In amongst all the “fake news” there’s been some real and powerful stories about gender and power. This is one small story about how the rules we make up can effect our everyday interactions.
The current US Vice President apparently has a strict rule: he won’t attend events where alcohol is present without his wife close by his side, and he won’t have meals or private meetings with women unless his wife is present. Based on a similar set of rules devised by the famous preacher Billy Graham, this so-called rule reminded me of an experience I had at dinner in Hong Kong a few years ago.
We were 12 very different people, seated around a square table in a dumpy Thai restaurant, perched above Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong district. We were gathered to celebrate the recent winner of a major literary prize, whose novel was a sweeping tale full of post-colonial politics and identity issues, set Asia.
In a way, we all had some connection to story-telling, but as we introduced ourselves–advertiser, artist, author, blogger, cinematographer, critic, journalist, marketer, newspaper columnist, poet–it was hard to see what we had in common apart from our beautiful, impeccably styled friend and host.
To my right was a retail heiress I already knew socially. She was polite and funny, and we shared a common interest in modern art. To my left was an advertiser and after a few minutes it was clear she, to put it bluntly, didn’t want to engage in conversation with me on anything. It meant I had to traverse a gulf, something that felt like a black hole, to speak the author who was seated on that side of the table. As the night progressed this grew ever more wearisome.
Conversations at dinners like this don’t always flow evenly. Although the guest of honour was to my left, I found myself turning more often to the right. Partly because the heiress seemed more willing to respond to my comments than the advertiser; partly because our ever vigilant host, was quick to keep any lull in the conversation at bay and largely because seated either side of her were a film critic and a cinematographer who were not only keen to test each other’s knowledge of the history of Asian cinema, but very quickly became the loudest and most inebriated guests at the table.
Just after our main courses were cleared away, our host noticed that the advertiser and I didn’t seem to be getting along to well. So she got up and came over for a chat. The advertiser, in a voice loud enough for the whole table to hear, said that although I was an interesting person, I was married and should not have been at a dinner like this without my wife.
Just like that all the conversations around the table ground to a halt. It was like a scene from a bad comedy. A few people piped up that they too had spouses or partners who weren’t present since this wasn’t really that kind of social event. Upon hearing this the advertiser dug in her heels. As if to avoid sounding prejudiced, she went on to explain how, if I was single she would be talking to me, since I seemed like an interesting guy – a potential match maybe, I have no idea – but as things were, we shouldn’t be talking.
I didn’t know what to say or even what to think. It felt odd, humiliating, even, like turning up to a formal party in excessively casual clothes. What did this mean? What assumptions were being made? If I’d been some generic middle-aged cliche, a divorcé with an expensive watch, she would be talking to me, but because I was honest about my family, she was unwilling to explore the one thing we did have in common, our reason for being at this table in the first place?
The host’s hand on my shoulder before she went back to her seat said more than any apology could. Some guests registered their disgust with a subtle eye roll or shake of the head. This being Hong Kong, no-one wanted to push the issue, to force someone to lose face.
The heiress whispered to me, “That was unreal,” before lobbing a question over the black hole to our guest, the author, about the way cultural misunderstandings shaped his story telling.
FOOTNOTE: Why This Matters
Since writing this, there has been a series of articles attracting attention to the issue, like this one in the New York Times It’s Not Just Mike Pence: Americans Are Wary of Being Alone With the Opposite Sex and this, from The Guardian Can men and women be just good friends?. Clearly it resonates far beyond the foibles of one high-profile man.
Most of the really valuable and worthwhile career advice I’ve received hasn’t come in structured and supervised workplace encounters or events, but in more casual, looser moments, like the dinner I described above, or, smaller still, like the endless number of one-on-one conversations I’ve had over coffee or drinks, or in the course of a long walk. This is true for most people, it seems.
Whenever I’ve recounted the story I told above, the response from successful women has always been similar: an expressed thankfulness for the male friendships they’ve had. It shouldn’t be so, but it’s still hard for women to succeed, and it will only be harder if we start making up rules that limit access to the kinds of conversations where the really important insights and ideas get an airing.
I’ve had female friends my whole life. As much as my female friends thank their male colleagues I thank my female friends for their honesty, wisdom, and insight. The idea that simply being alone with a woman, in a restaurant or coffee shop, is enough to trigger something “inappropriate” just feels off.
Let’s be frank – I’m not every woman’s “type” and my type isn’t “any woman I’m around”.
But I think we should push this further still. According to the Pence/Graham rule, a man may not have a chat with a woman, say over coffee, because of this instant, irresistible lust thing. Of course, the implication here is that a straight man can’t. Does this mean a gay man can’t have coffee with another man because, you know, lust. What about bisexuals? Are they condemned forever to drink coffee alone?
It’s hard not to see these kinds of rules as justification for a very reductionistic way of looking at human emotion. Perhaps some men do struggle to process emotions in any finer way than conflict or conquest, fight or fuck, but is that really how we want to define adulthood?
I called these “fake rules” because I don’t believe they reflect anything that is within us. Rather, they reflect a view of humanity that we choose to impose. It’s an assumption that people, left to themselves, will always chase short-term gratification, all the time, with anybody; that we essentially go out into the world led by our genitals, for the whole of our lives.