You Don’t Say?

It’s hard to be upset by something you don’t know about. It’s hard to be offended if you don’t know you’ve been insulted. And, if somebody has to point out that you really have, then have you? For insults, snubs, or even rudeness to be effective, they need to be understood as such.

I think that explains some of those comments that seem to slip under the radar -comments that we could term ‘micro aggression’. Things like: “I’d really like to hire a woman for the job, but they take so much time off for family matters.” Or even worse, perhaps: “Women are beautiful, but they’re fragile.” Are they compliments or insults? Of course these examples are also forms of sexism, and nowadays more easily spotted.

Suppose, though, you had the distinct feeling that what was said was something that crossed a boundary, but you don’t know why? You couldn’t quite pin it down? Then, what if I had pointed out to you that they are really forms of something called ‘benevolent sexism’ and asked you for other examples you might have encountered? Would categorizing them help with subsequent recognition? I suspect it would -now that you were aware of a term that describes the action more fully, it becomes more apparent.

This hypocognition is far more common than I might have thought. The concept was nicely summarized in an essay in Aeon by Kaidi Wu, who was a doctoral candidate in Social Psychology at the University of Michigan at the time:

‘It is a strange feeling, stumbling upon an experience that we wish we had the apt words to describe, a precise language to capture. When we don’t, we are in a state of hypocognition, which means we lack the linguistic or cognitive representation of a concept to describe ideas or interpret experiences.’ So, ‘Lacking the concept of benevolent sexism blinds you to its occurrence. Knowing the concept of benevolent sexism renders visible its manifestation.’

Then, Wu gives a more humorous example of hypocognition: shoeburyness -something that I, at least, had never heard of, and so wasn’t aware whether I had ever experienced it until it was explained: ‘shoeburyness: the vague uncomfortable feeling of sitting on a seat that is still radiating warmth from someone else’s bottom.’ See what I mean? Mind you, I have no idea where the word came from, nor does knowing it cure the sensation of which I was only vaguely aware before. But still…

As Wu explains, ‘As cognitive psychology affirms, having a verbal label – even a nonsensical terminology, an apparent portmanteau – can distil a nebulous phenomenon into an experience that’s more immediate and concrete… In the absence of an expanding lexicon, we default to denotations bounded by the traditional descriptors.’ So, an example she gives is ‘Single parents are routinely asked what it is like to be “both mother and father”’. Embarrassing, perhaps, and yet often the lack of an appropriate understanding is just that: a default assumption.

But what would happen if, instead of attempting to use other words, the awkward subject was ignored altogether? Swept under the carpet? Would that solve anything, or help to promote further understanding of the situation? Would refusing to discuss gender issues really help those who struggle with it? ‘Regulating what is said is more difficult than ensuring nothing is said. The peril of silence is not a suffocation of ideas. It is to engender a state of blithe apathy in which no idea is formed.’

Still, as Wu suggests, ‘the attempt at hypocognising a concept can often propel a more urgent need for its expression. The emergence of a unifying language of #MeToo gives voice to those who were compelled into silence…  Ideas and categories that are yet to be conceptualised leave open aspirational possibilities for future progress.’

Her essay was very compelling, I have to say, and yet I fear I still have a lot to learn.

I had just ensconced myself in my favourite table by the window of a little coffee shop I usually go to for breakfast when I saw Agnes in the line at the counter. She’d been a good friend of my ex-wife Sally, and I hadn’t seen her for several years now. We’d never been particularly close, and strangers since my wife left, so I was surprised when she brought her coffee over to an adjacent table.

“G,” she said, smiling and using my nickname. “I haven’t seen you since…” She hesitated for a moment, obviously wondering if it was polite to mention the divorce.

“Since Sally,” I filled in for her, trying to diffuse the awkwardness.

I could see her face relax, and her smile broadened, transforming her into the person I remembered from the dinner parties of yore. “So, how are you?” she continued, staring rather curiously at the pancakes and sausages on my plate. “Breakfast?” she asked, rather unnecessarily, I thought.

I nodded and had a sip of my coffee, following her example. “I like the selection here,” I answered.

She was quiet for a moment and then glanced at my plate again. “I’m surprised you go out for breakfast, G…”

I chuckled quietly to myself. “I eat out a lot, Agnes,” I said, although I’m not sure why I felt I had to explain my habits.

Her expression turned from curious to what I can only think was concern… Or maybe it was disappointment -she had always been difficult to read. “Sally said you often used to have dinner ready if she told you she was going to get home late.”

I shrugged – a little embarrassed, I suppose. “Well, nothing special, though -nothing like she could do, that’s for sure…”

I could see her eyes narrow almost imperceptibly, and then quickly revert to neutral. “So you don’t cook much anymore?”

I shook my head, and attempted a little self-conscious laugh. “Well, sometimes, I guess, but Sally was so good at it, I haven’t been able to duplicate it…” It was a bit weak, I realized. “She was such a great cook!” I added, almost hearing the exclamation mark. “In comparison, I’m afraid I just play in the minor league.”

But my feeble attempt of humour only caused her to look concerned again, and she, too, began to shake her head -but slowly. Sympathetically. And then she sighed, and fixed me with a curious stare. “Don’t you think that’s a bit of benevolent sexism, G?”

I was surprised at hearing the expression again. “Why do you say that, Agnes?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

She smiled sweetly, finished off her coffee, and stood up to leave. “Because you’re boasting about her reputation at the expense of your own, G,” she explained and left without the slightest trace of irony. Only a wave and a wink.

Sometimes it’s good to hear another opinion…