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The Office: The one about gender politics and complex communication around the coffee pot

On a Monday years ago I walked into the office at 8 a.m. like I did every day of the work week. Never mind how many years or which office because it doesn't really matter; it could be any office at almost any time in the last 20 years for almost anyone.

I dropped my things at my desk, and shuffled to the break room for a cup of coffee. This is how we always started our days, especially Mondays, when you needed to ease back into the work "family" and work frame of mind.

Everyone gathered near the coffeepot, always standing, never sitting, that way, if the boss walked in, you could pretend you'd only been there for a minute, just getting a cup of joe, not gabbing over cup number two 10 minutes later.

That morning I walked in and two male colleagues were standing in front of the pot. They were, as usual, speaking in numbers, which meant sports. Then they said stroke, and I knew they meant golf. I didn't give it a second thought.

As usual I had to walk up, pause and hope they'd get the hint and move out of the way. As usual, they didn't and just carried on talking. So as usual I had to say excuse me, and wait for them to shift their bodies at their convenience so I could access the pot.

As usual I wasn't even irritated because this is how things were. Some men, these men, always took the most advantageous position, and embedded themselves in it. I'd arrive, need in, pause hoping they'd let me in, but they usually wouldn't so I'd have to ask, and then they'd maybe give me an inch. I was nearly certain it was completely unconscious, this positioning and defending of position.

Team sports do well teaching boys to position themselves, and to teach other boys how to help their teammates defend the position. Unfortunately, team sports are rarely equally co-ed, so the two sexes don't really learn in childhood how to work this way together.

They never were co-ed when I was growing up, definitely never the Big Sports that carried on through teens and beyond. Girls could play soccer, and softball, but few back then did. And never with the boys.

How carefully we teach children that there is a place in the big leagues for boys, and girls have their own special, separate yet unequal, place on the sideline.

A minute later, a female colleague walked in, "How was your weekend?" she asked.

"Fine, and yours? What did you do?" I replied.

"You know, not much. A little shopping, got this blouse."

"Oooh I noticed that earlier, before the meeting. It's very nice. Flattering."

"Thanks," she said, "I needed a mental health break this weekend. Things have been tough..."

"Yeah, yeah..." I said, "How is your mother doing, now?"

"She's still in the hospital," she said, "I guess...I guess we have to choose, you know, leave her there, bring her home...I don't know that my dad can do it..."

I gave a quick pat and rub to her upper arm, and said, "Yeah, yeah. You know, I'm really glad you took a break, went shopping, got a nice new shirt." We both smiled, in that sort of tight way you do when something is a relief but not happy. She knew I wasn't talking so much about the shopping trip as the giving herself permission to let go of the stress and strain, the constant taking care of her sick mother. I was saying it's good to care for you, too, and glad you overcame the guilt to do so. She knew that's what I meant, because this is how women talk to one another.

We use our hands and our eyes, gestures, subtle nuances, and we speak discreetly at times, often saying one thing, and having it mean so very much more than the words themselves would imply, had someone simply typed them on a page.

So my female colleague, understanding this, said, "Thanks, really, thanks. I'm almost glad to be at work today," and we laughed, again in that tight way you do to break tension rather than to reveal joy.

For some reason, towards the end of our conversation, the Coffee Pot Spot male colleagues had tuned in. They'd apparently only heard the part about taking a shopping break and buying a new shirt, because they began to mimic us.

"Dave, oh Dave, is that a new shirt?" one said.

"Why Bill, yes it is, a new shirt. I got it this weekend. I took a shopping break. I deserved it," the other said, swaying from side to side a bit in a mockery of preening.

My female colleague gasped, stung.

My chest went tight with fury.

"That's not cool," I said, as calmly as possible.

"We're just kidding," Dave said, "You know, a J-O-K-E. You women need to lighten up."

My female colleague turned fast on her heels and left without a word.

"What crawled in her cheerios and died?" Bill asked.

I shook my head. "You guys just acted like jerks," I said.

"What's the big deal?" Bill said, "You guys were talking about blouses. So what? It's silly."

I bit my tongue and said nothing of their conversation, of golf, of double standards. I just shook my head again. Even if we hadn't been talking of more, even if had only been a conversation about a shopping trip and a new blouse, even so, even that didn't deserve to be mocked, dismissed, demeaned.

We also do well teaching our children to tease, and to expect others to accept teasing. Like good sports.

"I hope you two have a nice day," I said, and left. In the hallway, I realized I'd left my coffee on the counter. I hesitated, torn between wanting the coffee, not wanting to leave a mess that someone else might feel compelled to clean up, and not wanting to walk back and see those two again.

