Monday, January 12, 2015

Universalizing The Female Niceness Tax

Woman on a Striped Sofa with a Dog, by Mary Cassatt, via Wikimedia Commons

Frequently I find myself dealing with what I think of as the female-niceness-tax. If you're a woman you probably know what I'm talking about. It's the way some men, men we don't know, talk to us in a way that asks for care, concern, a listening ear, some moments of our time, a bit of sympathy. Not all men. But enough men that it's a thing.

Sometimes it's men you're attempting to deal with in a consumer or economic transaction, like you're taking a taxi ride and the driver won't stop talking to you, and other times it's just people you run into when you're trying to do something. Like the other day, I was getting the snow scraper out of the car of someone I know and someone else was kindly wiping snow off their car, and it turned into this whole like let-me-tell-you-some-things "guy confidential."

Often it's a tale of woe, like when someone wants to tell you about how they had some illness, or got screwed by some other person, or got fired unfairly, or got rejected from school, or whatever. Sometimes it includes Q + A, which in this context means Questions and Advice, like where you say you live in X place and the guy says "You live where? Why do live there when you could live in this other place? You should live in this other place, it'd be much better for you."

Snow scraper guy talked to me for about ten minutes, and hit most of the big categories, including details about how he, too, was going to do a PhD but there was X problem and the police got involved (we'll just leave that story there for now). It was about 15F, and it was still snowing, but I was clearly expected to be nice and stay and chat and listen and make appropriate sympathetic sounds.

The nature of this "expectation" is interesting, because obviously nobody is forcing you. But usually, at least in my experience, the implicit trade-off is pretty clear: you can stay and listen and be nice, or you will be thought to be a bitch, or called a bitch to your face, or worse.

It can be annoying. You're there hoping to get back to your thoughts or your book or your project or your music and instead you are thrust into this dilemma: stop what you are doing and do a little niceness work, or deal with some angry fall-out. Either way, it's like a niceness tax: pay up or else.

The reason I think of this as a female-niceness-tax is that for some reason I'm not clear on, the men who talk to female strangers this way don't seem to talk to male strangers this way. These men, when they encounter other men, seem to have a different game going on altogether. Either they say nothing, or they want to impress, or they want to exchange opinions, or show off some knowledge. But silence among men often seems acceptable. One of the advantages of being out in the world with a guy instead of alone is getting to dodge the female-niceness-tax.

In the modern world, the payment of the tax feels unfair to me, a constant drag on my ability to do the things I need to do or the things that gain modern would currency like accomplishing things or making money or getting tasks done so I can move on to something else.

Here's where it gets complicated, though. Because it's easy to be indignant about the tax and it's easy to express that indignation by saying the tax should be abolished, that women must be left alone to go about their business, that this constant interfering in their mental lives is bad, a wrong, a problematic way that people relate to one another.

But do you really want to say that a small attempt at human connection is an essentially problematic way to relate to others? I don't. I actually wish people could be a bit nicer and warmer to one another all the time, not a bit colder and harsher. So someone needs a pat on the back, an attentive listener for a few minutes, someone to say "wow, that sucks that that happened to you."

In my view, the problem with the tax isn't that it's there, it's that we're the only ones paying it. I wish it didn't have the particular gendered component that it has. Even the negatives of the gendered component really count as negatives only because our society has become so peculiar in making the pursuit of exchangeable commodities like money status and prestige so essential to an OK life.

So rather than abolish the female-niceness-tax, can't we just make everybody pay it?

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