A few days ago, a Facebook video about Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) – the U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district – caught my attention. For the next 10 minutes or so, I found myself riveted by her speech narrating what happened to her on the steps of United States Capitol building, and the implications of both Congressman Ted Yoho’s actions on that day and his subsequent non-apology.
Here are four major lessons in effective communication that I took away:
Representative Yoho put his finger in my face, he called me disgusting, he called me crazy, he called me out of my mind
The first thing AOC does is that she sets the context for her audience by painting a picture with her words. In her description of the confrontation, she uses phrases like “I was minding my own business, walking up the steps”, “suddenly turned a corner”, “put his finger in my face” and “I took a few steps ahead and I walked inside and cast my vote”. All of these phrases help us conjure a mental image of the scene, and the exact movements of each person involved. By describing actions in this manner, AOC allows us to relive the experience *with* her, and from her perspective, making it all suddenly very personal. The minute this happens, we are not just listening to her story – we are now part of it.
… in front of reporters, Representative Yoho called me, and I quote, a f—— b—-.
AOC doesn’t mask the impact of the disrespectful words flung her way. She deliberately pauses after each of the offending words that form the insult, letting them sink into our conscience. It is important to note that when she quotes this disparaging insult thrown at her – one that was meant to dehumanize and reduce her to a figure of no consequence – her voice is clear while her gaze is strong and focused on Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Her voice is not laden with quavering emotion (we’ll get to this later) and the words are definitely not uttered softly with shame, shock or fear. She immediately summarizes what just happened in the next sentence: “These are the words Representative Yoho levied against a congresswoman.” The use of the word “congresswoman” here is critical – she refuses to let us or Rep. Yoho forget that she’s not a figure of no consequence at all. Far from it.
I have worked a working-class job. I have waited tables in restaurants. I have ridden the subway.
What AOC does next is masterful: she presents us with personal experiences that are relatable both in her capacity as a woman negotiating her way through a public space, and as a professional at her various places of work. The listing of these experiences almost pans the camera of our view outwards so that we are able see the bigger picture and, as she says, identify an established pattern of using violent, abusive language and actions against women. Rep. Yoho’s overall attempt to belittle and remind a woman who appears to have challenged him that she is weak, unworthy and unwelcome to a seat at the boys’ table is just another incident in string of attempts to dehumanize her existence – starting with the men in New York’s bars and subways, and ending with the President of the United States of America.
What I do have issue with is using women, wives, and daughters as shields and excuses for poor behavior
Perhaps the most important lesson here, in my opinion, is AOC’s ability to clearly articulate the implications of Rep. Yoho’s actions that caused her to raise this point of personal privilege i.e draw the listener’s attention to her objective & purpose for speaking. Towards the halfway mark, AOC begins to detail which part of this entire incident she finds most reprehensible, odious and unacceptable: to see Rep. Yoho making excuses for his behavior, and to have that non-apology be met with silent acceptance. This point is made more effective by her throwing the concept of being content with an apology out of the window: “I will not stay up late at night waiting for an apology from a man who has no remorse over calling women and using abusive language towards women”. She is not holding him accountable for not issuing a suitable apology – to her, there is something else that is far more important: calling out the established behaviour of men in power to use the mere existence of women in their lives as shields and creating the impression of being ‘a decent man’. She uses Rep. Yoho’s own tactic of being a family man with a wife and two daughters against him by defiantly reminding him that she herself is someone’s daughter. This is the only time we see her get slightly overcome with emotion, and to be honest, I choked up too. But throughout her speech – especially in this moment, when her eyes glisten just a little bit – her body and words radiate control, determination and a total disavowal of inauthenticity, sexism, remorse-less actions and disrespect.
Did you watch Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez‘s response to Rep. Ted Yoho’s remarks? What did you feel when you first watched it, and what other lessons in communication were you able to take away?