Naming is a superpower

If you’ve ever read A Wind in the Door, the first sequel to Madeleine L’Engle’s  A Wrinkle in Time, one of the book’s major themes is that we have the power to name things. In fact, Meg uses her positive power of naming others to help solve the major conflict of the novel.

Names and labels have power: that’s part of why being called names as a child, or by a relative or a friend, hurts so much. It’s also why studies have proven that being told a child is either bright, difficult, or impossible when they are introduced to a new teacher deeply affects how that teacher treats the child. It sets up expectations: not only in the mind of the giver, but also in the mind and heart of the person so labeled. And this happens on an almost subliminal level. It’s something from behavioral science that I used to help my crews work safely.

As a construction safety manager, and as a parent, I used this power to give positive images for people to live up to. And it worked.

Recently, we decided that our derogatory name for our cat, Tigre—who is, in all honesty, not all that bright—was something we should fix. So we consciously changed his nickname from “Stupid” to something that embodied his best self: “The Loving Cat.”

Since we did this, over the last few months the change in Tigre’s behavior has been nothing short of astonishing. He’s less hesitant, bolder, less nervous, even (dare I say it) acting a little more intelligently—at least for a creature with a vastly smaller cranium.

Today I am challenging you to examine your nicknames for people. Are you setting them up for failure? Are you giving them something to live up to?

Names matter. You are, as L’Engle wrote of Meg, a “Namer.” We all are. We should name things responsibly.

I no longer feel guilt about this one…

My children’s Great, Great, Great Uncle Vetter in Thomas Edison’s Lab, probably second from the right.

Years ago, while I was still reeling from having been abandoned by my ex-husband, my children’s Great Great Aunt & Uncle–Anna & Marvin Ebbinger–were fixtures in our lives.

Uncle Marvin filled the place of a local grandparent for my boys, and could repair darned near anything. He was a former Air Force pilot who used to fly Air Force One for Truman and Eisenhower back in the early day of aviation, where he also had to be a mechanic in case the plane broke down. He was wise and kind and after a second career as a farmer, he was a lay pastor at the local Veterans Hospital as well as our public hospital.

Aunt Anna, as we called her (“That’s too many greats,” she complained as she waved them off) was an heiress and while her husband supported them as a couple, she used that money to help the family. She had tended her uncle (pictured above) in the last ten years of his life, and had therefore inherited his fortune including original GE stock. I’m not 100% sure which of the men in the above photo in Edison’s Lab is her Uncle Vetter, but I did see another photo that was made into a mural at the Boston Museum of Science, and the same man, mostly shaved, looked uncannily like my ex, and one of my sons.

One day Aunt Anna had a a proposition for me. She wanted me to do the same thing she had done for her uncle, to move in with them and care for her in her old age. And I had many reasons for saying no. First of all I had almost finished college and stated a new career as a safety professional. I’d Ioved the work years ago and discovered that I needed a degree to continue doing it. I also did not want more ties to my ex’s family. Aunt Anna and Uncle Marvin aside, I had difficulties with some of my ex’s relatives who believed my ex’s version of our breakup. Finally, she was a persnickety cranky person who did nothing but complain. Still, I prayed about it: if I was supposed to do this, then I would.

I felt very strongly that I was not supposed to move in with them to care for her. I thanked her for her trust but felt I was not qualified. She seemed to feel betrayed, but Uncle Marvin told her to let it go.

It turns out I was right to say no, and not just because I suffered from clinical depression at the time. It just hit me today, like a welcome sigh, that the reason I was tired all the time–even as a youngster–was that (recent diagnosis) my heart was beating far too slowly. Since my pacemaker’s been installed I’ve been so energetic it’s almost scary. So as of today I’ve stopped beating myself up about not being there for Aunt Anna. I made the right decision back then, trusting my instincts.

An accidental feminist.

Once upon a time, I was a heavy construction safety manager in NYC.  How did a woman end up in such a male-dominated field? The answer is both simple and complex.

