The loud music, dim lighting and cheap liquor blurred my surroundings in Rick’s American Cafe, an underground hideaway for most seniors at the University of Michigan. It was the beginning of another interminable Thursday night. It took me a few seconds to notice that a man had slid into the sticky upholstered seating next to me. He was inches away from my bare arm and lightly bumped into me, giving himself away.
“Sorry,” I said, moving a bit closer to my friend, “My bad.” Instead of backing away, he leaned in closer: a stranger with dark features.
“Don’t be sorry, hi,” he replied, too close to my face now — I leaned away again. He was right, I shouldn’t be sorry, he’d bumped into me. He proceeded to mercilessly hit on me — asking questions, prodding me with compliments — and didn’t seem to pick up on my lack of interest or desire. I acted politely, trying to both respond nicely yet appear uninterested, but it was no use. I continuously turned my back to him, facing my friends, and he poked at my exposed shoulders, asking for a phone number I had already told him I didn’t give out. When he failed to receive the affirmation he sought, he began to berate me and made me feel bad for being uninterested. Some of my friends got involved, politely asking him to leave me alone.
Finally, before relocating to another bar, I said “I’m sorry, I’m just not interested right now. See you around.”
I’m sure many women in Rick’s and other bars like it had similar experiences on that night, in past nights and will have them in the nights to follow. I couldn’t understand what gave him, a stranger, the agency to speak to me in a derogatory, patronizing way. Furthermore, the interaction triggered a thought: What would happen if women spoke to men in this way –– refusing no for an answer, calling a stranger “baby,” “sweetheart” or “sexy” and subsequently getting angry at them when they appear uninterested. What if women did this to men at bars or otherwise? Would they apologize to us politely as I just had, even when being harassed? Probably not. We would be labeled “psychopath,” “crazy” or even “bitch.”
Though it may seem trivial, the difference in communication style between men and women, especially when they communicate with each other, is a much larger issue than just a run-in at a college bar. One could argue that these gendered behaviors permeate everyday life for women in both social and professional spheres. Along with the tolerance for the misbehavior of men toward women.
In 2014, Jill Abramson, editor in chief of The New York Times, was fired on an unknown basis. Many speculated she was let go due to pushy and abrasive tactics in the newsroom: the way she spoke to employees. However, the widely agreed upon reason for her firing was that Abramson brought the issue of unequal pay –– between herself and her predecessor Bill Keller –– to the attention of The New York Times and was subsequently fired. Whatever the true reason, gender has been closely linked to the case and many women in the newsroom have decided it was a driving reason for her getting fired.
Situations like this one showcase subtle sexism and the microaggressions toward women. These types of microaggressions have been studied by social scientist Madeline E. Heilman who splits this type of gendered workplace bias into two forms.
The first is the descriptive stereotype, which preemptively allots different characteristics to women such as emotional, soft, sensitive and sweet. Heilman describes the result of the descriptive stereotypes in the workplace as a woman being treated differently due to a “lack of fit,” meaning a woman’s supposed-personality not fitting with the needs of the role, one which would be typically held by a man.
Conversely, men are seen as objective, assertive and rational in positions of power in the workplace and can behave as such within flexible boundaries. If a woman speaks in a bold tone — one that a man could exert in the same position of power — it would be seen as unfit to her stereotypically feminine, soft nature and result in a firing like Abramson’s.
The other workplace bias of prescriptive stereotype takes shape when women hold positions of power formerly or commonly held by men. These women are then seen out of their prescribed place in society and are judged for not acting compassionately. Male counterparts and media will then label her as a “bitch” whereas a man would be lauded for the same behavior.
Traits that are received positively in men in positions of power — even abrasive and commandeering tactics — are received negatively in women and oftentimes lead to them being called a bitch by coworkers and the media, rather than a powerful, erudite force to be reckoned with. Abramson, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and even Ruth Bader Ginsburg have all been subject to such name-calling and disrespect because they’re motivated, ambitious figures of authority. Perhaps they don’t showcase soft femininity in the ways they’re “supposed” to, but that does not warrant the offensive and inaccurate term “bitch.”
Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, actively studies what she’s coined the “Hillary Factor.” She’s interested in how unfeminine leaders are perceived in society. If women are being called things like “bossy,” “cruel,” “mean-spirited,” “combative,” “rude,” “impossible” and “brusque” — to name a few terms — how many fewer women will seek out positions of power for fear of being called bossy or worse by their male counterparts?
The gendered issue of stark communication differences trickles down to everyday life. Women are taught implicitly by society to make themselves smaller in large lecture settings and even small discussion sections in universities — to be spoken over or spoken at, opposed to in conjunction with. We apologize if we inconvenience a man, even if it isn’t an inconvenience; from bumping into someone on the street to declining sexual or romantic advancements.
The patronizing way in which women are spoken to by men and the way women have been conditioned to speak has become such a prevalent issue that it has caught the attention of brands like the creators of Barbie, Mattel, Inc. Barbie’s new online vlog forum, Mattel Inc. released a vlog called “The Sorry Reflex.” In the video, Barbie teaches young women how to navigate social and professional spheres without using the word sorry when it isn’t necessary to say it. In the vlog, Barbie says, “I think there’s a bigger issue with the word sorry. Especially with girls. We say it a lot.” Eventually, “Sorry is a learned reflex.”
The issue of gendered communication is clearly prevalent if Barbie, a brand of dolls targeted to 3-to-6-year-old girls, is addressing the issue to toddlers.
Behind everyday language lies expectations of behavior and persona in the workplace and otherwise: When women are assertive and bold, it doesn’t fit what is expected of us. We teach girls to physically shrink themselves smaller, to always say yes, to lead with grace and sweetness and to be flirtatious and coy. At the same time, we are not to be too assertive and cannot give too much away.
Conversely, we teach boys to fight, to be aggressive and bold and to claim leadership.
The way in which men speak to and treat women is important. The question remains: In the grand scheme of issues troubling our nation, should this be at the forefront of what we’d like to change? The answer is yes. Though many of us do not think before we speak, communication affects the entire structure of our society and how women are spoken to on a daily basis further supports the patriarchy. Women have been conditioned to acquiesce, because if we don’t there will be consequences ranging from something as minor as name-calling and embarrassment in a crowded college bar, to something as extreme as being fired from a job.
Saying “sorry” to the man in Rick’s and feeling guilty about declining his advances isn’t a groundbreaking experience. Unfortunately, it’s rather common. But what it does teach us, albeit subliminally, is that as women, we are expected to be subordinate to men in every situation. An unwarranted “sorry” at a bar or club quickly turns into this behavior at work, in intimate personal relationships and beyond. We must teach our sons to treat women with respect as the equals we are. We must teach our daughters that it is okay to be the bossy Barbie — to be fierce and bold and authoritative. Next time, instead of saying sorry, say thank you for understanding.