How to Stand up for Yourself, the Scandinavian Way
So you met a jerk. Standard, happens to the best of us, even multiple times a day if having particularly bad luck. But what if the jerk in question is someone you have to deal with on the regular? A coworker, for instance? Or maybe there is one lurking in your social circle. What if there are multiple jerks battling it out about you or congregating against you? What if they’re not actually jerks, just clueless or unreasonable people masquerading as assholes? Doesn’t matter — one way or another, you need to stand up for yourself, stat.
Most of us react by either ignoring them, getting angry, or getting upset, depending on the situation. But what if I told you that researchers actually formulated counter-strategies to thwart jerk attacks?
Enter the world of master suppression techniques (the aforementioned jerk attacks). Also called domination techniques, they have been first put forth by Norwegian social psychologist Berit Ås in the 1970s. Bringing the problem to light is part of the solution — the rest came later on, as Ph.D. students at Stockholm University proposed some counter-techniques (original article in Swedish). This is the research that inspired this story.
Without further ado, let’s launch into the hypothetical scenario of you having a thoroughly terrible week. I’m going to walk you through five different scenarios and corresponding counter-strategies. That comes down to (at least) a jerk a day, weekend excluded — sounds fun, right?
When someone pretends you don’t exist, for instance by doing something else while you are speaking, or trying to shift attention away from you.
It’s Monday morning, and you’re sitting in a meeting. You prepared an amazing presentation and thoroughly stressed about it over the weekend. Your boss is done with his updates, and soon it’s your turn to start speaking.
Right before you begin, Greg announces he’s “just getting some more coffee” and leaves the room. As you talk, you realize half the attendees are looking at their phones more than they are looking at you or your slides. By now, Greg has been “getting coffee” for about ten minutes, so either the coffee machine has some serious issues, or he’s actually just minding his own business.
It looks like you’re being ignored. Clearly, these people aren’t interested, and they seem keen on letting you know. To them, what you have to say doesn’t matter.
Take up space. Don’t shy away from reclaiming people’s attention, especially when you have a right to it, like at work. Moreover, don’t spend mental energy doubting the validity of the points you made. If others are interested, they will actively challenge your ideas even when they don’t agree.
If people don’t spontaneously offer feedback, then explicitly ask them for their thoughts. And when Greg’s back, remember to ask him if the coffee machine is alright.
When someone, unable to come up with a valid rebuttal, tries instead to invalidate someone’s argument by ridiculing them personally.
Tuesday evening. You’re chilling at home with your laptop and a cup of tea. Finally, some time to yourself.
A Facebook comment section catches your eye — it’s a post by Sandra, a friend of yours. She laments how she receives way too many compliments from men, even coworkers, about her looks, instead of being praised for her skills. And you agree — she is a damn smart woman — so you add a thoughtful comment. You think she’s absolutely right, and people should recognize each other’s merits, instead of focusing on superficial qualities.
And here comes a guy you don’t even know, replying to you with his two cents: “Don’t be acting like you have this problem, LOL.” Apparently insulting you had more appeal than contributing to the discussion.
Ask for clarification. Don’t show shame, since that would amount to letting the insulter win. Instead, you could ask something like “what do you mean by this?”. You know exactly what they meant, but it doesn’t matter. Most people don’t expect this follow-up and will stumble all over themselves when asked. They will feel ashamed.
I know, it’s the Internet, why would this person spend time replying to your thoughtful query? You’d be surprised, though, how often people take time to respond when you hit them with politeness (my qualifications for this claim: countless arguments on the WWW).
3. Withholding Information
When someone willingly excludes someone from an exchange of information, with the intent of leaving that person in the dark.
Wednesday night rolls around. A friend in your circle, Gina, is having birthday drinks at a bar, and you’re on your way there. She said she really didn’t want any presents, and you took that to the letter. After all, you can always buy her a drink, right?
You get there, and at first, it’s a great time. But soon, another friend in your circle pulls a gift box out of her bag. “We know you said no presents, but… we still felt like getting you something”, she tells Gina, “it just felt wrong to come empty-handed!”.
Everyone else cheers, but you feel like an idiot. When did everyone get together and decide on a group present without you? Now you’re the only one who came with nothing.
Remind them you’re part of the group. You could start by praising the initiative. Ask if you could still contribute to the money pool for the gift (after the party itself is over — we don’t want Gina to know how much the gift cost, do we?).
You should also let everyone know that since you’re part of the group, you would like to be included next time gifts are to be bought.
4. Damn You if You Do, Damn You if You Don’t
When, no matter how you change your actions, someone will be ready to criticize you.
Thursday morning. Another day, another meeting. Yesterday, your boss let you know that he thinks you’re too quiet. You should try and make yourself heard more.
Well, you like to think before you speak, and that usually leaves no room to talk in your meetings, where people tend to speak on top of each other and leave no openings. But you do agree, to an extent — you want to be heard more because you have valuable ideas to contribute. So you try and politely interrupt when you sense the topic might shift before you had a chance to speak. “Sorry, but why do you keep interrupting? He’s talking, let him finish,” is what they tell you.
Seriously? They interrupt you all the time, but when you do it, then it’s too much. You sigh. There really is no winning.
Align expectations. This is a tricky one because it involves two people, or groups thereof, each of which wants something different from you. Of all the scenarios I described so far, this is the least likely to involve actual assholes. It’s more about conflicting expectations. Yet, you still have to deal with it. It’s simple, really — at least one of the involved parties (you included) has set unreasonable expectations. Make sure you know what matters most to you, and then explicitly define a way to achieve it that works with everyone.
Too quiet and too talkative in meetings at the same time? Perhaps you could agree with your team to let you speak first — so you get your word in, and they can branch out of that.
5. Shaming and Blaming
When someone implies that you are to blame for a situation that was not your fault.
Friday evening. You are, once again, out for drinks, this time with your team. Greg orders shots for the group. And then a few more, and a few more after that.
Soon, everyone is starting to get tipsy. Another coworker, Tom, is apparently feeling a little frisky. He starts babbling about how sexy you look in your stilettos and how the two of you really should go out sometime.
Before you know it — he gropes your behind. Upset, you say nothing, and later decide to approach your boss about it. He shrugs. “He is drunk, and you are dressed provocatively. Can you blame him?”
Challenge your shame. What’s behind the shaming and blaming? I used a classic case of victim-blaming as an example here. It’s really explicit — you are being blamed directly. Again, ask for clarification, in this case. “What do you mean by dressed provocatively?”, or similar “obvious” questions, can always help bring to light the sheer stupidity of the jerk’s argument.
Feeling shame and guilt might also be caused by other asshole-type behaviors from others that have gone undetected. For instance, it can happen when someone has been keeping information from you. You might feel stupid for not knowing. If you can get to that root cause, then you can work against that instead.
In any case, any shame that others try to push onto you probably isn’t worth much of your energy and definitely none of your tears.
Apologies — I put you through a terrible week just to explain my points. None of these behaviors is news to anyone, really. In the original research, most of them were presented with examples from a variety of work situations. I tried to offer more general examples so that more readers can get value out of the strategies. Not just 9–5 professionals. And even though the main character in this story was a woman, the strategies apply to men as well.
Hopefully, you are now armed with better ways of dealing with more or less malicious jerks. Politely taking action and calling them out always displays strength on your part. And it feels a hell of a lot better than getting upset and letting them win.