Bullish: Speak Up Like A Competent Badass In Class And At Work

When I was in the fourth grade, my Girl Scout troop leader called my mother to “suggest” that I leave the troop. Why? I was being “too sarcastic” and “intimidating the other girls.”

Well, you can only imagine the kind of family that produces the kind of nine-year old that earns ALL THE MERIT BADGES and yet makes ALL THE WISECRACKS. So, whatever my mom said to Miss Tina shut that plan down real fuckin’ quick.

I have since learned to be much less sarcastic, because I like other human beings and want to help them, and I prize civility and good citizenship. Good citizenship is best pursued by reserving corrosive sarcasm for making Rick Perry parodies on Youtube.

In any case, I’m amazed when I hear stuff like this letter from a reader I’ll call Ada Lovelace (the first computer programmer):

What I’ve noticed and find really disturbing is the number of other graduate students, all girls, who complain that they “don’t get” to talk in classes enough.

Aside from the fact that some male professors continue to (hopefully accidentally) downplay what a female student is saying, I’m worried that women still just aren’t comfortable enough in expressing themselves in the classroom or the boardroom, where I’ve also seen it occur before I abandoned the 9 to 5 for academia.

I’m an introvert by nature, but I know the importance of expressing your views in certain situations, so I find it frustrating when a woman has a great idea, but doesn’t share it because she’s too shy or not forceful enough in getting people’s attention. I also can’t stand the idea of “getting to talk” because no one “allows” a male student to talk, so why would a female student feel the need to be allowed to talk?

I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter because it seems like my advice (i.e. jotting down at least 3 things to discuss for each book/article you had to read for class, so that you don’t feel unprepared; taking up physical space at a table in the classroom or the boardroom, instead of meekly sitting back from the table with your arms folded around yourself; etc.) is not always taken to heart or maybe it’s just not valuable. I don’t know. Thoughts?

Ada, you are absolutely correct that power (or airspace) is not granted; it must be taken!

I think I’ve never personally had trouble in this area at least in part as a result of being an oldest child – everything I ever said, I got to feel like the first person to ever say it, ever. The dinner table was my oyster.

But I also recently received a question about mentors (I wrote a column on the topic once, here), which has caused me to think about the fact that, if I ever really had any role models, they were all male – just Captain Picard and James Bond. Mostly Captain Picard. A little Commander Data. I mean, it just seemed easier to absorb Jean-Luc Picard’s diplomatic skills than to grow enormous breasts like Xena: Warrior Princess.

Am I alone in thinking that most successful women have a sort of … inner male alter-ego? I mean, if Prince can record an entire album as his lady-self Camille, why not? I read a study that suggested that when women look at porn, they are far more likely to imagine themselves as the men they’re watching than men are to imagine themselves as women, ever.

There’s nothing unladylike about having an inner male alter ago to call upon when needed. We can let the academics argue about how much of gender is constructed, but I think that being able to have role models of the opposite gender is a valuable exercise in mental flexibility, and that a little androgyny is good for accessing the full spectrum of the human experience. My inner Captain Picard has no trouble speaking up. (Imagining I’m him also has the unintended consequence that nerdy women are really attracted to me, and don’t know why! Okay, kidding.)

(Note: I’ve since become aware of many non-fictional female role models in adulthood. For instance: Rita Levi-Montalcini!)

Some tips for speaking up

First of all, Ada, I thought your advice – jotting down at least 3 things to discuss for each book/article you had to read for class, so that you don’t feel unprepared – was pretty much perfect. That’s an excellent idea.

For those who have well-developed things to say and have a hard time actually interjecting those things into the discussion, I’d suggest a couple of baby steps:

1) Goal for next class: Focus on the most vocal person who is not an asshole. Someone, male or female, who’s doing a good job of speaking up and contributing. When does he talk? Does he raise his hand? Does he interrupt or wait for natural pauses? Watch him like a hawk for the whole class. Count how many times he talked. Next class, your goal is to talk half as much as that.

2) Similarly: Keep a scorecard. For a small class, jot down how many times each person spoke. For a large class, maybe track boys versus girls, or whatever other metric makes sense.

3) Pick a class nemesis. Is someone always making silly points, talking out his ass when he didn’t do the reading, or just being aggressively wrong? Keep notes on everything he says. Wait for him to contradict himself. Ask, “Earlier, on the point about Chaucer, you said X; but now, you’re saying not-X. How do you think those two views fit together?” Like a martial artist, use your enemy’s own strength (well, commentary) against him! Also, pointing out other people’s contradictions is really satisfying (see this column on debating and boxing).

4) Start with questions. If you really were raised to be a silent, helpful, ladylike sprite of a girl (are there any of those left?), then your girl-training surely tells you that everyone likes a girl who is interested in what others have to say. Start with genuine questions that indicate that you would like someone who made an interesting comment to elaborate. Then: Is some dude always dominating conversations? Question his assumptions. Debate in the form of questions: “That’s really interesting. Takahashi’s four-part case for the blah blah of gene research blah blah recessive trait certainly don’t justify blah blah Chomskian analysis. What, exactly, in the text led you to that conclusion?”

