Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Here to Help

I have a trait that people tend to dismiss, until they see it in action: People ask me for help. When I used to visit my sister in NYC years ago, she lived there and I was the tourist. And yet people came up to me and asked me which train to take to their destination and where the nearest subway stop was. When I visited Stockholm in graduate school, a couple came up to me and asked me, in phrasebook Swedish, how to get to Gamla Stan. Since my best phrase in Swedish is "jag förstår inte," I answered them in English. 

Lately, this trait mainly manifests in grocery stores. Specifically, elderly men approach me in grocery stores for help in finding items their wives have asked them to get. I would dearly love to know why they think I, in particular, am the best person to ask about whether they should get quick oats or old-fashioned (if she's planning to bake with them, probably old-fashioned) or where to find cranberry sauce in April (canned vegetables aisle). Yes, I know the answers. But how do they know that I'll know? 

People even stop me when I'm out exercising. The most recent was a man who stopped me while I was rollerblading by the bay to ask if he was allowed launch a boat from this location. I did not know the answer to that one, but again: why me? 

My best theory is that I look unimposing and harmless, and like I'll be nice. To be fair, I always am nice. Even to the guy who interrupted my rollerblade.  

I've been thinking about this lately in the context of my career and the election and all the feelings that's stirred up. Back when I was deciding to quit my full time job and go out on my own, I wrote about the cost of my career, and how the traits I had developed to succeed in my male-dominated field often made it harder for me to relate to women. I still can't fully explain why I quit when I did, but I think part of it was I felt I was on the brink of more personality changes. I was getting harder, and less open. I really didn't like that. 

Maybe quitting helped me find a way to be more of the type of person I want to be while still working on things I enjoy. Maybe it didn't. Maybe the storm would have passed anyway.

But I'm noticing that same hard-edged feeling in myself now. This time, it isn't due to work. It is the election. It is the way Hillary Clinton was treated, and is still treated. It is the way some men in the media are treating Chelsea Clinton. It is the vileness of Trump's behavior towards women, and how little that matters. This has nothing to do with policy. It is about the contempt shown to women. 

I have not figured out how to be OK with this. I don't really want to be OK with this, so maybe what I need to figure out is how to coexist with this without having it give me the hard edge I didn't want. I don't even know how to start working on this. But I think I'll know I've failed if the old guys stop asking me for help in the grocery store.


  1. My parents share this trait with you. They always have people stopping by their house and asking for directions. It almost made sense when they lived on a main road, but now they live off the beaten path and they STILL have people regularly stop and ask for directions! It's so odd that it seems to happen to some people and not to others.

    1. Oh man, I don't know what I'd think if someone actually knocked on my door and asked for directions! It only happens to me when I'm out and about.

  2. Reading this post to the end makes me feel a little less guilty about giving people such gawd-awful directions.

    I already didn't feel guilty about not being helpful when people interrupt me during work because they want to treat me like an administrative assistant, having passed up all of my male colleagues in their offices to do so.

    I've always assumed people ask me things because I look safe.
    (Nobody asks me where things are in the grocery store anymore because my husband does all the grocery shopping since he's been working at home.)

    Your second to last paragraph really hits home. Along with that washington post article in your twitter feed. I keep remembering my colleagues saying, "she didn't have any plans for the white working class" and me saying, "YES SHE DID, but the media turned her plans into headlines saying she was against coal miners." SHE CANNOT WIN. And she can't get angry or vindictive because she's a woman. Even now that she's not running for office. And they're yelling at Obama for taking speaking fees. But Trump can flagrantly violate the emoluments clause. Because he's white and was born wealthy and is allowed to be vindictive. IBTP.

    Yesterday I got a textbook sample for a new behavioral economics text. The first paragraph of the introduction was written as if the reader was a heterosexual man with a stereotypical girlfriend. "Now, you are a rational man," it said, talking about the decision of whether to give $10 to your girlfriend or a $10 rose instead. I wrote the sales department of the publisher and said I expected better of them. #resist

    1. Oh, the people who asked for directions in NYC got pretty crappy directions. This was before smartphones, and my standard method of finding a subway stop was to walk until I saw a sign for a subway stop!

  3. Thank you for putting what I've been feeling into words!

  4. we share this trait! I often get stopped for directions/help when I'm on vacation and out and about at home. I think it's because I make eye contact and smile easily at others. It sure helps me as a high school teacher now!

  5. Anonymous7:56 AM

    I am an Asian Indian woman - and worked in Switzerland for 2 years after grad school. I speak German (lived in the German speaking part of Switzerland) - but no one seeing me on the street would know that - I look like I shouldn't speak German. I did dress professionally (I worked in a big bank as a mid-level exec). I got asked for directions at least once a week as I was walking home from work in German. It truly baffled my brain. The best time was when I was in a train station with a visiting friend from the US who is white, blond and incredibly outgoing - and a woman walked up to us and turned to me first in German - and we had been speaking American English. - Sneakers


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