“Just the Facts, Ma’am”

I had a brief interaction today that struck a nerve. It took me a while to put a finger on it. I have just finished “Black Like Me” which really got me thinking about discrimination and how people have a hard time talking to each other and hearing what is being said. I think it helped me focus on the problem, which is so blazingly simple, but non-obvious.

The circumstance was I was asking about joining something that might require at least some long-term commitment. They asked me about my job and background. I answered vaguely about my current job and plans, but didn’t get into detail about my background because it is so complicated. They surmised based on that single sentence reply that I would not be willing and able to make any long term commitments. They were wrong.

The fact that they were wrong is not what bothered me, although I was thinking about backpedaling to correct them. That sort of correction is the kind of thing I dealt with so many times in the past that I recognized the spin probably was not even worth the effort. The conclusions about me were made. No, what bothered me was that they didn’t try to ask me what they wanted to know. It was not embarrassing or unreasonable to ask.

What asking tangentially related fact-based only questions communicated to me was that the questioner did not trust that I would either understand what he wanted to know or give him a truthful answer. It established suspicion or mistrust without making any accusation, establishing the questioner in a position of authority to make that conclusion over the answerer. The implication was the questioner was the only one qualified to answer therefore they must do the fact-gathering themselves.

In some contexts this makes sense, although it still seems like a bad idea. For example, in a job interview, the interviewer may have reason to believe the interviewee is likely to try to deceive them in order to get the job. It still strikes me as a bad stance to take because it establishes mistrust between management and employees before the candidate even walks in the door.

I now try to think of reasons why people do that which isn’t a subconscious expression of mistrust. Perhaps the question isn’t even formulated until the questioner sees all the facts before them? I am really not seeing it, but would love feedback.

Now, I do not know if men do it to other men much. I know that American men do it to me frequently (but few Europeans). I am so often faced with (mostly incorrect) conclusions that men have made about me that I could have disabused them of had they actually asked. I suspect it happens to minorities even more than women, although each category has potentially different sources for that fundamental mistrust.

If I know the question they are digging at, I can usually provide them the actually relevant facts to come to the right conclusion. This is the sort of mental jujitsu that I think successful women are good at. I am not particularly good at anticipating where the conversation could be headed so that I can head off the question they don’t trust to ask me.

It seems like such a little thing. We would have so much better communication and understanding between diverse groups if we would just trust each other to make accurate conclusions about our own lives, especially lives that are so diverse, we couldn’t hope to even gather the right facts to make the correct conclusions. I don’t think anyone ever really understands they’re doing it either.

I suspect also this is why men see women as longwinded and evasive when communicating.

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