A recent Guinness ad has been getting a lot of kudos and I want to join in the praise. It involves a set of guys who get together to play a pick-up game of wheelchair basketball and then join each other at a bar to celebrate the game. Lots of people have mentioned that it’s nice to see (1) a lack of objectification of women as a form of male bonding and (2) a nice representation of people with disabilities. Both of those things are great in my book.
But here’s another thing I really liked: their retreat to the bar and their formation once they got there. They sat in a circle.
Why is this neat? Because scholars have found that male and female friendships tendto bedifferent. Male friendships tend to be more “shoulder-to-shoulder” than “face-to-face.” Men are more likely to get together and do stuff: they watch football together, go out and play pool, have poker nights, etc. Women are more likely to spend time just talking, confessing, disclosing, and being supportive of each other’s feelings.
The benefits of friendship are strongly related to self-disclosure. And so men’s friendships — if they don’t involve actual intimacy — often don’t offer the same boost to physical and well-being as women’s friendships. The fact that these guys sit down together at a bar, in a circle, in order to engage in some face-to-face time after their shoulder-to-shoulder time… well, that’s really nice to me.
Thanks to Rebecca H. for submitting the commercial!
Flight attendants are not only friendly with their passengers, they’re also often super friendly with each other. This may be because especially gregarious people go into the profession, but it’s also an adaptation to a surprising structural feature of their job. It turns out that, on any given flight anywhere in the world, most flight attendants are meeting their co-workers for the very first time.
There are about 100,000 flight attendants in the U.S. alone and they get their flights through a process of bidding, one month at a time, one month ahead. Most really do “see the world,” as the old glamorized image of the intrepid stewardess suggests, instead of working the same route over and over again. As a result, explains Drew Whitelegg in Working the Skies, they rarely run into the same flight attendant twice.
This means that flight attendants must get to know one another quickly once they get on board. They need to do so to make food and beverage service efficient, to coordinate their actions in the tight galleys in which they work and, most importantly, so that they will trust one another if they are called upon to do what they are really there for: acting in an emergency, one that could theoretically happen within seconds of take-off. There’s no time to lose. “[F]rom the moment they board the plane,” writes Whitelegg, “these workers — even if complete strangers — begin constructing bonds.”
Image credit: National Library of Australia
Their instant bonding is facilitated by their shared experiences and their “peculiar identity,” Whitelegg explains — few people understand their job and the airline industry deliberately misportays it – and also by a culture of confession. The galley has its own rules to which new flight attendants are socialized. So, even though the workers are always new, the workplace is predictable. Whitlegg describes how galley conversations during downtime tend to be extremely, sometimes excruciatingly personal. ”The things you hear,” laughs Clare, a flight attendant for Continental, “I could write a book. The things you hear at 30,000 feet.” It’s the odd combination of a habit of bonding and the anonymity of strangers.
So, if you have the pleasure of taking a flight, spend a few minutes watching the surprising coordination of strangers who seem like old friends, and take a moment to appreciate the amazing way these workers have adapted to their very peculiar position.
In a wonderfully provocative article titled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (full text), writer and poet Adrienne Rich argues, among other things, that the assumption of heterosexuality in the context of patriarchy alternatively erases and stigmatizes woman-to-woman bonds.
Though the title specifies lesbianism, she means intense and meaningful relationships between women more generally. In other words, an overbearing heterosexuality orients women towards men not just as sexual and romantic partners, but as the arbiters of all that is good and right. Accordingly, women don’t turn to other women to validate their ideas, their value, their beauty, or anything else about them. This post, analyzing the reality show Battle of the Bods, is a stark example.
If only men can validate women’s worth, then other women exist only as competition for their approval. This is good for patriarchy; it divides and conquers women, keeping them constantly looking to please the men around them and making them feel invisible and worthless if they can’t get attention from or endorsement from men.
There are various strategies for getting men’s stamp of approval: being the busy and useful mother of a man’s children is one way, while being a childless so-called “trophy wife” is another. You can imagine, right away, that these two kinds of women might see themselves as in competition. One may be more harried, with less time to tend to her physical fitness and keep her hair shiny and her make-up and clothes just right. The other may have plenty of time to keep herself fit and beautiful, but knows that her connection to her husband may feel less permanent without children to tie her to him. Moreover, the childless wife is often a second wife. So all sexy, single, childless women are, theoretically, a threat to the wife and mother. And all husband/dads are, theoretically, a target for wanna-be second wives.
