Thursday, February 22, 2007

Conversational evasion techniques

Yesterday a reader left a comment on a recent posting of mine asking for some advice. I reckon he's asked an important question, so I've decided to answer it in 'Dear GB' format, and then other readers can add their thoughts too. The question the reader asked is as follows:

Dear GB,

How do you manage to be discreet about your sexuality in the office? I want to be discreet too, but during a conversation today with a co-worker, he asked if I'd ever had a gf? I replied honestly and said no, (and whispered to myself...never) and then tried to change the topic. He was kinda amused, though I'm just 21. I'm sure you have experienced those kinds of situations when heterosexual co-workers talk about girls and they begin to put you in the hot seat, asking about your experiences with girls. Just the thought makes me sick to my stomach. So how have you managed to handle these situations? Cheers, you rock gb :-)


I think the most important thing to say is that there's nothing wrong with being gay. But it doesn't always feel like that! Things would be much simpler if we could all just say to everyone "I'm gay" as soon as we realise, but of course life is more complex than that. When one is young or still coming out, it can be particularly hard to handle these kind of situations. It certainly was for me.

For a guy who is completely 100% out as a gay man to everyone he knows, if he gets asked about girls by someone who doesn't know he's gay, he will be confident enough to say "I prefer men". There are a very small number of guys who've never had a problem being gay, and have been out to all friends and family ever since they can remember. But I think it takes most of us at least a few years to fully come out, and even then one may not want to be "out" to absolutely everyone one knows for one reason or another.

But whatever stage of coming out one is at, however early, I think the golden rule is never to lie. So never pretend you like girls if you don't, never pretend you've had experiences that you haven't had, never say anything that you may have to contradict if one day you end up being more open about your sexuality. If you lie you're likely to get caught out eventually, which will probably have all sorts of consequences which would be worse than anything that could happen by avoiding a lie. Replying honestly to difficult questions is one possibility, and in fact can sometimes be a good idea.

This is because a lot of the time, when you're in these situations, the other guys are just trying to be friendly. A good way to make friends with people is to find common ground. Since most of the population is heterosexual, it's a common mistake to assume that everyone is heterosexual, particularly for guys that haven't met many gay guys. When this happens it's a fascinating failure of communication, because one guy is trying to express friendship, and the other guy feels like they're under attack. If this is indeed the situation, almost anything one says is likely to be well received because the intention on the other side is friendship. In general, there's no doubt that western society is more accommodating for gay people these days, so sometimes, coming out in this situation can be a good idea because sharing a confidence is reciprocating the intended friendship.

One can also get asked these questions by family members, in big family gatherings. Before I'd even properly come out as gay to myself, I can remember being asked about girlfriends by my grandmother when the whole family was listening. I reacted very badly to the question, and the whole afternoon had a bad flavour for everyone as a result. Again, the intention was friendly, but I felt under attack. I should have simply said something like "I'll sort myself out eventually!"

Of course, the intention isn't always friendly. But then, if it is a potentially unfriendly situation, unfriendly replies are more acceptable. In which case, finding a way to say "mind your own business" can work.

These days I don't hide my sexuality even at the bank, although I still use discrete language. So I'll always talk about "my partner" rather than "my boyfriend(s)". There's a whole language which most people will understand means that you're probably gay, but which doesn't actually require you to say that you're gay. And if people don't get the message, being emphatic and repeating a previous answer can sometimes help.

As an example, I can recall something that happened to me in the early 1990's. I was still getting used to a gay lifestyle a few years after I'd started living with boyfriend number 1, and one year I was the new staff member sitting on a big table of colleagues at the bank Christmas party. A natural pause in the conversation arises, and suddenly one of the most extrovert and heterosexual guys on the trading floor asks me a question.

"So GB, are you married?"

Immediately the whole table focuses on me, waiting for my answer. It's a natural fact of office life that people are nosey and like to know these simple facts about each other. And unmarried girls are often interested to know who the unmarried guys are in their office, because it's very common for heterosexual relationships to start through a work connection. But what can I say? Back in those days, even saying "I live with my partner" seemed more obvious than I felt comfortable with.

