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How my ‘six bells’ metaphor keeps me safe from harrassment


As part of my research for a Making It Safe programme to inspire more conscious awareness about women’s strategies for being safe from sexual harassment, I interviewed more than a dozen women, and I decided I also needed to be interviewed, so I asked Alyona Silvestrova to conduct a Clean Language Interview with me.

During the interview I described a specific experience that had kept me safe: a colleague had forewarned me about an old schoolmate who I had reconnected with after many years when I was an environmental journalist and he was the media relations officer of an environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO). But the most important thing I got from my own interview was a new metaphor for keeping safe. Having conscious awareness of my own metaphor has made it easier for me to notice when I’m not feeling safe, and when I need to act to establish boundaries.

Six bells on a brake

In my metaphor I have a safety monitoring mechanism which is a series of six bells. The bells are tied by string to a stick that serves as the lever for braking an old-fashioned horse carriage. The first bell is at the bottom of the stick. The subsequent bells are stacked one on top of the other. I need all six bells because I don’t always pay attention to one or two ringing bells.

The first bell rings when I notice a remark or action that annoys me or makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes, I won’t hear the first bell, or others will persuade me to mute it, or I will hold the warning lightly until I have more information. If a second thing makes me uncomfortable, the second bell rings, and so on. By the time the third bell rings, it means a pattern of troubling behaviour, and I need to start pulling my carriage brakes. This in turn triggers a voice in the back of my head to slow down and wait before going along with whatever is happening.

My colleague’s warning had short circuited this mechanism; I already had three bells ringing before my old schoolmate even attempted anything with me. What he did next triggered the fourth bell: before we headed off on the media trip to a hilltop station, he invited me on a night tour of a famous mossy forest, saying, “It’s magical and I know the forest well.”

If my three bells hadn’t already been ringing, I very likely would have said “yes”. He was someone I knew from school. And my journalistic instinct was to have this nocturnal experience so I could write about it. But the voice at the back of my head said, “Wait, hold on, don’t be so quick to put your journalistic instinct before your safety.”

And so I set him a test, just in case I was misreading his intentions. I said, “Yes, great idea. Let’s get the other journalists to come along so everyone has a story.” He responded: “Oh, you’re such a scaredy cat.” Then he started to taunt me, “Jacqueline Ann Surin is scared of ghosts!” In effect, he was diminishing and baiting me because he wasn’t getting what he wanted.

During my interview with Alyona, I also realised other things had triggered my bells: the tour being at night; his insistence that we went alone; and that the mossy forest was unfamiliar to me, which meant that I might not have known how to leave and get back on my own.

His response to my test meant that all six of my bells were by then jangling. When that happens, a crystalising anger emanates from my head which then activates a strong, impenetrable metal shield. With that shield on, I couldn’t care less what he thought of me and I could dispense with politeness. So, I said to him: “I’m not afraid of ghosts. Ghosts don’t have intentions to harm me. I would be afraid of men who are more likely to harm me.” While he was trying to make me feel small, my metal shield made me feel very big and strong in that moment.

That anger galvanised me to demand that my newspaper put me up in a separate hotel during the media trip. It also hardened me against his text messages to be rescued from boredom while we were at the hill station, and once everyone else was back in their rooms.

My colleague’s story very likely protected me from sexual assault. A couple of years after my encounter with my schoolmate, he raped a young intern.

When two bells were enough

About a year after I’d developed my six bells metaphor I had started seeing a new doctor. He was the go-to family physician of a close and trusted woman friend. The doctor and my friend were old friends. Because the doctor and I had met before at our mutual friend’s dinner parties, we already knew of each other in a social setting.

On my first visit to his clinic, he started calling me “dear”. I was annoyed at the over-familiarity and how condescending it felt. But I decided it would be too much effort, as we were establishing our relationship, to speak out against it.

Then at my next consultation, he noticed my birthday wasn’t too far away. As I was about to leave, he stood up, opened his arms wide and said, “Happy birthday in advance!” I was too surprised and couldn’t think fast enough, so I walked over and let him hug me.

As I drove home, I kept thinking how I didn’t want to be hugged, and yet that was what had happened. Then I realised two of my six bells were now ringing: the first when he started calling me “dear” and the second because of the unwanted hug.

This time, though, two bells were enough for me to have the kind of clarity that usually happens when I am angry at six ringing bells. I was annoyed, not angry. And my metal shield was already up.

By the time I got home, I was able to text the doctor about my “preferences for future interactions”:

  1. I appreciated the birthday wishes. Not the birthday hug. You're my doctor when we're in the clinic so the hug was unwanted, not least because I am COVID anxious. It was unexpected and I wasn't able to tell you directly just now. So, I'm telling you now.
  2. I'd like to be called by my name. Please don't call me "dear". You're not my uncle or grandparent. My doctors call me Jacqueline.  Or you can call me Jacq since we also kind of know each other in a separate social context.

Being able to do that felt good. I was clear and firm, while still giving him enough room to learn from my feedback. And I know from experience that when I’ve fiercely established boundaries, potential harassers are not likely to continue.

The thing is, sexual harassment isn’t always just one incident, or one dramatic event. In familiar relationships, harassment builds up over time, often through normalised, and sometimes small, remarks or actions. Like being called “dear” in a professional context.

Because they are normalised and sometimes small, women who protest or express discomfort are often told we’re imagining or misreading things. And that we should take it in our stride, be less sensitive, and learn how to relax even as a pattern of unwanted behaviour starts to build up. That means it is often very hard to know what a harasser is up to until it’s too late and a woman’s boundaries have already been violated.

What I discovered through my interview, however, was a metaphor that serves as a mechanism to alert me to potential harassment. This mechanism also allows me room to revise my assessment and downgrade my alert system if harassment isn’t a man’s intention.

Do you have a mechanism that lets you know when you’re not safe and when you need to act? If you do, that mechanism for you is like what? And if you don’t, and would like to develop one, come join us on Making It Safe: Inspiring strategies against sexual harassment, or get in touch if you’d like to find out more.

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About Jacqueline Ann Surin

Jacqueline Ann Surin's avatar

Jacqueline Ann Surin is a Level 1 Clean Facilitator, the first Master Level Systemic Modeller in Asia, and is qualified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the ICF. She is an associate of Clean Learning and Training Attention in the UK, and a specialist-partner of the Singapore-based BeInClarity. She was previously an award-winning journalist and has a published chapter in Clean Language Interviewing: Principles and applications for researchers and practitioners.

She can be found on LinkedIn.

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