The Dance

Whenever I start working with somebody new – which is often because of both this line of work and being an apprentice – I notice the same pattern of sussing out “who – excactly – ARE you?” happening through conversation and non-verbal cues.

Some of the directly verbal questions that almost always come out are:

– What did you do before you decided to become an electrician?
– How old are you?
– Are you married? / How many kids do you have?
– Where did you grow up? / Where are you from?
– Where do you live?
– So…what made you decide to be an electrician?
– What does your partner/husband/significant other do?

Can you imagine asking some of these questions in such a point-blank manner to a fellow office worker? It wouldn’t fly. No way. It might even be illegal. Being in the trades is a people-centered career. It’s imperative to know who exactly you’re working with – and to have good rapport with these people – because at times, you’re literally watching over each others’ safety.

I’ve caught my table mates checking out the contents of my lunch. If I buy lunch from the food carts too often, a comment or ribbing about lack of money management might surface. However, healthful non-processed foods might indicate a more liberal outlook on life. Comments about lunches and what they might mean have boomeranged back to me as innocuous or conversational tidbits: it reminds me how humans observe, assess and then judge even if we don’t realize it. Especially without realizing it!

I get the impression my fellow electricians are more interested in knowing:

– How settled am I?
Am I taking a job away from a “family man”? Yes, somebody actually told me this: that I took a job away from a man who needs to support his family. I just smiled and said, “Times are changing and I hope you jump on board. Apparently, the ‘man’ I ‘took this job away from’ couldn’t make it into the top 15% of applicants like I did. Talk to our union business manager if you’re unhappy about it. I’m not here to prove anything; just to simply support my own family.”

– How liberal or conservative am I?
If I live in the city and not in some far-flung rural area, I’m probably more liberal.

– Could I be (gasp!) gay?!?!
If I mention I have a husband, they seem to visibly relax. Women, specifically, seem to undergo a special scrutiny of, “Are you a lesbian or not?” In the trades, butch women are probably more tolerated than effeminate men; but this is a flimsy thing to celebrate. It’s ridiculous. I’ve experienced at least three journeymen do the following:

– Inform me in hushed tones: “She’s a total dyke! At first glance, can’t even tell if she’s a man or a woman!”
– Go on long, hateful rants about how they think gay people shouldn’t have “special privileges” such as the right to marry one another.
– Chuckle or over-apologize (or even test my reaction) when referring to a pair of side-cutters as “dykes”.

It’s not just being gay, though. Women receive a double-scrutiny because if there’s any perception she’s promiscuous, the whispering and speculating and judging is even worse. One specifically narrowminded journeyman I worked with defended his ignorant and hateful opinions by declaring,”Stereotypes exist for a reason!” I’ve been mulling over this statement because I catch myself making judgements and coming to my own conclusions based on these same nuggets of conversation and observation/assessment. My goal as an apprentice is to learn as much as I can and get my hands on as many different types of electrical work as I can. It’s hard when personalities get in the way – isn’t this true in any group work setting? I’m trying to keep an open mind and take my judgemental reactions in stride. But I’d be lying if I said the city/country, rednecked/cultured differences make me wary. One of the questions I’ve added to my own standard list when trying to find out who – exactly – I’m working with is, “Do you have any sisters or daughters?” Because we, as a society, can see that simply having a mother isn’t enough for some men to understand how to work alongside women in a calm, as-equals manner.


2 Comments on “The Dance”

  1. […] The Dance ( […]

  2. Allan Masri says:

    The situation is very different from jobs in computer engineering. That is a very male environment, too. Many engineers come from other countries. The kind of personal information you mention is never solicited. Perhaps this is because engineers all work for large corporations and they are afraid they would be reported and punished. I’m not so sure, though. The biggest problem female engineers have is that the males are always hitting on them or that the women imagine the men are doing that. In general, men limit themselves to safe conversation topics, even among themselves. Safe topics would be the problems we are working on now, sports, and the weather. You should avoid talking about the boss because people will report you. If you want to show friendship, you may ask to see pictures of his wife or kids. Men always carry these in their wallets. It is safe to ask about someone’s marital status or the name of his wife. Women usually advertise their marital status when they meet someone new. In my experience in Silicon Valley, gays are much more accepted, possibly because of the liberalism of California and because people feel free to come out. It sounds like your area and the people you are meeting on the job have attitudes at least 20 years out of date. Another response to the question about taking jobs from family men could be, “I don’t know. Did you take a job away from a family man?”

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