Stuck in Your Head: Communicating Badly February 9, 2011

Stuck in Your Head: Communicating Badly

by Jesse Galef –

If I’ve learned anything from blogging, it’s that I’m not writing for myself. Maybe other people treat their blogs as diaries, but I see blogging as a way to communicate my ideas to others. No surprise there; it’s what I do. I’m a communications director at heart, not just for a job. When I see crappy communication causing confusion or controversy, I feel compelled to counter it. (Ok, that alliteration WAS for me.)

Case in point: a poorly-received joke at the awesome and inspiring Southeast Regional Atheist Meetup resulted in a women running from the room in tears. I was at the event but missed that part, so I’m piecing the story together. During a heated discussion about how to make women feel more comfortable at atheist events, a visibly frustrated woman asked why the panel kept using the word ‘females’, since that made her feel like they were discussing livestock instead of people. Someone on the panel joked “What do you want us to say, ‘the weaker sex?'”

I’m pretty sure the panelist intended it to be funny. But the result was that the woman – who already felt marginalized and dismissed – got fed up and left crying. Probably not the result he intended. That’s the question we need to ask ourselves: What do we want to accomplish with what we’re saying?

A trick I’ve found to communicating well is to get out of your head. It’s tempting argue the way you find persuasive, make references you understand, and tell jokes you find funny. That’s great – if you’re talking to people like yourself. Communicating isn’t simply a matter of expressing a thought. It’s about having other people understand the message the way you want. And that requires us to take into account who we’re talking to and how they’re likely to take different statements. The “I’ll say what I think, damn the consequences!” attitude has never made much sense to me.

Before I’m accused of being an accomodationist – whatever that word means these days – I’m NOT saying we have to change the substance of our message to pander to people. Sometimes the desired goal IS to have others see us disrespecting their “sacred” cows. But there’s a difference between the substance of a point and the way to make it understood. It’s only rational to adjust our tactic to our audience – or audiences. Once we choose the substance of our message, we should figure out how to make people hear it. In a nutshell: make sure you’re being effective.

If your goal is to make the other person see your point of view as admirable, figure out why they would admire it. Sean Faircloth of the Secular Coalition makes a special effort in his speeches to connect to the “soccer moms and Joe six-packs” by giving powerful anecdotes, sometimes tying lobbying goals to the health of children. If your goal is to make the other person reexamine the special privilege we give religion, a good strategy might be to shock them a little by drawing a smiling stick figure of Muhammad. If your goal is to show a woman that you value her presence, a joke at her expense might not be so effective.

It sounds obvious when phrased like that: “be effective”. But I think the inclination to stay in our heads makes it tough. Gauging how another person will interpret a statement takes concentration, perception, and some guesswork. If you’re around people who are just like you, then it works to substitute your own sensibilities. I think that’s why I find it so much more of an effort to interact with strangers – I’m constantly trying to figure out how they’ll take my jokes, my quirks, my way of speaking. With friends, I can relax and go with my gut.

The need to get out of our head is particularly telling with word definitions. (I share this pet peeve with PZ, although I think we resolve it differently). Just because I have a particular word-meaning connection doesn’t mean that everyone else has it.  Words are a human invention and gain meaning through shared convention, not divine edict or dictionary authority.  How many times have we run into people who argue that the word ‘religion’ means “a system of morals” or “a community with rituals” or “a belief relating to a creator”? If they don’t have the same word-meaning connection, there’s a good chance they’ll be confused when they think you’re saying “I reject all systems of morals!” Sure, you wanted them to understand that you reject beliefs about supernatural creators – but it didn’t come across that way.

That applies to obscure words as well as common ones.  The problem with using the word ‘religion’ is that everyone has their own definition.  The problem with using the phrase ‘theological noncognitivism‘ is that almost nobody knows what it means. Throwing around ‘deontologism’ or ‘epistemological’ will lose people unless you have the right kind of audience.

There are misunderstandings over the word ‘atheist’. ‘Agnostic’. ‘Faith’. ‘Spiritual’. ‘Theory’ (ugh, look at all the trouble that causes). ‘Evolution’. ‘Morality’. And on and on. There are reasons to fight about word definitions. But that argument – and any meaningful communication – can’t be effective unless you remember that others might not be using the words exactly like you are. Figure out how it comes across to them and adjust.

When it comes to word choice, sometimes that requires us to use words they’re more familiar with, or to be more explicit with what we mean. When it comes to overall approach, unless our goal is to drive a woman away from the meeting crying, sometimes it requires us to consider their state of mind and hold off on a joke.

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  • Claudia

    I agree with your overall point, and the issue of word definitions is a big one. I’m going to latch onto the issue of goal-oriented thinking because it’s one I feel very strongly about it.

    With regards to the incident at the American Atheists meetup I got into a discussion with a guy on the subject on another forum. I was trying to make the point that it was a mistake to simply focus on whether or not the term “female” was appropriate while ignoring the context in which it was made. Women were outnumbered 2 to 1, a panel on how to attract women had exactly one actual woman on it, in response to women saying they feel uncomfortable with being constantly hit on at meetings many men were saying that it was merely biology (read: so suck it up) etc.

    He insisted on going back to whether the term “female” was appropriate or not. In the end I made a point similar to yours. If your goal is to win a debate about which terms are and are not right based on dictionary definitions, well that’s just peachy. If your goal however is to actually make women feel more comfortable about entering the movement, then perhaps you should listen to the actual things being said by actual women and not treat it as an attack that has to be countered.

    The thing is we love to debate. Usually this is a strength, because it helps us hone our ideas. However sometimes we get so bogged down in “winning” the verbal fighting match, that we lose sight of the actual goal, which is making life better for our community and society at large.

  • I was completely shocked to hear that such inter-sex conflict was whipped up while discussing the very problem of women in the secular movement!

    I certainly can’t speak for all groups, but from my perspective we have had very limited conflict at Kent State. Its not hard to imagine a freethought club feeling like an old boys club, though. It certainly can be that way in some of the science organizations I belong to.

