Bob, Alice, and Zero-Tolerance Policies

Related to: The Ambiguity Abyss.

There’s this failure mode that I think can hamstring organizers or leaders in a group that’s dominated by one demographic. Say you’re in a movement that’s dominated by men (I’m certain none of my readers have familiarity with this experience), and you are concerned about the potential for women to be made feel uncomfortable. In fact, you want to pre-empt this and signal that you don’t think it’s acceptable for harassment to occur. It won’t be tolerated, and you’d like both the women and men who get involved in your organization (or meetup group or conference) to know that you care.

So, you enact a zero-tolerance policy.

“[Organizers] has zero tolerance for harassing or inappropriate behavior towards attendees.  Behavior that makes our attendees uncomfortable will result in removal from the [conference, group, organization, meetup].”

And I think this is actually not the solution. It might be an anti-solution.

Let’s revisit Bob and Alice. (No actual relation to the Bob and Alice of the last story.)

You’lBob/Alice [standing too close version]l notice they’re standing a bit closer than the last time.

This is actually the whole problem.

1. Alice is new to Example Meetup Group*. It’s her first visit. Bob isn’t an established member of the group, but he’s been to a few meetups.

2. Bob is making Alice uncomfortable.  He keeps following her places and she’s not sure if it’s because he’s being intentionally overattentive or just doesn’t realize that she keeps turning her back on him because she doesn’t want to interact with him.

3. She’s tried some of the tricks like wandering off to the bathroom and making excuses to change position in seating arrangements. But, each time, it lasts for just a bit and then Bob’s back to joining any conversation she enters and standing right at her shoulder.

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 11.37.25 AM4. Alice finds it hard to pluck up the social confidence for meeting people or forming connections with Bob there. Each time she joins a group conversation she’s hyperaware that she’s being perceived as part of a pair: herself and Bob. Her one-on-one conversations are interrupted by Bob butting in to stand next to her. She worries that the other meetup attendees think they have some relationship, friendship or romantic, and that she will be judged not on her own merits, but on the fact that she’s choosing to associate with someone who keeps stepping into private conversations and ignoring social norms.

5. Alice wants the organizers to make it stop so she can make actual friends and not feel like she’s being babysat.

6. But Alice also thinks Bob is effectively harmless, if clingy and totally socially unaware. She doesn’t want him thrown out of the meetup, but she does want this to stop right now and leave her alone.

7. Nor does Alice want to be the girl who caused a fuss on her first day and got that other nice-if-awkward-guy tossed out. That seems a worse social penalty than being the girl who has a shadow.

8. So, Alice doesn’t tell the organizers. Instead, she spends the meetup tense and annoyed.

9. When Alice thinks back on the meetup, she remembers being ‘creeped’ on, and doesn’t know if it’ll happen the next time she attends.  The next Tuesday evening, she considers the inconvenience of driving ten miles to go to a group where she still hasn’t made close friends and might have the same Bob problem, and decides that it might just be easier to watch Netflix. Or maybe it’s not even quite so obvious: Alice just doesn’t feel very excited when she sees the meetup notification the next month. She doesn’t have a sense of this being a group of people who could like and appreciate her, because she never got a chance to connect to anyone directly.

So…the group loses Alice.

Okay, so what if Alice had gone to the organizers and explained what was going on?

As I see it, they’d be trapped between two bad options.

Option One: They throw out Bob. They don’t like doing it, but they did say zero-tolerance, and Bob was repeatedly making Alice uncomfortable. They’re pretty sure Bob wasn’t doing so intentionally, but their hand was forced. This might make others in the group deeply upset — they’ve been socially awkward! they didn’t think Bob was trying to make Alice feel bad! They didn’t notice anything wrong! Maybe the organizers lose respect or clout, and when they try to tackle a case of someone intentionally harassing others, they’re seen as having a propensity for being hypersensitive., and it’s that much harder to act. Maybe some of the disgruntled members split off and create their own group, and the original group dies.

Option Two: They hear Alice out, and talk amongst themselves. The organizers don’t want to be seen as hating on the socially awkward, and they have seen Bob at previous meetups, and he seems to be okay. In fact, they’re pretty sure that if they talk to him, things could be resolved. So, that’s what they do. However, they’ve also demonstrated that they’re willing to ignore their own stated rules of zero-tolerance. Maybe this is fine this time, but now the organizers have shown that they’ll ignore their own rules. This doesn’t set a good precedent if the organizers want other people to trust them to act, no matter how high-status the accused person in a complaint is.

Writing a longer, more nuanced policy is tricky, and I’d rather not sugarcoat that. I think pretending it’s easy to ‘just have a conduct policy’ only solidifies the idea that there are bunch of complicated rules you can’t see, and well-meaning people still won’t ever get it right. Here’s one I’ve assisted in writing and the ever-suggested Geek Feminism Wiki template.


*They meet up and talk through bad textbook examples.

Notes: a common response to stories like this (person is being over attentive and not taking hints, you don’t want them there) is to say “Well, what if you were direct?” I’ve done this. Almost every time, the ‘Bob’ in question has been apologetic or upset but amenable to leaving, because as it turns out, most people are wonderful and don’t want others to feel bad. However. More than once someone I thought was harmless-but-failing-to-leave-me-alone has reacted explosively, once putting me in physical danger, once following me while yelling. The second time was in front of a large group of bystanders, none of whom helped me. 

