Friday, October 2, 2009

Friendliness and Femininity

I tend to think about gendered social expectations a lot. For one thing, I'm raising a couple of girls here, and for another thing, I tend not to conform to some of the expectations, and have gotten my share of shit from well-meaning friends and family as well as complete strangers. I used to be sort of bewildered by this. Why on earth would a complete stranger be so invested in how I perform gender? So I've written before on the topics of owning your physical space and changing your speech patterns in order to stop apologizing and verbally deferring to men so often. But over the last few weeks I've been thinking about another way in which women and men are socialized (and judged) differently.

I am not a naturally friendly person. I'm just not, and at this point in my life I think I can stop being in denial about it or subconsciously feeling guilty about it. Some people have a natural propensity to be friendly, and others don't. And not being naturally friendly doesn't reflect on your character or moral worth at all. There's no universal obligation to be friendly. And many men are unabashedly unfriendly and downright prickly, but people don't tend to judge them or guilt them about it. But women who aren't naturally friendly are frequently judged. Think about how many male authors there are who are notoriously reclusive, and abrasive and irritable when they do come into contact with others. This is generally thought to be a charming eccentricity. Now think about all the things that are said about Annie Proulx's personality. Why does she have an obligation to be warm and empathetic and put others at ease, when her male counterparts don't?

And it's not as if I'm rude or lacking in empathy or cold or anything like that. I just despise making small talk. And I often have a hard time discovering the things I might have in common with a stranger. I'm often lost in thought, or focused on my kid, or just want to read my book or magazine and listen to my music until the flight is over for crying out loud. And if I'm really honest, the effort involved in making a connection with a stranger I'll probably never see again and most likely don't have anything in common with often doesn't seem worth it to me. Does that mean I think the individual person is not worthwhile? Not at all. In general I tend to like people and expect good things out of them. Does it mean I think they're beneath me? Of course not. And I'm generally thought to be very friendly when I'm with people I already know, and I can make small talk and smooth over awkward situations if I have to. I just find it tedious and mind-numbing and tiresome to have to do it.

But this is something I've avoided admitting to myself for years, and I think this has a lot to do with gendered expectations. It's yet another way that I "fail" at femininity. And I'm fine with this "failure," since meeting the ridiculous expectations established by our cultural construction of the feminine is not a project I perceive of as being worthwhile. But still, it's just one more pressure that nags at the back of your mind, and one more way you know you're probably being judged, and one more thing that offers some friction as you move through the world. And I could do with a little less friction these days.


  1. Totally agree. And I think one of the biggest reflections of the gendered expectation to be friendly is the requirement that women constantly smile all the time.

  2. This reminds me of a comment that a friend made several years ago. I tend to be quiet and reserved unless I know a person fairly well. My friend mentioned that upon first meeting me, she mistook my quiet reserve as being stuck-up and snobby. That struck me as incredibly strange, as I'm pretty down to earth (unless I'm interacting with a complete asshole), but put in the context of female=friendly and open at all times, it kind of makes sense.

    Years ago, I remember reading a feminist article explaining how women are often expected to be the ones who perform the bulk of emotional labor in a society. While the scope of performing emotional labor is generally reserved to the context of modifying one's emotions and persona for the benefit of an organization or business, the context extends much further for women. If you don't put on your happy face at all times—whether you're on the job or on the street—and you fail to do your best at making people around you feel comfortable, then you are being cold, snobby, or bitchy.

    It's all part of maintaining the "good girl" persona. It gets really, really old after a while.

  3. I definitely think that women are expected to do the bulk of the emotional work in hetero relationships. Men get a pass on being emotionally incompetent or lazy, but if a relationship fails women are expected to ask themselves what they did wrong.

  4. theotherheather10/07/2009


  5. I do think that emotional labor is tied up with this. If you think about it, being friendly to strangers and smoothing over awkward social situations is emotional labor, although perhaps a different type than what goes into making a relationship work.

  6. What a bunch of Drama Queens. Have any of you ever considered that the world doesn't revolve around whether you are happy or not? Jesus Christ. I would think that even this group would get a bit tired of constantly being self-proclaimed victims. Doesn't it get a bit old, even for you folks? You know, how you never take responsibility for anything that happens to you. It's always that someone that interacts with you doesn't "get it" and if you can just "educate them" all will be well with the world.

    What a crock. Since when is being nice to strangers such a huge burden? Actually it probably is if you don't truly give a shit about anything or anyone except yourself.

  7. ...and thus Burn comes here to give us lessons on being nice. That's the best laugh I've had all day, and I truly appreciate it, Burn. The irony is delicious.

  8. Cinders10/10/2009

    What does this any of this have to do with being a victim? And really, Burn, if it's not about you, then don't make it about you. Where you socialized to be friendly and demure and accommodating and always smiling and deferring to others in conversation? No? Right, because you weren't socialized as a girl/woman in our culture. So you probably don't get it. And it's OK to be clueless; just try not to act like an asshole.

  9. Rachel - Glad to see I could brighten your day. I've never met you face to face and if I'm lucky I won't. That said, I'm actually really good at treating people fairly given reasonable interaction. In spite of what you girls might think, I'm pretty certain I've had many more frequent and successful personal interactions than most of you. If you'd like to compare notes let me know. In any case, I will step up to being the kind of person that will call bull shit on folks that are full of it. Most of you fall into this category…full time victims that are all talk, have limited experience and do very little other than bitch about things. Not a great combination. In any case maybe you should whine less. It isn't all that flattering.

    Cinders - I'm sure you are a nice person so I'm going to try to play nice with you. When it comes to interpersonal communication there is one rule that always works…IT ISN'T ABOUT YOU, IT'S ABOUT THE PERSON YOU ARE COMMUNICATING WITH. Doesn't matter what sex you are, if you talk about the other "person" normally pretty good things happen. The problem with most of you chicks is that although you frame your arguments as being about the sisterhood, most of them come across sounding like this post, exceptionally selfish and petty. Pretty sad. It's actually about common courtesy, something that I guess if you are empowered as a Feminist you don't feel a burden to consider. It's your life. I will tell you that as much as you ladies don't want to deal with dudes, it's kinda life, so maybe if you would cease to think that everything should revolve around you and your feelings your life would go in a more positive direction. The problem with most of you goofs is that few of you have ever been around really successful women. You know the ones that are fearless, have always competed one-on-one with guys and whom I've been 100% happy to promote to senior management positions making $10K+ per month. I guess that's why your permanent self-proclaimed victimhood is so silly.

    Finally Cinders, if you call me an asshole can I tell you to kiss my ass and not have Mother Rachel bounce this post? Only time will tell.