  • Important points, Jesse. Especially

    any meaningful communication – can’t be effective unless you remember that others might not be using the words exactly like you are. Figure out how it comes across to them and adjust.

    Lest anyone start lobbing “tone troll” grenades, this isn’t about playing nice. It’s about effectively communicating your point. That requires thinking from the audience’s perspective and choosing language and an argumentation style they will understand. Sometimes, it requires switching tactics when you’re clearly not connecting. Flogging the same catchphrases over and over isn’t effective (a trap I’ve fallen into from time to time). Writing and speaking effectively is a skill set that must be learned and constantly worked at. But it’s an invaluable tool in a skeptic’s arsenal.

  • Jesse makes a good point; one I need to be more sensitive about myself since I am often far more enamored of my jokes than some of my readers. I have to be careful about where I drop them in during a serious discussion. If it’s there to showcase my fabulous sense of humor instead of for what it adds to the debate, it’s unnecessary.

  • walkamungus

    When I read about this incident, the first thing I thought was, “At least he wasn’t calling them ‘girls.'”

    If he’d only had the sense to stop with “What do you want us to say?”

  • Irony is a difficult trick to pull off at the best of times.

  • L.Long

    I was not there so can not truly judge the content, but as walkamungus says ‘If he’d only had the sense to stop with “What do you want us to say?”’. I swat I read in the text, & from the text I read ‘she was very thin skinned’. My daughter would have told him to go ahead and ‘we will see who is on the ground bleeding!’
    And then said what she thought appropriate.
    I used the ‘girl’ word once and the female got pissy and said ‘how would you like it to be called boy!’ Big mistake, as I looked her in the eyes and said ‘Don’t care cuz I was one and still try to be one’.
    People get all pissy about words rather then deal about the concepts that are being discussed.
    Besides the lady was talking to males so should not have expected anything more mature.

  • Isn’t the purpose of dictionary definitions of words to avoid issues like this? Furthermore, in the case of words which have multiple meanings due to context, shouldn’t the context be aware of by the listener. Whose fault is it – the speaker or the listener – for not knowing the definition of a word used in a context? I’d argue that it is the listener’s responsibility to a) know the meaning and definitions of words used in a context, and b) know the context during which such words are spoken or read. AKA, comprehension.

    Words are meaningless if there isn’t a common frame of reference (which is why on every legal document or contract, the legal terms and definitions of words used in that contract are defined before anything else).

    Note that this isn’t to excuse what occurred at that meetup; the response to the question the woman posed was out of line. I do, however, question her being upset by the use of the term “female” to describe her gender. She’s certainly entitled to her feelings, but I find it odd that an adult can be upset by a word, especially one used accurately in proper context with its definition.

    I do wonder, though, what word she would have rather been used (has this been addressed)? “Woman”/”women”? “Womyn”? “Person”? What if each of those upset someone else in the audience who ran out crying?

    At what point are we to be adults about all of this, and regardless of our backgrounds, genetic makeup, or other differences, begin to simultaneously use and understand words based on their definitions and context? Or, are we all to just accept this “status quo” as the way things are, and wait for the day when the color of the sky gets named “flurglegump”?

  • RPJ

    But that argument – and any meaningful communication – can’t be effective unless you remember that others might not be using the words exactly like you are.

    This is why I almost never use “woman” and usually use “female”, and never refer to myself but as a “man”, but rather “male”. “man” and “woman” carry connotations beyond gender that can be vastly different for people, and that will almost certainly be different from my own perceptions. “Male” and “female” allow a neutral way to discuss someone’s gender or issues relating to it and ONLY to gender, without bringing in the extra baggage.

    Of course someone still found a way to be insulted by a neutral term. While the panelist’s response was in bad taste, I agree with his sentiment, no matter the gender asking – what word would you have them use instead? Is there something MORE neutral? Or do you really want them to use a term that personally makes YOU feel good and might say entirely the wrong thing to everyone else? The panel did the best it could with the language available – if you still manage to take issue with it, then it’s your problem to deal with, not anyone else’s.

  • Guffey

    Thank you for the link, Jesse. Holey-moley… it’s a good thing the existence of god(s) doesn’t depend on how humans express themselves.

  • The Captain

    While using words more effectively to communicate better is a noble goal, we must not substitute effective for bland. Lets face it, some people will be offended by anything (like this lady) and the last thing I want is to live in a world where everyone has to cater to the most hyper sensitive, non-jovial people.

    There also becomes a point where being too sensitive to the ninnies can water down the effectiveness of ones argument. That’s not to say people should be purposefully brash all the time. But I would hate to see atheist start to loose any fire in their arguments just because they let the hyper sensitive dictate their language.

    I mean would you want Christopher Hitchens to define his speech by what this women finds offensive? He really wouldn’t be Christopher Hitchens any more would he?

  • I doubt if it was the term “female” that was really at issue. It was the way they were discussing the problem. If the panel was composed predominantly of females, they would probably have gone about talking about the issue in such as way as to not offend or bother the woman in question. If they couldn’t find enough interested females to make up the panel, they should have had a discussion about how to attract enough females to compose a panel to lead the discussion on how to make females more comfortable at atheist events. Sometimes it’s more about the messenger than the language used in the message.

  • mike

    I am ok with all of this. This is us growing up. For thousands of years nearly all social organizations have had to deal with diversity and the most common tactic is to make the group exclusive. For those groups, including ours, that commit to diversity it is difficult. Most of us are raised to believe in exclusion and have to make an effort to be inclusive.

    I lay the blame entirely on the organizers and leadership here. They should know this. If you have a panel that is talking with your audience, then it had better be representative of your audience or of how you would like your audience to be. I know that this will edge out some white men, but we need to get over ourselves. Nothing you have to say matters that much. And if you can not find intelligent non-white-men to speak on your panel, then you do not deserve to lead as you clearly do not know your followers.

