Monday, June 23, 2008

You guys have all the right answers

(Except for Mikael.)

So here's the summary of Geekman's and my discussions of the scenarios in this post:

The half-empty wine: I think that it sends a message. That message is: I don't want to waste a new bottle of wine on you/your party. Which seems kind of rude. But although we didn't take a half-full bottle to yesterday's party, we did poll everyone there (physicists) and they did all say that it would have been totally acceptable. On the other hand, as JustMe pointed out, they are clearly all smoking crack instead of doing their experiments.

The nail scissors: can I just say, EWWW. Actually, this one seems to polarise people. I think some people (including me) must classify nail scissors in the same "personal hygiene" category as toothbrushes. No way are you borrowing mine! I would even be happier if I didn't share a pair of nail scissors with Geekman. Other people seem to see them as akin to any generic tool - hammer, pair of normal scissors, etc - and have no problem with the idea of lending them. I think hairbrushes are similar in that people vary hugely with regard to how comfortable they are lending them to others. Interestingly, for some people I've polled, a scenario where the nail is bleeding makes asking to borrow scissors more acceptable (emergency), while for others (including me) this renders it way worse (EW, BLOOD).

Helping yourself to someone else's food: I would only do this if I were totally desperate and there's no chance they would know (e.g. an apple from a full fruit bowl, or a sandwich using things they have lots of). And even then, I feel that it's not really appropriate. But on the other hand (as Geekman also points out), if people were staying with me, I'd hate to think they were hungry and desperate, so I'd be happy for them to help themselves to MY food. So I think this is more borderline for me than the first two scenarios.

Cutting a cake before being invited: in the real-life scenario that triggered our discussion, this was actually part of the previous question. We were staying with acquaintances that Geekman had only just met, and when I gave in to his need to raid their fridge in the night, I still totally drew the line at him cutting himself a piece of cake. But even in a scenario where the cake has been produced at afternoon tea or something, I still feel it's rude to dig in until invited, or until the host has cut it. This is kind of irrational - I admit - but it's an instinct I have all the same.

Male colleagues commenting on a woman's outfit: I wondered if I was being super-sensitive with this one. It bothers me personally that one older male colleague (who used to be HOD, so kind of also my boss) comments on my clothes most days. Either, "Nice skirt," or "You're dressed up today - are you teaching?" or "Jeans and a t-shirt? Must be a non-teaching day," or "New shoes?" I know he doesn't mean anything by it, but it bothers me to think that he keeps track of what I wear, or really notices it at all. And I hate the fact that now when I get dressed in the morning, the thought of what he'll say about any particular item of clothing crosses my mind, and sometimes even influences whether I'll wear it.

The connection with Geekman was that he recently wore to work a jersey/jumper/pullover that he hadn't worn in years and so many people commented on it (just saying, "New jumper?") that he felt uncomfortable wearing it again. So I pointed out that he now had an idea of what it was like to be a woman, except that you get this ALL THE TIME. So we were wondering if I overreact, or if other women feel this way too. Your answers were very interesting and it seemed to me that they patterned with the results I got from real-life people. (Women in my department and some non-university acquaintances hate it; women in physics and chemistry claim not to notice or care). I get the impression that maybe it's in male-dominated departments that the women don't seem to care about this so much. I wonder if that's because anyone who hasn't learned to ignore all that sort of bullshit would have gone postal or dropped out long before they get to grad student/faculty status? In more evenly balanced or female-dominated workplaces, you don't have to develop that sort of immunity, because you can just (mostly) avoid the men who think they get to have an opinion on how you dress or behave.


Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson said...

And now is when I need to decide whether to be elated to have gotten an Official Mention at the Cool Linguistblog, or mortified for the mention to be singling me out as being horribly wrong. :)

shrinkykitten said...

Comments on my appearance are challenging from me - irrespective of the sex of the person making the comments. That said, it is harder if that person is in a position of power, and male comments can be harder.

