About six weeks ago I wrote about this confusion around fixing boundary violations, that somehow many people have this nagging doubt, this feeling that it’s rude or impolite, even though they want to and know they’d be happier and in a better state of mind if they did. And I’m going to talk about it again, because there was this “ripped from the headlines” moment earlier this month, that seems to have dropped off the front page, but don’t worry, it’ll be back.
You may have heard that Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz is said to have shown colleagues photos on his phone of nude women and bragged about his sexual exploits. But we’re not going to focus on Representative Gaetz at this moment, because this is a personal safety channel about our lives. What if, instead of this being someone far away in a different circle, this was in your workplace? Perhaps a co-worker, a colleague, an intern, or a supervisor thought nothing of showing off nude photos of their sex partners? Would you be elbowing others aside to get a better look? Would you be wanting to throw a party just to invite that person, so others would think that you too were one of the cool kids? If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing not. Would you be uncomfortable? Would you be more uncomfortable speaking up, or staying silent? A trade-off of discomfort in the moment of speaking up, versus the long-term discomfort of feeling that you missed that an important moment.
See, this generally doesn’t come out of the blue. Other boundaries would have been crossed before, but didn’t seem important enough to risk embarrassing someone. Maybe now you’d be regretting those, too.
Most people think of bystander intervention as breaking up a fight, getting between people who are about to grab and hit and kick each other, or at least one is looking to physically obliterate the other. So they miss other, smaller opportunities. Other littler boundary pokes, where the poker is testing what they can get away with. And if they can get away with the littler stuff, well, as the great American philosopher Bruce Springsteen sang, “from small things mama, big things one day come.”
[“Bystander intervention” and “setting boundaries” have a lot of overlap. Setting boundaries usually refers to action you take for yourself, while bystander intervention is more likely to refer to helping someone else maintain their boundaries.]
So let’s get back to your workplace. What to do? What to say? I dunno. Fixing boundary violations depends on the relationship you have with that offender, other colleagues, etc. I do suggest you lay out a plan. Get some paper and a pen, and start writing possible responses. What do you want to express? Disgust? Disappointment? Dismay? Do you want to throw in some humor? Think of several responses, work them a bit, grade them on level of aggression, run them by some trusted friends. Consider possible outcomes — what result do you want to see? Here’s a couple:
- Uh, TMI!!!
- Why are you showing that to me?
- Are you OK? Showing this is repugnant, and I’ve always expected better from you.
- Wow, are you sure you want to be broadcasting how shallow a person you really are?
- I always thought you were a jerk, I hadn’t realized you’re also a pervert.
- Put that away, and do not ever show me your pornography again.
- Your sharing these images makes me sad, because I expect my (friends / colleagues / elected officials) to have more regard and respect for other people and not objectify them as personal toys. Please put that away, and don’t show them to me, or anyone, ever.
One approach is pure shaming. Another is a classic confrontation strategy: tell the person what behavior is wrong, maybe include how you feel about it, and what they should do to fix it. And a third leans more towards Marshall Rosenberg’s “Non-Violent (or Compassionate) Communication,” where you state observations, how you feel, what you need, and make a request to remedy it.
Now it’s your turn. Write stuff, and read it back out loud. [Hint: the reading it back out loud part is CRITICAL.] Fixing boundary violations takes a little effort, and it can pay off big time in your peace of mind.
Stay safe, and live life.
PS – while Springsteen wrote the song, I prefer Dave Edmunds’ version.