    And when someone does this at your event, it is ok to tell him to go apologize or leave. If you are in the audience, walk out in protest and bring some friends along. If we are truly committed to diversity as a group then we need to educate individuals about this choice as a prerequisite for membership.

  • MV


    This wasn’t a case of someone being insulted by a neutral term. This was a case of a woman being insulted by a panelist. Based on the summary, the panelist was clearly dismissive of her concerns. If your goal is communication and inclusion, that is a clear failure.

    And the idea that certain words are neutral, especially relating to sex and gender, is absurd. Words have real implications that go beyond the dictionary definition. It’s easy to forget that (or never realize it) when you have a lot of privilege.

  • The issue is not about which terms for ‘woman’ are most acceptable. The issue is that many geek events attract some men who have had inadequate exposure to normal social situations with women, and therefore lack the skills to upgrade us from centerfolds to people. It doesn’t matter what they call us; the problem lies in the very cores of their personalities. I’ve known a few male geeks who addressed me with careful chivalry and only the most respectful terms, but i could tell right away they were undressing me with their eyes.

    Male geeks are the new pigs. And we women try to ignore them and enjoy these events anyway – some events of this type are great fun and we meet lots of wonderful, intelligent people there. It’s especially hard for geek women to give up these events because it can be so hard to meet likeminded people in the real world. But eventually we get tired and give up, sometimes quietly, sometimes crying, sometimes cursing and swinging our fists.

    Or sometimes we’ll get lucky and find an event, like certain literary conventions, that women attend in great numbers, and we’ll all gang up on the males who are the most socially inept.

    An interesting phenomenon I’ve started to notice – women at cons have always warned each other, through word of mouth, about any particularly aggressive leches in attendance. Now some women are starting to issue mass warnings in their blogs. One horror fiction writer I know wrote a blog post about an inept slob who attended one of her panels, and in doing so, warned about 500 dedicated literary congoers in one fell swoop.

    Weaker sex, my ass. 🙂

  • Claudia

    Male geeks are the new pigs. And we women try to ignore them and enjoy these events anyway

    Speaking as a woman who has been to some of the most male dominated events around, namely comic book and sci-fi conventions, I really have to speak up and defend my fellow geeks. Yes, there is the occasional guy who has no social skills at all (with men or women, often enough) and will be disgusting. But at least as numerous are guy so shy that they’d go to great pains to make themselves as invisible to you as they possibly can. Vastly outnumbering either of those are guys just ther for the convention who will give you no more of a glance than your average guy, and yes this includes staring if you are out dressed like Mastumoto from bleach.

    I’ve been where the geeks congregate and I’ve also been at even more male-dominated events like league soccer games and I think that the proportions of morons vs. regular guys was similar.

    I see it as being less about the individual men and more about the general atmosphere. If there is an atmosphere of tolerance for harrasment and/or if the concerns of women are routinely dismissed as unimportant, this is what creates an unwelcoming place.

  • concerning male geeks without social skills…

    Big Bang Theory, Thursday nights. Great show.

  • Oz Tilson

    Communicating isn’t simply a matter of expressing a thought. It’s about having other people understand the message the way you want

    this is now my FB status

  • Guest

    Jeff P:

    “If they couldn’t find enough interested females to make up the panel, they should have had a discussion about how to attract enough females to compose a panel to lead the discussion on how to make females more comfortable at atheist events.”

    I am an adult female human, we tend to be referred to as “woman” in the singular and “women” in the plural. If the panelist was talking about “men” and “females” I would be offended. Also, if they were talking about gender issues and not issues of biology, then they should be using “men” and “women”. There are trans-men and trans-women, and atheists should try to make them comfortable at gatherings as well.

    Also, I love Big Bang Theory.

  • Silent Service

    I know this is mostly about communicating but as the problem started with the term female let’s take a look at the problem from that perspective. What one term can encompass all non-male members of humanity that are not transgendered that has not at one time been used as an insult?

    Girl, Woman, Female, they’ve all been used in an insulting context or are not completely inclusive of the group in question. Girl implies immature, young, or not fully developed. Woman and female both seem like and have been used to define the feminine as a trait that is incomplete without attachment to a man.

    We’ve done such a fantastic job of turning every reasonably common and well accepted term for female into an insult at one point or another in the last 50 years I don’t see how you can use any of them without somehow offending somebody. So the important question to me is what do the non-male members of our society want to be referred to as when identifying them as a sub-set of humanity? Or should we just stop bothering to segregate into us and them and just stick with human? I’d like that, but honestly I don’t think we’re ready for something so all encompassing.

  • A Portlander

    Guest, that’s an excellent question.

    Jesse, what terminology was mostly being used at the panel: “men and females” or “males and females”?

  • Patrick

    reading this is giving me a headache . . .

  • Rollingforest

    @A Portlander:

    He doesn’t know. He wasn’t there at that part of the panel. I’m not sure the video is up yet.

  • Silent Service

    Wow Cloud’s Mom,

    You must be so proud of your little click ganging up on socially inept people and abusing them. You sound exactly like the rude and judgmental pigs you claim other people are. Apparently you only see the worst in humanity around you, especially among us men, and are willing to heap great scorn on all of us in geekdom like we’re some monolithic hive mind with one personality. Guess what, most of us don’t treat other people like something out of a skin magazine, male or female. If you’re being treated that badly constantly you might want to look in a mirror. It’s entirely possible that all the men you meet at conventions don’t treat women badly, just you.

  • Rollingforest

    @MV: We must make compromises in our terms. Just because a person is offended does not make them right, though we should listen to them. Just because a person says another is privileged in a certain situation does not mean that person necessarily is privileged. And being privileged does not mean a person is always wrong. I agree with Jesse that communication is necessary, but it needs to be both ways.

    @AwesomeCloud’s mom: I think overgeneralizations are a bad idea because you run the risk of bigotry. Perhaps some male geeks are socially inept. But personality and introvertness are to some degree genetic and their self esteem isn’t helped by the fact that most “normal” people mock them for being interested in science. You could also argue that male geeks are MORE likely to treat women well because most people are dismissive toward geeks and geeks need to be nicer than the average person in order to gain the same social acceptance.

