Tag Archives: how to talk to women

Just (or, an insidious little word that I use too often)

27 Sep

I teach a regular yoga class on Sunday evenings. My friend Charlene, who is an amazing teacher that I respect like whoa, teaches the class right before mine. For a few weeks now she’s been threatening promising to take my class, the thought of which was basically vomit-inducing.

I mean, imagine this: you, a neophyte in your field, suddenly have someone with years of experience and training under their belt, someone who has been inspiring you with their amazingness for quite some time now, who wants to be your student. Pretty nerve-wracking, right?

Anyway, I was nervous, my voice quavered a little when giving instructions, and every time I looked at her I forgot everything I’d ever learned, but other than that it went pretty well. Afterwards she thanked me for the class and said she’d enjoyed it, so I asked if she would email me with some feedback and constructive criticism.

I received her (extremely lovely and thoughtful) email the other night, and one paragraph really jumped out at me:

I noticed that you say “just _________”  a lot, as in, “just reach your arm up, just step forward”.  I catch myself doing this as well sometimes and realise that it detracts from the impact of the practice and my presence. There are no “justs” in yoga, since every movement and breath should be linked with some degree of awareness and attention- everything we do matters. Saying “just” a lot also makes the class seem more casual than perhaps we want it to be, since after all, people come to class to learn….they need to trust that we are confident in our capabilities to guide them.

Having read this, I’ve been carefully monitoring my speech for the last few days, and I’ve come to the following conclusion: I say just a lot.

I don’t just say it in a yoga context, either. I use it quite often when I’m talking about myself, and about my accomplishments. This morning I was sitting in the cafe across the street from the studio, and a woman asked me what I did for a living. Oh, I just manage a yoga studio, I replied without thinking. The real kicker is, it’s NOT EVEN TRUE. I don’t just manage a yoga studio – for one thing, phrasing it that way makes it sound lesser or inferior to other jobs, and for another thing, I also teach yoga and write, but for some reason I never think to mention those.

I mean, I say some reason, but I totally know the reason. It’s because I am a woman and, as such, it makes my life easier to constantly diminish my own accomplishments and make myself appear less threatening.

Every time I say just, what I’m really saying is, This isn’t important. I’m not important. Please don’t question me on this.

Every time I say I think when I really mean I know, what I’m actually saying is, Please don’t think that I’m trying to show you how smart I am or how accomplished, I’m sure you’re very smart and accomplished too.

The dangerous thing is that I keep telling myself that if I just teach more often, or get more stuff published, or accumulate more successes, then I will stop feeling this way. I tell myself that I use this kind of demeaning language against myself because I’m just not good enough yet, but someday I’ll get there. Really, though, the truth is that if I don’t think I’m there yet, then I will never get there and I will never be good enough, because my desire to self-deprecate will continue to push my goals just out of reach.

Let’s go back to the basics here:

Men feel threatened by women, especially powerful, successful women. This is ground that’s been covered over and over, but it bears revisiting.

Women also feel threatened by the success of other women, because we’ve been set up by society to compete against each other. There’s some jealousy in there, of course, but I also get the feeling that women often feel like success is something finite, and if one woman uses up a big chunk of success, then there will be less for everyone else. And maybe that’s a even a bit true, because while society seems to tolerate plenty of successful men, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of room for women at the top.

So how do you react when you’re challenged by someone on your success? Do you get defensive, grow angry and maybe start to lose your temper as you try to prove your point? Some people do, and that’s not necessarily a bad or wrong reaction – but it is one that’s certainly far more accepted from men than it is from women. If a man becomes righteously angry, he’s often lauded for it. If a woman does the same thing, it’s frequently blamed on her menstrual cycle, or her lack of sex, or because, you know, ladies.

So what’s one way around this problem? To be nice and reasonable, because you catch more flies with honey? To be nice enough that you can convince men that sure, you’re smart and well-educated, but you’re not one of those women. To be reasonable enough to prove that not all feminists are hysterical and crazy, some are totally kind and thoughtful and soft-spoken.

To be so fucking nice and reasonable that you start to undermine yourself, to diminish yourself because you don’t want to cause conflict. To be so respectful of other people’s opinions, so concerned about not offending them, that it starts to become hard to stand up for what you yourself believe in.

