In COMEBACKS AT WORK, I’ve written about situations that include gender-based offenses and insults. These, of course, range from accidental misspeaking to obvious sexual harassment. As the movement to fight back against sexual harassment continues, it would be wrong to think that those offended have only two choices — to say nothing or to make sure offenders lose their jobs. Under such circumstances, we surely would begin to see men staying away from women and following what has come to be known as the Pence rule — men never being alone with women other than their wives.

Instead, we need to treat gender-based offenses, especially of a sexual nature, with the same skill needed to respond to insults in general. We need to determine what comments and actions are uncomfortable, mildly inappropriate, moderately inappropriate, clearly inappropriate, and downright insulting. As I describe in THE SECRET HANDSHAKE, there is a difference between offense and insult. The former is usually accidental and the latter on purpose. As such, they require different types of responses.

On the topic of ethics, Aristotle differentiated types of offense — misadventures, mistakes and injury.

“When the injury occurs contrary to reasonable expectation, it is a misadventure; but when it occurs not contrary to reasonable expectation but without malicious intent it is a mistake (for the agent makes a mistake when the origin of the responsibility lies in himself; when it lies outside him his act is a misadventure).”

The term “misadventure” is not used often now days. Instead, we might look at levels of injury ranging from mistake to clearly insulting.

It’s interesting to point out that Aristotle also differentiated between people who deserve severe rebuke and those who may only need to be given a wake-up call.

“For those who commit these injuries and mistakes are doing wrong, and their acts are injuries; but this does not of itself make them unjust or wicked men, because the harm they did was not due to malice; it is when a man does a wrong on purpose that he is unjust and wicked.”

Now, those were different times. There was no international outcry by women with regard to derogatory remarks and disdainful treatment — to say nothing of worse. But, there is something to take away here. We need to learn how to respond to levels of offense and insult. It’s important to know who is “wicked” and who is not as funny as he or she thinks or socially inept. There is a range.

In COMEBACKS, I referred to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s managing of her boss Senator Edmund Muskie. She was hired by him in 1958 as a young woman. After her promotion to chief legislative assistant in 1976 — a big step up for women, Muskie celebrated her appointment at a staff meeting by saying, “At last we’ll have some sex in this office.”*

Those were different times. But, even then the comment was far from what Madeline Albright deserved given her achievement. It was meant to be funny, though it was crass.

Albright knew the good and not so good sides of Muskie, so she stayed. One of her friends described Albright’s ability to differentiate between situations requiring quick, public rebukes and those requiring another approach as “superior social intelligence.” She knew how to be furious beneath a surface of warmth and charm in order to avoid derailing important goals.

So what do we do today? After all, men and women work together. How we deal with challenging situations, as with all comebacks, depends how good we are on our feet. Sometimes silence is all you need, perhaps combined with a discerning look.

When I speak to groups, there are always people who are unable to deliver direct comebacks. “That’s enough of that,” is too direct for them, especially with someone of higher status. Others are down the throat of the offender instantaneously. To them, every offense is an insult. Both approaches are usually ineffective. We all need to learn ways to deal with offense and insult.

Step one is to take a look at your style. If you demure too often even to accidental offense, you’re likely to find yourself dealing with it on a regular basis. So, it’s wise to learn what you can bring yourself to say in a variety of instances — and how you can say it.

In COMEBACKS, lists of responses are provided for a variety of situations — including gender-based offenses. Take the ones below, for example. These are verbal. There are also nonverbal comebacks and nonverbal ones that accompany the verbal. But looking at the list below is a start.

Can you see yourself using them? Your answer will tell you a lot about your preferred style and ability to stretch beyond it. We’ll start with less direct ones:

“I’m taking a moment to be sure I heard you right.”

“This seems like a good time to take a break — to reflect on what was just said.”

“If I look perplexed, it’s because I’m thinking about giving you the benefit of the doubt.”

“I suggest we step back for a moment, as something just went awry.”

“Of all the things I thought you might say, that certainly wasn’t one of them.”

“If I said what I’m thinking, we’d both be out of line.”

“For two people who respect each other, we’re certainly off course today.”

“Do you want to run that by me again in a less personal way?”

“Did you really say that?”

“Now, I wonder. Should I take that as an insult?”

“I usually respond defensively to comments like that, so give me a moment.”

“If I didn’t know you, I’d think you were insulting me.”

“I have a rule about comments like that one — I don’t respond.”

“I see you’re pulling out all the stops here — using your best stuff.”

“Were you making a point or simply trying to amuse yourself at my expense?”

“If you think that was funny, you need a new gig.”

“You’re amusing sometimes, but not today.”

“You once told me I could tell you to f__ off. Consider yourself told.”

The situation or context and your history with the person causing offense or insulting you should enter into decisions about the type of comeback to use. Sometimes it’s best to handle the situation in private — especially if it’s the first occurrence. In any case, women need to develop repertoires of responses to comments that are insults to their person and their gender. Without such repertoires, mild offenses are thrown into the same bucket as clear insults. Men who accidentally offend are viewed in the same way as those who purposely insult or demean. And clearly that’s not good.

*From Michael Dobbs, Madeline Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey

Kathleen also blogs here.


  • Kathleen Kelley Reardon

    Professor Emerita, University of Southern California Marshall School/Preventive Medicine Research. Author of THE SECRET HANDSHAKE, SHADOW CAMPUS and DAMNED IF SHE DOES

    Professor Emerita, USC Marshall School of Business with a joint position in preventive medicine, Kathleen is a Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, Mortar Board and a member of the International Women's Forum (IWF).  She was a featured blogger at Huffpo from 2005 to 2016 and for Big Think. She is the author of numerous articles, including The Harvard Business Review classic, "The Memo Every Woman Keeps in Her Desk,"  and "Courage as a Skill."  She has published ten nonfiction books on communication, persuasion, negotiation, gender issues and politics in organizations, including bestsellers THE SECRET HANDSHAKE and IT'S ALL POLITICS.  She has consulted extensively for organizations and was visiting professor at Stanford University and Distinguished Research Scholar at The Irish Management Institute.  She has turned her hand to fiction as well.  Her debut novel, SHADOW CAMPUS, captures the behind-the-scenes culture of a university where moral turpitude is common and a young woman's tenure, her relationship with an estranged brother, and her life hang in the balance. Forbes described it as a "fast-paced" and "masterful debut." The sequel, DAMNED IF SHE DOES (2020), a NYC-based crime mystery, was described by Kirkus Reviews as "informed and searing" and a "page-turning success." Kathleen is originator and co-founder of The First Star Academies overcoming obstacles and preparing foster children to attend college. She received the University of Connecticut Alumni Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2013. Kathleen lives in Ireland where she writes and is an artist in watercolor and oils.  She developed an art website for people with Parkinson's disease at Her political writing and other art is at and at a Facebook page, Kathleen Kelley Reardon.