I was teaching in a university where I could wear shorts in my office, when working on my research. I always dressed up to teach in a business casual outfit or a suit. But I’d wear nice shorts, not too short or too colorful, otherwise.
One of my male colleagues, Barry, would make smart remarks whenever he saw me. They weren’t strong enough to count as harassment and I wouldn’t want to make a fuss anyway.
One day I was talking about this to another colleague, Dennis, a former psychotherapist. I said, “I’d really like to ask him, “How come you’re so interested in my shorts? Do you wish you could wear them?”
We laughed. I seriously considered saying this out loud to my offending colleague, although later I realized it could be considered sexual harassment.
But I never did. Barry never said another word about my shorts.
I shouldn’t surprised. Long ago, I’d learned this technique from a book by psychiatrist Allen Wheelis, How People Change.
Wheelis had a patient with a similar difficult colleague. He encouraged her to prepare a totally outrageous retort.
“I could never say that!” the patient said. But she never had to.
I’ve seen this work many times. The key is to wait till the other person initiates a rude, insulting comment. You have to be patient. You’ve got the perfect response … but don’t jump in and use it.
And of course you never know if it’s just coincidence, especially if you’re responding to a one-time insult. But I’m convinced there’s something about being ready that discourages insulting behavior.
Just recently I read about a single woman whose colleague kept asking if she planned to get married and have children. “Soon you’ll be too old to be a mom,” the colleague jeered.
How about, “I’ll be the perfect age to get a puppy.”
I’m still wearing shorts. Just once, someone said to me, “Should you be dressed like that, at your age?”
I’ve got the perfect reply. And it’s never happened again.