Calling out Male Approval Syndrome

It is the second time in a month that a man–a total stranger who knew absolutely nothing about what was going on–decided to give me his male approval.

Delivery guy enters shop where I’m working.  Colleague and I are busy doing things with our hands, and guy has to wait a moment before getting a signature.  So while we are coming to a stopping point in our task, one that almost no one knows how to do and which we have been doing for years, he decides to say, “You all are doing a great job!”

Now, there’s nothing intrinsically offensive about that sentence.  At best, it’s small-talk and encouragement.  But I happened to be watching his face as he said it, and I noted his tone.  The subtext was dripping with implications of “little lady” and a pat on the head.  I’m not interested in arguing with anyone over whether he was “just being nice” or whether I was being “overly sensitive;” if you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about.  Although any man can engage in this behavior, there is a certain type.  It’s often, though not necessarily so, a guy used to having a lot of power, a guy used to having women care about his approval.  Maybe he’s the boss, dangling the promise of a promotion, or maybe he’s just a regular guy, dangling the promise of dates and marriage and financial security.  Whoever he is, he thinks a lot of himself, and he thinks he’s really great for being so nice to the people under him.  Here comes the magnanimous patriarch, doling out approval to his adoring subjects.  How could they not be happy to know he smiled on them?

But I can’t deal with that.  I can’t let it slide.  No man is going to walk into my shop and act like he knows more about my profession than I do, act like he owns the place.  I will not let him leave thinking I give a shit about his totally uninformed opinion.  I will not prop up his ego with a smile and a thanks.  I will put a nick in the entitlement he carries around.  In this case, unfortunately, I can’t do more than that.  I won’t feel bad that he doesn’t, as a result, go home and ponder his role as an oppressor.  Maybe, at some future point, he will accumulate enough negative responses to his behavior to give him pause, but the chances of that are slim.

But really my refusal to let it slide is more for my own sanity.  For all the times that some weasel in a suit told me to smile and I did.  For the times a stranger touched my knee or back and I waited for it to be over.  For the times my superiors made sexist jokes and I stayed silent.  For the times I let a complete windbag talk at me for hours, because I was waiting for an opening to politely exit and he didn’t give me one.  For the times that I’ve been deferential, placating, demure, self-doubting, ego-stroking, or polite in the face of disrespect, I have to finally draw the line.  I have physical boundaries that I will defend.  I have social boundaries.  I will not let men monopolize my time, space, resources, emotions, or energy.  I will not let them abuse my existence in the world to support their myths about themselves.  I am not here to be used.

It’s a small thing, when a man says self-importantly, “You’re doing a great job,” and I reply with “You don’t actually know!”  But it’s also a big thing, because I’m taking notice, connecting the dots, and starting to understand the big picture.  A raised consciousness is the first step.


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