Tales of an Introvert: Let’s Talk About Relationships, Shall We?

This week, I have had to deal with a sudden abrupt understanding that more people than I was aware of think something is wrong with me. Apparently, I am broken and need to be fixed. I am a woman lacking- something. What this translated to was very well-meaning and thoroughly offensive sermons about how I just need to put myself out there, because being single is – sure, it’s ok, but it’s hardly ideal or really preferential, right? No one would be single by choice. And I received well-meaning advice on how finding A somebody is easy and it’s better on that side of things.

But here’s the thing- it’s not better. It’s not better Over There Somewhere in the nebulous relationship area, unless you’re actually dating and/or committed to someone you love and care for and are actively invested in. Then yeah, I can see that as better than being alone. But a warm body? Isn’t a relationship. It’s little more than a repository, a place where detritus and memory is stored in the short-term. And if that’s what you’re looking for, that’s fine; but don’t act like it’s better than what I have going on.

What do I have going on? Peace and quiet. Freedom. Independence. The time to pursue my own interests, hobbies, friendships and happinesses that don’t require accommodating or accounting for another person. If another person shows up that makes me want to share my time and space with him and who I feel real love and companionship for, that’s one thing. But to have someone just to have him, to not be so dreadfully alone? Is completely another.

This is the thing I think other people, those who cannot comprehend this, don’t get: I like being alone. I crave it. When I finally get time to myself after a long day or a long week, to putter around my house and do chores, make dinner or read a book or zone out to a TV show? It feels like I’m suddenly breathing after holding my breath all day. Constant interaction with people, the level of energy I’m required to expel in a day at work- by the end of it, I feel like a shadow, staring up at people from a well.

I have always been like this. I didn’t develop this as a teenager or in college. I have always been the quiet, wide-eyed kid who kept to the background, horrified at the idea of being in the middle of a crowd, surrounded by people, forced to smile and talk and be On. I’m older and wiser and do enjoy people and being around them, but it still is very taxing on me and I still retreat into shyness to escape loud situations and large groups of people. It’s not actual shyness- it’s a strong overwhelming desire to not have people in my face, demanding my attention and time. My entire body subconsciously cringes, “please don’t talk to me. Please, please don’t talk to me.”

These things I know to be true. They curl up in the center of my soul with the freely given fragments of all the people I have loved and will ever love:

I learned to write before I learned to talk. By that I mean: the first time I heard my voice, it came out of a pen and sang across the paper under my hand. It stared up at me and echoed clearly in my mind as mine and me and true. It would take many more years before the mine and me and true ever parted my lips and it took a bone-deep grief to cut it out of my throat. I have always been happiest in my head, listening to the world and my voice have their own conversations, whispering soliloquies back and forth.

I remember being a child – maybe 7 or 8 years old – and just feeling out of sorts. I don’t remember why. Likely it had been a long day and I was overwhelmed by it. I drifted out of my house, across the driveway and into my grandparents’ house, where I stayed for a short while, and then left again. On my walk back home, I veered suddenly for the motor-home my grandfather had parked in front of the houses – likely being aired out for an upcoming camping trip after a wet winter – and I pulled open the screen door, crawled in, closed it behind me and laid down on one of the kitchen table benches- a hard plank of wood covered by a threadbare orange floral-print cushion. It wasn’t comfortable, but I stayed there until my father came to look for me, how much later I couldn’t say. When he asked me why I was out there – his tone edging annoyed, because I had scared him – I told him I didn’t know. I just wanted to be alone.

When I was in high school, my best friend and I somehow convinced our parents that we needed to go on a school trip to travel around the UK. We were 16/17 at the time and proceeded to go insane as soon as we left the States (stories for another time). We were stuck in a bus 70% of the time, at historical/tour sites 10% and in hotel rooms with each other the other 20%. By day three of the two-week trip, I was a squirrel clawing at the walls to get out, ready to chew off my leg if it meant escape. I wandered off on my own several times just to get away. One time, a couple of sketchy guys followed me back to my hotel in the middle of the night and the front desk clerk had to chase them off. Another time, I scaled a crumbling wall at Blarney Castle and walked around a gated community full of large manor homes; I eventually found my tour group at a pub after disappearing for over an hour. I was officially put on watch after I got lost so badly flying solo in Salisbury that I delayed the tour a good twenty minutes while they tried to find me. (Mobile phones have done many good things for the world – this was before that time.)

