Friday, July 02, 2010

talking with women

A man at a conference I was at a couple months ago approached me to talk about databases.

It was, in all ways, a good and appropriate conversation, and an example of the reason I go to conferences like that in the first place. But he later confessed to me that he'd been very hesitant to speak to me because he was afraid it would come across as cover for some kind of flirtation. It seemed ridiculous, because he was so far from anything inappropriate, but his uncertainty came a hair's breadth from actually diminishing the conference's benefit to both of us.

You see the big fat irony. Avoiding sexualizing a woman's professional environment is an absolutely appropriate and important goal. But sidelining women from a professional community's social aspects is genuinely harmful.

Most men can easily judge for themselves the difference between friendly and creepy, but geekdom is infamous for its high proportion of the awkward.* I'd love it if there were a really clear and well-known rule of thumb that would assure even the most shy and awkward guys about where "the line" is. The hard part is that men differ so widely in their judgements and self-judgements. Some will be critical or suspicious of themselves at virtually anything, and some find excuses for even the most egregious of their own behavior. It's hard to know how to encourage the former but not the latter.

My first thoughts -
  • Imagine that she were a man. Would you still do or say what you're doing or saying now, or would it feel too awkward?**
  • If you're genuinely worried about it, you're probably not a problem guy in the first place.
What are your thoughts?

* - Understand that, when I say this, it's with affection. I love the socially awkward! I find communities where everybody adheres smoothly to a single social standard to be boring and uncreative. I hope geekdom will always be a haven for the awkward.
** - Obviously not a very useful standard for bisexual people.

9 comments:

mike bayer said...

you love the awkward, great ! then I don't feel as bad about ordering margaritas for everyone in Atlanta :)

shi said...

I think the guy secretly had a crush on you :)

sillyevar said...

makes sense, but at a conference, i tend to notice the women, because they stand out. And... well... i'm a man, so i notice the women.

i like talking to women more than men in general because they are more pretty to look at when talking about anything, even crazy code stuff. so any excuse to strike up conversation with a women at a conference, i have to admit, would be entirely contrived and more just an excuse to talk to a women.

i'm not saying i'd continue talking if she were boring or dull or had no interesting things to talk about anymore than i would continue with a man. i am saying that the initial desire to strike up conversation is influenced more by gender than anything else, unless the person (man or woman in this case) asked a question or presented at said conference.

so... knowing that i'm driven to talk to women over men in general and for rather silly sexist reasons... should i do it anyway or should i refrain due to my primitive motive?

Matt Wilson said...

It's a complex topic -- how to build a community where we can all communicate even though we're all different -- but getting the conversation started through blogs like this is really important.

techtonik said...

1. If nerds had girlfriends - they wouldn't be nerds.
2. When instinct works - brain malfunctions.
3. Every nerd afraid of brain malfunction.
4. That's why they deny when it malfunctions.
5. And things become even worse.

Women and nerds are not compatible. Look at the most prosperous areas of humanity progress - IT, football, oil and gas. It is because where are no woman. It is not about IQ or something that feminists are trying to speculate. It is because just the presence on one beautiful woman can have an effect of EMP grenade for computation abilities. Only very high-level nerds can survive the effect.

Carl Trachte said...

Having a balanced ratio of men to women tends to make things less weird.

The women I have talked to at conferences aren't as paranoid as I would be if I were a woman (it that makes any sense).

pyDanny said...

I will admit that I will tend to gravitate to talking to women over men because I find the female side of the species more appealing to the eye. When I was young I would be self conscious about this sort of thing, but as I get older I find myself not really caring how others interpret me.

However, in talking to women in the technical community I talk to them exactly as if they were members of the male side of the species.

And yet I remain a gentleman. I was raised that way and its a habit I care not to change. Normally I don't think about it too hard, and for me that seems to work just fine.

puellavulnerata said...

Imagine that she were a man. Would you still do or say what you're doing or saying now, or would it feel too awkward?

Hmm. If the person in question only feels awkward about people he's potentially attracted to, then he's not really all that awkward. Even some of us female geeks are too shy to initiate conversations with *anyone*, regardless of gender or romantic interest either actual or potentially perceived. This rule of thumb would give many false negatives for someone in that category.

Catherine said...

mike,

Hee! Thank you!

shi,

No - trust me on that. But people thinking that is exactly what he was afraid of!

sillyevar,

I think asking people to police themselves for secret hidden motives would be draconian. As long as the result - from her point of view - is a healthy, genuine conversation, I (for one) am not going to worry about what goes on inside your brain.

puellavulnerata,

Uh... that's true... but when that's the problem, it's really not a gender issue as general shyness issue. Fixing the shy geeks problem (especially at conferences) would interest me as PyOhio chair...