It’s not about you, it’s about them
Claude M. Steele, in his 2011 book Whistling Vivaldi, describes stereotypes as clouds that follow each one of us wherever we go. Other people see our “cloud” before seeing us and make up their minds about who we are and how we should behave.
The cloud/stereotype is hard to shatter because the human mind handles simple concepts more easily than it does complex ones. But humans are complex beings, and stereotypes simplify individualities to a few traits.
For example, if you’re a Spaniard, you love Flamenco, sleep “siesta” every day and are always late. If you’re a woman, you’re a perfectionist, cry in the office, and skip work when your kids are sick.
And if you’re a man, you hold the door for the ladies and say, “After you” when exiting the elevator.
So, when I let a “gentleman” know that I don’t need that kind of help, my intention is to shatter the stereotype over my identity. But as a side-effect, I’m denying him of his own identity because the “gentleman” identity depends on the “lady-like-ness” of the women he interacts with. In other words, a man who wants to be chivalrous will be offended or even threatened by the behavior of a woman who doesn’t want to be treated with chivalrousness.
This tug of war made me lose business with a man who believed he had to be a “gentleman,” for which I had to be a “lady.” He was one of my clients, a reputed physician who had a health section in a radio show. He needed my help to shape up his voice and speaking style.
After one session, we were walking down the building lobby toward the front door, a heavy, security door with iron fabrication. The door opened to the left, inwards, and I was right on the left side, so the natural move was for me to open the door. For the man to do it, he would’ve had to switch sides with me, which was not practical because the lobby was narrow.
I grabbed the door’s handle with my left hand, pulled it open, and said, “After you.” He insisted on holding the door for me, even though it was a complicated, cumbersome move. But I insisted back until he exited first.
Out on the street, he said, “Please, don’t tell me you are one of those dated feminists.” I replied, “Not dated, but feminist, yes”–he’d pushed a button.
My response was not smart. I made my priority to defend my position and didn’t consider where he was coming from. I failed to meet him where he was or even halfway. I made it about me, not about him, with which I demonstrated zero “attuned gender communication,” in the words of Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris.
Following the recommendations that spouses Kramer and Harris give in their 2016 book, Breaking Through Bias, I should’ve used humor to deflate the awkward situation. And later on, as our voice coaching engagement went on, I could’ve demonstrated that gender stereotypes don’t play a part in professional relationships.
It’s true that revolutions take a toll on the individuals who do them. But that afternoon in Madrid, I lost my chance to advance my position with intelligence. By exhibiting a higher emotional intelligence and showing that I cared about his feelings, I would’ve demonstrated a higher degree of self-regulation and self-awareness.
The client would’ve perceived a professional who was a professional first and then a woman, a feminist, or whatever he saw in my “cloud.” But my response made it all too easy for him to tag me as “radical feminist” above everything else.
Breaking through the bias imposed by gender stereotypes requires that we start by meeting the people who hold stereotypes where they are. Only then will we be able to slowly and subtly take them back to our position.
We start by whistling a melody that everyone recognizes and when they’re listening, we sing our tune.