Two weeks ago we lost an exceptional teacher and tireless mentor for women lawyers, M.J. Tocci. She died in hospice after a years-long battle with cancer. Friends and colleagues have been remembering her inspiring assertiveness, so I’ve updated an article I wrote ten years ago while on assignment for Women in Aviation magazine. For all lawyers, women and men, who must speak up in a noisy world, this is for you from M.J.
Note: Assertiveness training in aviation is part of a well-developed field called Crew Resource Management. The flight deck structure is a chain of command where it is essential for junior officers to speak openly and assertively about safety issues to their superiors. My aviation credentials include a commercial pilot’s license and a Master’s of Aeronautical Sciences with a specialty in Human Factors.
Several years ago I observed a daylong Crew Resource Management course at a major airline. I was writing about CRM, and had been invited by the head of the Human Factors department to attend the class for new pilot hires.
One portion of the morning session focused on assertive language during flight emergencies, with participants suggesting appropriate responses to different scenarios. The class discussed how to speak to an authoritarian captain, how to convey different levels of urgency, and how to disagree while preserving the chain of command.
While on the subject of interpersonal communication, the instructor paused to interject that the airline did not tolerate racist or homophobic comments in the work place. “Is that clear?” he asked, implying that this ironclad rule needed no elaboration. Then he added, “And I’d steer clear of politics, too.”
The forty men and one woman in the class nodded and shifted in their seats. There was nervous laughter at the thought of politics on the flight deck, but guidance about handling offensive remarks in collegial conversation was not in the curriculum.
At the lunch break we adjourned to the cafeteria. The new hires were eager to make friends, and I was welcomed easily into the group. I sat across from a pilot fresh from cargo operations in Asia. We discussed the aircraft he’d flown, the weather challenges in the southern hemisphere, and in general made polite pilot small talk.
Then he said, “I’ll really miss Asia. Prostitution is more accepted everywhere, and great sex was cheap.”
My interesting day had been rudely interrupted by a shocking, juvenile, stupid comment. In spite of my expertise in teaching public speaking, I was at a loss, totally speechless, and caught in a non-assertive mode.
My jaw dropped. My eyes got wide, my heart rate increased, and my breath got shallow. I became aware that my hands were shaking. My perception of time slowed dramatically. Sensing some type of threat, my body had dispensed a small adrenaline rush. While I could have punched the guy in the nose with all that energy, I was unprepared to respond verbally, so I didn’t. I felt profoundly silly.
The episode came back to me recently when I was subjected to a racist joke. As a writer, I spend a fair amount of time working alone, so I am not always prepared for the extremes of bad social manners. But the racist joke—again, my response had been woefully inadequate—inspired me to seek out a technique for coping with offensive and inappropriate language. Clearly, I needed advice from an expert.
I turned to my friend M.J. Tocci, who spent sixteen years in a district attorney’s office as a prosecutor, trying tough cases in the San Francisco Bay area. M.J. has seen and heard just about everything. Next to the word “assertive” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of M.J. I was sure she would have sage advice, so I gave her a call.
M.J. was thrilled to talk about it. “This is my favorite subject! Women lawyers cope with this issue all the time, sometimes overt, sometimes subtle.” She herself had recently been told that she had made “a lovely contribution” to a seminar in which she had been the only woman on the faculty.
M.J. laughed her low, cunning laugh as she told me about it. “’Why, thank you,’ I said, ‘but I hope I also contributed substance.’
“The guy was horrified; he hadn’t recognized his implication that I was the fluff, the skirt, the high heels. I said it in a nice way, but seriously enough to let him know I was offended.”
M.J. told me that her way of coping evolved over her career. As a young prosecutor, she wanted to fit in, to show how tough she was. She laughed at rude jokes to be one of the boys. She swore and wisecracked with the best of them.
“But,” she said, “I paid a price for playing along, because ultimately I felt cheap and demeaned for condoning their behavior. When you put up with it you feel complicit, an accomplice.”
M.J. reminded me that she had just turned 50, a liberating age. She sees more clearly than ever the importance of trying to make the world a better place, and the drawbacks of going along to get along.
“At 50 I don’t have to buck up and smile at things that are not OK. I no longer change the subject when I hear something offensive. Instead I do a speedy analysis: what is my relationship here, and what is my goal in responding?
“When I respond, I name the offense. I say, ‘That’s racist,’ or ‘That’s offensive.’ Name it unconditionally. Avoid saying, ‘That offends me,’ which qualifies the offense as being somehow unique to you.
“It’s very important that you don’t worry about what happens next. Don’t feel badly about the pregnant pause that follows a verbal confrontation. Let silence happen. Don’t jump in like women tend to do, filling in the uncomfortable seconds with conciliatory language.”
During that pause when you are feeling uncomfortable, give yourself a silent pep talk: Don’t give in! Hang tough! “Then you can raise your eyebrows and change the subject,” M.J. advised, “or you can let him (or her) apologize.” (By the way, when the shoe is on the other foot and you realize you have offended someone, apologize immediately and gracefully.)
As I knew she would, M.J. had suggestions about exactly what to say after that pregnant pause. Among her ideas:
“That is an inappropriate thing to say.”
“Did I just hear you make a racist remark?”
“How appropriate is that?”
“I don’t think we need to talk about this anymore.”
“Is that something you really feel is appropriate to discuss with a colleague?”
Practice this type of “parachute line” aloud. Have them on the tip of your tongue. Practice by disagreeing with your radio or TV. Talk back to politicians on the radio. Experiment with different attitudes.
You do have a responsibility to find the right tone for the circumstances. M.J. suggested trying a light tone. “It is OK to laugh – but make it clear you are laughing at them. Call an offense for what it is, with humor or lightness if necessary, but call it.”
What if you are dealing with your boss or another superior?
M.J. still suggests hanging tough, but tempering your language with due respect. “When someone is above you in the food chain, don’t be afraid to show that you are articulate, that you can be clear, and are able to set boundaries. Don’t be a straw in the wind, coping with other people’s inappropriate standards. Your job is not to make everyone happy and comfy.”
The next time I’m surprised by an offensive conversational remark, I plan to take an assertive breath before I begin. “Did I just hear you describe your patronage of Asian prostitutes? How appropriate is that?” During the pause that follows, I’ll raise my eyebrows and wait for the pregnant pause. And the world will change, if only a little.