  • David w

    Amen to that!

  • Dan

    I agree with the article completely.

    I too have made the mistake of making a joke because I thought it was funny, before I really knew if the person hearing the joke would find it funny – and I’ve pissed off several people that way. So, I’m learning and working on it.

    Someone I’m very thankful for told me that he didn’t agree with the golden rule; to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He thought that we should do unto others how THEY prefer, as we don’t all agree on what works, what’s polite, etc.

    This is especially true if you travel and visit other cultures. Many have completely different views of what is moral and what is ethical, and what is polite.

  • walkamungus

    If the Blag Hag description of what happened just prior to the woman making this statement is accurate, she had had her hand raised for some time during the discussion, but was ignored by the panelists, who called on several men. So she didn’t simply object to the word “female” and run out crying; it sounds like she wanted to make a comment, had been waiting politely to do so (as women are often expected to do, culturally) but was passed over, and then had what she said disparaged.

    It doesn’t sound like she was oversensitive, or a crazy feminist, or unaware of context, or whatever else has been suggested by some commenters here. In fact, I’d say she was really, really *aware* of the context.

    Think of those female SDS members who afterwards said something like, “We thought they wanted us as equal partners, but it turns out we were mostly there to have sex with.”

  • Sarah TX.

    I think that the fact that some commenters are glomming on “woman vs. female” and missing the context* are perfectly demonstrating why that panel may have been so infurating for people who are seriously concerned about the inclusiveness of the Atheist movement.

    *A panel with only one woman panelist, trying to speak to “what we can do to attract more women” and in the process demanding external validation from the women present, then ignoring and directly insulting a woman who was trying to make a point about inclusive language

  • Alexis

    Context means a lot. Were the panels members seriously addressing the question of bringing in women as people and as participants, or were they looking at us as objects? “Lookie here, our demographics are off, how can we get the female numbers up?” If you want to bring in women, you have to treat us like sentient human beings. Maybe the panel was using the term “female” in a manner that seemed to abstract and objectify us.

  • Claudia

    @Alexis, according to Blag Hag, the context was indeed worriesome. There is no mention of whether it was female vs. male or female vs. men. However it was mentioned that women were outnumbered 2 to 1. A panel of 6 people assembled to discuss attracting women to the movement only had one actual female. The topic at hand when this incident happened was women feeling uncomfortable by being hit on whenever they go to meet-ups, the response to which by the panel was that “Well, it’s only natural because it’s men’s biological impulse” (which, frankly, I see as insulting to both genders). I can see where a woman, who had her hand up for a while and had been disregarded in favor of male audience members, might end up pissed off. “Female” was the least important issue in this talk, and it’s really disheartening that it becomes the center of attention, instead of the far more important issue of how an accumulation of small attitudes and words can become a big ball of trouble.

  • Liz

    I feel like there’s always the possibility that this lady was overreacting to something no one meant to be offensive…but more than likely she was offended by HOW the word ‘female’ was being used. If she said the word female made them sound like livestock, it was probably how they were talking about ‘females’ that offended her. I guess we’ll have to wait for the video to be released, but this is not the kind of discussion that should be discussed as if “how do we acquire more females?” should be solved with a scientific formula as opposed to just deciding to be nicer to all people and encouraging your female friends to attend meetings.

    i am slightly (very, very slightly) offended that they would even imagine having a panel discussing THIS issue and only have one woman on the panel. Is that REALLY the only woman they could find? It really seems like when a panel like this is formed, they don’t seem to care about a woman’s perspective. Obviously, men can’t figure it out or else they would have already. I suppose taking questions from a female audience would be helpful…but they should have woman standing up and stating their opinions, not idling standing by while the men discuss the issues and only getting a say after the fact.

  • RPJ

    And the idea that certain words are neutral, especially relating to sex and gender, is absurd

    Male and female are as close to neutral as I know. Obviously, to some people they still have connotations. I would suggest that the onus is on those people to drop those connotations.

    If she was insulted by the panelist then she should have said she was insulted by the panelist, instead of by the term “female”. You can’t say one thing then get upset when someone respond to that instead of the thing you REALLY meant.

    @ Sarah TX:

    I believe I’ve mentioned before, I think the ultimate comment the panelist made was bad. Maybe I didn’t read the Blag hag article closely enough; I didn’t catch that no other women were called upon while her hand was raised, and if that’s the case it should be a concern; however if both women and men were called during that time – the panelists should have been paying more attention, but there’s no evidence they were ignoring a woman specifically, and it’s absurd to think they even knew who she was to ignore HER specifically.

    This panel seems to have several other legitimate issues. I’m picking on one issue in particular because I feel like it.

    @Alexis: If what you describe is what the panel was doing it objectified males in the same way.

  • Liz

    I agree with RPJ that male and female are ‘neutral words’ but like i said in my last post…when you use these words they sound scientific or like statistics. And this problem in NOT a scientific/mathematic problem. It is a personal issue and it should be discussed with thoughts and FEELINGS taken into consideration, not numbers and biology. =P

  • Hollynoats

    “I’ve known a few male geeks who addressed me with careful chivalry and only the most respectful terms, but i could tell right away they were undressing me with their eyes.”

    This comment made me want to vomit!!
    How much more arrogant and bigoted are you going to make yourself sound? Speak for yourself! “We” women are not all like you.
    Though it is women like you, with comments like that, that make me feel embarrassed to be a woman sometimes.

    I hope I’m never unfortunate enough to be at one of these “literary” events when someone like you, with your fellow she-wolves all decide to gang up on these male-geeks, these New Pigs because you think they just want to ravage you. Get over yourselves. People are people, good and bad. It doesn’t matter if they’re men or women, when you’re pitted against each other with attitudes like yours, no one is going to get anywhere.

    Maybe if you offered some HONEST equal respect, you’d receive some.

    That’s all I needed to say. I feel better now, thanks.

