Way back when, I promised you guys more gender/race relations. Remember? Remember how I said I’d talk about it the next day? Well, I lied to you. Kindly keep in mind that the proprietor of the Lusty Weevil is, in fact, a rogue, so lies are to be expected and encouraged. But today I got into a talk with some other female freelancers about being, you know, us, and whether we’ve really come all that far from the olden days, when people still said things like ‘olden’ and we would have been auto-delegated to positions as secretaries and . . . um. Secretaries, I guess. They didn’t have that many choices, did they? That must have been boring as hell.
The Assumption Shift
The Assumption Shift is powerful to behold. For purposes of this discussion, you need to know that I am fairly young and, as they say, easy on the eyes. I won’t be giving any supermodels a run for their money or anything, but let us not beat around the bush here. I’m a good-looking girl. If I had not been aware of this before business interactions began, I would assuredly have become so right quick, because the Assumption Shift begins with – shockingly enough – an Assumption.
The Assumption is based on appearance. I’m an attractive young woman, consulting on a copywriting gig. The Assumption has usually been that I am in this meeting because I am an attractive young woman, and not because I am a professional copywriter. Initial introductions have garnered all kinds of fun reactions to the Assumption. One older executive woman actually rolled her eyes when I walked in the room, while another up-and-coming young gentleman came out with what was undeniably a pick-up line. At the outset of a business meeting. Awkward.
So it’s fortunate that in today’s day and age, there is the Shift.
The Shift is based on personality and communication. Usually, the Shift takes approximately five minutes. Those are a slightly painful five minutes in certain instances, when the Assumption is particularly strong, because those are the minutes in which I have been talked down to, flirted with, and quite frankly insulted. However, by the time those five minutes are up and I have shown none of the reactions that would be typical of the aforementioned Assumption, the Shift occurs. Which is when everyone who was following the Assumption quite suddenly becomes embarrassed. And it serves them right. The rest of the meeting tends to be quite enjoyable. We rogues are not above gloating.
Why Does the Shift Happen?
I am a professional. I can speak eloquently and intelligently about any number of topics, and I am a wily enough rogue that I can generally maneuver my way through a meeting gracefully even if I missed some nuance or technical term. I can make a recommendation for good copy or marketing strategy and stand by it, and I don’t feel the need to apologize for myself for giving a reasoned opinion even if someone senior to me at the meeting disagrees. I don’t say ‘like’ every third word, I don’t have an overenthusiastic bubbly voice, I know when and how to use the word ‘whom’, and I will beat you with a stick if you say the word ‘irregardless’. I am not to be trifled with.
I don’t feel the need to over-emphasize these qualities. The only way to contend with the Assumption is to have another one lying in wait. My Assumption is that I will be treated as a professional, because this is the 21st century, and I am damned good at what I do, and these people have no earthly reason to doubt me. My Assumption is pretty powerful, because it has actual logic behind it. Theirs doesn’t. If asked why she rolled my eyes when I walked in the door, that senior executive could not have given one good reason. “Because she’s pretty” would not have flown. She doesn’t have a reason behind her Assumption. I do. I win.
Why Doesn’t the Shift Happen?
There are a great many people who never manage the Shift, and I get why that still happens. It usually has to do with the fact that none of the abovementioned tenants of the Assumption Shift has anything to do with actual ability. Teenybopper of the Tabloids herownself could be at a business meeting, and for all we know, Tabloid Teenybopper is a mean coder. We don’t know. And we never will. Because she looks, sounds, and acts like Tabloid Teenybopper. Ability has absolutely nothing to do with the Assumption Shift.
I am not suggesting that you are Tabloid Teenybopper. (Although if you are, my readers are not quite the demographic I had in mind). However, I’ve met any number of women who are extremely good at what they do, who cannot get the Assumption Shift because they never got over it. Those first five minutes completely stunned them. They are good at what they do, they were asked to consult, and yet, they are not being treated as professionals. Why?
It throws them. They start to doubt. They don’t stick behind what they’re saying, or they overdo it and insist on what they’re saying, even when, as we all learned somewhere in the School of Things You Never Really Want to Be True, the customer is always right. Even when he’s wrong. The loser. Ability never figures into this equation, only the way they are perceived. Sadly, they can’t act naturally in the face of the Assumption. They start to change.
