A (down-voted) comment on dealing with troublesome social situations

Jack Kirwan wrote in the National Review that the novel is «about two men and two women in a time machine safari through this and other universes. But describing The Number of the Beast thus is like saying Moby Dick is about a one-legged guy trying to catch a fish». He goes on to say that Heinlein celebrates the «competent person».

Academia.stackexchange.com did have an interesting question a few weeks ago. The poster wrote about her negative experiences in a CS study program:

Upset by male classmates openly comparing female students according to physical appearance

I’m a female student studying computer science (CS). Some of the male CS students have given me a physical ranking compared to other female CS students, and it has me really upset, but I don’t know what to do about it.

One of the students in particular enjoys telling me when he finds another girl in the vicinity more attractive than me. For example, a girl friend of mine told me I looked pretty today; and the one male student then jumped in and said I wasn’t as beautiful as the actress on the TV show we were watching. Another time, an attractive girl walked in to the computer lab, and he said: “And you thought you were the hottest girl in the lab!”

He’s not the only one. When we are in other settings (not male-heavy, CS classes), I often hear that I now have “competition” since there are other pretty girls.

I’m not sure what to do. I am friends with some of these men (or so I thought) and have committed to working on software projects with them that I can’t back out of. In addition, the school is very small so I can’t avoid them.

What do I say? How do I explain that I’m very upset by this, and not because I’m jealous of the other women? The men I’ve told have said not to worry because they think I’m pretty – they don’t seem to get it. I’m not sure I’m explaining it right.

Please help. I am starting to cry during class.


It’s safe to say the topic is highly explosive, very emotionally loaded. There’s the natural tendency to protect women, the overall attempt to get more women into STEM, and there is the underlying «it might be sexual harassment» in times of #metoo.

I think it is particularly explosive on sites like academia.stackexchange.com, because while universities are already skewed towards «progressiveness», people with an interest for academic issues on social media are probably even more so.

So it’s no wonder most postings condemn these men and advise for going to the authorities, including by way of scaring them shitless.

Frankly, I think that’s a very bad idea. My reply today was:

I see two routes to take (sorry, longish answer):

As you can see by the answers and upvotes, (threatening) to cry is a strategy that has its effects — as a woman. Especially in STEM, in which women are still seen as discouraged and excluded, and at universities, in which people and policies are in place to care for them. It is likely that these people will jump on the chance to tackle this issue, which will then lead to serious consequences for the male students. It might even end their education at that school. In this sense, this route — as suggested by other posters here — is a route that will likely work, esp. short-term. And it will likely feel good.

Question is, should you pursue this route?

Despite a strong tendency to ostensibly protect and care for women, there is probably nothing worse for personal growth and the development of competence than paternalistic overprotection. You are not a little child anymore, and one skill you should learn in school and college/university is how to work with diverse groups. And some of these groups develop their own norms and interaction styles, and, yes, some groups even have — for a lack of a better term — assholes in them.

The group you describe doesn’t strike me as bad, though. Esp. when you take gender out of the question, which likely skews the issue, and see it as normal banter. There are behaviors which should immediately lead to a call to the police — the actual police, not the campus authorities. Issues like physical and sexual assault. But here it’s words and in messy social contexts, words are interpreted. You see it as annoying to harassment. I doubt it is intended as such. Looking back at my youth, this banter, teasing and bullshitting was used for bonding. And in a group of technology-minded people that included bonding with women. Yes, this behavior may actually be a sign they accept you as part of their community. (Nobody said that geeks are particularly skilled socially, but hey, they brought us social media, incl. stackexchange.)

Don’t get me wrong, I can totally understand that you do not like these comparisons, and given how negatively you see them, they will feel worse and worse. And if it’s actually bullying, then yeah, this sucks. But that’s your interpretation of what they are doing, and before you ascribe intention there are some questions you might ask. For example, how do they treat each other? Do they tease and bullshit each other as well (not about beauty, but about other issues)? How do they treat other women? What do they enjoy talking about? And yeah, it could even be a — bad — implementation of negging (xkcd explained it well and might provide a role model: https://xkcd.com/1027/ ), or simply being at a loss for words if other topics don’t lead to a conversation. BTW, I’m also skeptical that it would not make a difference if they were to compliment you.

No matter the reason, how can you deal with this situation? You can call a paternalistic authority. It will work in college/universities, it will work later on the job when you call HR, it will even work in private contexts if you shout on social media (sometimes even with work-related consequences). But at least given these situations, I think it’s important to learn to deal with these situations on your own. Become a competent person who is able to deal with bullshitting and social teasing on her own. After all, banter within a community is common, esp. in difficult jobs. It actually does have an important social function (again: banter, not bullying).

As for how, have a look how others deal with this teasing. It is possible to learn how to spar verbally, to parry and strike some (verbal) hits. To return a joke, a tease, and even an insult and verbal attack — and ensure a) to send a clear message that you can deal with these things, verbally and emotionally, and b) that you give back as good and bad as you receive. If there is a serious skill deficit, there are courses, and there are assertiveness trainings — which will pay out in other areas as well (like salary negotiations).

This later route is not a short-time «delegating-the-issue solution» like going to a paternalistic authority. But is has huge benefits long-term and will likely lead to better interactions overall. You might find that other people aren’t as bad as you first think, and you’ll be able to more effectively weed out the assholes and keep them at bay.

And looking at the bigger picture, it would be a pretty bleak world if every social interaction — no matter how benign or misunderstood — becomes the issue for a paternalistic authority. It might curb the (subjectively or actual) bad for a while, and take with it the misunderstood as collateral damage, but in the long-term, it would lead to the peace of the grave. And that’s not what college is for, nor social interaction in general.


Before sending the reply I was pretty sure it gets down-voted into oblivion, and it’s at minus 4 votes after about three hours. Not surprising, given my experiences with the site. It’s a minority opinion, but I think it’s an accurate assessment of the situation based on the available data. Just also a very politically incorrect one.

But yeah, just like the quote in the beginning of the posting states, I also do like competent individuals. And if there was anything I could have told my younger self, it would be how to deal with these kinds of social situations. It’s hard advice to take, but one that produces people who do not need others to care for them. And frankly, unless I am missing something, I think it’s a very bad sign when people don’t want others to become competent and able to deal with social issues on their own.

And yeah, it is a bad situation, not one you want to be in if you want to study something, but the best hands to deal with these situations are still your own.

P.S.: Thinking about the issue a bit more … it’s really striking: Where is the trust that people, and that includes women, can deal with difficult situations on their own? Really, really … something.

Categories: Community Aspects, Doing Science, Gender, General Tips, Improving your Creativity, Inspiration, Learning, Learning to do Science, People, Science, Self-Improvement, Slightly Off-Topic Postings, Something to Think About

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