  • walkamungus

    I want to echo Liz here…

    “Male” and “female” are generally used to describe the sex (physiology) of members of a species … male grizzly bears, male cats, male Homo sapiens, female grizzly bears, female cats, female Homo sapiens.

    “Man” and “woman” are generally used to describe the gender of humans. Gender is a product of psychology, culture, and biochemistry (at a minimum).

    If the panel was talking about “men” and “females,” that’s sending the wrong message.

    I don’t think the panelists intended to anger or upset this woman, and I don’t think the woman came to the panel with a plan to be offended. But the panelists behaved as men often do in situations where men are in the majority, or acting in accordance with cultural expectations, and that ran into an unfelicitous choice of language.

  • roxanne

    I went to a meeting of the FLASH a few years ago (2008) and was extremely discouraged.

    1.) It was a total sausage fest.
    2.) Several men I engaged in conversation where unable to keep their eyes on my face.
    3.) I felt as if more than one male had to speak to me at one time.
    4.) I had 5 ciders in front of me at one time. No lie. I was well libated by free booze.
    5.) After the rather predictable meeting, I went to the ladies room. After leaving the washroom, I heard what sounded like live music. I got excited…until I saw it was the adult male club members tapping on a fake guitar & drumset while playing Rock Star.

    Lamest of the lame to watch an obese 30-something wailing on a plastic toy guitar and sneering.

    Needless to say, I never went to another meeting.


  • I Stay Away

    I find that the most effective way to avoid misunderstandings is not to talk. 🙂

    Better to say nothing and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

    Avoiding conflict with others is easy to achieve, too. No interaction = no conflict. Problem solved!

  • On the “men” vs. “female” thing, it’s important to realize that just because words are denotatively accurate doesn’t mean they don’t have connotations that may be offensive to your intended audience. A while back on my blog, some commenters told me that the word “homosexual”, which I’d been using casually to describe people, was considered mildly pejorative – it sounds clinical, they said, and it’s been used by the religious right to imply that gay people are unhealthy or diseased.

    Now, I could have said something like, “It’s a perfectly accurate word, stop being so touchy!” (and I won’t deny that the thought occurred to me, at least fleetingly), but I know that a defensive reaction like that wouldn’t have helped anything. It would only have angered and upset people that I wanted to communicate with and made them that much less likely to listen to me in the future. Instead, I tried to see it from their point of view, which helped me realize that I was doing something that was bothering people, and I’m glad that they told me about it. If you can change your message to appeal to a wider circle of people without compromising your argument, why would you not want to?

  • It’s nice to see Jen is still blowing things out of proportion and making up blatant lies to make men seem evil.

    Oops… did I say nice? I meant predictable.

  • Tom

    When I see some atheist calling another an accomodationist, I wonder how they would feel if they were called something on the opposite side of the spectrum, like antagonist (note, my spell check underlines accomodationist as not valid, but antagonist is fine).

    Because I find many atheists blatantly antagonist, or find it exciting to be some kind of subversive force (think the guy who mis-shelved the bible a week back or so)

    And I do find some atheists (not as many) who let the pressure felt from religious bullies effect their words. But not that many

  • Great post. I wish more people would focus on what, exactly, they wish to achieve by their communications. This is part of the problem in the raging hullabaloo about Chris Mooney’s accommodationism: it is not often recognized that Mooney and his opponents have different aims, which may require different approaches (I know it’s not this simple, but the point remains).

    But what’s really important here is the treatment of women. As a man, I feel deeply ashamed about the careless comment about the “weaker sex”. Every man should know better than to make such a disgusting comment – more so men who claim to have a more enlightened view of human nature based on evidence rather than misogynist myth.

  • Jennifer

    As a lifelong dame…I would like to add my two cents here.

    I read Blag Hag’s piece, and it is my experience that we women do not like when men hit on us when the man is not our idea of attractive. I doubt many underwear models (the straight ones) get “why won’t he LEAVE ME ALONE??” when they try to score. If Ian Somerhalder were staring at my bounteous cleavage I would be flattered. If an old guy with ear hair and yellow teeth does it there’s a potential sexual harassment suit in his future.

    Second, the idea that a woman would get so flustered at a meeting over the use of the term “female” and then CRY over it is embarrassing to me as a woman. And I mean that. She exhibited the exact type of behavior that gets us written off as “too emotional” when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. She left, ran to the bathroom, and cried. Could she have acted more like a woman near her period?

    Bravo, anonymous female observer. You completely proved the point, even if jokingly made, that we are indeed the “weaker” sex. Had she diffused the situation with humor or even thrown down something and demanded a duel before dawn it would have looked better for all us dames.

    Lastly, I think it is disingenous for women to cry sexism when men do or say things they don’t like. Many of the women I have known through my 4 decades on this planet are anti-male. Men are stupid, bullying, smelly, gassy, overrated, creepy, disgusting, perverted… You name it, women will claim it for men. Why are we allowed to excuse our behavior by using the biology card (PMS rage, postpartum murder, menopausal rage, etc.) but when a guy does it to try to get some tail he’s a monster?

    Personally, I like men; especially if they look like Ian Somerhalder and would like to buy me a drink.

  • I love the part where Jen claimed to be the only person to come to the aid of the crying woman in the bathroom and stating that none of the event organizers tried to comfort her. Many others commenting on her blog who also attended the event, including a couple of the event organizers, have characterized this as a blatant lie. It’s things like this that make me wonder why people still take Jen seriously.

  • @Larry – though it’s not addressing the points I wanted to make in this post, I wanted to offer a quick thought. At first I was confused, but now I see why you might think Sharon (Not Jen, by the way, Sharon wrote that post on BlagHag) claimed to be the only one who went into the bathroom. I read it differently, and I think from context it makes more sense:

    “I – a member of the audience, not one of the event organizers – went after her.”

    To me, that reads as if Sharon is reminding the readers that she wasn’t an organizer but still felt compelled to follow the woman. Does that reading make sense to you?