I am glad to be in a crowd as long as there is no expectation for me to exist as part of it, to be a participant. If I’m free to glide through it on my way to my own destination, I am pleased to be there. I travel on my own- I hike on my own- I run on my own- I go to movies on my own. I spent three months living in London primarily in quiet solitude broken up by classes and cultural awareness events, knowing no one in the program before I boarded the plane. Some weekends, I would get on a tube line and ride it from one end to the other, a book in my lap, and explore whatever part of the city that I was suddenly dropped into. I was 19 at the time.

And in all this, in my experiences and choices, I am very, very happy with my life and who I am as a person. My life does not feel like less, because I’m not in a relationship. For me, being in a relationship isn’t a thing to attain, but a choice I make. And if I’m selfish and choose myself until someone comes along that makes me want to choose him instead, who am I really hurting? Why does anyone care? Why does the well-meaning advice automatically assume that, because I am single, that I am wanting and without? If I can respect your decision to actively seek a relationship or to date someone who has insubstantial meaning to you just to stave off loneliness, aren’t I allowed the same respect for the decisions I make?

It’s my life, it’s my heart and it’s my choice. Your judgment is not welcome here.

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Experience

I’ve been dancing around a couple posts recently, not able to find the best approach to what is likely to be a contentious topic, even when discussing it with myself. (I make no illusions that I’m doing anything more than talking to myself.) I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege, but specifically White Privilege, Male Privilege and Straight Privilege. These aren’t topics to breach lightly, as the wrong tone or footfall can lead to defensiveness and self-righteousness. By nature, we are going to reject anything that tells us our hard work is actually not all that hard. That by being born in a specific body with specific settings gave any of us a cheat code. It cheapens personal victories and it feels unfair.

So you see, I’ve been looking at this from different angles, trying to find the right way in, so that I don’t take on the position of the blind leading the blind, but I also don’t fall into trying to discredit other people’s perceptions to protect my own.

Then I read something the other day, in response to a brilliant Daily Show piece about sexual assaults on college campuses. Someone posted a comment on the video, “Jordan plays the part perfectly. He honestly seems to be surprised that his experiences are not everyone’s experiences.”

Shortly thereafter, I was talking to a guy friend of mine who is an engineer in the technology industry. Speaking to this person, aware of this industry as it is, I thought we were operating from the same understanding of circumstances. So trying to answer his questions about Rape Culture should be easy, right?

Wrong.

I was accused of preaching and told that it’s not fair to him that his choices are either to acknowledge that it exists or be complicit in it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Lots of things aren’t fair. Being vaguely wary of every man I meet on the street isn’t fair. Being told my real value lies in my beauty and that to fail at an impossible ideal is to fail at being a woman isn’t fair. To chase after that beauty and potentially attain it, only to have it thrown back at me and told I’m a slut or a whore isn’t terribly fair either. For it to be commonplace for my intelligence and humor to be the least valued things about me in society, even though they are the most valued by me personally- that’s pretty fucking unfair.

Being a victim of your own white, straight maleness, because people keep telling you what a relatively safe position you operate from is defensiveness. It’s a refusal to understand that your experiences are not everyone’s experiences and if you are trying to understand something that you will never have first hand experience in, you need to leave that knee jerk reactionary defensiveness at the door.

If you cannot acknowledge that reality is not the same for everyone, then you will not be able to learn anything from anything anyone tries to tell you. You will find a way to explain everything under the paradigm that you understand to be true or you will reject it as simply not true. You will stay in your safe position unchallenged.

The kernel of all of these conversations is experience- personal experience that is such a commonplace one to individuals that it becomes a cultural experience that can be examined and, if not fully understood (in many things, only first hand experience can allow you to ever really understand something), then at least discussed critically.

Your experiences make up your reality. And your reality is legitimate. It is true. Just because someone else doesn’t understand it doesn’t make it less true.