"Julie, you look lost," said a coworker, Matt, then he gave a little laugh to make sure I knew he meant his comment kindly. Even men and women together can use nuances and subtle messages beyond verbal.

"My coffee," I said, "I left it in the break room."

"That would make me feel a little confused too," he said, again with that little laugh, and then he lifted his eyebrows high, showing me he understood walking back into the break room must be more complicated than it seemed.

"I'll get it later," I said, "I've got things to do now," and I fell into step beside him as we walked towards our offices. We passed my female colleague's office. His steps slowed. Mine followed suit. We both peered in, but she was busy on the phone.

"How is she holding up?" he asked.

"Hanging in there," I said, my tone conveying that I was worried, but my vague words showed loyalty, belief in her strength.

"Yeah," he said, "Must be so tough. She'll hang in there." And I knew he understood all I had meant, and he knew I understood all he meant. We'd take it away, if we could, for her. We'd support her as we could, but as coworkers, we knew there were lines, and our support would largely be showing interest and displaying support, saying we believed in her.

"Well...have a good day," he said, ducking into his office.

"Yeah, you too," I said, turning the corner towards my own.

Copyright 2008 Julie Pippert. Do not reprint or reproduce without permission.
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Magpie said…
I think I've been enormously lucky to have not ever worked in that kind of office. But I've spent my working life in small non-profit arts organizations, and guys like that are few and far between.

My present boss is a foul-mouthed crazy person, but he gets a pass because he's smart and an artist. And he's never demeaning like that.
painted maypole said…
beautifully written, and i love the end, that shows, of course, that not everyone fits the stereotype
Anonymous said…
This is a very good piece of writing.

I worked with people like those two guys. In my young days, I wouldn't have said anything but just walked away. I reached a point though - probably during the miscarriage and infertility years - when I just said what I thought but it was mostly to make the clueless feel bad about being such shallow idiots. Not a good strategy.

In my last years of teaching, I perfected the silent stare and let that kind of idiocy talk itself out to the point where the speakers realized they were being stupid. Worked with grown ups and teens pretty well.

I am not sure where men got the idea that sports - mainly the watching of them - and activities that women like to do aren't equal on the trivial distraction scale. I have to admit my evil twin loved jumping in to dispute facts - especially during my fantasy football days. I ruled at FB. Interestingly, it garnered me respect which I thought completely unwarranted. Organized sports are as dumb as mindless weekend shopping.
thailandchani said…
I've always disliked teasing, no matter who does it. It's always at someone else's expense and there's a passive-aggressive meanness at the core.

Melissa said…
I remember those days all too well. Where anything you were interested in was trivial and their stuff was all important. And even funnier, because I do like sports and follow teams but my comments were "silly". So it wasn't about the sports. It was about power and the clique.

But this happens in the Mommy circles, ya know? It happens in any group where there are some who perceive they are "in power". It's happening in our PTA where some projects are deemed more worthy of support than others, simply based on which group of moms is in charge.

Thought provoking. Thanks!
Anonymous said…
"I've always disliked teasing, no matter who does it. It's always at someone else's expense and there's a passive-aggressive meanness at the core."

I don't think that what they were doing could legitimately be called "teasing". I would consider it more on the order of "hazing", or at the very list a mean-spirited version of "making fun of" (which in reality is no fun at all.)

Teasing is accepted as something that is funny by both the teaser *and* the teased, and is not damaging to the relationship (nor is it meant to be.)

Rule of thumb: if you have to defend your conduct to someone as teasing - it most likely wasn't.

Robert said…
I could imagine being Matt in that situation, as I am definitely more like him than the guys discussing golf. In my scenario, though, I imagine me walking into the breakroom and witnessing that and chiming in with something like "Yeah, cuz swinging clubs at balls... man, that's just, like, SO important!" Maybe not quite that way, but something that made them reconsider. Guys like that drove me nuts and I was very good at returning fire without risking myself, once upon time.
Julie Pippert said…
Robert, thanks. Your scenario, of saying something back to them brings up the times I did say something back and got demeaned further. I wondered about the times that happened, and then some guy made my pint for me, and it was more accepted. I appreciate the good intent. However, on the flip side, sometimes that can also make it feel a little worse, KWIM?

Ed, I'm going to have to think on that. Has the term 'teasing' gotten a bad rap? Maybe. But in my mind, I think of the same way as Chani. It's aggression, a power play, cruel. In my mind. Joking, joking around...that's what I call what you're talking about. Like having an inside joke, such as my sister and I have, calling each other Flavia and Lola.

Melissa, you and I have had such similar experiences. I wonder how much region affects this? Of course, yes, it happens in mommy circles, but not quite the same, or with same result. Not less, though, for sure.

