There are some social situations that not only bring together a variety of people, but force them to interact within structures that may conflict with individual motivations. Specifically speaking, the workplace – an environment where one spends the majority of her or his time – is often compounded by the idiosyncrasies of its employees and the culture of the organization. This forced interaction can have both positive and negative implications; there is an opportunity to interact with people outside of one’s social circle, and yet it can be caustic when personal prejudice prevents genuine relationships from forming. Elijah Anderson touches on this phenomenon in his latest book The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life.
I recently started a new restaurant job after about a year of unemployment. In addition to relearning the role of a productive employee, I have been engaging in conversation with my mostly male peers about everything from the tedium of restaurant work to music to sports. What underlies every conversation, however, is a discussion about the power ascribed to those who continually mention the possession of a penis.
As it turns out, I work in an environment where all women are relegated to chicks and where it is acceptable to make jokes about sex. Here is a conversation from yesterday:
Man A: Hey, when do you think that you will get your next raise.
Man B: Probably the next time I watch porn.
Language is important. Though the above joke is not outwardly offensive, it is significant. With the men that I work with, it seems that one is quick to remind the group of his penis when he feels the need to assert his authority, he is trying to impress the group, or if he feels undervalued. The cultural narratives that are perpetuated through these types of conversations often have a great influence on the continuation and enforcement of gender norms, and the workplace breeds no expectation. This façade of comedic expression allows for my male peers to assert power with little social consequence in an environment where he may have limited control.
So what if at work tomorrow I causally included my vagina into the conversation? Would it have the same implications? How would my male peers react?