Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Equal or Alike? On Interacting and Respect

Thanks in part to a book I keep re-reading and in other part to some experiences I've had lately, another blog post on femininity has been rolling around in my head, gathering mass. Like a snowball. But I don't have anything earth-shatteringly new to say... and I feel like I've already said more than I possibly SHOULD, being a bit on the youngish side and not having even a few grey hairs with which to validate my words of wisdom. Besides, talking is helpful, but mostly living is what changes things.

But the snowball hasn't melted, and a blog post Donald Miller posted this morning served as catalyst. So I'm writing this. Obvious, I know. 

Don asked in the blog post, 

"Do women want to be treated like men or do women want to be treated equally? (And make no mistake, the question is important.)"

The question is important. And it's one that should engender (yes, lame pun... sorry...) frank, respectful discussion. This is my only intent, I hope you know.

From my perspective, the answer is nuanced: it depends. Mostly equal. But it depends.

1) It depends upon who you are. What sort of relationship you have with me.

My friend Bekah observed, after traveling with my dad and I, "You're different when you're with your dad." She said I'm more traditionally "girlie". Instead of immediately jumping out to pump gas and check oil, I let him. Other things, too. She said she'd never seen that side of me. I was intrigued. What makes that change? I think it's because of my dad's and my relationship. He's my DAD. So I belong to him. Not in a chattel, women-are-possessions sort of way, but an eye-to-eye belonging that goes both ways. A belonging in relationship. Whether because he's a man or because he's Enos, the impulse to provide and do and care is embedded into every aspect of his personality and life. I know that he loves to "take care of me" when he has the chance. Consequently, I love when he does. Why would I deny him something that gives him inherent satisfaction? Also, and this is absolutely key: I trust my dad. Deeply. My dad is not the sort of dad a friend of a friend of mine has: her dad tells his (single) 30-year-old daughter what job she should work and what church she should attend because of some sort of belief that she can't make her own decisions because she is female. If my dad was like that, I think his insistence on doing unnecessary, very nice things for me would feel overbearing and suffocating. My dad is not like that. He rarely offers unsolicited advice, and, when solicited, he gives me his perspective and then tells me that I'm capable of making good decisions for myself and that he trusts me to make them. Because of the closeness of our relationship and the trust he's earned from me, I will feel loved and valued by some of the exact actions that make me feel like driving a semi in heels just to prove a point to another man.

For instance, I had a colleague who treated me like someone who needed special consideration because I'm a woman. His attitude and actions didn't make me feel valued at all. They made me angry. It felt like he couldn't imagine I would have anything to offer because of my gender. It felt condescending. It felt as though he was assuming possession of me somehow, assuming an intimacy we did not have, and assuming power and control over me simply because he is male. It felt awful. It felt so awful and made me so mad that (after two weeks, because confrontation isn't exactly my forte) I told him I didn't feel respected by him. That conversation, combined with a work situation he handled in my absence, brought about another conversation. One in which he told me that he needs my help and told me I'm just as effective in my field as he is, despite (and because of) my doing things a bit differently. We became a team. And I loved working with him.

So. For those of you guys who are reading this and want to know how much chivalry to show, good luck. I'm not being flippant. Because what makes a woman feel respected might fall anywhere on the wide spectrum of social and cultural factors and situations. So much of respect is person- and situation-specific. But here's the best guide I can give you: it seems to be a sort of equation in which the level of  relationship/loyalty/trust you share with her is directly proportional to the amount of gender-specific doting she'll appreciate from you. If she starts doing anything that resembles driving semis in heels, re-evaluate your approach.

And, while most of us women genuinely want to have mutually respectful, beneficial relationships with you guys, some of us, whether due to some sort of hurt or some sort of (ugly) power surge we might feel at stomping all over your well-intentioned offerings of friendship, will do just that. I'm sorry.

2) It depends upon your practical application of "equal".

As Dorothy Sayers emphasizes, this whole gender thing has seen far too much over-generalization. Sure... in general... men tend to think more logically and women tend to be more emotionally intuitive, but I can think of five married couples right now that are comprised of  a "heart" man and a "brain" woman. It's true that... in general... men tend to be better mechanics than women, but I have a good friend who is in all respects a "traditional" woman... killer cook, cuddles kids, very sensitive to other's feelings... only she fixes cars, too. I'm rather in awe. I'm serious. She takes things apart and installs cool things like brake pads and stuff. A guy friend of mine lifts weights and is a talented carpenter... and cook. Better than I am. True story.

So, if your personal application of "equal" means that you are nice enough to me to not make fun of the things I do that can't be completely squeezed into the generalized womanly role... but you act as though I am not capable of anything outside that generalization, then please. Treat me like a man. Don't hold doors for me, don't buy me coffee. Personally, I really enjoy both gestures. But if you can't hold both a door and a discussion about politics (or anything outside whatever women are expected to talk about)... I'll get the door myself.

Mad apologies to anyone who feels yelled at by what I'm about to say next. I really and truly hope you don't take this personally, but I do want us to take this to heart. To respect each other and remedy the ways we hurt each other. Not only as males and females, but as human beings who misunderstand and injure each other a lot more often than we'd like. I've seen a lot of people... both men and women... devastated and confused by advice given by well-meaning people concerning who they should be and what they should do as a man or a woman.

To be perfectly candid, some of the most hurtful experiences I've had of this sort have come from other women. Women who thought that my participating in discussing theology, politics, restorative justice, and the like were strange ploys to gain male attention. When confronted, I was devastated. Is that how it looked? Um, yuck! Because nothing was further from my mind.  I was genuinely interested in the discussion itself. When I stammered out my lack of intention, I was told that I couldn't really know my own mind or intentions because women are inherently unpredictable, almost exclusively emotional creatures and could not be trusted to know their own intentions. It took me a few years to recover from that. It undermined the very basis of what it is to be me. And sometimes I still feel a small sort of panic after I've been asked to speak to an audience including men. That's how deep it cut, despite my being told by the people who know me best that I should disregard the advice. Whose fault is it, then, that girls often tell me that they wanted to participate in those very discussions... but didn't... because they didn't feel their input was wanted or even valid? Is it men's condescending or women's failure to celebrate each other's individuality?

I don't know. Like everything else seems to be, I'm guessing the ways we've been misunderstood are unique to our person. I'm also guessing that, until we are completely redeemed, we will unintentionally misunderstand and hurt each other... gender to gender and person to person. But if conversation equips us to better follow the example of a Man who did scandalous things like sit on wells and talk alone to women about such grand and weighty things as the Kingdom of God... then let's brave conversation.

If we navigate the minefields of this conversation with this focus, maybe there will be redemption between the minefields for us all:

“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets." -Jesus (Matthew 7:12 NASB)


Davey said...

That is some clarity of thought that I have not seen before on this subject. Equal doesn't necessarily mean uniform. I like the places you took that question. Good stuff to think about. And some great advice for guys.

Ecclesiastes said...

It is unfortunately simple, no more chivalry. Period.

It is owed to Ladies, but there are none. Even you, as fine a woman as you are, mention nothing of performing the duties of a Lady. You don't even know what they are, do you? I doubt that you even knew there were such duties.

Women have abandoned chivalry. They aren't coming back. It time for men to do the same.

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