What not to say

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Yesterday I was at a public event in Sofia, Bulgaria - the Fuck-up Nights. It is a type of event in which people share their stories of failure and what they have learned from it. It is a multi-city chain of events happening all around the world with local chapters popping here and there at the time. I think this is a great initiative as I have had my share of lessons learned because of the things that did not go well and according to plan in my life - and I try to learn from others to I make less mistakes.

I went there with a couple of my friends. It was a warm summer might. The event took place at a open theatre concept bar - with a stage in the middle and tables spread in front of it in an amphitheartical way. The bar itself is located in one of the public gardens in the centre of the city - and because of this trees were hugging us from above and hiding the night sky. It was idyllic.

The event started and the first speaker, who had lived for 15+ years in the US, was introduced to the stage. He presented his real-life story from the last 6 or so months of his life - which captured his self-reinvention. This process had taken him through a divorse, moving across continents, taking the time to read and leaving one business to start another. It is always great to hear the step-by-step transofrmation people have gone through - it helps me chart my own path in a better way.

However my brain erased almost instantaneously most of what the brave person on the stage said. At a certain point during his talk - a phrase, consisting of a couple of words, covered most of the big screen behind his back. It was a somewhat popular Bulgarian joke which goes like this: I see women, and it turns out that this is the toilet. (Women here referring to the female restroom sign that can be found in any public building).

I see women, and it turns out that this is the toilet.

This is a type of casual sexism which can be seen in Bulgaria. This is also something I am vocal against - and I usually say Hey, that’s not okay.

Yesterday I was sitting in the audience and these big letters comparing women to toilets were flashing in the dusk in front of me. My heart rate accelerated and I could hear the blood pumping in my body in my ears. My brain cancelled out the voice of the person presenting and my focus narrowed only these words - nothing but visual perception and the feeling of something closing on me.

I knew I had to say That’s not okay and I felt that I need to say it for all the womenin the audience which were compared to toilets to all men and women there. I wanted them to hear someone say that’s not okay so that hopefully next time it could be one of them who stands up and speaks.

I said That’s Not Okay in the wrong way

I feel like I am still new to sexism and I know that the way I phrase my concerns needs a lot of work. Here is what I did yesterday and why I think the way I phrased evrything was not okay.

In the Q&A session immediately after the talk, I was the last to grab the mic from the people in the audience who wanted to ask a question. I thanked the speaker, and I introduced myself. I said that I do not have a question but a remark. At this moment, the event’s organizer stepped in and very kindly asked me to share my remark at the end of the event instead of at this very moment. I, more bluntly than politely, replied to the organizer that it is important that I mention my remark there and then as I wanted the audience to hear what I say.

Then I proceeded in saying that comparing women in general to toilets is not okay - or something like that. The blood was pumping in my ears again. I knew that I had to say something so that every man and woman in the audience hear me say casual sexism is not okay. I could not hear which exact words came out of my mouth but I knew these were poorly-chosen words which might carry my message in the wrong direction. In any case, I had the mic, I spoke and every single attendee who had come to that evening’s event heard me talk.

Two things must have happened then:

Do better than that

It is great that one of my friends is super diplomatic and has extensive knowledge on how to handle situations like this. This is what I learned from him:

There are two types of ways to presents something which is not okay:

What my friend gave me is a simple 2-step guide on what to do in similar situations in the future:

  1. Decide whether what just happened is hateful speech or not (is this a direct attack on a group of people?)

  2. a. If it is hateful speech - stand up and speak publicly.

  3. b. When it is not, do the following:

    • find the speaker after the event and talk to them within the small group of people they are surrounded with. Mention how a big part of the audience had felt the unappropriate remark done during the talk - and ask for the reasons that this person believes in the words they have said.

    • find the organizers of the event. Mention how a big part of the audience had felt the unappropriate remark done during the talk and explain that this might have associated negative feelings with the event.

Go on stage and speak about casum sexism

I also received the advice to go speak on stage about this as this is the right format for topics like casual sexism. I, usually outspoken, realized that I am not ready to do this as I just feel what is wrong but I am not ready yet to put this in words.