Where Did This Bucket Come From, and How Do I GTFO of It?

I usually don’t write about “the issues,” but once in awhile it punches me in the face, so I thought I’d share. The following is a Dialog Driver story I submitted to http://www.medley.world back in December 2016.

I am a Software Engineer, weightlifter, singer, cat enthusiast, Asian American, and a woman. I am proud to be all of these things, but they do not necessarily define “me.” A square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not necessarily a square. We are individuals.

“The only real thing that’s made me feel weird so far is when I sense that people stop joking around me because I’m a woman.”

My coworker genuinely wanted to hear what I had to say. He had just had a conversation with another woman on our team about an uncomfortable experience she had encountered. He was open and upfront with me, asking if I had felt uncomfortable in our work environment in any way. My initial immediate response was “Eh, not really anything obvious.” But after more musings, I did notice one thing weighing on my mind. Not enough to keep me from my work, but enough to be that reminder on the outskirts of my mind that I stood out.

Perhaps out of respect for my “delicate female sensibilities,” during my first few months at work people would apologize to me for some off-color jokes, perhaps generically sexual in nature or basic potty humor. Note: These are not gender or sexuality-specific, so they come off as immature at worst rather than particularly offensive to me. Regardless, directing subsequent apologies to me about it only makes me feel weird, like I’m being singled out. This is what drives me insane.

“What? But it was a woman who gave me that advice!”

Yeah, I get it. I totally see why certain jokes might make some women uncomfortable while having no effect on others. Hell, for all I know the same jokes could make some men uncomfortable but not some women. Who knows! We can say “most men do this” or “most women do that,” but at the end of the day, we’re still just individuals. We don’t even agree with ourselves. I don’t share the same opinions as the Lucy from five years ago, and I’m willing to bet that the Lucy five years from now will not share the same opinions as me.

My threshold for snarkisms tend be very high. So when someone says “Hey, there’s a lady in the room!” I raise one awkward eyebrow in confusion. And then this is what goes through my head:

  1. I didn’t actually take offense to anything in the first place. They apparently assume I should have, and now my confidence is on the line. Do I have to work twice as hard to prove I’m “man” enough to take it?
  2. Regardless of how I felt about the original statement, mentioning my gender (or any other aspect of my identity) immediately makes me question what else goes on when I’m not around. Are people not genuine around me because of my gender? — Cue the paranoia!
  3. Now the spotlight’s on me for no other reason than the “gender” thing. I didn’t want this to be a thing. Why did you make it a thing? Derp! Now we both feel awkward, don’t we?

I understand that it’s unintentional, that people want to play it safe by not offending me. However, calling out my gender just makes me more uncomfortably aware of well, my gender, something that could have otherwise been irrelevant. I personally think it’s better to say “Hey, I think that’s inappropriate in the workplace,” rather than bringing attention to a person’s characteristics. By the way, this what microaggressions (often misused in media) actually are, statements that allude to stereotypes about a minority group, assuming they are all the same, and/or trivializing the existence of conflict. They are usually not made with the intention to cause harm, and ironically, we usually make them with the deliberate intention to avoid harm. I know. Life’s hard!

It happens. If a similar situation in the past occurred, and a female in the room had felt uncomfortable with something you said, how else should you behave going forward without offending anyone anymore? But not all rectangles are made up of squares.

In statistics, we consider both between-group variance (the differences between people in different groups) and within-group variance (the differences among people in the same group). We can be inclined to assume that the between-group variance is definitively greater than the within-group variance, but that isn’t always the case. I don’t care how many other Software Engineers, weightlifters, singers, cat enthusiasts, Asian Americans, and women you’ve met. I am still an individual within those groups. So how should we treat people? Should we play it safe or go uncensored?

I believe we should treat people the way they would like to be treated.

“Well,” you say, “That’s great if you’re psychic, but since I’m not psychic, how do I know how each person wants to be treated?”

You make an effort to find out. You can ask directly like my coworker did. Or try employing some good old-fashioned trial and error, otherwise known as practice. Listen, pay attention, ask questions, and attempt to understand where the other person is coming from. You will probably misread something in the process. I know I have many times. Your reward is feedback, and feedback is how we learn, adapt, and grow. The key is to acknowledge when you’ve misread a situation and revise accordingly given feedback.

By the way, when I say listen and pay attention, I mean everyone, myself included. Really listen to why someone feels something is offensive or no big deal, why someone thinks something is fair or unjust, why someone truly believes race, gender, sexuality, age, title, socioeconomic status, etc. has anything or nothing to do with it. Listen, pay attention, ask questions, and make an effort to understand. That’s when you start to have a civil discussion rather than a flame war. When you show that you’re really making an effort to listen to others, you might just find that they are less likely go on defensive auto-pilot mode and are more likely to make an effort to listen to and learn from you as well.

Let me clarify before the pitchforks come out. I didn’t say to back down. I didn’t say to agree. I said to listen, pay attention, ask questions, and make an effort to understand. You can do all of this and still stand your ground. While I tend to find that most people are much more open to civil discussion when I make the effort to listen, there is the occasional, questionably rational, less-questionably dogmatic lost cause who refuses to play nice, and no amount of words alone will change this. Yes it happens. Guess what? We’re individuals.

So here’s my ask: Make an effort to find out if someone is obnoxious, agreeable, ignorant, open-minded, during when, while where, and in what context – rather than just assuming it from the start.

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