They allow the way people treat them to form the way they actually behave, and that is not good. You can make people do anything if you treat them as though they’re likely to do it. True for anyone, but particularly true if you’re already feeling vulnerable. I have had people clucking like chickens in front of me, just by saying they seem like the sort of people that would.
The Power of the Assumption
Seriously. Try this on anyone you like. Ask them to do something outrageous. Ask them to crawl on their hands and knees across the floor of a busy mall store. Ask them to burp loudly in front of a group of strangers. Ask them to recite the alphabet backwards to the tune of Bonny Portmore. Ask them blithely, casually, as though you had no doubt that they would do this insane thing. Most of them will do it. To the ones who don’t, just look at them as though bewildered and a little hurt and say, your voice faintly sad,
“Wow. You’ve really changed.”
A strange thing will happen. You will see a look cross their face. This is the look of delving into one’s personal history, to see if one really was ever the type of person to burp at the hot-dog guy. Even if they still don’t do it, you have seen the magic of the Assumption at work. They questioned it. They questioned themselves. They questioned whether they would do something completely idiotic, and further, whether they were the sort of person that did frankly idiotic things for no reason.
The power of the Assumption is Doubt.
So How Far Have We Come Again?
Pretty far, according to my parents’ generation. Used to be that the Assumption would hold for a much longer time. We’re more aware now, as a society, that this Assumption is unfounded. People used to actually believe, in a scientific, logical way, that women were inferior to men. They had research. It was common knowledge. So those Assumptions had reasons. Really stupid ones. But reasons. They felt secure in those Assumptions, and they never went away.
Today, people don’t have that excuse. We all know we’re all equal here. The Assumption is a leftover, and it will go away eventually. I hope. Women used to never be able to escape the Assumption. It hung around like a bad smell, or a devoted trapeze artist. Now, it’s five minutes. Not bad. Maybe in another fifty years, it’ll be gone. We have to hope.
Not Just for Women
Crystal of the Big Bright Bulb has had the same experience, except that she has the double whammy of being both female and black. For her, the trump card wasn’t speaking well, but a degree. (The whole story’s in the comments of My Useless College Education, back here somewhere.) I’m going to quote her at length here.
I’ve done the potential-job-candidate-walk-around and been introduced by my degree, not my experience, “This is Crystal, she has a degree in Architecture from Virginia Tech.” And 85% of the time hearing that sentence changed people’s body language. Notably. Who knows what the hand-shaker thought they were looking at, but it required a visible reset.
A little further down, there was this gem of an Out-of-Context conversation, which makes me want to shake people, but serves to prove my point.
Interviewers, new supervisors, co-workers, new customers and clients, and most (though not all) of the strangers of my professional life responded like they thought I was a dunce and were pleasantly (or not so pleasantly) surprised to find I wasn’t.
My favorite was overhearing a new supervisor say to a crony, “Well, Crystal is just terrific. I mean, I hired her because she was black, and come to find she actually knows what she’s doing and does a great job.” Lovely.
Lovely, indeed. Racist, sexist, all the same beast. It’s an Assumption. And you know what they say about Assuming.
That’s right. They say it’s dumb.
The Magic Key
There is one. Humor. Laugh at it. Seriously.
Crystal does. I do. Getting upset about it just makes your day worse. Laughing at it makes you feel better, and it makes the guy who assumed look like an idiot. Imagine this.
Assuming Dude: “Well, I’m sure a pretty little thing like you doesn’t really care about this technical stuff.”
That is not a made-up comment. That happened to me once. Here’s what I could have done.
Me: “No, I do care! I am perfectly capable, really I am.”
Here’s what I did.
Me: (Incredulous look and a peal of laughter that actually brought tears to my eyes. I was doubled up. People were staring. Assuming guy was embarrassed as shit, which he should have been.) “People still SAY that? A pretty little thing like me?” (More laughter.) “Oh, my. That just made my day. That’s hilarious. You were explaining the technical stuff to me, I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to get distracted.” (Small chuckle.) “Pretty little thing. Heh.”
And you know what? He shut up and explained it.
Which is what I assumed he would do, in the first place. When I asked.
Subscribe. I assume you will.