Monday, May 25, 2015
Favors and Gender and Helping: It's Complicated
I went to a conference in another city last weekend, and since I love public transportation, I was determined to use the city buses to get around. The system was a little confusing, but people were friendly and nice and helped me figure out where I was going.
Thus I found myself at around 6:15pm on a Friday sitting in the front of a city bus -- you know, the seats that face the middle -- in my nice conference clothes, with my backpack on my lap and my suitcase somewhat precariously to the left of my legs, paying close attention to the street names so I didn't miss my stop.
In the middle of my ride, a guy got on. He was late middle aged and paunchy, wearing causal clothes and -- this is the important part -- carrying too many things. In particular, he had a bag over his shoulder, a sort of binder for papers in one hand, and a large cup of coffee in the other.
I don't know if you're familiar with the problem of carrying too many things on public transit, but I am. When you take the bus or subway, you have to get out your card or money or whatever and show it or put it in the slot, which means you need at least one free hand. This means that, unless all your other objects are organized in the most precise possible way, carrying a cup of coffee is not going to work.
Incidentally, one effect of this for me is that it's a motivation to think of "drinking coffee" as a thing that takes place sitting down somewhere, something you finish before you move on to the next thing of "getting on the bus" or "going somewhere." To me, that's a feature not a bug, but I realize this could be a subject of profound disagreement.
Anyway, as I saw the guy get on, I thought, "how is he going to pay?" He's carrying too many things. He paused and considered his situation. Then he turned to me, held out the coffee, and said, "Here, could you hold this?"
I'm not going to lie. My first reaction was to feel annoyed and put out. Then stopped to consider why I was so irritated. Hadn't so many strangers been nice to me that day already? WTF?
There were several answers. Partly it was the way he asked, which was not in the tone of "Oh, could you help me?" but rather in the tone of, "Here, do this thing I need done." Partly it was the fact that, as I'd have thought obvious, I was already juggling multiple items of my own. Partly it was the fact that I was in my nice conference clothes, not really dressed for hostessing duties.
Partly it was the fact that this is not a problem that takes one by surprise. It's not like you can't foresee that when you get on the bus you're going to need to do something with your hands to facilitate paying. Why should this failure to plan become my problem?
As I considered these issues, I had to ask myself whether part of my irritation was gendered. Was I partly annoyed simply because it was a guy who'd asked me, and I was a woman?
Well, the answer is yes. I might be mistaken, but I think there's no way a guy would ask another guy in a nice suit and expensive shoes to hold his coffee on a bus. At least, there's no way it would be done in that tone of making a demand.
I tried to imagine a woman asking me to hold her coffee. I did feel immediately that I'd be far less likely to be annoyed in such a case, but I think this is mostly because of the tone of asking. I found it impossible to realistically imagine a woman asking me in that peremptory tone. In fact, many women have asked me to do things for them over the years, and it's pretty much always the same tone. I'm sorry to bother you. I need help with something. Could you please help me for a moment?
In fact the coffee story reminded me of another thing that happened last fall when I was having a McMuffin in a food court before an early morning bus ride, and a pregnant woman came up to me demanding I help her take off her boots. I admit, I hesitated -- but I'm happy to say only for a moment. She was in intense pain, she told me, because her feet were so swollen and and she couldn't get them off. I looked down and saw she was wearing those kind of rubber boots that have no give and no laces and no straps. Uh oh.
It took us like ten minutes of huffing and puffing to get those boots off. I pulled and pulled, she anchored herself with her arms and pulled the other way, and I twisted and turned the boots and checked to make sure I wasn't hurting her. We rested and resumed. Midway, she assured me that after she got them off she was never putting them back on again -- an assurance I appreciated actually, since it suggested all this effort wasn't just some kind of Sisyphean thing. I happened to be the only woman in the food court at that time, and the guys all around us were watching with that mild interest you pay when nothing else is going on and something is happening.
We were both thrilled when the boots came off. She thanked me, and I washed my hands and went back to my food, and she went up in her stocking feet to get something to eat. As I left the food court I saw she was gone and the boots were settled on top of the garbage can.
With the coffee guy on the bus, I did hold his coffee, but as I did it I fixed him with a look, a look that basically said, "Are you kidding me?" If you know me, you know that I can give that look pretty effectively. I'm hoping that next time he plans ahead, and gets his bus pass out before getting on.