The train doors slid open, and I moved through them with everyone else towards the elevators up to the surface streets. We strangers waited in silence for the elevator to arrive. When it got there, those with bicycles entered first and the rest of us filled in around them, although there was still ample space. Someone leaned heavily against me despite the empty part of the elevator. I fidgeted to clarify with motion that I was not an elevator rail. The leaner’s back remained pressed into me.
“Excuse me? Hi, yes, I am a person, not a wall.”
The leaner looked around at me, then shuffled off a few feet away into the big open space in the middle of the elevator. My eyes met those of another person standing on the other side of the bicycles. This was a person who looked like a woman in this culture just like I did, with eyes which held empathy for me. Silently, we admonished the patriarchy in that moment, both of us acknowledging and lamenting that this was the latest one in a series of events just like it.
That is what it is like to be treated the way USA culture treats a woman. To be unseen by men to the point of being treated like furniture in a very literal sense, and to have a sense of community with women which is quite unlike any other community that has welcomed me. American women’s culture has a lot more shared context than American culture in general, and that affects communication. A silent moment of eye contact and a pair of nodding heads with a particular facial expression was all it took for us to both know we were thinking about sexism, the atrocities of how women are treated, the obliviousness of men, and the fact that talking about it out loud in a closed space with this person still there was too dangerous to risk even with the other strangers present. After all, sometimes the people who do these things are also rapists and murderers. We’ve all heard the stories. The shared fear is part of the shared context.
Some years later, after I began my testosterone treatments but long before my facial hair grew in, I injured my foot. I was in a lot of pain, but I had an errand that could not wait. I dragged myself to the bus. As I entered, I saw someone rise from the handicap section and turn to talk to someone. I slid around behind the riser to take the only empty seat on the full bus, relieved by the instant reduction in foot pain.
“Hey! I was going to sit there!” said someone who looked like a woman. The person who had stood looked like a man, and had risen to give my admonisher the seat I occupied. Normally, I would have stood at that point.
“I have a foot injury,” I said. “I need to sit.”
“Yeah well I have had brain surgery!” the admonisher responded emphatically.
“Maybe if you ask someone else to stand up for you, they will,” I said.
The admonisher gasped and hemmed and hawed and made comments about how rude I was being, but did not ask anyone else to give up a seat. I looked down, unsure how to respond. After all, I had already mentioned my foot injury.
The admonisher fell silent and avoided looking at me until two stops later.
“Have a good day, Sir,” the admonisher said cheerily and exited. I was surprised by the complete 180 in how this person was treating me.
“I’m not a Sir!” I called out but it was too late; the person was gone.
It was not until that final exchange that I understood the conversation we had been having, because up until that point, I had thought that I was being perceived to be a woman. Women are so accustomed to being taken advantage of by men behaving in excruciatingly selfish ways that my admonisher probably did not believe that my foot was injured instead of taking my words at face value the way people had before I started testosterone. My lowered gaze was probably seen as an averted gaze, and that combined with my silence was probably interpreted as being yet again ignored by a man when trying to speak up about something important, rather than as the pensive confusion it was. If I had been seen as a woman, the other person might have recognized the confusion and checked in with me about a possible misunderstanding instead of continuing down a defensive path. The sudden cheery departure was probably a response to the common fear of being followed by a mean man from a bus.
I spent the rest of the bus ride disturbed by what had happened, and wondering how I was supposed to know how to interact with people if I can’t tell what gender they think I am. Even now after years of additional testosterone treatments, I still get both “Ma’am” and “Sir” every time I go to the grocery store.
The experience of being treated like a woman involves being ignored by more people than just men. Before I transitioned, I could say the same thing five times, in five different ways, trying desperately to get someone to listen to me, only to be either dismissed or totally ignored. I regularly spoke directly to groups or individuals of various genders and got silence in return, complete with a total lack of body language acknowledgement. I made regular asides to myself under my breath thinking no one could hear them.
