The black printer was a dinosaur. It sat in the floor for four years, untouched. It was huge, heavy, and probably expensive when it was purchased new. It was placed in the corner those four long years ago, waiting for a piece of furniture to be acquired which could accommodate its dimensions. The furniture never came so the printer never moved, year after year passing in dusty oblivion. The occupants of the office changed four times in as many years. The printer remained constantly cornered. Occasionally someone would ask about it. Yes, it works. No, no one uses it. Now there’s nowhere else to put it, so there it stays.
The fifth occupant took possession of the office and needed the floor space. He hoisted the dinosaur from the floor and stationed it in an opposite corner atop a tall file cabinet. When I stopped by with an office-warming gift he asked if the dinosaur could be removed altogether. Such questions always come to me, the Mover of Things. The Organizer. The Re-Organizer. The Harmonizer of Spaces. That’s me. I’d have to create an alternative space for the dinosaur, but this is what I do. This is what I did. When my office mate went to lunch I lugged Old Blackety Black Clackety Clack off the top of the file cabinet and down the hall to its new home. Yes, its ponderous weight was a chore to heft and haul, but this is also what I do.
When my office mate returned from lunch he didn’t even notice. I waited a reasonable amount of time before darkening his door to summon my due gratitude. It took more than one prompt for him to scan the room and determine why I should to be thanked. This may be because he did not imagine I could move the dinosaur. He said as much, wide-eyed, beholding the void where the dinosaur once rested.
You moved it? By yourself? Wow. You’re strong.
This statement in this context was formerly known as a compliment. But now? If the same statement would not be made to male coworker, it is not a compliment for a female coworker. I have never heard a man compliment another man in a similar scenario of picking up and carrying a heavy object without help. This is not considered remarkable for a man. For a woman, it is questioned (YOU did this?), qualified (by YOURSELF?) and then acknowledged as remarkable (Wow. You’re strong). It is a surprise that the woman lifted and carried the very same object the man lifted and carried by himself. He lifted it; no big deal because he is strong. I lifted it; shocking, implying that I was assumed not strong enough by virtue of gender alone.
The task itself was not remarkable. The remarkable part is that I accomplished it unassisted. Notice the difference? In general, are cisgendered men biologically stronger than cisgendered women? Yes, in general, we know this. However, when a cis woman demonstrates the same strength as a cis man, complimenting her surprising compatible strength insinuates she’s achieved something out of character for her gender. It’s essentially saying, Wow. You’re strong for a woman. Or put another way, The way you just overcame your biologically assigned weakness surprises/impresses me. Not exactly an insult, but also not a compliment.
Before you go thinking I’m blowing this out of proportion, let’s talk proportions. This fellow is the same height and roughly the same size as I am, if not slightly smaller than me. We are both cisgendered and of average physical fitness. While there is generally no harm in complimenting a person’s strength, I’m surprisingly strong for accomplishing the very same task as a male of similar size. This voids the compliment. What would have been a compliment? Whatever he would have said to a man.
Hey, I moved that printer like you asked.
Wow. Thanks. I appreciate it.
This did not occur to me until much later. I said what women are conditioned to say in such situations, and I said it with a pleasing smile, also per my conditioning. After I spent some time mulling what didn’t feel right about it, the moment was long past. I can’t go back and have this conversation after the fact but I do still have a choice regarding a takeaway. I probably deserved a compliment because I carried the printer much farther than he did. He moved it across the room. I moved it to the other side of the building. The compliment might have felt more right had this stipulation been discovered or discussed but it was not. I’m not sure there is much value in pointing it now, based on my experience with gender relations.
There is value in realizing this myself and having time to think it through so that when it happens again I can object in a constructive way. In mulling it further I can see this pandering compliment business isn’t limited to male/female interactions. I get pandering compliments on the tennis court from other women a lot; almost every week. Sometimes I suspect it is deliberate. Women can be especially good at using this as a tactic to establish superiority when they feel threatened by someone else’s improvement. Other times it is just a social blunder, as it was with my printer-plagued coworker. Was his comment accidentally or unintentionally sexist? Perhaps, but I didn’t catch it right away either.
In the end, being insulted is a choice I make. I’ve been preaching this for years. No one can insult me without my permission and complicity. I am, in fact, a physically strong person. I am physically strong compared to other women. My strength has been a surprise to men throughout my entire life. Now that I’m getting old enough for age to also be a remarking factor, I’m probably going to hear age referenced as well. Now I won’t just be strong for a woman. I’ll be strong for a woman my age or strong for an older woman. My choice is to think through responses to provoke changes in conditioning on both sides of the conversation.
Join me. Let’s consider our complicity in social conditioning. Notice when your compliments infer a latent deficiency in the person you mean to encourage. It may take some practice. Notice when you blithely accept these compliments, thirsty as we may be for validation, and thereby accept the subtle inference. This will also take practice. There’s a time to burn a fucker down. That time is not when we are contributing to the fuckery. Can we do better? I think we can. I know I can.