Monday, 14 November 2011


The question of boundaries has been much on my mind of late because of conversation with other expat women about the Scottish ritual of banter. If you are used to offices and families where a certain friendly formality is the order of the day, then Scottish banter can knock you for a loop.

I'm trying to think of an example of banter you can all access, and it occurs to me there is a bit of it in So I Married an Axe Murderer, although the dynamic is wrong. If you might recall, Charlie has Scottish parents, and his father ribs his little brother mercilessly about his big head of curly hair.

"Heid," yells the Scottish dad, as he tries to watch the soccer game around him. "That boy's got a heid the size of Sputnik."

Charlie's friend giggles, and the boy merely glowers and says nothing. In real life, the Scottish dad would be waiting for his retort, and the boy would have given it as hard and wittily as he could. Hilarity all around.

I forget if we were married already, or if this happened during my engagement visit, but I sat down and had a Talk with B.A. about all this. I don't like insults, and I don't put up with insults from men. When I was a younger woman, I used to put up with insults, in the hopes that it was all a joke a-ha-ha-ha-ha. As a teenage pro-life activist, the numero uno insult was "feminist", of course, which was infuriating. And when I was dating, and when I was married the first time around... Argh, argh.

One thing that alerted me to the fact that I was miserable in Marriage No. 1 was that the man I was living with said things my father never says to my mother, never never never. He never speaks to her in that tone, and he never insults her friends, tastes, religious beliefs, etc. So you can just imagine my horror when, at an Edinburgh dinner party of B.A.'s friends, he made fun of me and joined in the general hilarity at my expense.

And, boy, did he get it when we got back to the Historical House. Ooh. I had not wanted to say anything because we had been floating on the Cloud of Rosy New Engaged (or Married) Love, and I wanted to stay there and ignore anything that I could just ignore. However, that would not be being rooted in reality, which is my daily goal. So I said the dreaded, "We have to talk" and we did.

Poor old B.A. was flabbergasted because B.A. has lived in Scotland his entire life, and it did not occur to him that making fun of your fiancee/wife at a dinner party full of his friends might be found offensive by women in the rest of the known universe. And I was flabbergasted that he was flabbergasted, and slowly it began to dawn on me that what we had here was a Cultural Difference. (Some priest or other warned us we would have Cultural Differences, and we ignored him because, hello, my mother's family was all Scottish. How much could Scottishness have changed in 100 years, eh?)

Meanwhile, what was most important was that B.A. didn't disrespect me. And in Scotland you don't exchange banter with people you don't respect. You just ignore them or, in extreme and criminal circumstances, beat them up.

Having the choice to sulk or to integrate into Scottish society, I decided to integrate into Scottish society. And now I sit across from B.A. at dinner parties and think on my feet. When he makes fun of me, I make fun of him right back. And then I flirt outrageously with another man at the table. Hilarity all around.

A Canadian might be horrified, and I can just imagine what my American girlfriends would have to say about the outrageous flirtation. But our British friends think we're a wonderful couple and that we're an example to the nations, etc.

So that is the very first thing I'm going to say about boundaries. Not everyone has the same cultural expectations of what they are. And therefore, when someone hurts your feelings, it is best to have it out with him, especially if he comes from another place or culture. Universally, people deserve respect, but what respect IS is not universally agreed upon.

"Feminist," I said mildly, since I got called a feminist again yesterday after Mass by a young Eastern European male, "is actually the most insulting thing you can call a woman in traditional Catholicism."

"Is it?"


"That's good," said young Eastern European male, who was nevertheless enlightened. At least, he'd better be, because it would get very boring having to repeat it over and over again. It's also mildly annoying, since traditionally-minded Catholic women actually share some of the aims of feminism (e.g. being able to vote, equal pay, not being felt up in crowds), and it feels odd to have to repudiate it all the darn time.

But that is often what it takes to defend boundaries: repetition. First, sadly for many of us, there is a confrontation. And then there is often repetition.

Those of us who adhere to traditional understandings of sexual morality often feel outraged when men suggest we transgress them. We feel outraged, embarrassed, threatened, shy, you name it. We often feel like we have been terribly insulted, as insulted as the heroine of a Regency romance or of a Shakespeare play. However, now that this sexual revolution thing has happened, it is naive to think "How dare he? How can he not know that I AM NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL?"

This type of thinking assumes that the average man lives by the code that prevailed in the West until 1963. He doesn't. And therefore he will try it on, and you will have to have The Talk. The talk shouldn't be a big deal. It should be merely something like, "Actually, you might not know this, but I am a Christian [observant Jew, Muslim, Buddhist], and so I am very distressed that you suggested X. I don't believe X is a suitable recreational activity among unmarried people, and I'm sorry you thought I might." Or it could just be, "Yeah, you wish, pal." (Smug smile.) "In your dreams." It all depends on the context.

Meanwhile, let's not pick on the usual kind of guy. I am continually haunted by the memory of a Single reader who works for a conservative think-tank and got sneered at by a young Catholic married man because she isn't married. When an ordinary bloke from a different culture (which means the majority non-Catholic culture we live in, peeps) hurts our feelings, there might be some excuse for him: he might know now better; things are different "where he comes from." But when a Catholic guy who goes to Mass every Sunday and reads Mark Shea and kisses bishops' rings bullies a Catholic girl, I want to rip his head off.

The sad fact is that although we are prepared for attacks from our ideological opposites, we are often left speechless by our supposed allies. But we have to get along with our allies, so we have to create and defend our boundaries.

First, we have to know what our boundaries are. What can you put up with, and what can you not put up with? If at work you are willing to stay late because "you don't have kids to go home to," then fine. But if you are not, you are not. That's okay. Just because you "don't have kids to go home to" doesn't mean anyone deserves more of your time than you've contracted out.