Then I began my testosterone treatments. People started answering my muttered comments. I was astonished – and quite a bit embarrassed. Now, if I begin to speak, people of various genders will stop what they are doing to listen to me, even if I am not speaking to them directly. It’s as if I have stepped into a spotlight that follows me wherever I go. I intentionally relearned how and when to speak in order to handle that kind of power responsibly.
I do not believe that white cisgender men, having never experienced that contrast, understand the disproportionate power of their voices. And I don’t think most people recognize that they contribute to that power difference by listening to men and ignoring everyone else. Yes, non-men and feminists of all genders and political leanings do this too. After all, it is difficult to overcome cultural indoctrination. I am working to overcome this in myself by questioning whether I am truly listening with respect in my heart every time a woman speaks.
I refer to white cisgender men in particular above because cisgender men of other races are systematically silenced in a variety of contexts in ways that are often similar to what white women experience here in the USA. I recommend reading about that sometime.
My understanding of men’s culture is still in its infancy. The few all-men spaces I have been asked to join are uncomfortable for me. The values are so different from the values of women’s culture that I have trouble navigating these spaces due to the unfamiliarity. The things men do that I consider rude and hostile happen with far greater frequency in these spaces, and I wonder whether they see these things as rude and hostile. With the isolation caused by this pandemic, I have been unable to continue exploring these spaces. This is unfortunate, because that perspective would help round out this article.
Men, women, and nonbinary people each have a very different set of shared experiential context to the degree that it has created separate co-cultures. This affects how people speak to each other within these groups and also between them. Men and women who can also be either cisgender or transgender, which creates an additional overlay of shared experiences, and this also impacts communication. Thus I have found that while I prefer to just let people make assumptions and not bother with filling them in about my gender, this creates communication issues because it means that strangers and I are not on the same page about which communication culture I am coming from. This, to me, has highlighted the very different co-cultures associated with genders here in the USA in a way that contradicts everything I was taught in school about how wonderful it is that we have gender equality here.
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Modern Western imperialism has its roots in the 15th century when various European nations began colonizing other people’s countries, glorifying it as “discovery” and justifying it by insisting that the people who already lived there were animals, not people. This likely played in to their immediate dismissal of cultural differences as “wrong” or “inferior.” Several cultures around the globe enjoyed the freedom of multiple recognized genders before their lands, societies, and resources were taken over by European colonizers, missionaries, and so on. These freedoms often also extended to general acceptance of various relationships that we might call LGBQ through our modern, Western lens. These were among the other freedoms European colonizers squashed during their whitewashing of the cultures of other nations.
Examples for further reading of case studies include:
North America, where a robust diversity of gender and orientation across several cultures was squashed by European settlers, who brought rigid ideas of gender with them. The European conquerors destroyed many indigenous cultural aspects as part of the ongoing genocide of indigenous people which is still happening today. Also, here is further reading about the modern term Two-Spirit.
King Mwanga II of Uganda, whose harem of men began to refuse to sleep with him due to the new influence of Christian interlopers who believed that one’s gender determines the allowable gender of one’s sexual partners.
Decolonization began in some continents in 1945, five centuries after colonization began, and never happened in North America. While many countries regained their independence, it wasn’t until after devastating impacts on their cultures were enacted by the withdrawing conquerors and entrenched over periods of time that were sometimes hundreds of years and multiple generations long. For example, 34 countries in Africa now outlaw homosexuality as of this writing. This isn’t surprising, when we consider that the colonizers came from Europe and 17 European countries still require sterilization of transgender people to this day. Sexual orientation and gender aren’t the same thing, but European rigid requirements around gender include rigid requirements around sexual orientation because their concept of sexual orientation is based upon gender. Thus, many of the world’s nations that are currently very hostile to LGBT people weren’t always that way, and only became that way because of the influence of missionaries and conquering nations from European (and later, American) origin. Nations beginning to relax their death grip on LGBT existence and behavior as transgender and queer rights are slowly won back is thus an aspect of modern decolonization.
