I had an experience the other day in which a dude called upon me to prop up his ego. I’d love to tell you the particulars, but I feel like I’d like this post to survive into perpetuity, and I don’t want this person, who is, after all, a friend, to feel any more targeted than he has to. (I hate writing about people I know.) In very broad strokes, he asked me for career advice.
Embedded in his inquiries were several assumptions:
- That his qualifications were amazing, definitely far more amazing than mine;
- That I had, as a matter of course, to agree that he was really very smart, indeed, of He-Man-like intelligence;
- That he surely deserved all sorts of honours and fancy positions, unlike other people;
- That it was beyond the bounds of rational discourse to deny any of the above.
In the process of making these inquiries, he managed to repeatedly insult me in various ways that I’m sure he wasn’t aware of. I mean, the funny thing about this friend is that I have to admit that he has been super-supportive of a lot of things I’ve done over the past few years, to a degree that he was not obligated by friendship to be. And indeed, I don’t think it’s exactly that he thinks that I am not (a) well-qualified; (b) smart; or (c) deserving of honours and fancy positions. It’s more that he thinks my aspirations lie in other directions, and he’s not wrong about that. (We’ve known each other a long time.)
And after all, he was asking my advice. Sort of.
Nonetheless, I assume that many of you have had this kind of conversation with someone, in which they prop themselves up, constantly, often at your expense, expecting you to smilingly follow along and sing his praises. I assume that many of you would also report that the people with whom you had these exchanges were dudes. Indeed, on the other end of the phone line, Rebecca Solnit kept popping into my head, particularly this fragment:
… the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered.
Now, I have spent a long time in the feminist blogosphere. I have read my fellow Harpies, and Sady, and Kate Harding and Megan Carpentier and a hundred other ass-kicking, no-holds-barred women who don’t put up with any shit from dudes. I am not a shrinking wallflower on the internet, and in real life not terribly much of one either, though I do sometimes hear from people who read me on the internet first, and then met me, that I don’t seem to be what they expected. So you would expect that I handed my dude friend his ass on the phone, right? You would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for the witty smackdown, yes?
Here is what I did. I meekly told him I did indeed find him intelligent, qualified, etc etc, told him I even thought my employer (who had just fired me) might hire him, did not laugh when he spoke of himself as though he were king of the smarts, and hung up the phone wishing him well. I simpered, you guys. I hemmed and hawed and let his ego feed at the trough of my apparent approval of the maneuver he was doing.
Then, a few minutes later, I looked out my window, and yelled, “YOU ARE SUCH A FUCKING DICK.”
I’ve been mad for days about how I reacted to this. Funnily enough, it’s me I’m really angry at, as opposed to my friend, who again, as I type this, is surely going about life life thinking this conversation went swimmingly. I’ve been mad that I didn’t defend myself or my boundaries of comfort in that conversation. I’ve been mad that if I had, I would have felt like I was insulting this person with whom I am, after all, somewhat close, when he just wanted support.
Most of all, I’m mad that in any event, I haven’t that kind of confidence and never will have.
I know, I know, Be A Bitch. But I rarely seem to get my shit together enough to actually accomplish this. It’s not because I’m afraid of the challenge, though, or at least I don’t think so. It’s because in the moment, viscerally, I just don’t feel like I am in the right. You can call it confidence if you like, that I should just nut up and start asserting myself, but I can’t help but feel like what I’d rather is that this overweening self-confidence of this type of man (and assorted non-male-identified folk who do this) be the exception rather than the rule. Sometimes, as in this incident, I am later sure of what I should have said and can easily understand this as a self-esteem issue. But other times, I think I just need the challenge.
I’ve had those discussions that women often have with other women where we note that in a man’s world, we just have to start stepping up to the plate and taking what we want. I agree that the mere gesture of assuming authority is a revolutionary one in a universe that says women don’t belong in positions of authority. But as BeckySharper said when I angrily vented over google chat, the truth is that faking it until you make it only works for so long. It’s true that some men make it through regardless – your last President, Americans, seemed to be a believer in this approach to life – but by and large eventually some version of a Hurricane Katrina comes along and people realize that they’ve hired, or elected, or rewarded in some other way, a dud. (This, I think, is destined to happen to Sarah Palin one day, which is why in some ways I cannot really be afraid of her, but that’s another post.)
And it seems reasonable to me to not want to take that risk with things that you care about, to say that you will not be the person who blows everyone away by sheer force of bombast but who rather has ideas worth sharing and who is open to learning. That you are not so committed to your ambitions that you make every issue about you. But therein lies the rub, because the more you are open to the idea that you are wrong, the more you doubt and question and criticize yourself, the harder it is to claim your space in the world.
Obviously the answer is a balance, like everything else in the world. There’s no obvious trajectory to choose. You step out, you feel your way, you try to be generous, you try to learn, you try to teach what little you know and you accept that you don’t know everything.
But every once in awhile, usually when I’ve too much time on my hands for self-reflection, the confidence of people like this friend of mine haunt me. Think of all the things I might be able to do in the world if I had the chutzpah, and the talent for self-promotion! Think of all the things women could do.
But then I fear we might all become some kind of progressive Sarah Palins.