A couple of years ago I was listening to the radio, and heard an anecdote about the Israeli Prime Minister during the early 1970s, Golda Meir. I remembered her. She was a tough and forthright old lady. This showed on her face, which was an easy target for cartoonists:
The anecdote concerned an occasion when journalists were present, and one of them in particular, a strident young man, gave her a very hard time, treating her to the full force of his barbed, almost insulting voice, not merely as if she were the most despicable of politicians caught out in a big lie, but as if she were nothing but a vile old hag.
She took it. But afterwards, she managed to have a word with the man, who in fact was a familiar adversary. They already had a kind of wary respect for each other. But on this occasion he had gone a bit too far. She said to him (and I'll have to give you the gist, because I can't remember the exact words): 'Young man, your questions were to the point, and fair, but you nearly destroyed me with your manner. You forgot that I am a woman.' She wasn't asking for special treatment, only for a recognition that despite her own formidable manner and appearance, she was a woman and therefore vulnerable to personal attacks in a way that a man would not be. The journalist apologised, and took the comment to heart. Because it was he who was relating the anecdote on that radio programme all those years later.
So a seasoned and hardened politician who certainly wasn't pretty, and must have known that, was stung by the words of a young man on the make. What can be drawn from this?
I thought it was remarkable that she sought him out afterwards and confessed that she had been hurt. Remarkable too that she impressed him so much by this frankness that he never again abused his position, and became an admirer.
It made me wonder how I would react to a devastating personal verbal attack. And whether I would be left speechless with mortification, or have the guts to confront my attacker. You need some courage, both to admit vulnerability, and to face the strong possibilty that instead of an apology, you will get a further blast of soul-destroying sneers. Apologies are so hard to get. The attacker has to climb down, admit fault. In the real world, it doesn't often happen.
It's worth thinking hard on how to make it happen, every time.