Speaking up — a hairy story

The universe has a wacky sense of humor. No sooner do I start writing about the importance of brave communication than I’m thrown into a situation that requires speaking up for myself.

Was it scary? Yes, sadly. And that’s all the more ridiculous because the incident involved would barely register on the scale of all of the #metoo outrages we’ve been reading about in the last month or so.

I could have walked away. Perhaps in the past I would have walked away. No, no–if I’m going to be honest here, I’m going to be 100% honest: I have walked away in the past. Hasn’t every woman? (And apparently every man who’s been within an arm’s length of Kevin Spacey.)

But then I thought about all I’ve been writing lately about speaking up, communicating like a leader. And so I spoke up. Here’s the story.

The 12-year-old boy inside the grown-ass man

Sunday morning, heading down the hall to the choir room to don my robe, this older dude from the choir is walking behind me. As we pass the church’s thrift store holding room, he says, “You need a hair dryer.”

speaking upI thought perhaps someone had donated an ancient hair dryer and he was making a joke about it. I said, “What?”

He repeats, “You need a hair dryer,” and then flips the back of my hair.

For the record, my hair was perfectly dry–and awesomely shiny thanks to my new shampoo. But even if I’d just climbed out of Cape Cod Bay, the dude–I didn’t even know his name (it’s New England; I haven’t been introduced to half the people in the choir)–had no standing to comment on my appearance. And even less standing to touch me.

This is the second time an old man at this church has touched me and spoken to me as if I were his child. 

I hadn’t visited the church more than a handful of times, but after one service I took out my phone to note an upcoming church event in my calendar. Dude sweeps by and slaps me on the shoulder, saying, “Put that thing away!” He may have thought his avuncular smile would mitigate his intrusiveness. It didn’t. But it did delay my reaction–took me maybe a week to figure out that he was treating me like his child.

So when this second dude touched me on Sunday, I recognized the gesture for what it was. My friend Angie described it best: “rude, impulsive, and thoughtless.” And while part of me wished fervently that I could just walk away, the rest of me realized I’d never forgive myself if I did.

I spent the entire service considering my response. The more I thought about it, the more juvenile his behavior seemed. Like a 12-year-old boy insulting a girl and then pushing her just so he could touch her–because that’s the only way he can think of to get her to notice him.

This dude hasn’t been a 12-year-old boy since before I was born. And I wondered how his wife (also in the choir) would feel about his juvenile need to get other women to “notice him.” Yep, I needed to speak to both of them together. Or at least make sure she heard whatever I said to him.

Speaking up — scary but satisfying

Back in the choir room after the service, I waited until the wife showed up and then I walked over to the dude and said, “Sir”–that was probably the hardest word to get out of my mouth, since I felt zero respect for him. But I wanted to get his attention. I said, “Sir, I don’t know your name.”

He told me his name and stuck out his hand, which I shook. Perhaps he’d been expecting pleasantries. This is what he got:

“I just wanted to tell you that I don’t appreciate you insulting my hair. And you do not have permission to touch me. What in the world would make you think that you could touch a woman you don’t even know?”

About halfway through my little speech, his head dropped.

“I’m sorry,” he said to his shoes.

As I turned to walk away he told his toes, “I meant no offense.”

I drove out of the church parking lot, my heart pounding, and stopped in the nearest safe place to calm down and regroup.

“Just” and justice

It would have been so easy to walk away. After all, he “just” touched my hair, he didn’t shove his fist in my crotch like the giant assh*le who tried to rape me in college. But it’s all on the same continuum:

Your body doesn’t belong to you; as a man, I can touch or grope or worse. If I don’t choose to acknowledge your agency as an adult human being, then you have none. Tough titties. (Oooh, titties!)

So I set aside the “just” (he just touched my hair) in favor of justice. It’s my own variation of the old Broken Windows policing theory–serve notice about every personal intrusion, every boundary crossed without permission, no matter how small. Because if you don’t tell the perpetrators you care about the small transgressions, they have no incentive to stop. And some of them will escalate to even larger transgressions.

I’m sure I bewildered the old dude by getting angry about something he’s done hundreds of times in his life. But I guarantee you his shoes were more confused than he was: You’re sorry? What, for not using the shoehorn this morning?

Still, you know, I’m okay with leaving a string of bewildered, handsy dudes in my wake. We need to tell them this is not normal or acceptable behavior. For sure someone should have done that before. But now it’s our turn; we need to take it.


Do you need some practice speaking up at work? Join me for “Say What You Want to Say”–a webinar for women who are ready to lead. Priceless advice from an award-winning business speechwriter: On November 20th, it’s free.