‘People skills’ advice which ignores backgrounds only exposes the lie that what works for white cishet men automatically works for everyone else too
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. Image source (cropped): Cottonbro @Pexels.
I have a confession to make: I sometimes watch a YouTube channel called Charisma on Command. But please don’t be fazed by the name—“The Game” it is not, and its videos on topics like networking and public speaking can benefit anyone. So selective is my viewing though, that I often forget just how centered on cishet men the channel really is. Which, to be clear, is absolutely not a bad thing. But it does indicate a strong potential for biased perspectives, as recently became evident to me through their May 2022 video “How to Command Respect If You’re Short” below:
I realize it may seem unfair to bring a critical feminist lens to a video that was likely only intended for men. But most of its tips still appear to apply regardless of sex, leaving viewers with the reasonable assumption that women are just as free to use them. Whereas in reality, there are a number of sexist obstacles in their way, to the extent it may actually be more prudent for many women not to use the tips at all.
So, paralleling a now infamous 2013 Quora piece in which the white author believed he was simply giving ‘lifehacking’ advice, but was ultimately providing more of a demonstration of how white privilege operates, let’s highlight three of those obstacles here, taking advantage of the opportunity offered by the video to show how male privilege works.
Image source (cropped): Cottonbro @Pexels.
All three are related to overall advice point “#2: Be a big presence” (3:04), starting with “Option 1: Be the loudest person in the room” (3:10). In the video, comedian Kevin Hart naturally makes that look very easy in his talk with male sports commentators. But for the vast majority of women in more mundane, less public professions who are, say, looking for more of a voice in work meetings? The unfortunate reality is that not only are they usually underrepresented in them, but they’re also generally expected to talk less than the male attendees too. So normal and routine can this feel to men and women alike, even attempts to achieve simple gender parity can raise shackles and accusations of female bias—let alone for a woman deliberately attempting to be “the loudest in the room.” Just see for yourself, through the many excellent points and links raised in a convenient recent Twitter thread posted by regular meghan 나영지 (@ruemcclammyhand):
Source: regular meghan 나영지 (@ruemcclammyhand)
Source: Michael Farrell (@mikefarrell); see here for the linked article at In These Times.
Source: CyberLuddite (@WispyNeckbeard); see here for the linked article at PBS.
As with all of the tips offered in the video, none of this context entirely precludes women from still taking them up. In this particular case for instance, I’m sure there’s much to be said for women “leaning in” and getting the attention they deserve, chauvinistic bosses’ and coworkers’ opinions be damned. (You tell me.) But the point remains that women face difficulties that men may not realize exist. So too with “Option 2: Use expansive hand gestures” (3:37) and—I regard them as the same really—“Option 3: Freely use neutral space” (4:24), which again ignore how strongly we’re all socialized against women doing either. As Niall Richardson sums up very well in Transgressive Bodies: Representations in Film and Popular Culture (2010, page 78):
…the question of “taking up space” is not the same when it transfers across the gender divide. From an early age women are taught to restrict their bodies and retreat while men are encouraged to dominate the space. Consider this vivid description from a Marge Piercy novel in which performers in a drama workshop are instructed by the teacher how to perform gender for the forthcoming play:
She demonstrated how men sat and how women sat on the subway, on benches. Men expanded into available space. They sprawled, or they sat with spread legs. They put their arms on the arms of chairs. They crossed their legs by putting a foot on the other knee. They dominated space expansively.
Women condensed. Women crossed their legs by putting one leg over the other and alongside. Women kept their elbows to their sides, taking up as little space as possible. They behaved as if it were their duty not to rub against, not to touch, not to bump a man. If contact occurred, the woman shrank back. If a woman bumped a man, he might choose to interpret it as a come-on. Women sat protectively, using elbows not to dominate space, not to mark territory, but to protect their soft tissues.
Another confession: actually, I only found Transgressive Bodies while (unsuccessfully) searching for a very similar page from Nancy Henley’s groundbreaking 1977 work, Body Politics: Power, Sex, and Nonverbal Communication, which frankly instantly came to mind when I saw the video title. For your interest, and because this classic deserves to be far better known, let me also include the following photos of pages 38-39:
Let me also pass on the first hit in my search, City Living: How Urban Spaces and Urban Dwellers Make One Another by Quill R. Kukla (2021, pages 261-262), who: shows how such micro-behaviours and norms extend to the macro; makes observations about the similar constraints on various races and classes; and indeed who goes on after the below to discuss that notorious Quora piece on white privilege:
A wide range of factors help determine who can access and participate in a purportedly shared space…. The color of our skin, our perceived gender identity, and our perceived class (regardless of our actual economic situation) all affect how we can move through and use space…. People whose bodies are read as female are trained from a young age to avoid streets at night, to travel in groups, and to adopt defensive and self-isolating bodily positions in order to avoid sexual attention from men (Young 1980). This training not only shapes their bodily movement through space, but prevents many social micro-interactions of the kind that make up city life; women cannot risk minor friendly passing interactions with men for fear that they will escalate.
For more on the macro, or more specifically how our transportation, streets, buildings, rooms, even the very chair you may be sitting on to read this may all be designed, built, or created under the assumption you’re a middle-aged cishet white man, I also highly recommend Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World by Leslie Kern (2020; my brief review here).*
*(Update: Published in 2021, “Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men” by Nadia Idle also sounds interesting.)
Image source: Yan Krukov @Pexels
Finally, for women to try “Option 4: Use platonic touch” (4:57) on men, they would not confront a sexist obstacle per se. More, a sexual reality: that cishet men, for good reason, are just wired to frequently misinterpret friendliness from women as sexual interest—let alone physical touch. But of course, there are issues with men using platonic touch on women too, which few men are going to start ignoring due to the video (although, confusedly, it does feature 2 male-female encounters among the dozen male-male ones).
And yet again a sexist obstacle emerges anyway. As most workplaces are male-dominated, especially as you move up the hierarchy and encounter figures you most need to impress, simple numbers ensure that men are far more likely to have opportunities to try this tactic on other men than women will on other women.
Or do they? I have a final confession to make: I am not the most ambitious of Charisma on Command subscribers, having very, very limited opportunities to use any of their tips in my own career. I have obvious limits in placing myself in working women’s shoes too. So, if I’ve dropped the ball asking myself what it might be like for women applying this video’s tips, please let me know. But either way, there will always be value in having such conversations about whether ‘universal’ tips genuinely apply to non cishet white men, and I look forward to continuing this one with you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter!
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- If She’s Got Bette Davis Eyes…
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