Note: This column is part one of a six-part series on the characteristics of white male culture. We will work to examine how these traits show up in the world and tie them to events and behaviors that are in plain view of everyone who follows current events in the US and around the world.
During the longest government shutdown in US history, speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was asked by a reporter if she considered herself an equal to President Trump. It was a loaded question, asked during a political power struggle with President on one side and Speaker Pelosi on the other. President Trump is, well, THE PRESIDENT and the Speaker of the House role is #3 in the succession behind the Vice President. Everyone who covers politics knows this fact, including the reporter, so what was she really asking?
Without talking to her, we can’t be sure what her mindset or motivations were, but this exchange is an example how we in the US are aware of and value hierarchy and power. As proof, note the reporter did not ask the Speaker about how her relationship with the President was withstanding the strain of the disagreement driven by the government shut-down. Nor did she ask anything about the intense emotions and feelings that are the underpinnings of such a high stakes and public power struggle.
You may say, “That doesn’t prove anything,” and you’d be right. It’s a hunch, based on watching how all of us respond to power when we see it. I think it’s a real-time example of one of WMFDP’s six traits of U.S. white male culture. Specifically, I think this exchange is an example of the trait of Status and Rank Over Connection in action.
In social contexts, many boys are socialized to notice and adhere to power dynamics related to authority and status. He who has the newest video game or the most popular new digital device somehow has more status. So does the best athlete or best gamer. Through peer and social conditioning, boys learn to size-up each other and establish their own pecking order.
Of course, girls receive some of the same messaging, but the intent of the messages they sometimes receive is different. Girls in the US are often socialized to look for sameness with their peers as a way of making connection.
Boys, the research shows, are socialized to develop relationships with their peers based on uniqueness. As a result, in social and work contexts, we men have been taught to pay attention to role and hierarchy more than interpersonal connections at work, and many of us unconsciously give more credence to power dynamics than we do to interpersonal bonding.
Here are some demonstrable ways you may see status and rank being valued over connection at work:
- In meetings, notice where people sit without a seating chart or any spoken communication. It’s not uncommon for seating to be a reflection of seniority, rank or status. Most people intuitively know where they fit in the hierarchy, and where they sit often reflects that.
- When coming into a work situation with a new group, notice how people introduce themselves. It’s common and helpful when meeting members of a new team to share their name, position and connection to the team. Some folks pay little attention to power and hierarchy. Others share their data to proclaim their importance and power on the team. Neither of these approaches is wrong or bad; knowing the power structure up-front can helpful when it comes to getting a lot done quickly. For me, a rank and status introduction would sound like this: “I am Jim. I’m our Chief Consulting Officer, and I have been doing this work for over 20 years.” At other times, downplaying status and rank may be just as helpful, like when our goal is collective and will require collaboration vs. hierarchy. In these situations (which I much prefer), I introduce myself as “Jim, I work to support our consulting and curriculum function.”
- More subtle and insidious are those behaviors that are unconsciously meant to establish who’s the Alpha in a group. For example, have you witnessed two people (usually men) engaged in a battle for who gets to hold the door open for whom? You might overhear them saying, “After you…” “No, I insist, after YOU,” “No really, AFTER YOU!” and so on.
- My favorite (I’m joking here; I am embarrassed to admit I do this unconsciously) is having what I call the “Acquired Answer Syndrome,” or the urge to provide an answer to everything, even if no one asked a question. Acquired answer syndrome (it’s not a real syndrome, mind you, just a phenomenon we notice in ourselves and others) is most often an unconscious need to establish our experience, skill or ability with the group. The term “man-splaining” is a fairly recent riff on this theme. Rebecca Solnit wrote a great (but embarrassing) book called Men Explain Things to Me about how we men have been conditioned to do Acquired Answer Syndrome as a way of establishing ourselves as smart, wise and able, when doing these behaviors actually does anything BUT makes us look like we’re “on top of things.”
Finally, and back to our example involving Speaker Pelosi and the question about equality from the New York Times reporter, the reporter asked Speaker Pelosi a question about equality and whom outranked whom. Curiously, she was asking the third most powerful person in the country if she felt equal to the President.
Our hunch – and it’s only a hunch – is that the question revealed the reporter’s own awareness of – and maybe even bias about – rank, status and gender in the US. After all, Speaker Pelosi is a woman who was in a power conflict with not just any man, but the President of the United States. Did she consider herself an equal? Her response was priceless; a solemn reminder to all of us who forget that the world isn’t always all about perceived rank and status. She said, “The Constitution considers us equal.”
And that was that.