North America was never decolonized. Canada and the United States continue to engage in genocide towards indigenous peoples. The fact that most of the states in the United States only recognize two genders legally despite the existence of several indigenous genders is part of this. Our societal and legal refusal to recognize that genitals do not necessarily define gender, and that there are more than two genders, is an extension of the same racism and cultural supremacy that fuels ongoing genocide of various indigenous peoples, that brought anti-gay laws to multiple continents that did not previously have them, and which we must actively combat both within our own minds and at all levels of government if we wish to undo the ongoing evils of those who came before us, and which are still enacted by many of the people around us.
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I live in a diverse community in the USA. Even people of similar demographics on paper often disagree with each other on fundamental aspects of how to do things that many people seem to believe “just go without saying.” One of the areas where I see a significant amount of disagreement is the topic of accountability.
Most of the people I know agree that our culture is broken and needs some fixing. Our problems include things like the ongoing genocide of various indigenous peoples through violations of treaties and the kidnapping, murdering, and forced sterilization of their women; sexism driving down the wages of women, especially women who aren’t white; transphobia mixing with racism to create the current crisis situation for transgender women of color who are being murdered at an astonishing rate; and so on. Few people actually want any of this, even the subset of Republicans who are able to recognize that these things are happening. It’s how to stop it that we disagree about.
The kind of thinking that leads to genocide, hate-fueled murder, corrective rape, and so on typically comes from a place of deep-rooted misconceptions. Thus, many people approach the issue with education. By educating the masses as to the realities of people who don’t usually get the spotlight, the thought goes, we can prune away the underlying thinking that leads to such heinous acts. I am all for that, which is part of why I write this blog. I also don’t think education alone can solve this. So, what is another piece of the puzzle? In my opinion, compassionate accountability is one of the other required pieces. Combining education with fostering a culture of compassion rooted in accountability is vital for making the changes we need to make.
What does that look like?
Education only works as a strategy to improve our culture when we hold ourselves and each other accountable to the content of that education. In this sense, accountability ranges in scale from the self to international relations, and everything in between. It’s choosing to make a change in how you think after learning new information, and making amends for any harm you may have done while erroneously believing something different before. It’s a parent teaching a child how to respect others’ consent and how to express their boundaries with words. It’s men stopping each other from making jokes about rape and helping each other learn how to identify and express their emotions, needs, and boundaries. It’s a supervisor learning what a transgender employee’s pronouns are, and reinforcing their use with the rest of the team by using them in front of the employee’s coworkers (after checking to be sure that is what the transgender employee wants). It’s a college student talking to a professor after class to discuss the latent racism in the lecture slides to help the professor learn how to do better. It’s writing a petition or contacting key diplomats to get your state to outlaw the gay/trans panic defense. It’s the British employment tribunal refusing to allow Forstater to use the argument of “protected beliefs” to enable her harassment of transgender people. It’s Autumn Peltier becoming a water protector and addressing leaders all over the world (including the UN) to correct water pollution of many communities’ water. It’s Greta Thunberg telling the United Nations they need to stop talking about climate change and start taking action at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit.
If you watch the video above, you will hear Greta say, “…because if you really understood the situation, and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil, and that I refuse to believe.” This, to me, is where compassion and accountability intersect on a fundamental level. There is compassion in the simple assumption that people want to be and think and act in better ways when their thoughts and actions are harmful to others, if only they knew how to be and do better. The act of holding someone or some group accountable is thus an act of compassion. The desire to do better by others and the action of making repairs when held accountable are also forms of compassion. Thus, when accountability is properly applied in good faith and responded to in kind, it becomes an act of compassion by and for all parties involved, even when it doesn’t feel very fun.
The ability of the offending party to recognize this compassion on the part of the person holding them accountable is often key to the success of accountability endeavors. Without that recognition, it is easy for people to shut down and tune out. It is my hope that this article will help people both learn to have that recognition, and build a toolkit to intentionally help others recognize it when holding others accountable. To that end, I have created the framework outlined below of a partial model of accountability styles.