Pop culture constantly re-affirms these narratives. It frequently naturalizes the idea that women should turn to men, and not women, to reinforce their value. Portraying women as in competition is part of that. The “trophy wife” vs. the “busy mom” is one of those match-ups. Enter this Volvo ad, sent in by Dolores R.:
The ad encourages us to think mean-spirited thoughts about the married but (presumably) childless woman with the puckered lips. She clearly sees herself as in competition with the redhead, looking over to check that she is, in fact, more beautiful, and looking satisfied that she is. The redhead, though, has (supposedly) more important things to do than check herself out in the mirror. She’s got kids. How shallow the blond, we’re told to think, how fake. ”Designed for real people,” the narrator explains, “designed around you.”
As my good friend Caroline Heldman says, when we see women that excel in some way — whether they be accomplished in their career, impressive fashionistas, incredible parents, truly loved partners, inspired artists, or what-have-you — we are taught to find something about them to dismiss because they make us feel insecure. Instead, we should think “How fabulous is she! I want to tell her how great she is and be her friend!”
Happy Graduation, Seniors! Congratulations! What’s next? Below is some sociologically-inspired, out-of-the-box advice on work, love, family, friendship, and the meaning of life. For new grads from the two of us!
1. Don’t Worry About Making Your Dreams Come True
College graduates are often told: “follow your passion,” do “what you love,” what you were “meant to do,” or “make your dreams come true.” Two-thirds think they’re going find a job that allows them to change the world, half within five years. Yikes.
This sets young people up to fail. The truth is that the vast majority of us will not be employed in a job that is both our lifelong passion and a world-changer; that’s just not the way our global economy is. So it’s ok to set your sights just a tad below occupational ecstasy. Just find a job that you like. Use that job to help you have a full life with lots of good things and pleasure and helping others and stuff. A great life is pretty good, even if it’s not perfect.
2. Make Friends
Americans put far too much emphasis on finding Mr. or Ms. Right and getting married. We think this will bring us happiness. In fact, however, both psychological well-being and health are more strongly related to friendship. If you have good friends, you’ll be less likely to get the common cold, less likely to die from cancer, recover better from the loss of a spouse, and keep your mental acuity as you age. You’ll also feel more capable of facing life’s challenges, be less likely to feed depressed or commit suicide, and be happier in old age. Having happy friends increases your chance of being happy as much as an extra $145,500 a year does. So, make friends!
This might be you. Research shows that young people’s expectations about their marital status (e.g., the desire to be married by 30 and have kids by 32) have little or no relationship to what actually happens to people. So, go with the flow.
And, if you’re single, you’re in good company. Single people spend more time with friends, volunteer more, and are more involved in their communities than married people. Never-married and divorced women are happier, on average, than married women. So, don’t buy into the myth of the miserable singleton.
4. Don’t Take Your Ideas about Gender and Marriage Too Seriously
If you do get married, keep going with the flow. Relationship satisfaction, financial security, and happy kids are more strongly related to flexibility in the face of life’s challenges than any particular way of organizing families. The most functional families are ones that can bend. So partnering with someone who thinks that one partner should support their families and the other should take responsibility for the house and children is a recipe for disaster. So is being equally rigid about non-traditional divisions of labor. It’s okay to have ideas about how to organize your family – and, for the love of god, please talk about both your ideals and fallback positions on this – but your best bet for happiness is to be flexible.
5. Think Hard About Whether to Buy a House
Our current image of the American Dream revolves around homeownership, and buying a home is often taken for granted as a stage on the path to full-fledge adulthood. But the ideal of universal home ownership was born in the 1950s. It’s a rather new idea.
With such a short history, it’s funny that people often insist that buying a house is a fool-proof investment and the best way to secure retirement. In fact, buying a house may not be the best choice for you. The mortgage may be less than rent, but there are also taxes, insurance, and the increasingly common Home Owners Association (HOA) fees. You may someday sell the house for more than you bought it but, if you paid interest on a mortgage, you also paid far more than the sale price. You have freedom from a landlord, but may discover your HOA is just as controlling, or worse. And then there’s the headache: renting relieves you from the stress of being responsible for repairs. It also offers a freedom of movement that you might cherish.
So, think carefully about whether buying or renting is a better fit for your finances, lifestyle, and future goals. This New York Timesrent vs. buy calculator is a good start.
6. Think Even Harder about Having Kids
One father had this to say about children: “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.” In fact, having children correlates with both an increased sense of purpose in life and a long-lasting decrease in individual and marital happiness. Having kids means spending a lot of your short life and limited income on one source of joy. It’s not a bad decision. But it’s also not the only good decision you can make. We want to think we can “have it all” but, in fact, it’s a zero sum game. You have only so much time and money and there are lots of ways to find satisfaction, pleasure, and meaning in this life. Consider all your options.