The lesson I got from this isn’t “all men can be dangerous” but it was that I can’t always expect being direct to result in a change I want. As a result, when I’m ‘Alice’ I find myself thinking not “I should be direct and hope this is a safe situation” but instead “hmmm, I wonder if he’ll take the next hint?” or “I bet if I went to the bathroom this time, he’ll be distracted when I get back.”

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9 thoughts on “Bob, Alice, and Zero-Tolerance Policies

  1. Very minor thing, but it’s making me stuck:

    Alice is new to Example Meetup Group*. It’s her first visit. Bob is newer, but he’s been to a few meetups.

    Does this mean that Bob has been to other meetups besides Example Meetup Group, or that Bob joined the online group more recently than Alice but has still gone to more actual events than she has?

  2. More on-topic this time. I’ve been in these situations a bunch of times, including in situations where conduct policies applied. People often asked me why I didn’t report the behavior to the organizers. It was for exactly this reason. I don’t necessarily want the person to be thrown out and Banned From Socializing With Us Ever Again. I want them to learn.

    But I also understand that organizers can’t take on the responsibility of educating everyone in social skills. (And yes, the situations I was in involved a clear breach of norms/ethics, including literal stalking.) I am unwilling to take on that responsibility, too, because, as you’ve pointed out, it can end very badly.

    I’m not sure what to do here other than promote good social skills/positive norms more globally, and hope that that filters down into particular social groups and contexts.

  3. When I was a member of the Live Action Role-playing group, The Camarilla, we had a code of conduct that all members were expected to follow. The leaders responsible for the non-rp aspect of the club had variety of options to use if a member or visitor was violating the code of conduct. So reporting a violating member didn’t mean automatic expulsion.

    So it sounds like this group needs more tool to deal with problems, and that members need to be assured that problems will be dealt with, even if it isn’t as visible as throwing people out.

    1. Depends on your conference (that’s a template, not a fast rule). In the skep-tech policy we played with versions of that line and then dropped it, IIRC

      1. Good to hear. I certainly think adults should be able to discuss such an important topic! But I guess it might not be appropriate for an unrelated talk.

      2. Yeah, I think the goal with the part of the template was to prevent people using sexual imagery or sexist jokes in talks, which has definitely occurred at conferences I’ve attended where it wasn’t necessary or helpful.

  4. I think that where (the community of which I am a part) faces a seemingly intractable problem is that the ‘doing-right-by-women’ thing appears to be in conflict with the failure modes of two treasured community pillars: CoZE / increasing exposure to failure, and maintaining a cuddle / platonic touch friendly environment.

    Two good guys who I think well of and who are themselves quality, solid, boundary respecting guys, had not the most autonomy-respecting priorities when presented with actual scenarios where a woman’s boundaries and a man’s desires were pitted up against each other.

    A couple anecdotes:

    One time during a presentation having to do with negotiating personal interactions (presentation lead by a guy) a woman in the group shared that she was frequently made uncomfortable by a man in her professional sphere, someone in a position of power. This man would hug her, put his arm around her, etc. She was pretty confident that her body language was making it clear that she didn’t like being hugged. And the man even picked up on it and said something to the effect of how he needed hugs. She described the man as being generally pushy towards herself and other women. This behavior can be exhibited by men of varying levels of desirability but in this case apparently the man also had an odor issue.

    The male presenter’s response? With compassion in his voice he said: “Sometimes those are the guys who need affection most of all.”

    And much of the room – which was about 20 men and 4 women, sighed and nodded in agreement.

    Right. The poor, sad guy needs a hug. Who can argue with that?

    Second example:

    I invited two much younger female friends not of the community to a party hosted by a few friends in the community. One guy would not lay off one of my exceptionally attractive young guests, interacting with her in very awkward, uncomfortable attempts at flirting, and monopolizing her time and attention (and thereby mine as I felt I had to stay nearby just to ensure that she didn’t feel too trapped as I tried to work out a subtle escape).
    I eventually said something intended to get the guy to retreat, and was told that he “could do without the condescension”. I told him that I’d tried a softer touch initially but that it hadn’t worked.

    When I later relayed the experience to one of the hosts, his response was that, yeah, my friend’s experience of the event was mildly unfortunate but that all in all he was glad that this guy was overcoming his shyness and trying to up his game even if he was fumbling it in the process and that, all in all, how he behaved was still the correct move with respect to leveling up his skills.

    Nine times out of ten I’m in with folks on the ‘move fast and break stuff’ approach, but not when people I’m responsible for are collateral damage.

    I agree in theory that guys need to be able to try and fail when it comes to this stuff. In practice? Um, honestly, I just don’t want to bring my friends around you if you’re going to behave in a way which makes them feel uneasy and forces me to have to babysit; especially not if you’re going to give me pushback when I try and call the matter to your attention.

    I know that no one asks to be born socially awkward, and that practice can help to make a person less awkward and less likely to say offensive things, but, as a general rule, women of the community and our invited guests are not signing up to be the social training wheels for the men in the community.

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