One of my students—a male varsity basketball player—once told me that every day in the locker room, someone says something offensive. Then he wondered aloud, “Why do I sometimes say something and sometimes I don’t?”
He recognized that what he was hearing was offensive, but also that he didn’t always speak up. What he probably didn’t understand was that in all likelihood some of his teammates also felt uncomfortable with these comments but, like him, felt more comfortable being silent, at least some of the time.
Though we all imagine ourselves as courageous people who’d do the right thing, it’s not so simple. Over the last few months, we’ve seen multiple examples illustrating the challenge of calling out bad behavior in the case of mask wearing.
If you see someone in a store not wearing a mask, do you speak up? You could—and you probably should—but you may worry about whether that person would become aggressive, or whether it’s your place to do so. Or how about if you notice a store clerk asking a customer to put on a mask, and see a confrontation escalating? Should you get involved? Again, you may worry about the potential consequences, such as increasing the spread of potentially infected saliva as more and more people talk.
But the good news is we can hone specific skills for challenging bad behavior when we need to. Here are some science-based tips.
1. Find a short and clear way of expressing concern or disapproval
This helps you avoid getting embroiled in a lengthy “teachable moment” or humiliating the other person. It simply identifies that the comment or action isn’t OK—for the person engaging in the behavior and for those observing it.
One study examining responses to homophobic comments in the workplace found that the most effective type of confrontation was calm but direct: “Hey, that’s not cool.” A similar approach could be used for almost any type of harmful behavior, from calling out someone for using offensive language to intervening when a colleague is rude to a coworker. Openly expressing disapproval clearly communicates what isn’t acceptable, an essential first step in creating new social norms.
2. Assume that a comment is sarcastic and identify it as such
Sometimes you can disarm a speaker by assuming they are only being sarcastic. So, for example, you could respond to a sexist comment about the hazards of voting for a woman by saying, “I know you’re just trying to be funny, but some people really do think that women are too emotional to be president!” Your response clarifies that you disagree with the comment, but it doesn’t make the person who made the remark appear stupid or bad.
3. Make the discomfort about you, not them
One way of doing this is to reveal a personal connection to explain your reaction to an insensitive remark. You could say, “I was raised in the Catholic church so that comment is hard for me to hear,” or “A close friend of mine was sexually assaulted in high school, so jokes about rape make me uncomfortable.” This reduces the risk that you will make the person feel bad or defensive, but it also clearly indicates that their comment or behavior was wrong.
4. Actively play out different types of responses to offensive remarks or problematic behavior
Learning different techniques for confronting bias or unethical behavior can make a difference, but it’s not enough to learn skills and strategies; it’s essential to practice using them. Practicing helps reduce inhibitions about speaking up and makes responding feel more normal. It also increases our confidence that we can intervene in a real-world situation.