Puppies are cute.
Babies are cute.
The way my husband once tried to trick me by insisting the vanilla side of a black & white cookie was the best part just so I’d let him eat all of the chocolate, was sort of cute.
But being called “cute” in a meeting by a colleague, particularly when you are not trying to be cute, is not at all cute.
So infuriating, in fact, that it becomes one of those stories you replay over and over again.
Did that really happen as I remember it? Why does it still bother me? Knowing what I know now, how might I have handled it differently?
Take a seat and I’ll tell you the story…
I’m representing my business unit in a meeting. We’re being asked to create a television feature for a specific brand.
It’s known as “branded content” – a story that’s ordered up and sponsored by a company wanting to pay for it, which differentiates it from our typical daily news coverage or traditional features. It’s basically a paid advertisement that isn’t supposed to feel like an advertisement. The viewer enjoys the story and they attribute at least some of that enjoyment to the presenting company.
It’s a financial arrangement:
On the one side, we have the feature and the viewer’s engagement of it and related positive feelings.
On the other side, we have… the money.
This isn’t really what my group does and so I have clear instructions from my boss. I’m not to take on any work that doesn’t suit our business unit’s focus or editorial standards. I’d often played the role of the heavy in these situations – saying “no” at meetings where head-nodding and “yessing” is the norm.
(This should go without saying but… no one likes the heavy. It’s a heavy role to play. The fact that I so often accepted this position and willingly played this part still weighs on me…)
I’ve done this before. I’m prepared for this.
I was not prepared for what happened next.
The meeting is run by a male colleague I know well and whose judgment I trust. Across the table are two younger men from the sales division. They don’t ultimately have to create or stand by the content. They make the deal, make the paying client happy, and bring in the money. They need me to say yes because who else is going to produce it?
We review the project. It doesn’t meet our business unit’s standards. Our group has plenty of other work that does. I decline.
They don’t like my answer, I can tell, but I also know that I’m doing what my boss would want me to do. What he’s instructed me to do.
They point out the benefits of the deal, demanding I defend my decision.
This part of the meeting – the dialogue – I recall in great detail.
“It’s forced,” I explain, of the story created to feature a car brand and not… an actual story.
They point out the money. What about the money?
“What about journalistic integrity?” I reply.
“Journalistic integrity!” says my colleague running the meeting.
And then he adds, “That’s cute.”
There is a stunned silence, even if only between my ears.
As far as responses go, it wasn’t a statement. It was a scoff.
“Journalistic integrity? That’s cute!”
He chuckles as if I’ve made a joke. As if I am the joke. He directs his chuckle to the two guys sitting across from me.
They chuckle too, though awkwardly. I can see they’re uncomfortable. Now I know I didn’t mishear.
Did he just call my standards of “journalistic integrity”… “cute“?
I’m a 40-something woman with two decades of producing experience bringing up a fair – if not downright obvious – concern.
I have integrity. I’m talking about integrity.
In that four-letter word, he shut me down, negating not just my opinion but my very presence in that room.
Had he said, “This is a financially-important deal, how can we make it happen?” Or, “What are your specific objections, perhaps we can make the necessary adjustments?” I would have felt heard and the conversation could have continued.
Maybe we would have even reached an agreement. Produced the piece. Banked the money.
Instead, I sat mutely, internally debating whether to get angry or get on board or just get out of the room.
Here’s the part that really gets me: This was a man I’d known for several years and someone I would even consider a friend. I liked him. I trusted him. I believe he trusted me.
And that one word changed everything I had previously thought about him.
He called me cute. Like a little kid. Like a silly girl.
And they all had a good chuckle.
I don’t recall the rest of the meeting. But I can’t forget how demeaned and belittled I felt at that moment.
Even retelling the story now, years later, I find myself angry and uncomfortable.
Why do I remember it so vividly?
Why does it still bother me so much?
What should I have done differently?
I think about those three guys in the room – the colleague I trusted and the other two. Would they remember this moment? Were they bothered by it at the time? Would they still be bothered by it if they did?
I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza thinks of the perfect comeback to the rude guy in the meeting days later (“I went to the jerk store and they’re out of YOU!”). But you never get that moment back to respond the way you’d like to once you’ve given it proper thought.
What might I say if I had the chance to replay the scene?
Maybe something as simple as, “What do you mean by that?” Let him explain himself.
Or, equally satisfying, something about the jerk store being out of him.
And then I beat myself up… it was one word in one meeting in a career of many, many others. Shouldn’t I just get over it?
Why do we hold onto certain stories longer than we should?
What is it we are to do with them?
This one is heavy. And yet, years later, I can’t put down the weight.
How do you end a story with no satisfactory ending?
Maybe you retell it. You share it so that others can read it, hear it, add their own stories to it.
Maybe you share it with him. Because though I doubt he remembers this meeting – and if he does, I’m sure he remembers it differently – I’d like to hear what he has to say about it now. I wonder how many times he’s said it since or if he’s ever said it to a man.
I wonder if he’ll apologize or deny or explain. I’ll let him respond as he sees fit.
I’m sure whatever he has to say, it’ll be cute.
Words matter. Choose yours thoughtfully.
Liked this article? Read Hell Hath No Fury: How to Piss Off a Woman at Work and Everyday Sexism: What It Looks Like.
Valerie Gordon is a former award-winning storyteller whose feature work has appeared on ESPN, HBO Sports and CBS News. As the founder of career and communications strategy firm Commander-in-She, LLC, she helps high-achievers with the storytelling skills necessary to ascend the leadership ladder and create successful and satisfying next chapters.