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Getting Skilled at Responding to the A**holes in Every Life
This week, the issue of responding to a variety of awful people came up on my radar. It started with this lovely excerpt from the TV show Scandal that Rob Sayers Brown posted on my Linked In feed. Actress Lisa Kudrow gives a master class in how you can powerfully respond when you are set up to look weak or overly feminine or absurdly mom-like in a professional setting.
What Kudrow models is how not to answer the question - but to repurpose it, powerfully. She doesn’t get upset, doesn’t take it personally. She doesn’t actually engage with the sexist (or racist/ populist/ whatever-ist) in front of her. She addresses her response to everyone else. And uses the offensive question as a teachable moment by pointing at it directly. She relishes her reply, and enjoys the power she reclaims by revealing the game her interviewer is playing. She tears down the fourth wall, and shows how and why he has set her up - to be interviewed at home, to be questioned about her experience, to be framed as a mom - and therefore undercutting her eligibility to run for President.
It reminded me of Jacinda Ardern’s response a couple of months ago to some dumb journalist asking her about a meeting she had with Sanna Marin. He wondered whether they were meeting because they were of a similar age (sic!). Ardern’s face is a joy to behold in response. It reveals the pained look of yet another gratingly sexist comment about a meeting she just had with the Prime Minister of Finland, a significant trading partner. And she answered as Kudrow did, by calling out the question as being impossibly condescending, and not something that would ever have been asked of the young Obama and Key.
It’s not just women who need to get better at the skilful riposte, it’s good leaders everywhere. As the animosity and toxicity of so much political extremism makes conversation difficult, good guys need to get better at the skilled, powerful push-back. How do middle of the road, progressive humans manage to look and sound aspirationally good next to the often charismatic, ideological rantings of the ‘whatever-ists’?
I was listening to former UK cabinet minister, Rory Stewart and Tony Blair’s right-hand man, Alistair Campbell, on their podcast The Rest is Politics, and was intrigued to hear the one ask the other how to manage an interview with Nigel Farage which he had to go to right after their recording session. The answer was the same. Rather than engaging, advised Rory Stewart, who had appeared with him often, you explain what he is up to, reveal the game he is playing, give it some context and help the audience listen more critically. You re-program the set-up to reveal the game being played to the broader public.
So what’s all that got to do with elderberries asked my husband over breakfast this morning? Well, I replied, the lesson is that we have a similar role to play on ageing and ageism.
The final piece of this ramble tumbled into my plate yesterday, from my ever-mind-expanding Linked In feed. My friend Eleanor Mills (on Substack as Queenager) posted a clip of an interview she did with actress Minnie Driver who shares the challenge of being over 50 in Hollywood and facing down the ambient ageism - including her own against her ageing self. She is now seen, she knows, “as a dried up husk.” It’s hard, she acknowledges, “to know that you are now part of that idea. And to change it. And know that you have to be part of the changing of it.” Society has done “a number on our brains,” she says, and the only way out is to “reprogram ourselves. And then to teach - and reprogram - everyone else.”
This includes a growing awareness of how we talk ourselves and each other down, sprinkling what we think are innocent comments about ‘senior moments.’ But it’s also a dawning recognition that we as a generation are going to role model a different sort of ageing to the world and future generations. So when we are nudged towards irrelevancy at work, or ‘OK Boomered’ by the young folk, or noise-blitzed in every restaurant in town, the idea isn’t to get upset, take it personally or internalise the critical gaze.
It’s to take it on - powerfully, joyfully, patiently. Understand the bigger picture: this is all new. We’ve never aged liked this in all of human history. Nor seen demographic shapes turned upside down. No one has a clue. We need to re-program ourselves and the world. That takes smarts and time - probably a generation or two. Saddle up. Pick your battle, and your battlefield (London restaurant noise levels anyone? I’m in).
“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds”
It may just be over a dinner party, calling out an ageist trope or other (they are near-constant). Or it may be like Eleanor Mills who got unceremoniously fired after a lifetime at the Sunday Times and then went on to organise and inspire a community of midlife women through NOON. Or Minnie Driver who wrote a book, Managing Expectations, to share her own lessons and learning. Or Rory Stewart who has left politics behind and is now the President and CEO of the wonderful charity called GiveDirectly.org as it pushes towards $1 billion in funding to redistribute directly in cash to people, without strings or requirements.
What all these leaders share is a willingness to evolve and change. To embrace this new 3rd Quarter as an opportunity to use their own lives as an experiment in re-programming for the rest. Not to hunker down and suffer fools, but to call them out, point to the absurdity of under-estimating the skill, talent and needs of the billion (soon to be two) people over 60 in the world. To use your own life as a teachable moment.
As one of my favourite writers and thinkers, Maria Popova, wrote this morning in her Marginalian newsletter:
Moving through the stages of life and meeting each on its own terms is the supreme art of living — the ultimate test of self-respect and self-love. Often, what most blunts our vitality is the tendency for the momentum of a past stage to steer the present one, even though our priorities and passions have changed beyond recognition.
Don’t let your Q2 roles and self last beyond their sell-by date. As Arthur Brooks reminds us in his book, Strength to Strength, you don’t want to compete with the young on their terms, nor measure yourself by benchmarking on their looks, energy or attitudes. You want to flip the conversation.
Talk to the world, and start re-programming. Ourselves first. We have much to learn about pioneering a new, 4-Quarter model of life. And much to teach.
Let’s enjoy the ride.
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