What exactly accountability looks like can vary dramatically. And, like anything else that can be a positive tool, it can become a toxic influence if utilized in toxic ways. How we go about accountability matters, and this is another place where a lot of people seem to disagree about the best way forward. In response to this, I suggest that perhaps just like affection and apology languages, different people have different needs and expectations surrounding accountability and thus have different accountability languages. Understanding this can help us all retain the compassion that accountability requires in order to be a successful tool. So, let’s look at some of the different axes of accountability languages to see what happens when people with differing styles interact in order to help us surmount the tension it can cause and focus on positive growth.
Transparency: Public Vs. Private
Many acts of holding someone accountable happen on social media. From stormy comments sections to lengthy private message conversations, these things often lead to hurt feelings, blocking, and divided communities. One element of why involves a difference in preference for public versus private accountability. Let’s look at what happens when two people with differing styles in this respect find themselves in an accountability situation:
I was in a now-defunct Facebook group for a while which I will call “Punamory” for the sake of this article because everyone in it was polyamorous and very good at puns. Something happened where a white member with a public accountability style needed to be held accountable for an act of accidental racism. The moderator of color who handled it had a private accountability style. The moderator wished to be respectfully firm, and therefore messaged the offending party privately out of respect for the feelings of the white offending member and to prevent distraction from others getting involved. The offending member who received the message felt attacked and unsafe despite the respectful nature of the language used, because the conversation was held privately where no one else could witness it. This member responded by creating an accountability thread in the group to seek feedback from and offer apologies to the community with transparent accountability. The moderator who had messaged the offending member privately was taken aback by this, felt disrespected that the conversation was moved to a public setting, and expressed this in the comments. The member who made the accountability post then expressed that getting the message privately didn’t strike them as true accountability; to them, not having a public platform upon which to apologize for public wrong-doing did not allow them to make repairs and thus was not true accountability. Was one of them right and the other wrong? Perhaps that is the wrong question. This was a clash of two very different sets of expectations combined with a situation where neither individual worked towards understanding the other’s accountability style before taking offense and acting accordingly. In response, the admin team created a standard policy for how these things would be handled, that way everyone would know what to expect.
Some people prefer to be held accountable privately. Others publicly. Still others say that the situation matters. For example, for many people, leadership has no right to privacy in accountability due to values of transparency while other matters may be more private. The bottom line though, is to be aware that this is one axis along which people vary in accountability style.
In addition to simple personal preference, this axis can also be dramatically influenced by context surrounding various marginalized populations. For example, misgendering a transgender person is an act of verbal violence. Pulling someone aside to privately let them know that they need to use the right pronouns can be useful, but people tend to assume that if a trans person doesn’t speak up, they do not mind what was said about them. Thus, the transparency of public accountability can go a lot further towards protecting and supporting trans people than private accountability, so a transgender person with a private accountability style may switch to using public accountability under these circumstances.
Here is a handy chart you can use to help yourself understand your own style on this axis. If you are still new to self-analysis, you can use these like checkboxes. On each row, mark off whichever box best fits your style for that context. For more advanced players, you can up the game level by working to think of example situations until you can fill all 6 boxes with scenarios that meet your personal preferences. (For example, your first row might say something like, “when holding myself accountable I like to be public about it when it affects my whole community but private about it when it only affects one or two people.”) Finally, when you are done using this tool to consider yourself, try to think of why someone else might prefer the opposite of whatever you have checked off or written down to help develop your ability to recognize others’ accountability styles.
Approach: Call-In Vs. Call-Out
For the purposes of this article, “calling out” refers to pointing out that something was wrong and issuing a challenge to correct it, where “calling in” typically utilizes a greater investment of time and emotional labor and may include education about the given topic and/or emotional support of the person who did wrong. Some people use these words this way. Others use these words the way I have used “private vs public” above. It is important to note that these words are used differently in different communities! Next time the great debate of “call in vs call out” comes up, I recommend starting by asking which way others are using those words to ensure that you are having the same conversation as one another.
