Friday, July 15, 2011

Verbal Attack, Take Two

In the last post, I described how one would go about defusing a verbal attack involving gender bias. I showed how to avoid the “bait” in a verbal attack and to instead address the underlying presupposition, which is the less obvious attack. In the next example, we will look at an interaction in which the target of the attack handled himself pretty well, but perhaps could use some help.

In that scenario, Mike is a new father and has applied for family leave to help his wife care for their newborn. He walks into the coffee break room and sees several of the other faculty members sitting around the conference table.

Robert, a somewhat conservative fellow, says, “Hey, Mike. I hear you’re getting some kind of special “mommy leave” and won’t be able to teach your usual courses this semester. Guess you figure the rest of us will carry your load!”

Mike replies, “I’ll be here part time and teaching only one course. My wife applied for maternity leave, but we chose to share it so that she could return part time to work…she has a new research grant. On the days she works, I stay home with the baby and vice versa. The department arranged for a post-doc, who needs teaching experience, to take my undergraduate course for the semester. I’ll still teach my graduate seminar. Overall, our choice benefits everyone.”

“Well, that’s a pretty sweet deal, “ Robert says, looking knowingly at the onlookers at his table.

“Actually, any employee can apply for family leave…to take care of a newborn, a seriously ill spouse, or an elderly parent. Any of you might need to use it one day.” Mike decides to have his coffee in his office and walks out.

Let’s analyze how Mike responded, given our insights into verbal attacks.

The “bait” is clearly the charge that Mike is taking “mommy leave”, a derogatory characterization of maternity leave, normally the prerogative of women. Robert has not only denigrated maternity leave, but has also impugned Mike’s masculinity. Many men would fall for the “bait” and attempt to defend themselves, only encouraging more ribbing from coworkers. Mike avoids that bait and instead addresses the second charge--that the other faculty will have to do his job for him while he stays at home with his newborn. That’s a pretty good answer, because it completely ignores the challenge to his manhood and addresses what is a concern of his coworkers—increased teaching load due to Mike’s absence.

However, Robert then voices the real presupposition: that Mike is getting a “pretty sweet deal”…implying that Mike is benefitting due to his special family situation, an option not open to the onlookers (whom we’ll assume don’t have children). Again, Mike ignores the “bait” that he’s getting special treatment and addresses the incorrect presupposition that family leave only benefits those employees with children. He gives some specific examples that childless employees might encounter.

Notice also that Mike keeps his comments civil, non-emotional, and focused on providing information that his coworkers might find useful. When Mike fails to respond emotionally to the teasing, Robert and the others will likely lose interest.

The part that could be improved upon is at the end, when Mike retreats to his office with his coffee instead of spending his break in the coffee room (as he had obviously planned to do). This action might signal that Mike is actually uncomfortable, despite his effective riposte, and lead to more teasing at a later date. Instead of retreating immediately, he could readily change the subject and say, “Hey, what did you guys think of the game last night?” He should stick around for fifteen minutes or so, until it’s clear he’s not being chased off.

Then, if he doesn’t want to talk to this oafish group any longer, he can say, “Well, I’ve got to get back to work on that revision of the paper I just had accepted by Nature. See you guys later.”

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