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.
Also blogging at:
Julie Pippert REVIEWS: Get a real opinion about BOOKS, MUSIC and MORE
Julie Pippert RECOMMENDS: A real opinion about HELPFUL and TIME-SAVING products
Moms Speak Up: Talking about the environment, dangerous imports, health care, food safety, media and marketing, education, politics and many other hot topics of concern.