How to be a talkative ally

It’s time for another of our series of “How to be an ally” posts, in which we talk about the complicated issues that face the well-intentioned feminist man doing his best to try to navigate between being totally oblivious and being an overbearing, partronizing ass. (Not that those options are mutually exclusive. But anyway.)

A male colleague of mine recently raised the following issue:

I’ve often heard female philosophers complain that they almost never get asked about their work in informal social situations, whereas their male peers get asked about their work in such situations all the time. I realize that this is a really bad thing, but I’ve never been sure what to do about it, at least as far as my own behavior goes. It’s not that I don’t want to ask my female philosophy friends about their work – I do! But I think there’s too much pressure in philosophy to be seen as constantly wanting to talk about philosophy. And I think that’s bad, because it gives an advantage to people who have a certain kind of single-track mind, who are really quick on their feet, or who just don’t get tired like the rest of us. I also think that these norms put women in a particularly awkward position, simply because they’re more professionally vulnerable. I’ve often heard male peers reply to a question about their work by saying “Actually, I really don’t feel like talking about philosophy right now” or “That’s an interesting question, but can we talk about it later? I’m tired!” For them, saying things like this just isn’t a big deal. So I’m comfortable asking my male friends a philosophy question at the bar after a long day of conferencing, because I’m pretty confident that if they don’t want to talk about it they’ll tell me to shut up. But I worry that it isn’t the same for women. I imagine it’s a much riskier thing for a woman to say “Actually, I’d rather not talk about philosophy right now.” She risks being perceived as less ‘committed’, or less ‘quick’, or whatever else. People will remember stuff like that from women that they’ll just excuse and forget from men. But the net effect, for me, is that I find myself a lot more reluctant to ask my female friends a philosophy question after a talk or a day or conferencing. If I dive in with questions, I worry that I’m being a jerk who can’t talk about anything but philosophy, or who’s harassing someone that’s tired. But I don’t want to start by saying “Hey, can I ask you about philosophy or are your too tired/bored/would rather talk about something else?” In part, that makes me feel like I’m putting her on the spot (especially if a bunch of other people are around), and she may not feel comfortable answering honestly the way my male friends can. But it also feels like the kind of thing that might come across as condescending. So I don’t know what to do! How does one make sure to talk to women about their work while still being sensitive to the social pressure women are under?

This strikes me as a really interesting (and really tricky) question, precisely because it’s one of the places in which two competing aims – parity of treatment for men and women, sensitivity to the differences in the social pressure and social vulnerability faced by women compared to that faced by men – are seemingly at odds. Comments are open in hopes that our lovely and thoughtful readers will – as they so often do – have some insight.

Personally, I reckon there’s got to be a decent way of saying something to the effect of “Hey, are you up for talking about philosophy just now?” that avoids being condescending or on-the-spot-putting. Maybe one way doing it would be to offer alternatives, so the choice isn’t just philosophy or nothing – something like “Hey, are you up for talking about your paper on x right now, or should we talk about how bad the drinks here are/what the hell Prof. McX is wearing/this salacious piece of professional gossip I just heard?”

Ps – I tend to write these ‘ally’ posts at random, as and when male philosophy friends email me agony aunt style. So if you’ve got a great idea for a post along these lines, but you don’t know me (or don’t know you know me) just contact us and suggest it.

6 thoughts on “How to be a talkative ally

  1. How about, “Hey I found your paper interesting, would you like to chat about it, or would you mind if I sent you an email about it?” Then she can say, “Sure I would love to get in an email exchange on this stuff.” Or just, “Email would be fine.”

    That way she can be enthused about philosophy without being enthused about philosophy at that moment.

  2. It is important to realize that sometimes there is no perfect policy. And it is hugely important to include women in the discourse.

  3. alpha, that’s a great idea! Exactly as you say, it gives someone the option of refraining from doing philosophy at the moment while still publicly expressing eagerness to do philosophy (some other time. . .).

    Anne, it’s definitely right that there’s no perfect policy – we’re trying to navigate a very imperfect situation! I’m guessing that part of the confusion here is that would-be allies can find themselves in a situation where they feel they have to choose between the lesser of two evils. Do you prioritize sensitivity to social vulnerability and not ask about work? Or do you prioritize including women in philosophical conversations and ask about her work? Either way can have bad consequences. Either way can leave the would-be ally worried he’s being a jerk. So I guess the question is one of weighing priorities – which option is the lesser of the two evils? When you’re at a conference, would you rather have some risk-free peace and quiet (at the expense of not getting asked so much about your work), or would you rather get asked about your work (at the risk that you’ll feel obligated to engage with whatever question is asked, even when it’s the last thing in the world you want to talk about)?

  4. I would definitely err on the side of talking philosophy rather than not. That’s just me. To be honest, if I am at a conference and you are at a conference and we end up in a situation where it would make sense to ask you about your interesting paper, I am going to most likely just ask about your interesting paper, but be cool with you saying that you are too tired to talk about it, if that’s how it plays out. But I can definitely see how some members of the profession might feel less able to say “I don’t want to talk about this right now”, and this is a little disquieting.

    One thing I don’t like about alpha’s suggestion is that sometimes I find a paper interesting enough that I want to talk about with the person *in person*, but not so interesting that I want to write up a lengthy email about the paper, especially given all the other commitments I have, both professionally and personally. I get there is a possibly a tricky situation to navigate, but I’m not willing to conditionally commit myself to emailing people all the time about their work in order to navigate it. I don’t have the time.

    So for me, alpha’s solution is not feasible. So absent an alternative solution, I am going to err on the side of engaging rather than not.

  5. If you are just meeting someone, you could say, “Hey I’d like to hear about what you are working on sometime ” and then read the situation to figure out whether they want to talk about it right there or later. If later, you can ask to email them about like another commenter suggested. You could also ask a yes/no question like, “Hey was the last talk of the day related to the work you do?” and again, judge from their response whether they want to talk about it at length or not.

    Also, if you are worried about a woman not telling you to shut up if they don’t want to talk about philosophy, you could try going for a self-deprecating joke to judge the situation. You can say something like, “I try not to be one of those people who only talks about philosophy…” and then try to assess whether the person you are talking to also wishes you were not one of those people.

    I would err on the side of asking people about their own work too much. For one, I’m pretty sure a lot of us (i.e. people in academia) take it as a compliment even if we are tired and don’t really want to talk about it right at that moment.

    Also, I think the following bears mentioning (partially because it happened to me the other week, and partially because it has happened to me way too many times in this field.) People who can only talk about philosophy are a little problematic, but if they are not also an inconsiderate jerk and have terrible conversation manners, then they are A WHOLE LOT LESS problematic than those who are and who do.

    Such bad conversation manner include, (1) only making eye contact with one or a few people when a whole group is listening/participating in the conversation, (2) dominating the conversation and never allowing for or caring whether other people would like to chime in, (3) talking about a philosophical topic that clearly not everyone present is versed in and never bother to tone down the jargon so that others can know what the hell you are talking about and (4) insisting on continuing a philosophy conversation when only a few people in the group are participating, and/or you are at a non-philosophy event, and you are in the kind of space where there can really only be one conversation going on at a time.

  6. When I imagine myself being asked about philosophy and wouldn’t be interested that moment to enter into such a topic, I most of all want to be honest and say so. A true ally might say something like: “yeah, you’re right. It’s just because I seldom can come up wtih something else to talk about. You know – it’s that male thing…” Than we both can have a laugh!

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