The one thing that Deborah Tan hates most whenever she finds herself arguing or debating with a man is when he says this line to her. What is it?
“There’s no need to get defensive,” said the man sitting across of me at a lunch during a recent press trip. We had been arguing about parenthood and I had decided to defend my stance that many parents in Singapore end up fighting a losing battle against the stressful education system, and eventually sign their kids up for enrichment classes even though they had said they would never want their child to become a drone that never gets to play. He, on the other, said parents sign their kids up for enrichment simply because they want to show off how much they are doing for their kids.
Our debate went on for about 15 minutes. During this time, the atmosphere at our table of six got increasingly tense. But … I wasn’t about to let go until he got that I was offended that he had made an unfair statement about parents. As we defended our views, I noticed that my voice was getting louder and I was sounding more and more agitated. Despite these, I reminded myself to make sure I did not lose sight of my argument. Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back. My opponent said, “Look, I’m just sharing my observations on human behavior. I’m not attacking you. Don’t get so defensive.”
“I’m not being defensive,” I snapped back, making sure my words had a hard edge to them. “I just think we should never doubt the love parents have for their kids. As parents, it’s only natural to want to make sure your kids are not being shortchanged. Giving them what they need to keep up with their peers is NOT the same as SHOWING OFF.”
Without dwelling deeper into this incident, I just want to say today that there is an epidemic concerning the way men treat women whenever both find themselves in an argument.
The Fear Of Angry Women
If you are a woman reading this, you are probably familiar with these statements:
“Don’t get so emotional”
“You’re just being too sensitive!”
“Don’t get so defensive, it’s not always about you”
Men say they say these things because they need us to calm down and focus on the matter at hand in a level-headed manner.
I say men say these things to us because they can’t deal when we show our frustration, unhappiness, sadness, disappointment and anger. And I’m not alone in thinking this. Men think they are in control of their emotions and of the situation when they tell us to calm down. I have always found that a man who says these things in the midst of an argument is only trying to instil in the woman the idea that she is overreacting and therefore incapable of engaging in a debate logically.
It’s Not Us. It’s YOU
“Gaslighting” is a term used to describe manipulative behavior employed to confuse someone into thinking she is overreacting and crazy. Gaslighting in emotionally abusive relationships would see one partner constantly feeding thoughts like, “You’re so stupid, only I would love you” into the other person’s mind.
In the same article I mentioned above, one of the consequences of gaslighting is that it turns some people emotionally mute. And it’s true. For many years, I was told I am overly emotional. At school and at work, whenever I tried to defend my stance on certain issues, I was told I’m someone who lets her emotions get the better of her.
To counter such “observations”, I decided to not be so vocal. Instead, if I wanted to get my points across, I would write letters and emails and sent them to whoever I had to “talk” to. Getting my points down in writing allowed me to read through them and “make sure” they were really “valid”. I even had to assume a fake identity of a “guy” on my hall of residence’s forum board so people would “see” the reason behind my arguments! The sad thing was, it worked. When I posted my opinions as a “guy”, people reacted more positively to my views.
But now, on hindsight, I realize I was just reacting to the gaslighting I had been subjected to for many years. My arguments are valid. I debate just as logically and just as reasonably as anyone – man or woman. The unfortunate thing of this all is that even today, if I really wanted to get my points about something across, I would send an email. If I wanted my husband to understand why it’s important to take the trash out every night, I would see better results emailing him than telling him.
It has to stop.
The Message Vs The Method
“Whatever it takes to get the message across, right?” you may say. The thing is, writing served me just fine until that lunchtime conversation happened. What if, one day, at a dinner party or over a casual gathering, someone engages you in an intense debate over a topic you feel strongly about? You can’t possibly go, “Let me mull over this and I’ll write you when I have my points sorted out.” More importantly, what if you meet someone who refuses to let you off the hook and wants to “settle” the argument there and then?
But what is the point of getting into a debate if people are going to dismiss you with, “Don’t be so defensive!”?
I refuse to follow or prescribe tips by public speaking coaches. For one, I don’t want to have to go down a pitch like how Margaret Thatcher was advised to do. I sound like I sound, thank you very much. Second, I WANT people to recognize that it’s OKAY to express emotions when you speak. If I want to sound agitated because I feel your argument is stupid, then yes, I WILL SOUND AGITATED. Third, I think men need to learn to listen even if they are uncomfortable with women defending their arguments passionately.
Yes, sticking to my guns here may not get my message across, but I think it is more important for us to stop working around the gaslighters in our lives. And the only way to get this movement started is to blaze on brightly and fiercely, and let your fire take them down.
About The Author: Deborah Tan is a founder of Material World. After 10 years of working in magazines Cleo and Cosmopolitan Singapore, she is now a freelance writer/editor who works on this website full-time. She promises to punch the next person who uses the line, “Don’t get so defensive” on her. Follow her on Twitter @DebTanTweets.