"Errr no, but I'm spoken for," I reply timidly. More confidence in delivering my answer might have helped the conversation move on, but in those days I wasn't nearly as confident as I am now.

"Uh huh, do you live together then?" the guy replies, trying to gauge the strength of my relationship. Everyone is still listening. But I really don't want to say any more.

"I'm spoken for!" I reply, "That's all you need to know!!"

It worked. I was at that bank for another five years and I was never asked about my domestic situation again.

Anyway Adrian, I hope that helps. Perhaps some other readers have further thoughts on how to handle these situations?


Adrian said...

hi gb,

Thanks for your advice. Its good to hear from guys who have more experiences that i do or we can say more "wisdom". In this case though, my co-worker is asking me some dating advices regarding this girl. Well we all know that in certain aspects dating girls are different from dating guys. So i tried to put myself on his shoes on the "how to treat a lady on a date" and i guessed it worked. i now seemed like the dating expert who he runs to for advice.
As a gay guy living in asia, it can sometimes be hard coz most people here in my country still have the stereotype and misconception that gays are suppose to act flamboyant, camp and cross-dressers. Well i think this is brought about by how the media here portray gays and how we are projected to the people.
When i came out to my close friends a year ago i remember how one of them reacted. She had this confused stare on her face and asked how can i be gay if i "act straight" and dress descent. As a gay man i did my part of educating her about our lifestyle and straighten out the misconceptions. One voice can make a difference.



Anonymous said...

"... one guy is trying to express friendship, and the other guy feels like they're under attack".

I never thought of it that way but it is SO true! You should do this professionally! ;-)

GBD xxx

Hedgie said...

I second gayboydiary above!

I must be as camp as Christmas, because I've never been asked the 'girlfriend' question, except once by a counsellor at University.

I was completely perplexed and unable to answer, and she kept asking more and more nosey questions. Eventually she decided my problems were beyond the scope of the University's counselling programme, and referred me to a "very nice young man".

Monty said...

Here here!!! GB - you are a GURU! Keep the advice coming! Those of use just starting out appreciate your insight and experience! Monty! x

close encounters said...

i'm not sure it's always as straightforward as you suggest ...

sometimes in the attempt to tread the line between truth and non-disclosure, it doesn't always work ..

GB said...

I don't think I ever suggested that it's easy close encounters. If you've only recently come out it's very difficult. The hard thing is trying to work out the intentions of the person who's asking the questions, because when one feels under attack, the natural assumption is to assume that the person is hostile. True, they may be hostile, but I think it's often the case that the intention is friendly. For example, guys may ask if they think you're gay, just to check that you're not going to be competing for the girls in the office.

I think when a guy asks another guy about his marital situation or his experiences with girls, there's always some motive because it's a personal question. The gay guy who's being asked the question will get the best result if he can relax and work out what the motive is. Looking back and re-analysing my own experiences, all the hostile situations I've experienced were at school, but since then the motive has always been benign.

Why don't you do a posting about this topic close encounters, it sounds like you've had some bad experiences?

GB xxx

Dragonzlad said...

Hey GB,

I fully agree with you that not everyone mean to be hstile when they ask personal questions. Some may be genuinely concerned. But at the end of the day, it really is about being comfortable enough to reveal or even confident enough of the other person's maturity or attitude towards gay people. I've got a close group of friends but despite our relationship, one of them have never felt comfortable enough to come out to everyone. These friends have been asking him about his girlfriends and he has been avoiding it with "Too busy at work for that at the moment" since Day 1. :)

jasonviva said...

nice article...i think ever since i've been out at my workplace (i work for a bank too!) i've been much happier and since then i have no longer been asked the "when are you going to bring your girlfriend to the christmas party?" sorts of questions... =)

close encounters said...

John Amaechi says in an Observer article that when he was asked directly about being gay, he replied "You have nothing to worry about".

Whilst it sounds good, and I'm sure works in some instances ... I don't believe that it would silence a persistent enquirer ...