Thursday, May 19, 2016

Projecting power, gender edition

How do you project power--not arrogance, but power--through your speech and body language?

We've all seen the advice telling us not to say "sorry" or "just" in emails, and I did quit using these so much once I realized how much they tended to diminish the message. It's one thing to be polite, but when you use those words without a reason (i.e., reflexively, not if you've screwed up), you're putting yourself in a submissive position for no particular reason.

For example, if you've been charged with collecting a specific type of information, you can be polite but there's no need to couch your request in the form of some kind of huge personal favor.  You know the kind of message--and I've written plenty of them: "Sorry to bother you, and I know you're really, really busy, but could you just take a minute to fill this out for me?  I'd really appreciate it. Thanks so very, very much!" The studies say that this is a gendered thing (guilty as charged), so stopping the excesses of this kind of language is a start.

There's another way that we project power or fail to do so.  An example: I'm on campus today, and there's a big whoop-de-do type of meeting--Regents or something--happening as well as some other campus activities.  As I was going down the main staircase in one of the buildings, I passed by a woman who stared long and hard at me when I passed.  I did not have spinach on my teeth or a tinfoil hat on, so there was no reason for that.

Now, as a young female person in the world, many years ago, I had somehow internalized that the proper response to a stare like that was to drop your head and smile.  It was respectful, and somehow friendly, and, more to the point, it was just what you did.  What I realize now is that it's a posture of submission and that the dominant person in the exchange person will probably not do the same, though a person of roughly the same age/gender/status probably will.

But then I realized many years ago that the moms at the gym, the ones who worked the Stairmasters as though they were training for the Iditarod and bragged incessantly about their kids, always gave the cold hard stare. I learned to give the cold hard stare back, and boy, did it feel good.

Back to the staircase.  Instead of the "drop head, lower eyes, and smile," did I give the long, hard stare back?  Yes. Yes, I did.  Was it because I was saying to her "I'm a full professor at Northern Clime and you can back way, way the --- off before you give me that stare?"

Not exactly. What I was saying is "I'm a grown person in the world, and if you want to stare at me, I'll stare right back. The end."

This is the message we need to be sending. You can be polite, but when it comes to taking up space as a human being, you will meet people with the respect that they mete out to you.

And you won't. back. down.


Nicoleandmaggie said...

I got that stare for the first time maybe yesterday. I assumed the woman thought she recognized me or something. Guess not!

Re gendered language, some of the stuff women do works even better when men do it. It is a complicated business.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

When women stare at me, I assume they're checking out my outfit, and since I consider myself a snappy dresser, I take it as a compliment. Whether I smile or give them RBF depends on my mood.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--That's a possibility, too! I hadn't thought of that. What is the stuff that women do that works even better when men do it?

Dame Eleanor--That's a great way to look at it; I'm not a snappy dresser so hadn't considered it. I think it's interesting that we each went to a different place with interpreting the cold hard stare: me (aggression), nicoleandmaggie (someone I know?), and you (admiration).

Nicoleandmaggie said...

Read crucial conversations, especially the boss parts.

xykademiqz said...

Ah, the Queen Bee aggression. This post ruffles me every time. There are women who do this -- stare down, often checking wardrobe and surely putting me into "worthless schlub" category. Maybe I should start saying "WTF are you looking at?"