Othering by Politeness

Yesterday I tweeted a bit of a rant about Othering by Politeness. You know, that thing where someone in a group swears, or says something uncouth, and then specifically singles *you* out to apologize to. Because you are the woman, or person of color, or queer, or Christian, or whatever.

It’s an infuriating microaggression, this form of politeness. The speaker is entirely acting as A Good Person. What they intend to say is “Oh, geez, I might have offended you, I should apologize!” But the cultural meta-text is “everyone else here is fine with what I just said, because we are all the same and we belong. But you, the outsider who is different from us, you might get mad at us, so I should apologize before I get in trouble.”

A few people mentioned that there’s no good way to respond to this sort of microaggression in a professional context. And I tweeted the one response I have. Metaphortunate was kind enough to Storify it. But here’s the gist —

So my coworker swore at work. “Fucking cocksucker,” he said. And he turns and apologizes to me by name. “Sorry, Sigrid,” he says.
I say, “stop apologizing.”
He laughs and says, “you means stop swearing.”
“No”, I say, “stop apologizing. You have to stop apologizing.”
He looks confused.
I say, ” — if you swear and you don’t apologize, you’re just a crude, uncouth dipshit.”
Everybody nearby laughs.
“If you apologize to everyone,” I say, “then you know you said something wrong and you made a mistake, and we all move on. If you apologize to *just me*, the only woman in the room, then you know that you are creating a hostile work environment. You know that your language has explicitly targeted me, the lesbian in the room, and you are knowingly violating federal law. So either stop apologizing for your language, or I *have* to report you for hostile workplace.”

He stopped apologizing. Still swears, but he stopped apologizing.

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2 Responses

  1. I’ve experienced this myself – especially from people who feel they are “helping” me by “pointing out that I’m there.”

    Like, I have a lot of male-dominated hobbies and work in a male-dominated environment. A thing that happens in many contexts across many groups is the group will get into the weeds and start using lewd humor. Personally, I have no problem with lewd humor. Rape jokes, I have a problem with, if they’re the sort where the punchline excuses rape in some way, but otherwise, I’ve got a pretty bawdy sense of humor myself, so I’ll be cracking jokes right along with the rest of them.

    And then one person will stop the conversation in its tracks, look at me, and say, “Hi, [my name]!”

    They have expressed before that this is their way of trying to get the others to be mindful of the fact that I’m in the group. But thing is, usually when they’re stopping the conversation, I’m not uncomfortable. And when I get uncomfortable, I either change the subject or point it out depending on level of discomfort (mild discomfort is a change-the-subject thing. Severe discomfort is something I will usually object to, often with equally crude language, like, “Wooow, what the fuck? Not cool.” or what have you).

    So what I’ve taken to with people who are trying to “protect” me from a lewd atmosphere is just saying, “Listen, if something really bothers me, I’ll say something. I don’t need you to be propriety police.”

  2. :nods: It’s so common a thing!

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