A conflict-averse feminist’s guide to responding to condescension

Talking about feminism at a birthday party is kind of like bringing up death -- especially when the guests are 29-year-old white-collar men in Manhattan. Case in point: a Friday night conversation I had with an eyewear entrepreneur. He asserted that feminism is pointless because there are such “horrible women” handling contact lens complaints on his customer service line. (Yep, that was his actual argument.)

I didn’t know how to respond. And given my impulse to resolve arguments as soon as humanly possible -- often by acquiescing -- I felt daunted at the task of standing up for my beliefs. I’m trying my best to say I really think these days, but after a few frustrating attempts to explain why customer service and feminism are two separate topics, I felt defeated.

These conversations kept happening. So I chose the intense route and picked up Never Split the Difference, a negotiation book by the FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. The guide adapts FBI conflict resolution tactics for businesspeople, but you know who else it can help? Conflict-averse feminists like me, and maybe you. I collected a whole arsenal of tips on how to thwart condescension and use it to our advantage. I’ve tweaked my favorites examples to build a roadmap for when I’m the only feminist in a sea of skeptics, and I hope you’ll find it useful too.


Step 1: Get ahead of any predictable accusations by doing an accusation audit.

  1. You must think I’m just another “angry feminist.”

  2. You must think I’m a man-hater.

  3. You must think I’m a New York City liberal who doesn’t understand your point of view.

  4. You must see me as a social justice crusader ready to take down everything you say.

This clears the air of all preconceived notions. You’ll flaunt your self-awareness, and diffuse whatever silent judgments your conversation partner could be conjuring towards you. Because the other party is in debate mode, they’ll be tempted to disagree with whatever you say and take the protective stance of No, I don’t: “No, I don’t think you’re an angry feminist or a man-hater!” Glad that’s out of the way.


Step 2: When the condescension starts, use neutral language to diagnose the situation.

For example:

  1. It sounds from your tone of voice like you don't think I'm credible here.

  2. It seems like you don't believe what I'm saying.

  3. It looks like you’re upset because I’m standing up for myself.

  4. It seems like you’re reluctant to concede that customer service and feminism are two separate topics.

See the pattern? The key is using grammar like, “It sounds…” or, “It seems…” so that you avoid the pitfalls of the first-person observations (which are easily invalidated). Then, make an empirical observation about what your conversation partner is doing, saying, or implying to make you feel small.

This tends to really surprise people. As with the accusation audit, they’ll likely refute what you’re saying, reassuring you that they’re not upset because you’re standing up for yourself, and they’re not dismissing what you’re saying, effectively convincing themselves to open their mind and actually hear you.

This can also be used as a tool to increase empathy. For instance, let’s say you’re discussing affirmative action and someone is patronizingly trying to convince you that it’s unnecessary. You can say something along the lines of, “Wow, it sounds like having a meritocracy is really important to you.” They’ll agree. They’ll feel understood. And then you can explain your POV on how, say, affirmative action corrects unfair circumstances and actually enables better meritocracies to form.


Step 3: Ask questions that make them think for you.

  • How am I supposed to respond when you refuse to hear what I’m saying?

  • How am I supposed to keep talking to you while you’re rolling eyes at me?

  • How can I have a debate with you when you keep interrupting me mid-sentence?

This one forces them to put themselves in your shoes while acknowledging the reality of the feeling they're causing. It’s brilliant, because they think they’re getting what they want, which is to tell you how you should feel and how you should handle things. But in so doing, they’ll be forced to see things from your perspective, increasing empathy and probably leading them to apologize for being rude.

Here’s something I could have to that eyewear guy: “It sounds like you had a rough experience on that customer service line. But how am I supposed to see a connection between your customer service representative and equal rights for women?”


Step 4: Walk away with your dignity intact.

If all else fails, and the person just isn’t ready to give your perspective the time of day, there’s no point in sticking around to feel belittled by them. Try something like this:

  • You really can’t seem to stand my point of view. If you want to continue the conversation with an open mind, I’ll be at the bar.