Knowing how to behave in the #MeToo era

Harassment isn't about your intention. It's about your impact, explains Michael Kaufman.

MICHAEL KAUFMAN: I do speak to some men who say, "God, I feel like I'm walking on eggshells these days." And the sad thing about that, if they are feeling that, is that we lose, I think we lose our intelligence if we're always feeling 'I have to be overcautious or overprotective' or any of that. There is such an important role for just that spontaneity, that just warmth, being able just to relate to our co-workers and others with genuine warmth, where that's possible.

I think part of the confusion is the approach that we've tended to have to matters around sexual harassment. I visited so many companies where they'll say, "We have our policy," and they'll hold up this 1,000 pages of dense legalism, legalese, about 'this is our sexual harassment policy' and it sort of outlines every sort of thing you can't do, and this and that. And it's just nonsense. It's nonsense because that's not the reality of workplace harassment. Or it's not the total reality of workplace harassment.

One of the things I talk about in the book is a framework I developed that I call red light, green light. So think of a traffic light. A red light is very clear. Stop, you don't do this. And so when we think of harassment, yes, you do not offer someone a job in exchange for sex. Now, that's pretty rare actually these days. It still happens. And the stories from Hollywood tells us it still happens. So yes, we need strong rules and regulations and action if we see that so-called quid pro quo harassment happening. That's the red light. We say you cannot do this at work. The green light is also pretty easy to deal with. It means you can be friendly to co-workers. Green lights don't tend to get people into trouble. Think, though, in a city where most accidents happen. Most accidents happen at intersections and they happen when the light is changing. When there's no clear red light or green light; there is this ambiguous orange, yellow, amber whatever you call it light in the middle. And I think that's where our focus a lot of our focus on the prevention of sexual harassment, education and training of managers around sexual harassment has to happen. It's in that amber zone.

So for example, is it OK if I compliment you? Is it OK to say, hey, you're looking good today? Is it OK if I say that outfit is fantastic? Is it OK if I flirt with a co-worker? Is it OK if I ask someone on a date? Is it OK if I touch someone? And the answer is: It depends. It depends on the impact. It depends on exactly what you say, on who you say it to, on your work relationship, on your personal relationship. That touch, it depends on what you touch; that compliment, on your body language, your expression, what you're complimenting, on and on. We've got to focus and these are like the amber light. It's a warning sign so we've got to focus our training of managers and staff on these areas of confusion, of "maybe, maybe not," to really develop language and a sensitivity that harassment is about impact. It's not about your intention. Your intention might be to be wonderful and welcoming; it's not about your intention. It's about impact. And so we've really got to shift our language, our discussion around workplace harassment. Yes, to include the most obvious, blatant things that include, essentially, sexual assault. But we have to go beyond that to include all these more subtle, the amber light, the yellow zone, the orange light whatever we call it area.

  • In the #MeToo era, many men feel they're walking on eggshells and can't say anything anymore.
  • Companies must refocus their policies away from 1,000 page "don't do this" manuals and address the gray areas that are most confusing, like: Can you give a colleague a compliment?
  • Workplace harassment training should focus on the principle that sexual harassment is about impact of your words or actions; it's not about your intention.

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10 excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' to unlock your inner Stoic

Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

(Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.