Thursday, October 13, 2011

"Tact"



Ever since I was a child, I've been a very polite person. As an adolescent I was also very shy and had a hard time making friends. Then, when I was in grade nine I read How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie. "Smile," the book told me. "Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves," "Talk in terms of the other person's interests," were among the many useful tips within. 

I took the book to heart. And it worked. Getting people to talk about themselves made conversation a lot easier and less awkward. And because I really listened, people liked talking to me. That book became my bible. I took it so seriously that about a year and a half after befriending one of my now best friends, she said, "I hardly know anything about you. You never talk about yourself. Why don't you talk about yourself more?" Why? Because I followed HTWFAIP's instructions assiduously, and focused on encouraging others to talk about themselves. 

The major lesson I took away from the book was to always put my feelings aside, and put the other person's feelings, ego and interests first. To go out of my way to make the other person feel comfortable and respected. The number one rule for dealing with others was, "Never criticize, condemn or complain." And this is all well and good in many situations. But as a model for daily living I found it saps one of one's sense of agency, of power. Interestingly, a lot of Carnegie's advice goes along well with the ideals that women in our society are supposed to live up to - always smiling, always supportive, ever a self-sacrificing wife and mother. 
It wasn't until I started reading feminist and anti-racist literature that I realized that not every interaction is about winning friends or influencing people. Sometimes it's about asserting that your needs and your interests are important, and should be respected, without having to carefully and sensitively dance around privileged people's feelings in order to "earn" that respect. 

Because my needs and interests are important. I am important. That's still an idea that I have trouble wrapping my mind around. But I'm working on it. 

Which is not to say that every time I overhear someone say something bigoted I try to turn the incident into a confrontation. If it's a person I hardly know that I usually just let it go, because I don't have much time with them and there's no reason why they should care very much about what I have to say. I might die a little inside, but I let it go. If I know the person, then I'll try to explain what's wrong with their behaviour, politely, even casually, and try to put the issue in terms that they understand. But there have been situations where I've gotten quite worked up and "aggressive." Situations where I've thrown Carnegie's rules for influencing people to the wind. 

Because sometimes, a confrontation is not about convincing a privileged person that oppression exists and that they've just done something oppressive. It's just about opposing that person's behaviour, and making sure they know you oppose it. Sometimes it's not about patiently teaching them about oppression in the hope that they will eventually "get it." Subordinating your own sense of injury and indignation for the sake of the feelings of the offender just perpetuates the power structure that makes their behaviour oppressive. 

The requirement that one be tactful or kind when speaking out against bigotry is a way of shielding the privileged from knowing what the impact of their behaviour is on others. It makes one complicit in maintaining the willful ignorance of the privileged. I reject the requirement of tact. Bigotry hurts me, and it hurts the marginalized people that I'm trying to stand with. If someone says or does something oppressive, then they should have to deal with the consequences, and not be coddled.

If someone does something bigoted or oppressive, and I call them out, and it becomes a confrontation, then the confrontation is no longer about them. It's about me. It's about asserting myself and setting my boundaries and making it clear that I will not stand for their bullshit. In that situation, tactfulness or lack thereof is entirely besides the point. 

One of my friends from high school has told me a few times now that she's proud of how assertive I've become. 

6 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. Nice article. I've had similar thoughts after reading 'How To Win Friends & Influence People' and it's great to see them articulated, and read how you've integrated them with your ways of calling out people on injustice.

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  3. In asserting your power, your thoughts, justice, do you think you are 'fighting' for the cause of the oppressed, just a little bit?
    I think you are.
    While it is nice to be polite and be respectful when arguing, especially when one is faced with idiocy, the only way to combat that is through persuasive, assertive, and intelligent language. (I used the word 'combat' intentionally).
    There are people who believe really ridiculous things, and those thoughts, those things should be exposed. While I don't support making fun of someone, mostly because making fun might only make that ridiculous-thought-believer go back into their ignorant and sad world of lies, I do think that the truth should be given. It seems to me that you are doing just that – exposing the truth.
    And hey we all need to come back to reality.

    Great article!

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  4. Well worth saying. I was a good listener who had a similar realization about neglecting my own voice.

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