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    I read Blag Hag’s piece, and it is my experience that we women do not like when men hit on us when the man is not our idea of attractive. I doubt many underwear models (the straight ones) get “why won’t he LEAVE ME ALONE??” when they try to score. If Ian Somerhalder were staring at my bounteous cleavage I would be flattered. If an old guy with ear hair and yellow teeth does it there’s a potential sexual harassment suit in his future.

    Finally a woman willing to speak the truth against PC nonsense.

    Remember the smut for smut campaign complaints about objectifying woman? What’s the solution ladies? Attractive men get to keep their balls, but the rest should be castrated so that they don’t find women attractive who wouldn’t give them the time of day?

    Seriously, if you don’t want the old guy with ear hair and yellow teeth checking you out, why in the hell would you object to pornography? You finding that guy disgusting doesn’t transform him into a eunuch. He has the same sexual impulses as the attractive man. Porn gives him an outlet that he can’t get from you. Without that outlet he is more likely to harass you; with it he is likely to leave you alone – just like you want him to – since he has already sublimated that desire. Porn is therefore doing you a huge favor – it keeps the undesirable males from approaching you. That’s why I can’t understand feminist objections to porn. Do you ladies really want to be surrounded by sexually repressed undesirable men? What gives, feministas?

  • Liz

    @Non-Litigious Atheist

    that’s just bullshit. first of all, just because Jennifer doesn’t mind men staring at her boobs and probably ignoring what she’s talkign about doesn’t mean that all women do. I for one, would be offended at any guy staring, open mouthed at me. Obviously, I expect men and women alike to find the other sex interesting to look at…but that doesn’t mean they have to stare or make sexual comments towards them.

    It’s not about being political correct, it’s just as rude for an underwear model to stare someone down as it is for an old man to do so. I do not like being objectified, no matter who’s doing it.

    We aren’t talking about mild flirting, most women wouldn’t be offended by an old man flirting with them either. It’s the excessive staring, the rude comments like, “Oh, look a lady!” like this is our only characteristic.

    And bleh, I don’t even want to talk about porn. Don’t really care what people watch in their own homes, doesn’t mean I want it associated with a club or whatever i’m part of.

  • Meh. That female needs to grow a thicker skin.

  • could you imagine if a man stood up and made a complaint like this and then ran off crying? You think he’d get as much sympathy?

  • Claudia

    What I see is that people want to center on this incident or that word, work furiously to justify why it was an overreaction or a misinterpretation, and once they’ve achieved that to their satisfaction, they walk away.

    What then has been achieved?

    IF you agree that the fact that at this meetup, men outnumbered women 2 to 1 is a problem. IF you agree that achieving a movement whose membership is representative of society at large. IF you believe that there may be aspects internal to the movement that can be changed to achieve that goal, then how does winning this tiny little battle help you?

    The original point of this post is to keep in mind your goal when you are speaking. What I see is that whenever one of these issues comes up, a lot of energy goes into deciding that the woman was being oversensitive, or the situation was misrepresented or women are hypocritical, boo fucking hoo. Wouldn’t it be a thousand times more productive to use the opportunity to address legitimate grievances and issues that could make the gender disparity improve? Of course, that would mean tamping down our almost irrepresible urge to debate and win, but I really think it would be a lot more helpful.

  • Liz

    If this was a group of white men (and one black man) discussing how to achieve the goal of bringing more black men into their group..and an audience member said he was offended by how the were saying ‘blacks’ as if they weren’t even human does ANYONE think it would be acceptable for one of the panelist to joke, “what do you want us to say, nigger?” (or even ‘the less powerful race’)

    Can you honestly say that ‘the weaker sex’ shouldn’t have offended this woman?…In a discussion about becoming more gender diverse?

    White men have never been specifically belittled as a whole for their gender, so it’s much less likely that the situation would even happen. But what if a bunch of female nurses (or some other female dominated career/group) were having a panel discussion about how to acquire more males into the group. They were discussing this amongst themselves with little input from other male nurses and when one raises a hand to say that he didn’t agree with how the discussion was going the panelist laughs his disagreement off and jokingly says men are stupid, leaving the man upset. Would he get as much sympathy? From me, I think so. I would wonder what the hell was wrong with that lady and I would question the ENTIRE panel as a whole. I think it’s wrong for anyone to be dismissed so callously, ESPECIALLY when they take the discussion personally, since it IS about them.

  • Dakota Bob

    I’m not sure why a woman might be offended by being called “female” but it is absolutely clear that the guy on the panel is a fuckin’ dolt, did he honestly think that joke was going to go down well with the women in attendance?

  • Silent Service

    OMSFM what a bunch of odd whining crap this thread has turned into on all sides. Look, some people are going to say stupid shit without realizing it. Some people are going to say it fully knowing what they’re saying. Some people are going to stare at your breasts. Some of them think they’re clever and that you won’t realize it, and some even know they’re doing it and don’t care if you know. Some people will look you in the eye. Some people are looking at their own feet when they talk to you. We’re not all staring at your breasts ladies. Some of us are shy and have a hard time looking anybody in the eyes. Try treating everybody with respect even if they don’t treat you with respect right away. If they continue to be rude, then you can be rude back, but give them the benefit of the doubt at first.

    None of that is what this topic is about nor does it have anything to do with the problem. The problem is how to become more diverse and inclusive in the atheist community and movement. The answer is really easy. If we want to expand the diversity of the atheist movement to non white European men we have to embrace issues that non white European men are interested in and care about. While that happens, people are going to say rude and stupid things, breasts are going to get stared at, geeks are going to get kicked around, people are going to be objectified, and feelings are going to get hurt. Not because we’re all rude, nasty, bigoted pigs but because any diverse group of people will have their bad seeds.

    As we try to be more inclusive there are going to be more bad seeds. Even the most reasonable of us is still an irrational and unreasonable human being. We’re going to screw up from time to time but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to me more inclusive. It also doesn’t mean we should start walking on egg shells for fear of offending somebody. Find the topics that are of interest to the people we want to join our atheist and humanist movements and adopt the topic. The people will come to us gladly to work on a shared interest. Just don’t be shocked if a few of them are flawed or have their own personal baggage. They can store it with ours while we’re working together.