So, this is my experience. This is my reality and many women’s realities; I struggle with it on a daily basis. I fight to not become bitter over it; I fight to prove I’m worth more than what I’ve been taught to think- I rage against the machine and promise myself everyday that my life will be bigger and better and more meaningful than the box I was told to put it in, the box that has tiny dresses and a large wedding with a generically handsome man and lots of little babies drawn on the outside of it.

And everyday, I am reminded, in big and small ways, that I am failing at what I was taught to strive for. I’m not thin enough, I’m not tan enough, my teeth aren’t white enough, I have too much hair on my body, I should spend more time on my make-up in the morning, I need to exercise more, I need to be more fashionable- this jeans and t-shirt thing is embarassing – I’m almost thirty, why aren’t I married? Why aren’t I in a relationship and planning to get married?

Why am I such a disappointment?

But then I see the women I’m supposed to want to be, and they are torsos in thongs. They are hangers. They are tits and butts without faces. They are supposed to be aspirational for men and women alike, and yet they are terrifying.

I am angry, all the time.

I – and every single woman on this planet, just as every single man and everyone inbetween – deserve to be allowed to be a person. I should get to want things that aren’t about the size of my waist or the number of zeros in my potential spouse’s salary. I should get to feel like I deserve to be loved and seek that love without secretly thinking that I’m not good enough, because I don’t fit this concept of Desirable Woman. And mostly, I shouldn’t have to be scared all the time.

So maybe these conversations need to be pried out of the topics they are hiding under. Maybe we need to not talk about White Privilege and Rape Culture and the heavy, charged words these important cultural failings are cloaked in. Maybe we need to come back to a place we can all understand.

Let’s talk about our experiences. And then maybe, we’ll be able to see each other clearly.

Further Reading: Misogyny in Technology

For anyone who is interested in learning more – and possibly wanting to know why I wrote such a heavily vitriolic Dear [Blank] to the men in tech – feel free to read more at any of the following links. You are also welcome to ask me any questions. This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart and I feel that awareness is part of what creates change.

Technology’s Man Problem

What the RadiumOne CEO’s Firing Means

The Website that Says It All

Why The Tech Industry’s Sexism Problem Isn’t Going Away

Peter Shih “10 Things I Hate About SF” Backlash

Timeline of Incidents

I also have a post in my Let’s Talk About category speaking to general sexism in the workplace. That post in part describes a very common experience for women in technology, but it applies to most workplaces that are dominated by men. Personally, I think part of the behavior is from posturing – so men, who really feel like women are only good for objectifying, get to say whatever they want and feel legitimized and men, who don’t, go with the flow or endorse it so as not to be on the outs.

There’s also a phrase that runs around – brogrammer or brogrammer culture – which is a point of contention with a lot of people. I can speak to it, but despite the sexism I’ve encountered and seen, I’ve only met one real brogrammer, but I sincerely doubt he would have called himself that.

Hope that helps satisfy your curiosity and/or helps broaden your understanding.

Sexism in the Workplace

At my relatively young age, you’d think that I wouldn’t have run into much sexism during my career. It was supposed to have been eradicated by now, right? Like racism? Female CEOs and black presidents mean we’re all buttoned up here. No more glass ceilings, no more trapdoors built into the system, no more cause for concern. The last bastion for the civilized nation is homophobia and now that we have openly gay athletes, we’re done with that in about two weeks, I’ve heard.

And it’s true, I can’t say I’ve experienced overt sexism – the slap your ass or bartered for cattle sexism. I’ve worked in the legal, technology and professional consulting fields as general support and the sexism I have experienced – being patronized, belittled and subjected to The Good Old Boys cliques – come nowhere near what people think of when you talk about sexism. It’s far more insidious. It seems like it’s more feeling than fact. You are meant to think it’s in your head and you’re taking things too personally and you are the one with the problem.

My most traumatic work experience was during my time with The Good Old Boys.

An incident occurred while I was working in the legal field between my transfer from junior college into university to finish my BA. I was at the firm for a little over a year and I worked evenings with two people – my lead and someone who was hired a few weeks after me. Both were men. The man hired after me, I found out later from him, came in making $1.50 an hour more than me, despite both of us doing the same work and having the same level of experience. It, cutely I now find, shocked me at the time.