We have a guy at work who is at the same level as me - who I hate. Apparently he has made comments to my boss about the appearance of several women in our workplace. He makes fun of how one woman dresses, and has commented that another woman has been losing weight. I find these comments totally inappropriate. I also find the fact that he pays that much attention to attire and weight to be really quite disconcerting.

Comments about my own appearance (I don't know if they guy above has said anything about mine - I imagine he has) trigger self-consciousness in me, which is troublesome. I kind of conceptualize it as being triggering of a shift in attention that is problematic. That is, typically I'm not focused on how I look - I get dressed in the morning and then don't worry about it (unless I've done something stupid like worn a slightly too long slip, and thus it is showing all day). I'm then free to focus on work or other things - things that make me feel better about myself and on which a more stable sense of self and self esteem are scaffolded. But when people comment, I become more aware of myself as a body and as a female - more aware of myself from the outside and how I appear. I then become self-conscious and feel worse about myself. It's like I lose the "flow" that Czikzentmihalyi talks about.

It's also related, I think, to a study I talked about on my blog once where undergrad females tried on either a swimsuit or a sweater and then took a math test. The women who tried on the sweater did better on the test than did the women who tried on the swimsuit. The idea is that the women who tried on the swimsuit were then so focused on what they looked like (and apparently feeling badly about that) that they didn't have enough cognitive energy for the math. Women who tend to feel worse about their appearance and more self-concious about it in general experienced the most detrimental effects to their math skills. Men who tried on the sweater vs the swimsuit demonstrated no differences in performance.

A similar thing happens when my boss criticizes how I behave with other people. I feel very uncomfortable with my appearance and my social interactions - and comments on those derail me.

Helen said...

Your idea regarding learning to ignore appearance comments as a self-defense mechanism is interesting. I'm an engineer, and while I answered that such comments are a very bad idea, I realized at the same time that when they've happened to me in a closed environment of only engineers, they've almost never bothered me.

I'm also a lot less bothered by a lot of typical "engineer" behavior than most people are though (including most men).

Helen said...

The cake thing wasn't irrational on your part -- it was just understanding all of what a cake is. Part of making a cake is the "presentation" aspect of what it looks like. Cutting a piece destroys the presentation. Doing so before the cake has arrived at its intended destination is a rotten stunt to pull.

enigmania said...

I never got around to responding to the last post, but my first impression about the comments on clothing was that it wasn't a big deal. (I am, apparently typically, in a physics department). But, as soon as in you said "most days" that jumped in my head to totally inappropriate behaviour.

My experience is maybe once every week or so, from different people, usually when I'm a bit more dressed up than normal. A similar or slightly lower rate of comment from men as from women working in the department.

If one person made a near-daily habit of it it'd definitely start creeping me out.

JustMe said...

And I hate the fact that now when I get dressed in the morning, the thought of what he'll say about any particular item of clothing crosses my mind, and sometimes even influences whether I'll wear it.

YES!!! this is precisely what is so annoying!!

ScienceGirl said...

Being in a predominantly male field, I have learned to ignore many things; when my appearance is mentioned, I say thanks and change the subject. I do maintain that it is creepy that one of my committee members makes comments about my appearance every time he runs into me alone; just the fact that he doesn't do the same if anyone else is around says it all.

Anonymous said...

I'm a professor in a humanities field. In my building, I find that women comment on each other's clothes more than men do, but always in a positive way. ("Oh, that's a nice blouse! Is it new?" "That color looks good on you!" "I love your red shoes!")

As far as I can tell, most of the men never comment on women's clothes, and on the rare occasions that they do, their comments sound pretty benign. A colleague might say, "Oh, that's a nice scarf you have on today," but I can't imagine any of the men I work with saying "Hey baby, you are ROCKIN' that skirt!"

The more comments I read from other people, the more I like my colleagues.

Dr. Rural