, has a family emergency and can't do it. I guess I'll have to instead."
So in this example, Joan has completely turned the tables on Ben and put him on the defensive. She has also managed to extract the real story from Ben regarding why he's asking her at the last minute to pick up the seminar speaker. Interestingly, Joe has had to cancel because of family obligations, information that drives home the point that it's not only Joan who has a family.
Contrast this with the original reaction of Joan in which she went for the bait and set herself up for the additional "test" of her devotion to her job. You can see how the latter reaction would confirm Ben's biased thinking about Joan and encourage continued verbal attacks (i.e., Joan's defensive reaction to such attacks actually invites further attacks). By not going for the bait and directly addressing the presupposition, however, Joan has short-circuited Ben's specific attack, which will likely make him think twice about trying it in the future. A commenter yesterday recognized the mistake that Joan made in explaining that she couldn't pick up the seminar speaker because she had promised to go to her son's game. That response just reinforced the chair's bias toward her.
In the second scenario, Mike, a new father, is being teased by coworkers about taking family leave to care for a newborn. His responses to the gender bias and verbal attack were better than Joan's, but perhaps we can improve upon it. See if you can identify the "bait" and then come up with an alternative response that directly addresses the underlying presupposition. I'll follow up in the next post.