Yesterday I went to see an ex-colleague of mine in the department on the opposite side of the floor. We had met before when I just started at our department so we were not complete strangers. I found him in his office having a casual talk with one of his colleagues and – here goes! – from the moment they became aware of me and got quiet waiting for what I had to say, I became aware of the feeling of unease raising inside me.
I started shrinking. Getting shorter. Smaller. Lesser. My voice weakening. Within seconds the I that came into the room turned into a little girl: apologetic, insecure, dependable.
Would I have felt the same way had I walked into the room with two women? May be. May be not. I think not.
I quickly delivered the message in an unapologetic tone for which I had absolutely no reason and excused myself, leaving the two men to their business.
There may be plenty of reasons for why I felt that way. The ex-colleague was not particularly welcoming and by the look of it a bit irritated by the interruption (of course, this is how I saw it). The awkward silence and both of them staring at me expectantly, might have contributed to my feeling of discomfort. Yet the very first one that came to my mind was that I got intimidated by the presence of the two men. I let myself act as if I agreed that the business of men was superior to that of the women and so was their talk even most casual. I saw ex-colleague’s collaboration as a favor rather than something natural (we do work for the best of the same customer). For a brief moment I felt ashamed for my momentary weakness. Emotions and self-hate would not make it better!
Gender stereotypes may have contributed to my adopting the little girl role, sure. The issue of gender stereotypes kicking in and being reconfirmed by women themselves aside, I believe in this, like in every other situation, there was a breaking point at which I “decided” the person in front of me was intimidating and superior and acted accordingly. If only I manage to stay present in the situation and recognize this point, I can prevent myself from adopting the role I do not actually agree with. The role might seem safer because it is familiar and to part with it and shift the perception I need to see each situation for what it is. In this one I was going to see a colleague on business-related matter, no more. Yet there are these layers of meanings we attach to each situation, person, event, most of this happening automatically. This is truly a scary discovery for me: re-acting in the way I cannot subscribe to and not even being aware of it.