Monday, November 16, 2009

A glimmer of understanding....

I am one of those people who believes that things happen for a reason. That includes the people who come into my life; whether it's a brief encounter with a stranger or a long-time relationship with a partner or friend. So when people say things to me about what I should or shouldn't do or think about, I pay attention. I may not agree and I may decide to do something completely different. But I do try to consider what is being said because sometimes the observations of another can be very insightful and helpful. Which inspires today's post....

Today what is on my mind is male-female interactions. This has actually been on my mind for quite some time now because a new friend pointed out to me awhile ago that I seem to be "oblivious". I was a bit puzzled at first because I've always thought of myself as being a very observant person. So I questioned my friend, trying to understand what he was trying to say. And much to my surprise, I discovered he is right. I am oblivious. I am so accustomed to "being one of the guys" that quite without my realizing it, I have become oblivious to the "interplay" between men and women. Those little signals men put out, as well as how some of the things I say and do are received by some men...and some women. My friend pointed out a few times that men were trying to "flirt" with me and I didn't seem to notice or respond. He also pointed out some of the things I say and do that men would see as "flirting" even though it wasn't my intention.

At first I thought my friend was wrong. So much so that I tested some of his theories intentionally. Just to give you an example, I am someone who believes in giving compliments. I am someone who has not received a lot of compliments in my life, so I know how much a compliment can brighten someone's day. So I try to give compliments when I can. Not just random, meaningless compliments, but real compliments. If I think a particular color looks good on someone, I say so. It doesn't matter to me if it's a man or a woman. I just say "Hey, that's a good color on you!" If someone reminds me of something important I need to do, I say "Thank you for pointing that out to me!"  To me it just seems like the easiest thing in the world that I can do that might make someone else feel good for a day. To me it's no different than drawing a smiley face in the sand when I'm out hiking. I like the idea that the next person who comes along might smile when they see that smiley face. It makes me smile to think that I may have brought a smile to someone else's face. And I don't see anything "wrong" with doing such things. However....

There have been times in my life when people have become upset with me, attributing an "agenda" to me that I simply don't have, and it's not only puzzled me, it's hurt me. I get confused when I get accused of "flirting" when I'm not flirting. Not to say that I don't ever flirt, I do. But I know when I'm flirting and when I'm not. But apparently, sometimes people think I am flirting when it's the furthest thing from my mind. So when my friend pointed some of these things out to me, I paid attention because, as I said earlier, I think things happen for a reason and since certain recent situations in my life have confused and hurt me, I figure God or Life or the Cosmos or whatever you want to attribute it to, sent this new friend into my life to help me figure this out, particularly because one of the first conversations we had included a handshake agreement that we were both only interested in friendship and nothing else, because we both just like "hearing the point of view of the opposite sex", making it very easy to strike up a friendship and not have to worry about anything else. So, when he made these observations, I started paying attention in a "different way" because I had no reason to be suspicious of his motives.

My friend pointed out that men are far more receptive to, and affected by compliments than I realize. Now, I've spent most of my life around "macho men", the kind of guys who are non-responsive to compliments. Or if they do respond, it's in a negative way; designed to let you know they "don't need compliments". As a result, I suppose it's only natural that I would assume that ALL men are immune to compliments, so this observation surprised me and I admit, I was skeptical. But being a curious sort, I wanted to see if it's true so I set out to test the theory. My first "test" so to speak, was to intentionally compliment a much younger co-worker who I felt certain would be immune to a compliment from me. First of all because we'd already had a few conflicts so we were not instant "buddies". But also because he's so head-over-heels in love with his girlfriend that she is his favorite topic of conversation; according to him the world revolves around her. I felt certain that here was a man who would not even notice a compliment from me. So I intentionally complimented him on his whiskers; something that I admire on a man. He responded by "brushing off" my compliment, explaining he'd just not had time to shave and that he intends to shave when he gets home because his girlfriend hates whiskers. I took it one step further and said "well, I think whiskers look good....you should grow a goatee." He smiled and said he used to wear a goatee but shaved it off at his girlfriend's request. That was the extent of the conversation. Much to my surprise, the next day he showed up at work with a goatee, AND went out of his way to make sure I noticed. Now I just don't understand that at all. If his girlfriend, whom he adores, hates whiskers, why would a comment from me: a MUCH older woman, inspire him to wear a goatee and seek out my approval? I don't understand. It seems to me that the preferences of his girlfriend whom he claims to adore, would take precendence over a compliment from a much older woman he has no interest in.