I’m not saying don’t be nice and respectful, but what I am saying is that these are qualities that men have come to expect from what they think of as “reasonable” women. And every time you describe yourself as just being whatever, every time you back away from an argument by conceding that everyone’s allowed an opinion even though what the other person is saying is totally wrong and offensive to you, you are playing right into that expectation.

I’ve written here about being careful about the words we use when talking about other women, but we also need to watch the words we use when talking about ourselves. In order to be successful, we need to learn to talk ourselves up, to speak positively about our accomplishments, and not be afraid of a little conflict. We need to learn to be assertive, because society isn’t going to begin tolerating assertive until more women are comfortable in that role.

So I challenge you to spend a few days watching what you say, and taking stock of how often you use words like just or think or only when you’re talking about yourself or your opinions. Ask yourself what your speech would sound like without those words. Finally, try to make a few statements about yourself every day that celebrate your work, your life, or your accomplishments instead of demeaning them.

Because if you don’t take yourself seriously, probably no one else will.

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How To Talk To Pregnant Women (or, everybody just relax)

10 Sep

I don’t know what’s in the water these days, but it seems like a ton of my friends are having babies this year. I’ve been to three baby showers in the past two weeks alone.

Of course, since I am a super self-involved person, all of this baby time has brought me back to those oh-so-special days when I was gestating Theo. Watching my friends get advice from other friends and acquaintances (and sometimes total strangers) has reminded me of the things that I found super unhelpful to hear while pregnant, and  also the things I actually found helpful.

So! I’ve made this useful little guide for you!

First of all, let’s start out with the basics:

1. DON’T: assume someone is pregnant, unless they actually, like, TELL YOU THEY ARE PREGNANT.

I know that this one seems obvious, but, sadly, it still needs to be said.

DO: WAIT UNTIL THEY TELL YOU THEY ARE PREGNANT. I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH.

(A brief anecdote: the first time I went out without Theo was about a week after he was born. I went to a fancy baby store to buy a fancy nursing bra. I was trying to figure out my size when the clerk helpfully told me that my chest would be bigger once I had the baby and my milk came in.

If you ever want to see a woman who is recently postpartum cry horrible hormonal tears in public, please go ahead and ask her when the baby is due. It makes her feel really great!)

2. DON’T: talk about how huge your friend’s belly is.

Some women probably (maybe?) like this, but definitely not all of them. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to be sure which category someone falls into until you actually say it, so it’s best just to keep your mouth shut.

DO: tell her how beautiful and glowing she looks. Basically every woman loves to hear this. I know, I know, a while ago I was all, try not to give people appearance-based compliments, but I think pregnancy might be the exception to that rule.

3. DON’T: tell her, Wait until the baby comes! You will feel so differently about everything! 

While this is probably true (although maybe not – everyone’s experience varies), it is super annoying to hear. Also, it’s totally unhelpful – it’s really the kind of thing every parent has to figure out for themselves.

DO: share your experiences of what your expectations were like while pregnant, and how things were different once you had the baby. It’s helpful to hear stories about specific things that people have gone through, and it’s much better to hear it phrased as here’s how I felt rather than here’s how you will feel.

4. DON’T: tell someone how bad worrying is for the baby.

I heard this a lot whenever I tried to communicate my pregnancy-related anxieties to people. I found it really unhelpful because, while I understand that what these people were trying to do was get me to relax, what they were actually doing was give me one more thing to worry about . Like, great, I’ve still got all these other things I was feeling anxious over, and now I have to worry about whether all this anxiety is hurting the baby. DOUBLE WHAMMY.

DO: ask your friend about specific anxieties they are having, and, if possible, talk them through. If you have something from your own experience that you can relate this to, that is super helpful! If their anxieties seem overwhelming or debilitating, suggest that they talk to their doctor. Above all, remind them that being anxious while pregnant is very, very common.

5. DON’T: talk about how figuratively shitty everything will be once the baby comes.

It’s true that things will be super nuts once the baby comes! But chances are your friend already knows that, and doesn’t need to be told to get in all their sleep/having fun/quiet alone time before they pop. Also they are probably happy that they’re going to have a kid, so it’s not really cool to make them feel as if they’re making a huge mistake. They’ll have plenty of time to figure that out on their own (kidding, kidding).

DO: tell them how literally shitty everything will be. I feel like the copious amounts of poop my offspring produced was a huge surprise to both of us, especially Matt. I remember him looking at the meconium and saying, it’s like a jet of concentrated evil coming out of his backside.

