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Why Don’t We Stand Up to People Who Say Inappropriate Things?

Now we know. Despite our best intentions, a lot of the time, when someone else asks an inappropriate question or makes an offensive remark, we let it pass. We don’t expect to do this, maybe we don’t even want to do this, but when we are face-to-face with someone who, for example, makes a sexist remark, we don’t say a word.

In a previous post, I described some of the research documenting that dynamic. I’m most interested in singlism and why people (myself included) do not always stand up to singlist behavior even when they think they should. The available research, though, is about other isms such as sexism, rather than singlism.

In one pair of studies, most women said that they would object to a sexist remark. But when interviewed for a job by a man asking sexist questions, women did not speak up. They just answered the questions as if there was nothing wrong with them, sometimes with an appeasing smile.

Why don’t people object to words and behaviors they find objectionable? In a job interview, when you are the person trying to land the job, power dynamics may be important. You don’t want to challenge the person who is going to have a say in whether you get the job.

In the article I was discussing in my previous post about this, the focus was on the women accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. At stake in their interactions with Weinstein was not just one particular job, but potentially, access to employment across an entire industry. That’s quite a motivation to go along to get along.

But what about totally innocuous situations, where the other person has no power over you whatsoever? In my example of singlism in the supermarket, for example, the woman scanning my groceries said that another employee was stressing out about her job, but she had nothing to be stressed about: “She has no husband, no kids. She has nothing! I have a husband and two kids.” I wanted to object, but in the moment, I wasn’t sure what exactly to say. And as I thought about it, my groceries were packed and I was on my way out.

That woman was new to the supermarket. There was a chance I would never see her again. And still, I hesitated. It would have been even harder if she had been a regular. If I explained what I didn’t like about what she said, I might have to see her over and over again on future shopping trips. (And probably, I’d be concerned that she’d be annoyed at me for having challenged her, when she is the one who made the singlist remark.)

Another complicating factor is whether other people are present. Suppose you are at a social gathering, in a group conversation, and someone makes a sexist or racist or singlist remark. Now if you challenge that person, you risk not only their hostility, but the hostility of the other people, who were perhaps hoping that you would let it go. If you call out someone on their bigotry in a casual social setting, with other people present, you are compromising the casual, light-hearted vibe. That might give you pause, even though it is the bigot who should be feeling self-conscious. (It is also possible that other people will be grateful to you for speaking out, whether or not they say so.)

Take away all of those complications – whether you will ever see the person again, whether other people are present, whether it is a light-hearted setting, whether the other person has power over you – and people will still hesitate to challenge inappropriate remarks. We have a well-practiced routine for the conversations of our everyday lives. We keep them moving along smoothly. We don’t rock the boat.

Maybe we also know, at some level, that if we do speak up, we risk the harsh judgment of others – even when they are the ones who acted in a prejudicial way.

On TV crime shows, when potential witnesses are interviewed, there’s something they seem to say all the time: “It all happened so fast.” I think that’s true in our everyday social interactions as well. Someone says something inappropriate, it takes a moment to assure yourself that yes, that is what the person said, and no, that person should not have said it. Then another moment to think about what to say. But by then, the conversation has moved on.

Why Don’t We Stand Up to People Who Say Inappropriate Things?

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2020). Why Don’t We Stand Up to People Who Say Inappropriate Things?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Jan 2020
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