Towards the end of my time there, already accepted into the university of my choice, my lead and I came to a disagreement. He and another colleague from a different department would gossip for hours during our shift and I asked him to please take it to the break room, since it was distracting. What followed was two weeks of passive aggressive quips at me, if not outright silence. I finally apologized, not because I really understood what I did wrong, but because I understood admitting fault was the only way he was going to start talking to me again, which, surprising no one, was very necessary in order for me to do my job.

A month later, he asked me to remove a book from my university’s library to be scanned. I scanned it as best I could on premise and then just checked the book out and brought it in. He instructed me to take more books out so the firm could scan them cover to cover, as there might be useful information in them. I objected, saying that if the firm wanted access to these books – of which they were a limited edition compilation of trade articles, all running about 600+ pages each – they needed to find a better avenue, because I was not taking on the responsibility for all these books that would be broken and damaged through the scanning process.

His solution was to order me to do it.

My response was to tell him in no uncertain terms to shove it up his ass.

I was not terribly diplomatic when I was younger.

So he emailed our supervisor and said, “I just can’t even deal with her anymore! I’m so upset,” and took a few days off work, because the sight of me would upset him further, I was told. So our supervisor spoke to me and it was decreed that we would all meet at the beginning of our shifts the following week and discuss this like levelheaded adult people who work together.

What actually followed was my being dropped into a room with my male supervisor, my male lead and my male coworker and being told that everything I felt and thought was personal and that if I didn’t find a way to work with my lead, changes would have to be made – “changes,” meaning my employment, or rather my lack thereof with the firm.

So I apologized.

Again.

To everyone. To the world. By the time the hour and a half meeting was up, where I wasn’t allowed to leave and I was forced to talk about why I was putting them all through this, I had basically taken on the burdens of both slavery and the Holocaust just to get out of that room.

I was nineteen.

The youngest person in that room. The only female in that room. And they united against me, scapegoated me and then forced me to sit there while I had my job threatened in front of my coworkers. The ranks had closed and I found myself outside of them.

I gave two weeks notice a week later.

I walked off the job a week after that.

I remember being on the phone with a friend a week after I quit, hidden away on a side alley of my new campus, crying my eyes out over what had happened. How weak and useless I felt. How resentful I was that my lead was the one who was making work personal and yet, I was the one who had to take full blame and apologize. That I’d let myself get pushed into – what I felt and still feel – was a false confession, an untruthful omission, and pushed around. How much I hated them and in part myself for letting that happen. I had hurt my own honor. I had lied to save myself and, in my soul, I felt that as completely wrong.

I found out years later that I had been blacklisted from employment there.

Frankly, I don’t think there is a paycheck large enough to entice me back.

Does that mean women aren’t capable of the same thing? Of course not. I’m not saying that. What I rail against – what makes me shake the bars and scream – is not exclusion, because that is a natural part of any group – it’s the inherent power displacement. I was not in that room with equals, who unilaterally decided I was in the wrong. I was not even in that room with people who understood me – or had made any effort to understand me. I was in that room with a wall, a power structure that I did not and could not belong to.

That’s when work stops feeling like a team of people united in a common goal and starts feeling like embattlement.

Now I feel it bears mentioning that the best employer I have had thus far has been a man. The reason I valued working with him as much as I did is because he valued not only the work I did, but also my insight into the company culture and the business. He promoted me and gave me a raise as my job duties expanded (something most business owners I have experience with will not do), gave me more responsibility and unilateral control over my own job, and trusted me a hundred percent. In his personal life, he was a complete dog, but luckily, I didn’t have to worry about his personal life, beyond making the odd reservation or flight arrangement. At work, he had determined I added value to the company and respected my work and me. He was my superior – more experienced, more knowledgeable and responsible for running the company – and I could respect that. We had a work relationship that worked for both of us.

Until one of the other higher ups decided he didn’t like the way I was being managed, that I was taking too much latitude, and that he was far more knowledgeable than my supervisor about how to best manage people. He had no idea what I did, no idea how to answer any of my questions, thought that my career tract was much more HR oriented than business operations despite my insisting otherwise, didn’t understand how the business worked, etc. etc.