That's just one example of my "testing" and the results I am shocked to discover. Now the other part of the story is that my friend pointed out that I don't seem to notice when men are trying to get my attention. I really couldn't argue with that since I had already been a little bit aware of being confused by some of the things men say and do. I have frequently found myself scratching my head, trying to decide if "that meant something or not". I guess I'd have to attribute that once again to having spent so much time around "macho men". Macho men are aggressive; they come right out and say what's on their minds. There's no wondering what they want because they make it very clear. A macho man just asks you out, point blank. They don't waste time with casual flirting, or hinting around or doing things to "get your attention". They just say "do you want to go out with me or not?" Conveying very clearly that they are interested if you are interested. So if a man who I consider to be "just a friend" says to me "so would you ever date a man who is shorter than you?" I think he's simply asking out of curiosity in an effort to get to know me better. At most I might wonder if he was thinking of setting me up with one of his friends who happens to be short. It doesn't occur to me that he might be referring to himself. Although, now that it's been pointed out to me, I can see where a man who feels a little insecure about his stature might take that approach. Which in turn, makes me wonder about those times when male "friends" have asked me if I would date a man who is shorter, taller, older, younger, etc...In case anyone is wondering...shorter, yes...within an inch or two. Taller, yes. Older or younger: within 5 years either way; any more than that and I start worrying about what will happen when we're old.

This conversation with my friend has been a rather on-going one. With me asking questions and him pointing things out. One of the examples he gave me was an experience he'd had recently. There's a cafe in town where he sometimes likes to go for coffee and he shared with me how a particular waitress seems to go out of her way to "chat" with him, making up excuses to start a conversation. Whether it's about paperwork he's looking at or commenting on how often he frequents the cafe, but always trying to draw his attention. Now, I listen to his observations and right away think "well, maybe she's just doing her job and being friendly to a "regular", or responding to the fact my friend is a good tipper." But he pointed out to me that from a man's point of view; she's intentionally getting his attention so therefore he wonders if she would be "interested" if he were to ask her out. So I filed that away in my little brain for future consideration and then a few weeks later found myself wondering about what I normally would have considered just a "humerous exchange" in which a man I didn't know, but had chatted with briefly about an hour earlier in the midst of doing my job, tossed a handful of pens into a box right as I walked past the box. I flippantly joked "are you throwing pens at me?" And he quickly quipped right back: "Do you want me to?"

That stopped me in my tracks. 

Now I have said that exact same phrase on occasion when people have teasingly asked me a question, and when I said it, I was just kidding, playing along with the teasing. But suddenly I found myself wondering if this man I didn't know, was "fishing" to find out if I was intentionally trying to get his attention with my comment about throwing pens at me. Was it an expression of interest? So there I am, frozen in my tracks, literally: Trying to decide how to respond because suddenly I'm not trusting my usual joking responsiveness. Finally, just to end the awkward silence that was sort of hanging in the air as I stood there staring at him with what I'm sure was a very puzzled and stunned expression, I finally said "No, that would hurt." and walked away. I was so befuddled I didn't even think to notice the expression on his face to see how he responded to that. In retrospect, I realize he was a tall and attractive man, in my age group, but I hadn't even bothered to notice if he was wearing a wedding ring or not, which just drove home my friend's observation of just how oblivious I really am.

Now that my "obliviousness" has been brought to my attention, I can't help but ask myself if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I mean, I can see how my lack of awareness has caused some problems in my life. But is it such a bad thing to address men as "people" instead of always seeing them as a "man" and myself as a "woman"? Having spent my life always being "one of the guys" I am inclined to relate to men as "people who just happen to be male" instead of seeing them as potential "mates". I have also grown accustomed to wives and girlfriends being suspicious of me. It just goes with the territory. It used to really hurt me because I didn't understand why they would be suspicious of me. It seemed to me that if they trust their husbands and boyfriends, it should be a non-issue and if they don't trust them, then maybe they should be asking themselves why they are with him. I also felt like if they were that concerned about it, maybe they should just join in and see first hand what is going on instead of sitting at home stewing about imaginary scenarios.  Now that's not to say that *I* have never been suspicious of a woman hanging around  MY man. I have. But I don't attack or ostracize the woman. I think it makes more sense to trust my man to do the right thing and if he doesn't, well, I'll find out eventually and then I won't want him anymore. But being the kind of woman who prefers to "hang out with the guys" I know better than to just assume the woman is there to catch herself a man. Some of us just prefer the company of the guys because we'd rather be wrenching on cars than discussing the latest fashions with the girls. Needless to say, those are the kind of women I am most likely to befriend because they are like me, and like me, they understand that "hanging out with the guys" rarely results in "a date" or even a man "coming on" to you. In fact, the opposite is true; they are more likely to adopt you like a "little sister" and become protective of you when men outside the group show interest in you. A very handy benefit at times!

So, continuing with the conversation with my friend... I recently decided to tackle the task of sorting through boxes that haven't been opened in 7 years. As a result, I found myself looking at old pictures...a lot of them. And one thing I noticed as I "strolled down memory lane" was that I used to look like a girl. I found myself wondering what happened to that girl? Where did she go? And why? I think a large part of the answer to that question is simply that a side-effect of "hanging out with the guys and wanting to be accepted as just one of the guys" was to "dress down" in an effort to NOT be seen as a "woman" but rather as just a part of the gang. Add to that the fact that hanging out with the guys also means doing things like working on cars or going hunting or other activities that usually involve getting dirty, and you quickly learn to leave the nice clothes in the closet and just wear your grungies, and it seems pointless to wear makeup when you're wearing grungies, so you just don't bother.

