Why People Shouldn’t Tell You That ‘You Took That Wrong’ (And 4 Ways You Can Respond)

Young person leaning against a wall with their arms crossed, angry

Source: iStock

About a month ago, I was standing in an elevator with a young, blonde businesswoman who was holding a pie. It was early in the morning for me, and I tend to be the sleepy type, but it was nonetheless the kind of thing I tend to notice because—you know—pie.

After going up a few floors, the elevator stopped to let two boxy businessmen on. But having four people in a tiny elevator is indeed cramping, and I quickly found myself smashed up against the back wall of the elevator. I have my suspicions that these guys, being as big as they were, hadn’t even seen microscopic me. It’s been known to happen.

But they certainly took notice of the businesswoman.

Guy 1: Man, that pie looks good.
Guy 2: Yeah.
Woman:
Guy 1: Looks homemade. Did you make that yourself?
Woman: …Yeah?
Guy 2: Whoa!
Guy 1: Damn! Gorgeous fashion sense and great cooking skills?! Somebody’s getting lucky tonight!
Woman:
Guy 1: Wish I had someone like you waiting back at home for me!
Guy 2: You’re really pretty, you know that?

It was quickly turning into one of the most stereotypical moments of machismo ever to have unfolded in front of my eyes. It was like some sort of corny after-school special. And I didn’t like it.

With my filter off-kilter due to my tiredness and armed with the basic logic that, yes, this elevator was indeed too cramped for these behemoths to successfully haul off and punch me in the face, I decided to speak up.

Me: *tap tap* Uh…’scuse me?
Guy 1: Hmm?
Me: …She’s not a piece of meat.
Guy 1: Huh?
Me: She’s…not a piece of meat. The way you’re talking to her isn’t nice.
Guy 2: What’re you talking about? We’re just complimenting her!
Me: I’m…pretty sure that’s objectifying her.
Guy 1: No it isn’t. You’re taking it wrong.
Me: Perhaps I am. But it still seems she doesn’t like it. Which means you should probably stop.
Guy 1: Then she’s being too sensitive. Who wouldn’t want a compliment?

In that moment, I suddenly felt very defeated.

Not because I thought they were in any way right, but because I’d grown so weary of people in life turning their sexism, racism, ableism, classism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and all-around bigotry onto the people they were just insulting.

If you identify with a marginalized group, are an ally to a marginalized group, or somehow mysteriously find yourself in a liberal arts program, you’ve probably received the following illogical backlash when you’ve spoken up against problematic beliefs, statements, or jokes:

All of these responses, however, translate into the exact same thing: “I have no logical reasoning or factual basis to back up my stupid ass claims, so now I’m going to make a last-ditch effort to mask that truth by attacking you.”

Those white guys didn’t like that another white guy cornered them about their sexism in a way that they only had their words with which to fight back. And so I was obviously taking what they said wrong (and the woman in question was being too sensitive).

Some former acquaintances of mine didn’t like it when I called them out on their racist jokes. And so I obviously was blowing the whole thing way out of proportion.

My mother didn’t like it when I finally started telling her to stop calling me stupid all the time. And so I obviously couldn’t take a joke and needed to lighten up.

“You took that wrong” (YTTW) and all of its variations are simply a red herring technique. They’re meant to distract the opposite party from the actual issue (the speaker’s problematic, unsupported statement) by getting the opposite party to switch from offense to defense.

I mean, it’s hard to continue calling out someone else’s image when you’re too busy trying to protect your own, right? It’s actually kind of brilliant. Lazy, but brilliant.

With the utterance of one simple sentence, unregulated YTTW can succeed in a dangerous, multifaceted way: 1) by working as a manipulative attempt to shut down the conversation, 2) by turning the discussion into an unrelated attack on your personhood, and 3) by giving the problematic person the ability to toss their own accountability over their shoulder. Now you see it, now you don’t!

The end result? Nothing has been learned, nothing has been solved, and the problematic person gets to run off with a shit-eating grin while you’re stuck paying the bill and thinking, “Geez, maybe I don’t know how to take a joke…?”

But you’re not mistaken, dear reader. It’s not that you can’t take a joke, it’s that you only laugh at jokes that are actually funny. It’s not that you’re sensitive, it’s that you’re not insensitive. It’s not that you don’t get what was said, it’s that you’re painfully aware of what was said.

In essence, you didn’t take it wrong. You just dared to disagree with them.

And now that your footing is surer, here’s what you can do the next time a cornered YTTW beast takes a swipe at you.

1. The No-Nonsense Approach: Call Them Out on It with the Explanations Above

If you want to make your retaliation short and sweet, just put your foot down. Ask things like, “Why are you trying to turn this into a personal attack on me? I thought we were discussing your viewpoints about x.”

More often than not, the other party will hem and haw or otherwise continue repeating their original YTTW claim. But if they’re sounding like a broken record, so can you.