  • Turrboenvy

    I’m attempting to make points that haven’t already been made…

    According to the blaghag post, it was not a panel on bringing more women to the events, but a “catch-all” panel to answer audience-submitted questions. One question was how to help women feel more welcome.

    “It’s biology” should be a request for patience as we attempt to stop objectifying women, not a justification for continuing to do it.

  • Larry Meredith Says:

    could you imagine if a man stood up and made a complaint like this and then ran off crying? You think he’d get as much sympathy?

    A therapist friend of mine has often commented that there are only four basic emotions (mad, sad, glad, scared) and our more complex emotions are just combinations of these basic emotions (analagous to primary colors being mixed to form more complex and subtle shades).

    The reason I mention this is that there are different gender socialization expectations for men and women and these expectations affect how we react to things.

    Men are discourgaged through socialization to not be scared. Often, this means that things that do scare men make them angry because anger is permissable for men. This may explain why homosexuality makes homophobic men angry — they’re really afraid but they can’t express their fear as fear so it comes out as anger.

    Women are discouraged through socilization to not be mad. Often, this means that things that do anger women make them cry because sadness is permissable for women.

    So … in some cases, the running off and crying is the socially permissable way for a women to say she is fucking angry with something you’ve done.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    This kind of crap is going to continue until there is a concerted effort on the part of everyone to recognize and challenge male privilege within the atheist community. See, now that I’ve mentioned that, many (not most or all of course) men reading this comment are already gearing up their defensive batteries — “We don’t have privilege, some woman said something mean to us once, blah blah blah” — but all men have privilege in American society vis-a-vis women. I’m saying this as a man. All men, no matter if they behave in a sexist manner or not, benefit from this privilege. I know I do. The point is that you should be conscious of it and not blindly use it to your advantage. And you should work to counter it and improve the situation. It is nothing to feel guilty over, but it is our responsibility to address it and make the situation better. In fact, it is a situation that only we can ultimately fix.

    I’m not optimistic that this kind of consciousness about male privilege is going to be raised among the people who need to know about it most — the men who have been blindly benefiting from it for years. But until that happens, you’ll see absolutely astounding things happen, like a panel dominated by men organized for a male dominated conference in order to discuss the question of how to attract more women.

    The comment thread over at Blag Hag has devolved into an absolutely shameful display of misogyny on the part of many commenters — some men are over there pretty much arguing that since they have a biological imperative to spread their seed, there really is no reason for them to treat women with respect. It’s hard not to be pessimistic after reading that.

  • DA

    If you run off literally crying and hide in a bathroom because someone made a somewhat hackneyed and stupid joke, you have emotional problems. It’s really that simple.

  • Guest

    @A Portlander

    I just watched the video of the panel session and the panelists were using “male” along with “female”…so I can’t really comprehend why this was an issue…

    Panel discussion can be seen here:

  • Richard Wade


    Thank you very much for writing this excellent essay. It describes very well something I have seen on this and other blogs, and that I’ve commented about several times. There seems to be two distinct motives for people posting comments. One is to express and the other is to communicate. There are several examples of both of these right here in the comments.

    In expression, the person is mainly interested in saying what they want to say. Whether or not anyone else hears or reads what they say, or accurately understands what they intended to mean are secondary or even immaterial. Their focus is to get something off their chest. Their indifference to the effect they have on others often can inadvertently drive people who disagree more deeply into their present positions. So if the expressors are complaining about other’s views, they only end up having more to complain about.

    In communication, the person is mainly interested in being accurately understood by others. Their focus is on the intellectual and emotional effect their words will have on their readers or listeners. Because of this, communicators can be much better at persuasion, and they can contribute to improving the situation rather than making it worse.

    This is why I often advise people to talk with your ears. Try to be inside the listener’s head, rather than yours. Choose your words according to the effect they will have on others, rather than on yourself. Ask yourself if you were them, how would you receive this? Are you opening or closing their mind to considering your ideas? Are you going to “win” a put-down contest but lose the opportunity to establish understanding? Are you extending a hand, or just thumping your chest?

  • Wow! Sensitive much? In my experience, most women, regardless of political and ideological orientation don’t even notice the use of “women and males” in a sentence. What I’ve found interesting, though, is that, again, in my experience, women leaning left(sometimes far left) are more likely to use “women and males”. Add the self-proclaimed label “feminist” and she’s even more likely to use “women and males”.

    But to run bawling to the bathroom? That’s just above and beyond.

  • @guest,

    Thanks for the link. I see that the offending statement came in at about 8:51 into the video.

  • @Liz

    If you don’t want anyone staring at your cleavage, then you shouldn’t be wearing something that is so titillating. It’s absolutely ridiculous for any woman to wearing something low-cut, knowing full well how teasing it is to the eyes and mind, and at the same time have an expectation for nobody to stare at it.

    I personally never stare at breasts. Even if there’s a lot of cleavage hanging out, I resist the urge to stare at it (and that’s a major urge). I may give it a quick glance, and I never make sexual comments towards her or about her. This is really just because I’m extremely shy and don’t want to bring attention to myself. I can absolutely understand why others would do it though. If you don’t want to be objectified, don’t flaunt yourself as a sexual object in front of strangers. It’s much easier to pay attention to someone’s personality and concerns when they aren’t flaunting their most sexual assets.

    I’m not saying you have to go around wearing a burka or covering up your ankles. I’m just saying dress modestly if you want to be taken seriously. It’s just not fair to dress slutty and expect to be taken seriously

  • Claudia

    I’m not saying you have to go around wearing a burka or covering up your ankles. I’m just saying dress modestly if you want to be taken seriously. It’s just not fair to dress slutty and expect to be taken seriously

    Yes, really Liz, you should really know your place. Don’t you know that women who are sexual are inherently unworthy of having opinions? I mean, it’s really your own fault if men treat you as a mindless piece of meat. You should have had a high neckline and your knees are showing, you whore!