6. DON’T: tell pregnancy horror stories.

No pregnant woman wants to hear about all the terrible, horrible things that could possibly go wrong while the bun is still in the oven. Sure, some people enjoy hearing these kinds of gruesome tales, but there is a time and a place for everything. Talking to your knocked-up friends is neither of those.

DO: try to keep things positive.

If the desire to tell scary stories comes up as the result of a pregnant woman confiding in you about a specific issue she’s having, please, please don’t tell her that a friend of a friend experienced exactly the same thing with tragic consequences. Try to keep in mind that it’s pretty unlikely that you’re a medical doctor (and if you are, you should be dispensing medical advice, not anecdotes), and b) you’re almost definitely not this specific person’s doctor. Instead of scaring your friend, reassure her that everything is likely fine, while at the same time urging her to talk to her doctor or call the hospital.

7. DON’T: go on and on about how happy your pregnant friend must be, or else say things like, gee, you don’t seem very excited about this baby.

DO: keep in mind that pregnancy can be an emotionally conflicting time for a lot of women. Many people find pregnancy to be traumatic for all kinds of reasons, ranging from  body image issues to past complications or losses.

Just offer a warm congratulations, and then follow your friend’s lead. Making them feel like they should be happier than they are can add an extra layer of guilt onto what might already be a complicated situation.

8. DON’T: be judgmental or rude about parenting choices.

This goes for everything from formula feeding or hospital births to co-sleeping or having a round-the-clock nanny.

Here’s the thing: you don’t know what in this person’s life has lead them to this decision. Sure, maybe it’s a decision you wouldn’t have made, and maybe it’s something that you disagree with – but as long as they plan to keep their child safe, warm, happy and fed (and chances are that they do), then it’s none of your business.

DO: offer advice and resources if the person seems open to it. Tell them about your own experiences if they want to hear about it. If not, just bite your tongue, and keep in mind that things change so dramatically with the arrival of a new baby that many of your friend’s plans will probably end up flying out the window anyway.

9. DON’T: just flat-out contradict someone if they say something that you know is wrong or inaccurate.

Honestly? This will just make them feel stupid and maybe a little defensive.

DO: explain to them why it’s wrong and offer information and resources to back your claim up.

For example, I had a friend who was told that if the baby only nursed on one side per feeding, she should pump the other breast once the feeding was done so that she didn’t get mastitis. I explained to her that up until about six weeks, milk production is hormonally driven, but after that point it becomes supply and demand. If you are nursing your baby AND pumping, then you are signalling to your body to produce more milk. This is fine if you want to keep frozen milk on hand for a babysitter, or for when you return to work, but it’s not necessary if you’re feeding on demand, and definitely won’t prevent mastitis.

I also told her that she should do whatever she feels comfortable doing, and that she’ll figure out what works best for her once the time comes (this sentence in particular is key).

Also, keep in mind that there is a study to back up just about everything, so your friend might already feel like they are well-educated on whatever it is you’re talking about. If they aren’t interested in what you have to say, then maybe just let this one slide. Pick your battles.

For example, if a person has decided after a lot of research that they think it’s best for the baby to dangle out a second-storey window from a Jolly Jumper harness, that argument is definitely worth pursuing. If it’s something more minor, just let it go.

10. DON’T: stick to only pregnancy and baby-related topics.

Seriously, this gets really annoying. When I was pregnant, there were days when I felt like I was nothing more than a gestating uterus on legs. It’s not that I never wanted to talk about pregnancy and babies (because I totally did!), just that that wasn’t all I wanted to talk about. Sometimes I wanted to feel like a smart human being with a smart human brain who thought about smart human things.

DO: keep in mind that your friends are people first, and pregnant ladies second. Try talking about a range of subjects, including but not limited to: books, movies, food, deep philosophical thoughts, Shakespeare’s plays, why Richard III maybe wasn’t such a bad guy, the weather, interior decorating, Wes Anderson films, why Wes Anderson should make a film about Richard III, etc.

Now go forth and converse like a normal human being with your pregnant friends!

Also, feel free to add suggestions for additions to this list in the comments.

“Hmmmm I’m feeling a little TOO content with my pregnancy. I wish someone would say something SUPER JUDGMENTAL to me right now.”