Pro Tip: Respond instead of reacting

I can’t even recall when I first heard this phrase “Respond instead of reacting.” One example of its relevance to social justice is cited in “35 dumb things well-intentioned people say,”but that book is problematic to me for reasons outside the scope of this post. But if it was something I first picked up as an education major learning about classroom management or if it was a ground rule in a discussion about social justice topics, it remains a good guide for online and interpersonal interactions. With social media and comment sections, trolls function to generate reaction. Trolls want to drag you in to a rabbit hole of back-and-forth tweets or comments, getting pleasure out of riling up the unsuspecting internet novice. Or it could be the knee-jerk tweets that don’t take the time to understand the nuance, parody, satire, or the person who tweeted it.

But there are also instances when someone at the other end of a digital connection is genuinely interested in your perspective, an answer to a question, or even just your reaction, without the intention of dragging you down that rabbit hole. In terms of interpersonal interactions, in real time and space, you’re probably not going to have involved conversations about serious topics with someone just trolling for a reaction. You’re more likely to be engaging in spirited debate about the topic. There will still be statements and questions that are provocative, intended to spur reaction, though the intention is to either make their point, win the argument, or make you look foolish for a lack of understanding, not for falling in to the rabbit hole.

So what does this have to do with masculine norms? One of the characteristics of hegemonic masculinity is the belief that men and our voices or opinions are more valuable, we’re inherently superior in society, and that we’re always right (except when we’re wrong, but then we never have to admit we were wrong), and these become more dangerous to social justice because we’re expected to be competitive. It’s an underlying foundation of “mansplaining.” As men we tend to react because we don’t always have to be right, we just have to say our “truth” with enough emphasis or forcefully enough, and we can win the argument. Often, we just have to silence the other voices that would be participating. And if we choose to, as a person of privilege, we can react to statements and questions with defensiveness, like by withdrawing from the dialogue or adopting combative or resistant body language, telling ourselves that we still won. Why acknowledge that something I did was hurtful or offensive, when I can cry that I was “misunderstood” or that it was “not my intent” and then refuse to actively participate in the conversation any longer, blaming others for an attack on us. We have the right to use or exclude, to borrow language from Critical Race Theory.

As a person of privilege, it’s been ingrained that my voice is valuable and more valuable than others, reinforced through school, sports, and socializing. Being male is one facet of my identity where society has made easier for me to speak, demonstrate competence, and achieve in our purportedly meritocratic society. What I learned, too late in life, was that I am not always right, I don’t know everything, and I can never fully understand the (racialized, gendered, Othered, oppressed) experience of other individuals. But it was easier to act as if I did, as if I knew as well as a woman because I had taken a history course where we talked about the feminist movement or read an article in an academic journal (this specific instance was particularly problematic at the time). I would react to challenges to my privileged world view. I would get angry, try and embarrass the other person, talk over them, remain indifferent to their frustration with my arrogance, or demonstrate my superiority by withdrawing from the conversation, as if it was beneath me to be even discussing it with a lesser being. Any one of these actions is a defensive strategy that I used to (sometimes) unknowingly maintain my masculine identity, and avoid gender role strain–the internal cognitive conflict that arises when our unexamined masculinity is challenged in a way that surfaces a fear of being (or being perceived as) feminine. Unfortunately, this is not isolated to me alone. My experience is universal for men in America.

In addition to being humbled by some fantastic and compassionate people who began to challenge me right back when I played the “expert” card, I slowly learned that there is a better path to dialogue, where I can share my experience and also learn from the individual experiences of others. When I began a more conscious and conscientious social justice journey, expanding on my purely academic interest in historical oppression, I was often challenged to acknowledge my privileged position, the unearned benefits that had come to me, that made my path in life the one of least resistance. By starting with turning down the impulse to compete and the impulse to prove something (that I’m right, smart, well-educated, an ally, anything), I was able to turn up the volume on the words shared by others. I was able to begin to understand what they were saying–never fully, but enough to begin to trust that there was truth in their words and oppression in my past actions. I had to struggle with guilt over past conversations rooted in my lived privilege and fear of screwing up in the future: an outright acknowledgement that I am not meeting society’s expectations by being fallible. And then I learned to respond.

