A few days ago, a young lawyer asked me for advice on how she should have responded to a sexist comment from another lawyer. As we all would have been, she was dumbfounded by the comment (in 2017) and was kicking herself that she didn’t have the perfect comeback – one of those one-liners that not only quashes the offending party’s statement, but also shows off your own wit and ingenuity.
As someone who has heard her fair share of sexist comments, I told the young lawyer that they are unfortunately to be expected, and that she might want to have something prepared for the next (sadly, inevitable) time it happens. But, I warned her, she needed to be prepared to live with the consequences.
I know whereof I speak, unfortunately. I recently had such an opportunity, and I took it. I said the thing I had been wanting to say and that had been bugging me for a while. In retrospect, I’m glad I said it because it needed to be said, but I have to admit that the outcome wasn’t a positive one. (I suspect the negative outcome would have happened even if I had kept my mouth shut, but my remark probably didn’t help matters.)
Just as there is an equal and opposite reaction to every action, there are consequences to everything we say, or don’t say. It’s up to us to be prepared to live with those consequences.
Lessons from Nora Ephron
The situation reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, You’ve Got Mail. In it, Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is emailing Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) via AOL (remember those days?):
Joe Fox: Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could pass all my zingers to you? And then I would never behave badly and you could behave badly all the time, and we'd both be happy. But then, on the other hand, I must warn you that when you finally have the pleasure of saying the thing you mean to say at the moment you mean to say it, remorse inevitably follows.
Later, Kathleen responds:
I've been thinking about you. Last night I went to meet you, and you weren't there. I wish I knew why. I felt so foolish. And as I waited, someone else showed up: a man who has made my professional life a misery. And an amazing thing happened. I was able, for the first time in my life to say the exact thing I wanted to say at the exact moment I wanted to say it. And, of course, afterwards, I felt terrible, just as you said I would.
Nora Ephron, in her infinite genius, had it right. Sometimes the thing you wish you had said is better left unsaid after all.
So, if you’ve ever kicked yourself for not having the perfect comeback to the rude cashier, the insensitive boyfriend, or the sexist colleague: quit beating yourself up. The witty retort is usually overrated.