Friday, April 6, 2007

Smile Pretty for the Patriarch

"Women do smile more than men, but when occupying similar work and social roles, the gender differences in the rate of smiling disappear, a Yale researcher has found." --Science Daily

"I try to avoid smiling; smiling is a sign of submission in chimpanzees. When you smile, all I see is a chimpanzee begging for its life." --Dwight Schrute

I'm sitting here in the campus library's computer lab working on my midterms. A little while ago, a couple of dudes down the aisle from me were having a conversation. They weren't being particularly loud or anything, but as the lab is nearly deserted (it's Spring Break), and as I'm very easily distracted, this was, well, distracting me.

After it became clear that they weren't going to shut the hell up on their own, I got up, walked over, and asked them to be quiet. I wasn't rude or anything. Actually, I think what I said was, "Sorry you guys, but could you please keep your voices down?" One of them said, "Sorry," and I went back to work. They continued to chat, albeit more quietly, for a minute, and then they left.

During the whole thing, I refrained from smiling. (I'm still at the point where not smiling takes a conscious effort.) I wasn't rude, and I certainly didn't scowl or anything, but I didn't smile at all. One of the dudes didn't even look at me; when I approached unsmiling, he kind of gazed off into the middle distance with that look you get on your face when you're a little surprised and a little upset, but you don't know what to do. Like your brain is a little shocked and hasn't yet figured out how to respond. The other guy, the one who said "sorry," actually gave me a little smile as he said it. I gave him a little nod in response, but as I turned away, the smile tightened and his eyes narrowed, and it ended as a rather unpleasant expression. I know all this because I was looking them in the eye the whole time. Again I wasn't rude. I was just clear. I think that if I had smiled and simpered that the dudes might have rolled their eyes indulgently after I left, but I don't think they did that. I think they probably called me a bitch.

Regarding our relative social positions, I am a grad student in my early thirties, while these young men appeared to be in their early twenties, which would probably make them undergrads. This puts me higher in the pecking order, but that might not be obvious, especially as people frequently mistake me for being much younger than I am.

The article linked to above finds that women and men who are social equals smile about the same amount, at least in situations where relative social status is very clear. But in situations where status is not immediately clear, women are expected to visibly acquiesce to their assumed lower position until they can show that they are actually in the superior position. I have to imagine that the encounter would have gone differently if the dudes had somehow known that I am a grad student--it would have gone as differently as if I had smiled. In the work situations in the article, the subjects obviously know each other, but with strangers, it is the woman's place to submit; failure to submit is greeted with resentment or worse.

[ETA: I'm not saying that these kids hated me because I'm a woman, or even that the interaction I had was the same interaction they had. I don't know these people. Maybe the one who didn't look at me had just had one of those little vomit-burps, and he was trying to get the sour juices back into his stomach. That takes a little concentration. It could be that the other guy was not resentful of the deadness of my pan as much as the interruption itself. I imagine he might have been trying to seduce his little playmate, and I had disrupted his manoeuvres. Whatever. The danger in using a specific anecdote to make a general point is that that one's interlocutor will focus on the nitpicky details of the anecdote and avoid the larger point. I trust all y'all to keep your eyes on the prize.]


Gender Blank said...

Women are in an impossible position. Either submit and give away your power, or own your power and be considered a bitch. The range of acceptable behavior is very small, and women get dinged if they fall out of that range on either side.

People may not think this has important, real-world consequences (and that "being the bitch" is no big deal), but a superstar candidate for a position for which I am on the search committee is about to be cut loose because she was "too confident" in her abilities. Several of the men with whom she met read her behavior as arrogant, wheras a male candidate displaying the same behavior/demeanor would have been considered knowledgeable and competent.

Of course, these same men "take exception" with the suggestion that their perceptions are gender-based. Which was a pretty nifty way of deflecting accusations of sexism while still managing to put me in my place.

It is no picnic bearing witness to the inner workings of the Old Boys Club. Whether I smile and agree or speak up, the Patriarchy continues to steamroll along. And each day I have to choose whether to get the hell out of the way or get smooshed. A dangerously limiting set of options, indeed.

Marcy said...

Interesting that you're making a concerted effort not to smile. I've been making a concerted effort to take up more space when I sit and stand.

I notice on the bus, especially the front seats that face sideways, men or boys will sit down and immediately spread their legs to take up space. Women and girls immediately draw themselves in and take up as little space as possible.

It's so bad that you almost can't sit next to a guy, b/c he's halfway into the adjacent seat. I was sitting next a guy on a crowded bus, who kept his legs spread out so much that his leg was touching my leg. I was as squished up as I could be. I was just ready to make a comment about his copping a cheap feel when a bunch of people got off, so I switched seats. A couple stops later, a guy got on and sat next to him, and he immediately closed his legs. It was comical...and also infuriating.

I notice when standing at the bus stop, I always have my feet so close together that they're touching. So, I force myself to stand with my feet a few inches a apart, if not shoulder width. But as soon as other people come to the bus stop, especially men, I'll notice myself closing my feet. I have to force myself to part them again. Very bizarre.

I think I'm gonna try the not smiling thing, too.