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Photo: Stocksy


A co-worker is being sexist. When do you jump in?

How do you tell your boss or your brother-in-law or the racist lady on the train that you find their views offensive, asks Caroline O’Donoghue

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

I have a problem. Maybe you have the same one. I’m finding it hard to sum up exactly what that problem is, because it’s complicated, so let me illustrate it to you in a story about a meeting I had a couple of months ago.

I’m in a meeting with a small business that wants to hire me for some freelance work. The CEO, a very nice man by all reports, mentions that there’s a possibility Johnny Depp may become involved in the project. Many words are exchanged on what a nice guy Johnny is, and how, unlike most of these Hollywood types, really understands creativity. Johnny, apparently, just “gets it”. There are sympathetic nods about how he had “lost his way” lately, and how experiencing fame at such a young age will do that to a person. While all of this is happening, another person at the table catches my eye. He knows my politics, knows that I write for The Pool, and has a look on his face that is halfway between an apology and “I wonder if she’s going to say something?”. There’s something else there, too: it’s “I hope she doesn’t say something.”

I didn’t say anything.

Johnny Depp is a good example to use here, because it’s not like anyone is still in the dark about his alleged abuse of his ex-wife, Amber Heard. The headlines dominated the summer of 2016, which is recent enough that it’s still present in the public consciousness. We all saw the footage of him screaming at his wife, we all saw the leaked text messages, we all read about the settlement going to domestic abuse charities. We all watched the media pile in on this woman, and we all watched the fragrance posters – the eerily prescient “SAUVAGE” – and the Disney movie franchises continue, unperturbed by the allegations. As no one at the table had spoken about their recent trip to the moon, it was safe to say that there was absolutely no way that anyone could have been ignorant of the events of 2016. And yet, here we were. Excited about Johnny Depp.

This kind of thing happens to me a lot. Not the potential of working with A-List stars – that almost never happens – but the situation where your personal politics are set against your everyday reality. Where the views that you’re able to share on your social media and discuss with your friends are tested by people who don’t know about your Twitter followers, and didn’t see that New York magazine cover with the empty chair, and don’t particularly care to see it, either. They definitely don’t want you to take your phone out and show them all the Guardian articles you’ve bookmarked.

You don’t need to explain why something is wrong. You don’t need to bring up a hundred points about it


It is, simply, part of the deal of being human: you will have a set of values, and you will have to embrace and accept that other people have different values. The difference about this problem in 2017, though, is that everyone’s morals and values are vibrating in their pocket, at all times. If I meet someone who doesn’t agree with me, I can discuss it with a thousand people who agree with me.

Conversely, if I’m in a situation where I feel like I should jump in and correct people – whether that’s about Johnny Depp or anything else – and I don’t, I feel like a hypocrite. I feel like the worst kind of lefty bleeding-heart-liberal: the person who can talk a big game, but can’t challenge people openly. Especially if those people are employers, or strangers, or friends-of-friends, or anyone who I need or want to impress.

How do you exist in the real world without being the person who is constantly saying “let me just jump in here” or “well actually, I think you’ll find” or “you’re wrong about that”? How, I guess, do you stay true to your moral values without being kind of a pain in the arse? I’ve started to figure out that there’s ways of standing up for things without turning a business meeting into a trial, or a cab ride into a shouting match. I’m still not brilliant at Jumping In with strangers, but I’m improving.


People know when their comment has been stonewalled. When you’re not laughing, or nodding, or giving a non-committal “mmm”, people know. And if you keep doing it, they will definitely know.


Don’t actually play dumb, obviously, but phrasing your criticisms as questions can be way less intimidating than just blurting them out. “Sorry, but wasn’t that the guy who voted against gay marriage?” or “Maybe I’m mixing it up here, but isn’t the problem we have with Theresa May her politics rather her being a.. what was that you said? A cunt witch?”


Correcting people while laughing as become my forte, especially as an Irish person in England, where casual potato famine jokes are ever-present. “Haha, isn’t it funny the way you guys couldn’t grow potatoes and starved” can be easily met with “Haha, isn’t it funny the way the English literally shipped food out of the country while we were starving, lolol.”


“I like it.”

“I don’t like it.”

“That’s racist.”

“I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

You don’t need to explain why something is wrong. You don’t need to bring up a hundred points about it. If you don’t Jump In because you’re intimidated by the thought of a big argument, just do this instead.


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