Responding is more than just making statements back after a pause. It involves engaged listening, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak or thinking about what your response will be while the other person talks. Counselors and psychologists call it “attending:” Behavior and cognitive processes that reflect that the other person has your full attention, building rapport and trust, and facilitating open interpersonal communication. Body language, eye contact, and other non-verbals indicate that they have your attention. Reflective statements demonstrate that you’re listening to the person and attempting to understand the meaning of their words. Your thoughts focus on understanding what they are saying, not thinking about what you’ll say next. Your chosen words don’t take on a tone or volume laced with power, arrogance, or condescension. Responses further the conversation, not win an argument or prove that you’re right.

In digital exchanges of information, it can be even more critical to respond, not react, because there are not the non-verbals that can indicate authenticity or trust. Nuance is lost as in the Jamie Kilstein tweet linked above or as we’ve see in anything sarcastic we’ve ever tried to send via tweet, email, or instant message. Responding in digital formats can take a few different forms, among many others:

  • Taking the time to re-read an email before drafting a response
  • Pausing and reviewing a draft before hitting the send button
  • Adopting the other person’s perspective to better understand their intention
  • Asking for clarification to ensure that you fully understand the context of their statement or what they were trying to convey
  • Taking the time to gather your facts and compare them to the information shared by the other party–though citations in non-journalism communication has gone the way of MySpace
  • Presenting information that expands the scope of understanding for both parties
  • Acknowledge that lived experiences are valid, there is truth in the counter stories that reflect a different understanding of the issue at hand

With Internet 2.0 it can be easy for men to feel like they “win” in a digital exchange. We can sit behind our keyboards, typing out our attacks and reactions, without really reading or understanding the context for the statements. We can remain emotionally detached, or lash out in anger (exacerbated by relative anonymity), and continue to exhibit stereotypical masculine behaviors. We go back and forth trying to present the most compelling information, without the nuance of tact or tone or non-verbals, and then assume that the other person just doesn’t measure up to our intellect or rhetorical ability. Lately the blogosphere (do people still use that word to describe this media environment?) has exploded with explanations of rape culture and refutations of the theory of false rape accusations, and men, from our privileged positions, can just ignore all that commentary, no matter the references or citations to sources, journalism, facts. Like other social justice movements struggling to garner mainstream support, feminism is marginalized because the dominant group they are actively working to change is in no way invested in what feminists saying. It’s a game that men can leave any time they want, declaring victory the moment they choose to walk away.

There are men out there who are actively countering this narrative. Instead of retreating to the relative safety of hegemony, men are starting to find that they can act in the interest of building a culture and community that is actively seeking inclusion and mutual support. Rather than reacting in any situation, men can benefit from learning to respond. We are trying to develop the interpersonal communication skills that build trust and understanding of other perspectives, key components of ally development for those of us in privileged positions. We actively interrogate the ways in which we have been held back by the social pressures that empower us through privilege and oppress us through restrictive gender roles. We engage in authentic dialogue with others about how gender has shaped our experiences. And we put in the hard work, eschewing the path of least resistance, to develop authentic relationships with others rather than competing to be right or louder.

My favorite poem, as much as I dislike poetry generally and as cliché as it might be, is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It has long resonated with my conviction that life is best experienced by charting a course that allows exploration, creativity, new experiences, and challenges. For a few years now on our refrigerator has been a magnet that has the last line of the poem:

The Road Less Traveled

It continues to serve as a reminder that although the path of least resistance is always open to me, I make a difference in this life, when choosing the road less traveled. Responding isn’t as easy as reacting, but each day I grow through my shared learning with others, rather than by trying only to prove that I’m a man.