Second, you have to state your boundaries, directly or indirectly. "Don't call me a feminist; as a traditional Catholic woman, I personally find it really insulting" is direct. "A feminist is the worst thing you can call a trad Catholic woman" is indirect. "As a Single woman, I find it insulting that you think I have no life outside this office" is pretty direct. Gauge which is the best communication strategy.

Third, you have to defend your boundaries. This is where repetition comes in. Hopefully you will not have to do this to the same person more than once or twice. Possibly the person is just testing you, to see if you really meant what you said. Make it clear you meant what you said. If the person offends you once after you told him/her what your boundary is, that's one thing. Remind them of your boundary and leave it at that. But if he or she does it twice, it is time to take more action.

In work or school life, it is time to talk to an authority. In social life, it is time to keep away from them. If they apologize, that's great. Forgive them. But if they don't, don't be a noodle-spined wimp. Constant disrespect is bad for your mental and spiritual health.

Fourth, be just as respectful of other peoples' boundaries. If a guy does not like being hugged, don't hug him.

I want to say something about the "feminist" issue. It could be that you are insulted that the word "feminist" is used as an insult, just as I would be if the word "Catholic" or "woman" were used as an insult.

First of all, cultural differences apply. Many men feel, rightly or wrongly, that they themselves or society in general has suffered severe hurt because of trends in society that some or all ascribe to a philosophy called "feminism." When they snap at you about "feminism" they are saying much more about their own views than about yours. It's not you it's them, and if they really have suffered from "feminism" (and if you care, you might ask), you might understand where they are coming from.

Second, it is not okay for men to express contempt for women to women. If men want to blow off steam to other men about their frustration with women-in-general, okay. Women blow off steam to other women about men-in-general all the time. (Although, to be frank, my married friends and I don't bitch about our husbands, even to each other, and if B.A. complained about me to his pals, I would be hurt. There is such a thing as loyalty.)

If a Catholic man (like a married young Catholic man working for one of the zillions of conservative think tanks out there) expresses contempt for you based on your sex or marital status, it is time to get all John Paul II on his butt. Every Catholic woman should read Mulieris Dignitatem at least once, and be willing to invoke it to defend herself against Catholic guys being jerks.

Sample speech. "That's not funny. That offends me as a woman and a Catholic, and I'm surprised that as a Catholic you are going against Blessed John Paul II's assertion that..."

This will not work on all Catholic men, of course. Some Catholics don't actually like Blessed John Paul II. However, if you are working for your standard conservative think-tank, you are unlikely to run into them. But if you do, and they insult you just for being a woman, especially an unmarried woman, I suppose your next shot is to give them a withering stare and then say the ever-devastating, "I'll pray for you."


Irenaeus G. Saintonge said...

After reading this, and the last time you mentioned the Scottish way of doing things, I'm starting to wonder if I (born and raised in Canada) aren't secretly a bit Scottish. :P It's gotten me in a bit of trouble a couple times.

Elizabeth said...

Having lived in Scotland, I agree with your description of banter. However, since moving down to England, I've made a sad discovery - the English (speaking generally) do make fun of their spouses/girlfriends/boyfriends/fiances, but unlike the Scots, it's not banter and it's not out of love. When I used to work at a large retail company, it was not at all infrequent to hear women (it was mostly women in my department) publically detailing the latest fight they had with their husband, all his faults, how much they hated his mother, etc. Although Scottish banter is a bit difficult to get used to, now I'm gone I miss it - at least in Scotland it's all in good fun!

Clare said...

I think I would just laugh at any man who thought feminist was the worst thing he could call me.

On that note, I have noticed that men brimming with masculine bravado and bossiness wilt before a woman so unfeeling, so darned mean, as to laugh at them.

Nate said...

I would say that male members of conservative think tanks would be the first place to find un-fans of JPII.

Among my friends, we often banter like this. Of course "feminist" is an insult, but the girls are also pretty direct with the ways in which they agree with "feminism." I have to hand it to them, they know what's up. If they didn't, I don't think i'd tease them nearly as mercilessly.

theobromophile said...

Once upon a time, feminists were women who wanted to vote, own property, educate themselves and their daughters, and not lose their legal identity upon marriage. They were pro-life, pro-family, celebrated birth and marriage, and thought that women bettering their own lot would be good for children.

I see no reason to let a bunch of cranky, grievance-mongering shrews co-opt that term and all the good that it has done. One only need to look at some of the grislier Middle Eastern countries to know why feminism is a good thing.

Now, being an ironic sort, if a young married Catholic man were to attempt to insult me for being Single, he would either get an earful of "Virginity is ontologically superiour to matrimony", complete with an up-and-down of him and a sad little frown for his state in life, or "Sadly, I don't have kids, but Friday night and a few gin and tonics can fix that!"

Seraphic said...


Sinéad. said...

Yep it's in Ireland too, if I like you I'll tease you. If someone says, "Listen pal..." you're in trouble. If someone says to you for example, "Mornin' Missus Mantilla" it means they have a soft spot for you. I have a Canadian friend who still can't banter but does understand when we tease her it's because she's precious. I've seen Europeans falter too, it's hard to forget that to some teasing equals mean. Maybe we just have issues with showing love in the normal way (being nice!).

p.s. I saw this in the Daily Fail Seraphic and thought of you...

Meredith said...

It's funny that you should write about this. I just got an industrial-strength dose of Mean Girl awfulness from a couple of my students, and right now I'm firmly of the belief that the female of the species is more deadly than the male. There are certain times when you need to defend your boundaries, and others when you need send out your raiders to chase the orcs back into their own effin' borders.