What do you mean?

“You missed a spot,” one of the women in the office said, laughing as she pointed at my head. Her friends smiled and nodded their heads; they were all sure I died my hair. I was used to comments like that; most of my colleagues had retired by my age, and I often wondered whether the comments were more hints than observations. True, I still had a full head of brown curly hair, very little of which had turned grey, but many around me suspected artifice so I could justify staying in my job.

It wasn’t that my position required youth, but there were times when I wondered if the office might have welcomed some new ideas -a fresh approach more in keeping with the times. Apart from smiling and playing along with their teasing, I wasn’t really sure what to do. The comments seemed too innocuous for me to respond with annoyance, and yet there were times I felt like asking what was really bothering the questioner. But they probably would have been puzzled at my irritation -surely I could tell it was all in fun. Of course, maybe someone younger would understand…

And there were times I wondered if I was just being too sensitive -defensive perhaps, because deep down, I realized I probably should retire. Maybe the only way they felt they could send a message to me was by teasing. Innuendo that could always be denied with a laugh.

It reminded me very much of Shakespeare’s Macbeth speaking before his final battle with Macduff: ‘I have lived long enough. My way of life is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf, and that which should accompany old age, as honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have, but, in their stead, curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.’ Okay, it wasn’t that bad I guess, but nevertheless their comments hurt.

It was never anything I could pin down -they weren’t complaints. They weren’t offensive, and they were usually said with a smile. I doubt that any of the women would think they were expressing anything but camaraderie towards me, and yet it always left me with an uneasy feeling that I couldn’t really express to anybody without seeming fusty. Ungrateful for their friendship.

Eventually I decided I was just too sensitive and once I’d finally retired, I thought I’d put it behind me until I came across an article on micro-aggression by Jonathan Kanter a clinical psychologist from the University of Washington: https://theconversation.com/microaggressions-arent-just-innocent-blunders-new-research-links-them-with-racial-bias-145894

Although I’d never thought of the jibes in those terms, there was something very familiar in his description. He was largely focussed on the racial tensions south of Canada’s border, but he pointed out that usually the thrust of any investigations on the subject seemed to have been directed more towards the receivers of the comments, rather than those who initiated them –‘asking people targeted by microaggressions about their experiences and perspectives, rather than researching the offenders.’

Apart from the office humour, I must admit that I didn’t feel any animosity directed towards me, and apart from my age, I don’t think the women harboured any other misgivings -but the parallels were otherwise a little too close to ignore. Perhaps they were innocent of anything other than curiosity as to why I hadn’t retired; perhaps I was reading too much into their teasing -but for some reason, it bothered me at the time.

Kanter had something to say about that: ‘Even small doses of prejudice, especially when they are confusing or ambiguous, are documented to be psychologically harmful for recipients.’ Given the context in which the article was written, I hesitate to identify myself as in any way comparable to the recipients of the micro-aggressive racial slurs he was studying, but it’s hard not to see a similar pattern of deniable behaviour manifesting itself in other things, however unconsciously and unintended. Surely these subtle and seemingly innocent ‘blunders’ are not just confined to expressions of racism.

Having so recently escaped from the quirks of office commentary, I realized it was a kind of frying-pan-to-fire journey. We are social creatures and subject to the vagaries of those around us who feel uncomfortable if we do not fit into expected roles. The boundaries between teasing and mocking can be hard to discern, and body language is not always a reliable signpost. Nor are words…

One of my good friends, John, is an elderly retired professor from a university near Vancouver who lost his partner to cancer a few years ago. We first met in a busy lineup at a Tim Hortons coffee shop in a downtown mall and started talking about life after retirement. I was about to meet with a couple of my friends at a table near the counter, and I asked him to join us. He seemed delighted that I had invited him, and followed me to the table with a satisfied grin on his face.

Compared to the rest of us, John was impeccably attired in a white shirt, red bow tie, and charcoal sports jacket over grey flannel pants. Jason and Rudy both tried not to stare at his outfit, but I could tell they were dying to find out why he was so dressed up. True to form, Jason, who was wearing jeans and a yellow oversized sweat shirt, didn’t take long to ask.

“Were you just at an interview or something, John?” Jason said, with an innocent twinkle in his eye.

John took it with good humour, and shook his head with a smile. “Just a habit from my old life I suppose,” he explained. But that was enough to get Jason and Rudy leaning forward on the table in anticipation of a good story. “I was a Professor of Philosophy at UBC ,” John added. “Our students expected it of us, I think…”

“Our…?” Rudy was as direct as Jason, and I was becoming a little embarrassed at the questioning.

“Rudy, let John have a sip of his coffee,” I said, shaking my head.

John winked at me and then sighed. “My partner and I were both faculty at the university, and we decided we should dress the part. I guess habits wither rather slowly after retirement, though…”

“Oh…” Jason said. “And is your wife still working there?” I saw him inspect the lineup at the counter.

John’s smile never faded, but his forehead wrinkled at the memory. “No, sadly he died last year…”

Jason blushed. “Oh, I’m sorry, John…” He absentmindedly fingered the exposed skin of his neck above the sweatshirt.

But John saw the movement and blinked -somewhat sadly I thought. “And yes, Jason, the bowtie was our statement.”

Rudy glared at Jason, and I think he kicked him under the table.

Jason’s eyes immediately started inspecting the plate in front of him as if he didn’t know where else to look. “I… I didn’t mean…” he stammered, obviously not at all sure what he had meant by the gesture.

But John just glanced at me and leaned forward on the table with a smile on his face as the memory washed over him. “It’s okay, Jason. You were supposed to guess… We were proud of it.”

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