    If I wear a low neckline or a short skirt, I expect to be looked at, but I don’t expect to have my opinions dismissed, at least not by people who aren’t sexists.

  • Guest


    I hear this argument a lot when it comes to cleavage and I think that it’s about time to point out that with some women every shirt (unless it’s a turtleneck) will show cleavage.

    I hope this isn’t TMI, but I have a small cup size. It doesn’t matter how low-cut my shirt is, I am unable to have cleavage. Most clothing for women is thought out for women my size (2-6) and not for the size of most women. Therefore, when something is a size 2 it doesn’t show cleavage, but when it’s a size 10 it very well can. There are only so many options for the clothing that women can buy, and most clothing is not designed for the average woman’s body size. So when many women hear “just don’t show cleavage” it is quite offensive, not just because we should be able to have respect shown to us regardless, but also because you’re asking many women to do something that is much harder than you think.

  • Circe of the Godless

    Crying is a socially acceptable form of showing anger for a woman. Many crying women are as angry as hell. Women are actively taught to smile, shut up , and be compliant by society. You probably have not experienced this unless you have actually grown up as a woman.

    A much more effective way for the woman to react would have been to stand up and say in a very loud assertive voice that a stupid joke like that was totally unacceptable, especially from a male on a panel discussing how to attract more females to the movement and that they should take a long hard look at their culture and maybe if they are even remotely interested in doing what they say they are, why don’t they at least listen to a woman’s ideas on why there aren’t enough women.

    It was unfortunate she didn’t react like this, it would have held the panel accountable.

  • DA

    Online arguments about gender are kind of a brain bender. On the one hand, I think all existing societies are profoundly sexist and women have a right to be pissed off at the way they’re treated pretty much every day by men or by male-manufactured social institutions. I’m sympathetic to most feminist points of reference, even “radical” feminists, even though I don’t apply the term to myself. But then I read internet discussions about sexism and I’m reminded that American feminism may just be the most retarded, whiny, entitled movement on earth. It’s been hijacked by upper-middle class white women who think whoever can scream the loudest wins and a conversation without jargon is useless. There are whole websites devoted to this principle (Hi Jezebel! How goes it, Shakespeare’s Sister!) and it basically turned every womens’ studies major I’ve ever met into insufferable bores. And it makes people react to someone being so pissed at the word FEMALE that they complain about it, are rebuffed with a dumb and mildly sexist joke, and then run weeping from the room, not by saying “Wow, she has some problems” but by acting like it’s some kind of legitemite expression of anger. If the case actually played out this way, she has some personal problems that probably should be resolved before she spends any time giving input into activism or strategy. Though I agree that panels made up entirely of men trying to discuss how to bring more women into a movement are in themselves kind of cringe-worthy.

  • Liz

    @ Larry

    let me rephrase that. I can be wearing a regular baggy t-shirt and my triple D breasts are still noticeable on my size 3 body. BUT that doesn’t mean you have to stare! You can’t just say that no one will take me seriously if BOOBS are visible…that’s the problem, obviously. =P Then no man would EVER take me seriously…because i ALWAYS have breasts (somewhat unfortunately). I don’t stare at people with big noses or big feet and I definitely wouldn’t stare at someone just because you could see their penis through their clothes, it’s just rude.
    You just said yourself that you don’t stare at cleavage, so why can’t other men take your lead? It is definitely not the quick glances that annoy me, I expect that and accept that, it’s the staring or not looking me in the face when we’re talking that bothers me. You just jumped to the conclusion that I don’t dress modestly, which I do at least half the time. (t-shirts and long pants/jeans) And the other half my dress would be just as modest if I didn’t have this unwanted cleavage. (regular tank tops, no v-necks or really low cut) I don’t think I should have to hide my body to be taken seriously…that’s the problem. But I tend to do it anyway, because that’s how people feel. =/

    It’s VERY hard for woman like me to dress nicely without being accused of dressing ‘slutty’. What am I supposed to wear? If my shirts well fitted, it’s too tight. And anything I pick up from a store is GOING to either be extremely baggy on my body or well fitted on my breast.

    This is just a stupid conversation. It shouldn’t matter at all how someone is dressed for the most part. If I’m dancing in front of you then go ahead and look at my boobs, if I’m talking to your face…you should be looking at mine =P

  • If a man had gotten up and walked out of a panel crying in response to anti-male sexist language (of which there is plenty), a blog post like this would not have been written. Or, if it had, the comments would be radically different.

  • Leah

    I too have made the mistake of making a joke because I thought it was funny, before I really knew if the person hearing the joke would find it funny – and I’ve pissed off several people that way. So, I’m learning and working on it.

    Me, too, Dan. I’m working on it, too.

  • EJC

    Hi, Jesse. Good article. My two cents:

    I don’t mind ‘female’ as an adjective–a female doctor for example–but I hate it as a noun. I’m not crazy about male as a noun, but I can live with it because it doesn’t have the history of contempt that the word “female” has. I can recall quite vividly, and not so long ago, remarks by men about ‘stupid females,’ ‘female drivers,’ or just ‘females,’ with a sneering edge. Clearly the people involved in this meeting had no respect for women.

  • Riley

    “The “I’ll say what I think, damn the consequences!” attitude has never made much sense to me.”

    Not make sense, then your an idiot. See how that worked? How I view you and who you are just showed 100%. Sugar coating only ruins the truth affect and people won’t change or listen to half talk. To plot a manipulative approach to communicate without telling it like it is, is just wrong. People who can’t handle the blunt truth are weak and lazy. They need to grow up. No one approach them bluntly if they weren’t so stupid. Simpletons need to be dealt with and they bring it on their self. Lazy losers need to be made to cry. Iron is shaped by the hottest fires. When don’t chug on over to namby pamby land and get the losers some self-confidence. Don’t be a jack wagon.

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