5) For all other comments, never sound like you are asking a question when you are not asking a question. See Bullish Life: How to Communicate with Chutzpah for more on this point.

In the workplace, some of this is a bit different, as not everyone has the same role, and it doesn’t make sense to expect everyone to speak roughly the same amount. But one technique applies equally to both classes and jobs: I always find that whatever you have to say has more credibility anyway if someone else has to ask, call on, or consult you. So, mention ahead of time to a boss or professor whatever it is you want to talk about – send an email, show up at office hours, be a few minutes early to class or the meeting.

If you have a new idea to bring up, bosses generally want a heads-up anyway so they can seem in control (never surprise your boss in a meeting). Professors generally like to think that people want to intellectually engage in their disciplines for pleasure, and thus tend to enjoy intellectual inquiries or points made (succinctly) outside of class.

So, prime the situation by mentioning ahead of time a particular area on which you have something to say. When it comes up in discussion, an authority figure may turn to you, even suggesting to others that you have something important to say. And, if not, see the above for speaking up anyway.

In case you have the opposite problem…

I have spent my adulthood learning how to shut the fuck up when it was strategic to do so.

In Bullish Life: How to Communicate with Chutzpah, I also wrote about knowing when to end your damn sentence, and then being comfortable with silence. A silence during which you effect a blank expression and simply wait expectantly.

In general, though, speaking a bit less on any individual point adds more credibility. Consider:

“Supplier X has offered us the lowest price and the best features. They’re an obvious choice. The other suppliers all made offers that weren’t as good, and Supplier M’s was just ridiculous. So, taking it all into account, I think X is the best plan. Last time we picked a bad supplier…”

Now imagine this, followed by the stony-expression eye-contact face:

“Supplier X has offered us the lowest price and the best features. They’re the clear choice.”

Of course, people like you much more when you ask questions about them and their ideas. If you have too much to say in class, make notes and combine your points into more cogent points every so often, or fold your points into questions about others’ views. If you have too much to say in a meeting, make notes, wait until after the meeting, and email or IM people about anything that actually still seems important.

You can’t drag every last woman with you

Interestingly, Ada, your letter was actually about a problem other women have, that you yourself do not seem to have. Contained therein is the assumption that we should all combat this. Hmmn.

Some women are just not destined for greatness. That’s okay.

Some women are stupid. Some are lazy. Some are bad people. Some are smart but always find a way to fuck every good thing up. The point of feminism is not the uplift and glorification of every last lady. The point is that women embody and should have access to the full expanse of human experience. That includes every last bad quality present in our species. (See Bullish: How to Remain Blissfully Unfrustrated in the Face of Other People’s Incompetence.)

You can’t drag every woman along with you on your path to success. It’s not your obligation, and I’m not sure it’s even praiseworthy. Maybe if you’re getting a Ph.D. in math or engineering – then, yes, those fields need more women, and the relatively small number of women in those fields generally benefit from banding together. But there’s absolutely no shortage of women in higher education in general. Women are not systematically oppressed in the education system in America.

Sexism still exists in our country, but it exists in irregularly-distributed pockets – against women in finance, against women entrepreneurs pursuing venture capital, against men in family court. There are individual sexual harassers in positions of power everywhere. There are women shut out of good-old-boy office bonding and men shut out of complex social hierarchies among women that they are simply unequipped to navigate (and they consequently end up being treated like the bumbling husband on every sitcom, ever).

For every highly-educated twenty-something white woman with rich parents who can’t figure out how to make some words with her brain and mouth, there’s some guy out there who can lift and make things and follow instructions and who finds that America no longer has jobs for people with only those abilities.

College-educated women in the United States are not so oppressed that it’s your responsibility to do something about it. Higher up on my list of things to worry about: women in countries with far more serious sexism; the fact that our justice and prison systems are racist and we imprison more of our population than any other developed nation; smart poor kids who sure as fuck would speak up if they got to go to college at all.

Relatedly, this column is called “Bullish” because it really isn’t for everyone. Sometimes, I say to someone, “Oh wow, that’s an amazing skill – you could absolutely make a business out of that!” and that person replies, “Oh, well … to do that, I’d have to get a business license, and set up a website.” And I say, “Yep!” And they say, “Oh, well.” And then I let it go. That person does not want anything I have to offer the world. It’s cool. The world needs all kinds. (Well, most kinds.)

So, Ada, focus on your own career and education. Who knows – maybe other women don’t want to take your excellent advice because they’re intimidated by you, or they feel like there can be only one smart, outspoken woman in a class (ridiculous), so you’ve already stolen all the thunder there is.

Maybe the best thing you can do is to speak up often and well, call out any aggressive douchebags who are dominating class discussion (“I agree, Joe – but I want to hear the rest of what Ashley was saying about gene splicing”), and just focus on being a strong intellectual presence.

You sound like a nice person, and a bullish one. Maybe you’re the role model some of those classmates need.

originally published on The Grindstone