Anyway, let’s see what happens when people with differing accountability styles on this style axis find themselves in an accountability scenario:
A friend of mine has a call-out style, and is accustomed to just telling people what needs to change and expecting them to do it. My friend is also accustomed to and appreciative of people informing my friend of what needs to change, and then goes about correcting it whenever called out on something. An ex roommate of mine has a call-in style. This roommate is accustomed to spending time helping people understand why something needs to change, and prefers others to do the same.
Back when we were still living together, my friend tracked some dirt into our living room. My roommate went directly into call-in mode, starting with an explanation for why we don’t like dirty floors out of respect for my friend’s feelings. My friend became agitated and went directly into call-out mode. “If you were upset about the footprints, you should have just said so,” my friend said with a polite tone of voice. My roommate was taken aback by what appeared to my roommate to be sudden aggression in response to a respectful attitude. Both of them were doing what they considered to be polite, but neither one of them understood that. If I hadn’t stepped in, it would have rapidly devolved from there.
As with the above example about public versus private accountability styles, we see here in this example that the people involved jumped directly to taking offense without taking the time to notice or understand differences in accountability styles.
Also as above, this is another axis which can be influenced by the context of axes of power and oppression. Call-out accountability places the onus on the person who did wrong to take the time to understand why and come up with solutions. Call-in accountability shares that burden between both parties. Black Americans often spend a huge amount of energy every day navigating a society that is filled to the brim with racism. They vary dramatically between individuals on all axes of accountability styles, but it’s also very common for black people in the USA to simply be too exhausted to explain the same things yet again, especially when there are a plethora of black writers, bloggers, vloggers, and Tweeters who have filled libraries and the internet with all the explanations someone who isn’t black needs to self-educate. So, a black person who generally has a call-in accountability style may opt for a call-out method sometimes (or always) when it comes to racism, thereby shifting the burden of education to the offending party. This is also easier to do with racism against black Americans than other mistakes which harm other marginalized groups simply because there are so many black authors writing about race that it is typically easy to Google for answers and find accurate information.
Here is a fresh copy of the tool I provided above, relabeled for this axis. Use the same two-step process as above: First, use this to think about yourself. Then, use this as a guide to consider reasons why someone else might have an opposite stance from yours on how to handle these things even in the same context.
Tone: Niceness Vs Rawness
This axis has to do with tone of voice, wording, and so on. It’s the difference between speaking with a harsh tone or controlling one’s voice, the difference between carefully selecting wording for the sake of the other person’s feelings and letting your truth come into the light regardless of its ugliness. In that sense, this axis is actually a combination of a handful of communication styles bunched together for this article. Like the other axes, many people aren’t completely at one end or the other of this spectrum and some people find a balance between these aspects. It doesn’t have to be either/or.
Someone with a predominantly niceness tone style will likely refer to their own style as “being kind” or “being polite,” and may refer to someone with a rawness tone style as “rude,” or “mean.” Someone with a predominantly rawness tone style will likely refer to their own style as “being direct,” or “being honest,” and may refer to someone with a niceness style as “rude” or “manipulative” or “passive aggressive.” Both may even refer to their own styles as “wholesome” and become flabbergasted by the concept of that word referring to the other style on this axis.