Tell them their unprecedented attacks against you are simply attempts to distract from the actual issue, and if they’re at all serious about their beliefs, they will take accountability for them instead of hiding behind a manipulative mask.

2. The Gentle Approach: Ask Them Why They Don’t Want to Continue the Conversation and/or Suddenly Feel Uncomfortable.

I’m really big on conversations actually going somewhere when it looks like they can, so I often try to meet the other person in the middle.

Hey, having some of your foundational viewpoints be challenged is tough. And actually getting those viewpoints to change is even tougher.

Don’t bank on a miracle. Just chip away at the shield.

Say something like, “Hey, it seems like you’re starting to get nervous, which is probably why you’re trying to switch the conversation from your views to who I am as a person. Do you want to talk about what’s making you uncomfortable?”

Mention how this can officially now be a judgement-free zone so you can finally both start hearing each other out. Plenty of times when someone makes a YTTW statement, it’s either because they’re not ready for a complete upheaval of their belief system or they’re trying to save face.

Nobody wants to look like an ogre. If someone gets called out for being racist or sexist or transphobic, it can be embarrassing. Let them know it’s okay for them to unpack their reservations on an issue instead of just chastising them until they feel like an awful, awful human being who doesn’t deserve to live.

Remember, you didn’t like it when they turned viewpoints into personal attacks. Don’t you do the same.

3. The Teamwork Approach: Validate Their Reasons, But Explain Why Their Reasons (And Their YTTW) Won’t Make the Problem You’re Both Discussing Go Away

You’re more likely to solve an issue by facing it instead of running away from it. When people make problematic statements, it’s often so that they can duck any reflection on how they may have contributed to the problem, passively or otherwise.

That homeless guy didn’t try hard enough. That black guy shouldn’t have been wearing a hoodie. That young woman shouldn’t have been out so late at night. Oh yeah, and you’re too sensitive for seeing a problem with any of this.

Ignore the YTTW entirely and stay focused on the task at hand.

As infuriating as such statements can be, try to see them from the speaker’s eyes. Would that woman not have been a survivor of rape at that exact place on that exact day at that exact time if she indeed hadn’t been at that exact place on that exact day at that exact time?

Well, duh. And to your problematic friend, that’s enough logic to justify that the situation could have been avoided if the woman in question hadn’t been out so late.

And in a way, they’re right. Feel free to let them know that. But while you’re validating their beliefs, also explain to them that they’re only looking at one particular piece of a massive issue. They’re too focused on this one individual woman as opposed to rape culture itself.

If someone says a woman shouldn’t have been out so late, remind them that a man was out that late, too. If she had to do (or not do) something, then what is equally expected of the man to do (or not do…hint hint)? If they don’t have an answer or come up with something unhelpful, ask them instead what our culture then is expected to do (or not do).

Lead them. Coax them. Go from there. Make them start feeling like part of the solution instead of part of the problem. People like to feel useful.

4. The Fun Approach: Play Innocent

Is it awful that this one is my favorite? Not only do I find it quite effective, but it’s great when I’m feeling too exhausted for a full-on war, yet just can’t quite drop the matter.

When someone gives you a YTTW, turn it back on them in the sense of “Huh? How did I take that wrong?” or “Okay, I actually really would like to lighten up. Could you help me out by explaining why that joke was funny?”

The key element here is to say it with an innocent tone (admittedly harder for those of us with sarcastic backgrounds). Sit silently after that point and make sure to keep a confused look on your face. Give puppy eyes and a clamped tongue as the person attempts to explain their side of a matter or how their joke is supposed to be amusing.

When necessary, provoke them with further questioning: “But how exactly does same-sex marriage spike the abortion rate?” or “You say cops automatically shoot young black men because they’re so much more likely to commit crimes. Can you give me the stats on that? Wait, you don’t know? Well now I’m really confused.”

Rinse and repeat.

Odds are, the speaker will either dig themselves deeper into their hole or become so frustrated with themselves (read: their inability to get their logic to make sense) that they’ll shut down the conversation, personally attack you again (merf), and storm off.

On the surface, it may look like this has simply given us the same result as YTTW. But in fact, the person has been prompted to seriously reflect on their political stances. All you needed to do is plant that little seed.

***

So, back to the pie woman.

She seemed okay. After the one guy rhetorically asked me who wouldn’t like a compliment, his floor came up, and he and his buddy stepped off. The woman was saved from more harassment, and I was saved from trying to answer the dude. We both seemed pretty relieved.

The pie was blueberry, as it turned out, and she had indeed baked it herself for a work party taking place that evening. She told me these things before she exited a floor later, which housed some sort of law firm.

Not that these details really matter in the grand scheme of this article. I just thought it’d be nice to remind everyone that people who get caught up in YTTW situations are indeed human.

James St. James is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He isn’t particularly fond of his name, but he has to admit it makes him easier to remember. When he’s not busy scaring cis gender people with his trans gender agenda, he likes to play SEGA and eat candy. Follow him on Twitter @JamesStJamesVI.