Chani, I agree.

Annie, thanks. I think you and I traveled the same sort of path on this.

PM, thank you, yes. It was important to me to get the "matt" part in there as well, because in my mind, it was a solid reminder of so much about good and not falling into simplified thinking or stereotyping, or worst of all, absolutes.

Magpie, your comment begs the question again of not just region, but also industry and how that affects the experience.

Are more "alpha" "guys" in certain fields? Are certain arenas more tolerant of, or possibly even encouraging of, the bill/dave behavior?

Later, as I considered it, I realized I had two jerks and one nice guy. I wondered if that had implied anything to anyone, statistically speaking, because if it had, it was unintentional---that's the scenario as it happened.
AnnetteK said…
I used to work in an office with a bunch of military historians. Ugh. I was grateful that I grew up with four older brothers and learned early how to stand up to testosterone crap. I needed it in that office.

Here's what I know: never let them see you sweat, or even see you get mad, it just eggs them on. Smile sweetly and tell'em to bite you, or you know, something that won't get you fired.
Anonymous said…
Some guys "get it" and others...don't. Clearly those two shitheels ignore the meaningful part of the conversation and focus on what they believed to be the part that was shallow and frivolous. I guess golf (and the talk thereof) has been elevated to the status of "Working for World Peace", no?
S said…
it's the deep understanding of verbal nuance and nonverbal cues that can get us in trouble, woman to woman, though.

because too often we use it against one another, instead of treating it as the gift it is.
Kyla said…
The type of men that make you say, exasperatedly, "Ugh! Men!", followed by the sort of man that disproves those same gender stereotypes. Interesting.
Backpacking Dad said…
One of the best, most paradigm-shifting interviews I've ever read was Michael J. Fox in some men's magazine.

He was asked about appearing in tabloids, and what he thought about the people who spent their time on that of pursuit, and he said something like:

"I used to look down on that kind of thing, but then it occured to me that here was I, a grown man, caring more than anything else what two other grown men did with a little rubber puck in the corner of a hockey rink."

That's not a direct quote, and he may have said something significantly different after all (although I don't think so), but it is the quote that sits in the back of my brain. I love hockey, and I have no business teasing anyone for whatever they invest their time and money in, because in the long scheme of things hockey is a waste of time when I could be saving orphans or something.

More guys need to internalize that kind of message.
Anonymous said…
What I like about this post is that you acknowledge that it is a male colleague at the end who shows support.
only a movie said…
beautiful writing. :-)
Robert said…
I know what you mean, that sometimes letting it pass is better. I was just particularly gifted at one point in my life at firing back barbs that made people like those two guys want to crawl under the coffee pot. Something like having both sides of their chat, except like this:

"Oh, I have this really big club I bought, with a really big head..."

"Oh, you do, really? Wow, and it's not compensating for anything, is it?"

Something like that. I do it a lot less now, but I can still absolutely bring people down to earth on occasion. I'm like Joe Fox in You've Got Mail... minus the ruthless corporate takeover.
we_be_toys said…
I'm glad there was at least one decent guy in this story! It's a good point though - why do some folks feel it's okay to butt in and make poorly informed jokes at someone else's expense? I think some of them don't even realize just how hurtful they are, but they still get the Super Sphinctilicious Award from me!
(3 snaps in a circle)
That's right!
Anonymous said…
Beautiful prose, Julie.

I've suffered at the hands of 'innocent' teasing when someone only catches part of the conversation or body language.

I find myself very careful to keep my mouth shut now so as not to ever hurt someone's feelings with my careless teasing because of it.
Jen said…
Delurking to say your self control is ASTOUNDING. I would have grabbed their lips and told them exactly why they were insensitive and juvenile. Men:( *fuming*....
This comment has been removed by the author.
That wasn't was passive aggressive and seems kind of cruel. I'm not sure it's a "guy" thing though because most of the work cruelness I've dealt with has been from women and my biggest defenders are often men. I think it's less of a male thing and more of a mean thing...or maybe I've just been lucky in that I haven't had to deal with that kind of crap from men. Regardless, it's not cool and I'm glad your friend had you there to help her.
Sukhaloka said…
Tremendously well-written, Julie. I keep wondering why women are so much more inherently complex and subtle than men. And yes, why men can be such insecure eejits.
Hope your colleague is .. still hanging in there.
~TigereyeSal~ said…
You write brilliantly.
Bon said…
i loved this, Julie. i spent my younger years bewildered by men who spoke like that, interpreted the world like that, prioritized things like that...they left me feeling wounded and strange. it took me discovering that there were Matts in the world too to not judge the entire gender.
great job of articulating the disrespect that often feels inarticulate-able.

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