Let’s see what happens when two people from different ends of this axis are in the same situation:
I once had a partner and a roommate who had trouble getting along because of this axis. My partner had a niceness style, while my roommate had a rawness style. My roommate was unhappy with the frequency of my partner staying over, and expressed to my partner that it was stressful to have my partner spend so much time at the house without paying for rent or utilities. My roomamte made no attempt to keep the frustration out of the tone of voice used in the conversation. My partner was not offended by my roommate’s boundaries, but by how they were expressed. “Wow. You don’t have to be mean about it,” my partner said. This, of course, confused my roommate who was operating under the assumption that people would like to know the in-depth truth of a situation when they are being asked to change what they are doing. “What did I say that was mean?” my roommate asked in honest confusion. This ticked off my partner more, because it was inconceivable to my partner that my roommate could possibly think that was a polite way to handle the conversation. I stepped in and clarified what was going on before it could escalate any farther. Over time, my partner became increasingly elaborate in attempts to become nicer and nicer to appease my roommate, who found this to be increasingly manipulative. “Why can’t your partner just be honest with me?” my roommate said to me once, within a week of my partner saying, “it doesn’t matter how nice I am, it’s never good enough for [your roommate]!” These are, as above, examples of people jumping to offense due to a failure to recognize much less reconcile differences of style and expectations. In this case, the second part is also an example of complimentary schismogenesis, a term first applied to interpersonal linguistics by Professor of Linguistics Deborah Tanen.
As with the other axes of accountability styles, the context of culture and axes of power can dramatically influence how someone decides to handle something in terms of niceness versus rawness. Deaf culture in the USA is a great example of a subculture that handles things very differently from mainstream culture. Where mainstream culture tends to prefer niceness, Deaf culture tends to prefer rawness. It is common to directly and bluntly refer to people’s body shapes and sizes in ASL (American Sign Language), where that would be considered rude by many English-speakers in the same country. Because directness permeates communication in Deaf culture, rawness can also dominate accountability styles.
The exhaustion I touched on before when discussing call-in versus call-out can also impacts this axis. When people who are marginalized become weary of educating so many people about their own existence so very frequently, they often switch to rawness even if niceness is their standard mode. Sometimes it’s actually an indication that someone finally feels safe enough to open up. Other times this is an attempt to be heard after feeling like no one is taking them seriously. Sometimes it is simply all a person can handle doing after running out of energy for niceness. After all, bridging communication gaps takes work, and a lot of people don’t even try to bridge the gap when talking with marginalized people. The constant expectation to meet the mainstream person on the mainstream person’s terms without any effort from that person to mutually aid in bridging the gap is harmful and exhausting. This is where the concept of tone policing comes in. If you aren’t familiar with it, definitely read the comic at the link.
Here is the same tool as above, relabeled for this topic. Use it the same way as before. First, either check off the boxes that apply to your style or strive to fill each box with a scenario where your style would fit. Then, go back through and come up with reasons why someone else might prefer something opposite.
Developing Compassionate Accountability
What exactly does compassionate accountability look like? Unfortunately, there is no blanket answer. No one way of doing accountability will always be right or wrong. To develop compassionate accountability in ourselves and our communities, it is necessary to learn what our own accountability style is so that we can communicate it to others. Learning to communicate about accountability styles also allows us to intentionally set up community-wide accountability norms so that everyone knows what to expect, thereby preventing miscommunication and unnecessary hurt feelings. In addition to learning to recognize and communicate our own personal accountability styles, it is equally necessary to learn to recognize others’ styles. This allows us to appreciate the compassion hidden within others’ personal accountability styles and work towards bridging miscommunication gaps in lieu of allowing those gaps to make already tense situations even worse.
Using the three axes described above to create an admittedly incomplete model of accountability styles, there are at least eight distinct styles. They are listed in this chart, which also has columns for each of the contexts used in earlier exercises. You can use this just like the previous ones. First, either check off boxes that match your style for each context or fill in as many boxes as you can with scenarios where you would utilize that style. Then, go back through everything that matches your style and come up with reasons why someone else might prefer to do it differently from you. Building compassionate accountability requires us to recognize others’ methods as valid. Use this tool to help you do that.
The pattern here of people taking offense without recognizing simple style differences is a fairly common feature of human miscommunication. It is not isolated to accountability styles. For further reading on that and related phenomenons, check your library for books about sociolinguistics.