This new manager played favorites to an insane degree, including giving sizeable raises to people for no rhyme or reason; made terrible business decisions; talked down to the female employees regularly; tried on several occasions to get into female employees’ pants (our relationship was far too contentious for him to try to get near my toothed vagina, as I’m sure he assumed I possessed); spread rumors about employees’ sex lives and did drugs on workplace premises with employees. Any time I asked (with deliberate politeness, because I could never be sure what would set him off into a tantrum) if what he was doing was really the best course of action, he would get defensive and tell me I didn’t know what I was talking about.

I once found out during a termination that he had taken all the female employees from one department to a bar to trash talk about their then-recently-terminated manager. The only reason I found out was because the woman being let go mentioned another previous employee was encouraging a lawsuit for harassment. When I asked my manager why he would do that, he accused me of being on the terminated supervisor’s side and letting him get into my head. Because he was never wrong – only the way I was thinking could be wrong.

Another time, he asked me to work on a structure within a department he didn’t understand. So I dutifully put several days into the research, outlining and documenting what I thought the structure should look like. I sent it to him. He said we should meet. So we met the next day, at which point he picked up the piece of paper it was outlined on, threw it across the table at me, threw his feet up on the chair next to him and popped the cap of his beer bottle. From this reclined, casual position, he told me it was too complicated and needed to be done over. He told me in his body language and his attitude that my work required so little consideration that it didn’t even warrant his serious attention.

He was another one where I had to share false omissions to get out of meetings with him. He was another one that threatened my job for being too outspoken. He said to me at one point, “we don’t have the sort of relationship where you should think you can tell me that.” He followed that up by explaining he and his wife’s marital problems. He made it clear that he could speak to anyone, in any way and about anything he liked, but at no point was I to speak out of turn. He was older, white, rich and male. Every structure in his life and fiber in his being told him he was in the right, even when he was wrong. If I wasn’t willing to feed into that narrative, I was threatening his understanding of himself and that was a problem.

At the end of the day, I was a problem. I didn’t flirt, I didn’t position myself as lesser, I didn’t come across as non-threatening and meek. I had a voice and I expected to be heard. Even though I always asked him privately and respectfully about his decisions when they seemed to fly in the face of the business’ interests, I was challenging his authority and showing that I didn’t trust his judgment, which he took as an unwarranted and personal criticism.

Am I reading too much into this? I don’t think so. I spent months trying to develop a system that would allow me to dodge his outbursts and lectures. Every time I let my guard down, he would call another uncomfortable meeting and force another awkward, painful confrontation that would leave me anxious and ill at-ease in his presence. I began unconsciously leaning away from him whenever he came into my personal area. Again, I felt besieged.

I may not have been spun around and kissed on the street after a company happy hour as happened to one of my female coworkers or kept out for friendly drinks until 3 AM while his wife fretted at home like another or even been part of that group of women dragged to a bar under false pretenses and pressured to accept him as the better and more caring manager than the one before, but I felt his very presence as an assault and a violation. There was not one woman in that office that wasn’t harassed by this man in one form or another and when we broached the subject with each other, about him generally but not the actions, we smiled without our eyes and waved it off and acted like it probably wasn’t as bad as we thought it was. Maybe we had misunderstood.

And that’s how insidious it is. That we don’t even fully trust our own experiences, because we are working inside a power structure and maybe it isn’t meant the way it’s felt and maybe we are taking it too personally.

And maybe we’re lying to save ourselves, because that’s the only way out of that room.

I can only speak to sexism in the workplace as it affects me, a woman. I know that it must exist in even more complicated and layered ways, that it undoubtedly can lead to a manager with no teeth or inappropriate in the other direction.

But this sexism that I speak of, this one that lays under the words and happens in dark corners where you aren’t fully sure if what you heard or saw or felt is right – it’s real. It’s real and it breaks down the team; it breaks down your company from the inside. It’s as damaging to men as it is to women, because abuses of power will always take their toll. When you undercut any part of your workforce from being able to come to work and do his or her job, you have undercut your own company. Any second that is spent trying to unravel whether or not someone has crossed a line is a second that is not spent working as a team or working towards a goal. Any time your workers feel embattled, you have already lost the war.