7. Remember: If You Change Your Mind, You’re Still Right!
For some reason Americans feel ashamed when they discover they’re wrong. So much so that we often refuse to admit it or go on the counter-attack. Being told we’re wrong, though, is really great! It means we have a good chance of not making that mistake in quite that way again. That doesn’t mean it feels good, but it is a very good thing to learn how to accept that we’re wrong – and, trust us, you will be, lots and lots of times, about many different things — without treating every correction as a threat to our very identity. So next time someone corrects your facts, logic, or point of view, say “Hey thanks!”
8. Listen When People Point Out Your Privilege
One of the hardest ways to be wrong involves saying something that is inadvertently prejudicial. When someone points out that something we said or did was racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, classist or otherwise, we often feel attacked. Remember, though, that if someone bothers to engage with you on this kind of issue, it means they think you’re worth it. It’s really easy to write someone off as racist; it’s much harder to start a dialogue on the issue. If they do the latter, it’s because they’ve decided that you’re a good person who’s worth their time and energy. So instead of launching into an explanation for why and how you can’t possibly be prejudiced, ask “Can you tell me what you mean?” and listen listen listen.
9. Make Allies and, Yes, Change the World
C. Wright Mills one said that sociology was both terrifying and magnificent. It is terrifying because it teaches us that our lives are not ours to determine, but are subject to cultural norms and institutional forces over which we have very little control. It’s magnificent, however, because once we can see the system for what it is, we can agree to change it. In other words, we’re stuck in a system not of our own making, but we’re in it together. So, when you come across an unfair workplace, an unjust law, a biased educational practice, or some other injustice, know that — with the right allies, hard work, and a little luck — you may just have the power to change it.
Let me ask you a question: Do you have a good friend of the opposite sex?
Odds are you do. In fact, the odds are overwhelming.
When I first began teaching, 25 or so years ago, I asked my students how many of them had a good friend of the opposite sex. About 10% said they did. The rest were from what I called the When Harry Met Sally generation. You’ll remember the scene, early in the film, when Harry asserts that women and men can’t be friends because “sex always gets in the way.” Sally is sure he’s wrong. They fight about it. Then, thinking she has the clincher for her position, she says, confidently, “So that means that you can be friends with them if you’re not attracted to them!”
“Ah,” says Harry, “you pretty much want to nail them too.”
Young people today have utterly and completely repudiated this idea. These days, when I ask my students, I’ve had to revise the question: “Is there anyone here who does not have a friend of the opposite sex?” A few hands perhaps, in the more than 400 students in the class.
But let’s think, for a moment, about the “politics” of friendship. With whom do you make friends? With your peers. Not your supervisor or boss. Not your subordinate. Your equal. More than romance, and surely more than workplace relationships, friendships are the relationships with the least amount of inequality.
This changes how we can engage men in the efforts to end sexual assault, because there are three elements to sexual assault that can be discussed and disentangled.
First is m en’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, to sex. This sense of entitlement dissolves in the face of an encounter with your friends. After all, entitlement is premised on inequality. The more equal women are, the less entitlement men may feel. (Entitlement is not to be confused with resentment; equality often breeds resentment in the privileged group. The privileged rarely support equality because they fear they have something to lose.) Entitlement leads men to think that they can do whatever they want.
Second, the Bro Code tells those guys that they’re right – that they can get away with it because their bros won’t challenge or confront them. The bonds of brotherhood demand men’s silent complicity with predatory and potentially assaultive behavior. One never rats out the brotherhood. But if we see our female friends as our equals, then we might be more likely to act ethically to intervene and resist being a passive bystander. (And, of course, we rescue our male friends from doing something that could land him in jail for a very long time.)
Men’s silence is what perpetuates the culture of sexual assault; many of the excellent programs that work to engage men suggest that men start making some noise. We know the women, or know people who know them. This is personal.
Finally, we’re better than that – and we know it.
Sexual assault is often seen as an abstraction, a “bad” thing that happens to other people: Bad people do bad things to people who weren’t careful, were drunk or compromised. But, as I said, it’s personal. And besides, this framing puts all the responsibility on women to monitor their activities, alcohol consumption, and environments; if they don’t, whose fault is it?
This sets the bar far too low to men. It assumes that unless women monitor and police everything they do, drink, say, wear etc., we men are wild, out of control animals and we cannot be held responsible for our actions.
Surely we can do better than this. Surely we can be the good and decent and ethical men we say we are. Surely we can promise, publicly and loudly, the pledge of the White Ribbon Campaign (the world’s largest effort to engage men to end men’s violence against women): I pledge never to commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and girls.
Our friends – both women and men – deserve and expect no less of us.