As I looked at all these old photos of me with make-up and styled hair and wearing nice blouses, I suddenly understood why my Mother had taken to nagging me about the way I looked the last 20 years or so. So I decided to "make an effort" and see if I could relocate that girl who used to take the time to curl her hair and put on make-up and actually put some thought into what she was wearing instead of just grabbing whatever was handy and comfortable, so for a couple weeks I made a point of trying to "look like a girl" whenever I left the house. And again, I was startled by the impact it seemed to have on others. Suddenly, men were opening doors for me, and staring at me, and striking up conversations with me.... and women were glaring daggers at me. (Sorry ladies, I can't help it that God gave me long, slim legs, so just get over it, would ya???)

But the thing that struck me the most was the first time my friend saw me "all made up"....he said "Who are you trying to impress???" And I immediately felt guilty and defensive at the same time. Like the simple act of trying to make the most of what few attributes I have, immediately made me guilty of "having an agenda". Which made me wonder about how often people make snap judgements on the basis of appearances. Like how often has a man or a woman assumed I was "up to something" just because I woke up one morning and felt like dressing nice for a change? It's not difficult to imagine, in light of the new insights my friend has shared with me, that those who are accustomed to seeing me in faded jeans and a tanktop would assume I was "trying to impress someone" on those days I took the time to put on a nice shirt and a little make-up. So just for the record, in case anyone actually reads this....I dress according to my mood. You can safely guess how I'm feeling based on how I'm dressed. So if I look like a rebel, I'm probably feeling rebellious. If I look like I'm ready to change the oil in my Jeep...I probably intend to. If I look like a girl, I just felt like looking like a girl because sometimes I get tired of being mistaken for a man. That's all. I am not a woman who puts on an outfit with the "intent" of attracting the attention of men. Quite frankly, I'm startled when men behave "chivalrously" toward me or do something to "get my attention". I don't expect it because I've rarely HAD that kind of treatment, so even when it happens I doubt that that's what's actually happening. I assume I misunderstood or at most, assume that it's just "the way he is" and has nothing to do with me, kind of like how my Dad always opens the door for me and my sisters because that's what men of his generation do.

There's one other thing my friend pointed out to me that I admit made me feel very, very sad. He said "you seem so self-contained that a lot of men would assume you don't need anyone." When I asked him what he meant by that, he replied, "Well, you can fix your own Jeep, swing a hammer, use power tools, do yard work and so on. A man might think you wouldn't need him because you're so self-sufficient." That really hit me hard. I couldn't help but wonder, "wouldn't a man like to be with a woman who is with him because she WANTS to be with him, instead of being with him because she can't make it on her own?" I know how I would feel if a man was only with me because he was needy. I find this observation confusing because so many men over the years have admitted they admire the fact that I can do things like drive a stick-shift, run a tractor, get up on the roof and help shingle, build a post and rail fence, and so on. I was under the impression that men like women who are willing to get out there and work with them. But even an "industrial woman" like myself *needs* a man, just not so much for things like shoveling the sidewalk (although I do appreciate a man who will do that). What I need from a man is companionship and camaraderie and affection. My friend's observation made me feel like I should try to be less self-sufficient and more "helpless", which just doesn't seem right to me. I'm not helpless. But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate it when men do things for me. In fact, I appreciate it very much, possibly even more so than the women who don't know how to do those things, because I actually know what's involved. It's not uncommon for me to sit and listen to a woman complain about how it's taking half a day for a man to complete a task and I'm thinking "Wow, only half a day? That's FAST for that job!" because I've actually DONE that job and know how time consuming it is. Anyway, it makes me sad if it's true that men would be intimidated by my ability to do so many things. Partly because I can't "unlearn" what I already know and partly because I don't feel the least bit intimidated by a man who can cook or knows how to separate the laundry. I just think he's well-balanced and not "stuck" in gender-biased role-playing. And if he can sew...well, he has my undying admiration because I can't sew to save my life....

Overall, my friend has given me some interesting "food for thought" and helped me a lot in finding new ways of looking at things that have puzzled, frustrated, and hurt me for decades. But it still leaves me with alot of unanswered questions: Am I wrong to treat people like people first and as a particular gender second?  Should I treat people differently on the basis of their gender as a matter of "self-defense"? Should I NOT compliment a man's shirt or show appreciation for his friendship? Should I hang out more with "the girls" and less with "the guys" just to avoid being attacked and ostracized even though I prefer more "masculine social activities" over more traditionally "female social activities" such as "doing lunch" or "going shopping"? Should I change who I am so others can feel "safe" around me, even though I am no threat? (Seriously ladies, your man could make a pass at me and I probably wouldn't notice...) And one really big glaring question that is pinging around in my brain....Am I missing the boat? Am I failing to find "what I'm looking for" because the art of "flirting" is lost on me? Is this something I should learn more about for my own benefit??? Isn't that a little dishonest and manipulative?

Sound off people! I am interested in hearing your thoughts!