Why I Speak Differently Around Women

Being careful around women in how you talk can be a good thing — read why.
So there we were, at the hotel bar. My buddy Gerriet and I had driven from Minneapolis to Chicago for a work conference for numerous reasons, but high on the list was to meet new people. So we weren’t about to throw our hard-earned money at overpriced beer for nothing.

We spotted a priest we had met earlier and decided to crash his four man Roman collar-clad party. We started in on a round of beers, and before we knew it, we were chumming it up like we were all old friends. (If you’ve never had drinks with a priest before, I highly recommend it.)

Everything was going great — until a four-letter word slipped out, and I found myself apologizing to the padres for my language. Swearing around priests — does this mean I have to go to confession?

In hindsight, it was amusing to me that I felt the need to censor myself around grown men. By all accounts — and to their credit — they were all really chill dudes who didn’t put on airs and didn’t seem to want to be treated any differently just because they were priests.

I’m comfortable in my own skin and with my vocabulary. It was because I revere priests that I wanted to speak somewhat more reverently around them.

This realization reminded me of a story in the news a little while before. Pro football cornerback Eli Apple of the New York Giants caused a bit of a stir with his flippant (and crass) response to a reporter’s question during a media session. Apple, unsolicited, informed the media cohort that he needed to do some business in the men’s room and used a colorful turn of phrase to do so.

One reporter, Pat Leonard, tweeted his disapproval, particularly noting that there were female reporters within earshot:

Then came a bit of a rebuttal from ESPN’s Sarah Spain: “implying that female reporters are more negatively affected by this than male reporters adds to stereotypical ideas about spaces in which women belong. We can handle cursing & poop talk just fine.”

That got me thinking. There are, of course, those who say that women should be treated exactly the same as men. And if so, then Eli Apple should feel free to speak the way he wants to, regardless of whether women are around. Or, at the very least, his words shouldn’t be seen as any more offensive to women than to men.

However, while growing up I was consistently taught — explicitly and implicitly — that I should treat women differently. Namely, I should treat them with a greater level of respect than I do men. I grew up with a “ladies first” mentality and the simple idea that a man should never strike a woman, even if provoked. In a word, women are to be respected, which includes adjusting how I talk around them.

Another NFL player, Kyle Long of the Chicago Bears, put it this way: “Respect for women. That’s what it’s about. Not respecting their ability to stomach a bad joke or an uncomfortable situation.”

And even Ms. Spain agreed that women ought to be respected. But why? Well, this is where drinking beers with priests can help.

I didn’t speak differently around those priests because I thought they couldn’t handle my swear words. I certainly wasn’t censoring myself because I thought priests didn’t belong in the conversation, as if they should confine themselves exclusively to cathedrals or other safe spaces.

I act and speak differently around priests — and women — because there is a particular dignity about them that deserves respect, even if they don’t necessarily need me to do so. In fact, I don’t act differently around them for their sake — at least primarily. I’m not trying to spare them from rough language as if to preserve their purity, like you might do with children.

I treat women and priests with a greater sense of respect, because it’s good for me. It’s good for me to remember there’s something different about women and that they’re deserving of respect.

When I act reverently around priests, it helps me to remember that there’s something different about them, and that difference is good.

When I treat all women with a similar level of respect, it helps me to remember that women are different, and that difference is good. Women have unique gifts and perspectives — and callings — that men don’t have. And that’s awesome.

Remembering that, and acting accordingly, helps me to be more intentional about the way I treat women in general, but particularly those I have a relationship with: my mother, my sisters, or someone in whom I’m romantically interested.

I know women can handle men at lowest-common-denominator behavior. But I’d like to think that women deserve better and hope that men can raise their game accordingly.

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