The simple answer is that I wanted one job where I could make enough money to not work a second job to support myself as a single parent. I saw too many single mothers working at two jobs in the “pink collar ghetto;” their children ended up with no parent at home: kids raising themselves. I also wanted a job that ran the same hours as school did: 7 AM to 3:30 PM, just like construction. My former work as a restaurant manager meant I would work all nights and weekends, and not be home when the children were, so that was not an option. My final criterion was to find a profession where there was a huge shortage of personnel, where they would have to hire me, female or not.

Construction safety management fit all of those requirements, especially the part about the shortage of personnel. I found out about safety as a career while working as a newly-abandoned wife working as an office temp, and started working systematically toward that goal.

I did not do it to be a trailblazer, but I was a trailblazer anyhow. I did not do it to make a political statement, but it made one anyhow. And here are some of the things I learned.

Standing up for yourself is a lot easier if they will have trouble replacing you. I remember one construction project where I was pressed into service as a flagman on busy 2nd Avenue. At this point I was a degreed engineer, and I could have objected since I had 17 floors and 150 men to monitor, and paperwork, and a sore leg . . . but I did as directed, and still managed to walk the entire building and do my reports. It meant I only got a 10-minute lunch break, but I was okay with that: my job often meant work during lunch with irregular breaks. So imagine my surprise when the project superintendent came into my office spitting venom, yelling at me that I was sitting there (doing paperwork) when I should be out in the field, working.

And I thought to myself, how would a guy react to this tirade? Understand that I worked as an engineering consultant rather than corporate employee by choice, to deal with contractors asking me to work unsafely or allow the men to work unsafely by simply walking away. So I very calmly told him that I had walked the building already and was making my report. He screamed at me that I was still spending too much time in the office. I countered, professionally, that I had only had a 10-minute lunch and that he had no idea how much paperwork this job entailed. But if he was unhappy with my work I had three other clients clamoring for me to come to their sites (which was very true). I was sorry he felt that way. He should call my boss at the consulting firm and request a replacement for me.

Then, in a calculated insult that had the young engineers sharing my office gasping in shock. I turned my back on the screaming man and went back to work.

In about an hour, the man came in and apologized. He used the “I wasn’t feeling well” excuse, and I graciously allowed it to let him save face. He’d been way off base, insulting, nasty, and unprofessional. And we both knew it. 

Men are rude to other men; the perceived condescension might not be because you are female. In the above situation I did not assume he was vile to me because I was a woman. I assumed he was vile to me because he was an asshole.

I’ve seen countless women hide behind threats of discrimination lawsuits because they thought they had been wronged because of their gender. While that was true sometimes, and I am all for suing about screw-the-boss-to-get-ahead threats, at other times the offending person was simply a jerk to everyone. In my humble opinion the way you deal with jerks in an all male environment, or any environment, is to assume that the more professional you get, the more they look like jerks. I don’t lower myself to their level and act rudely back at them.

True story: A female vendor for a prison lock company was very upset at how she was being treated at a meeting, and there was not a thing wrong with her treatment that I could see. A very level-headed female structural engineer friend of mine had to pull her aside into my office and sternly but gently explain that she was being treated the way everyone else was, and–dammit–by flinging baseless accusation of gender discrimination she was making our gender look bad. I sat there nodding, confirming the female engineer’s message to the woman salesperson.

Sometimes it’s not about being female, it’s about being treated normally for the business and you don’t know the rules yet. A mentor can help you learn the rules, but so can keeping your mouth shut and your eyes open. You know, like young men in the same job would have to learn the ropes.

You’ll have to prove yourself in any new environment. So do new men. It’s not gender discrimination when you get harmlessly hazed (how does the new guy take teasing?) or questioned on your competence (does the new guy know enough to be an asset to the team? or will I have to avoid his spatter zone?) – in any new job, you have to prove yourself. Yes, you might be questioned a little more closely since they are not used to seeing females do your job. This is usually a chance to educate them that a gal can do whatever it is as well as a man, not usually an inquisition.

Have I been discriminated against for being female? Rarely, and I met it head on. The guy who told me to my face that he “did not think women should be in the field” was told that I was supporting three children, and that I was a fellow breadwinner. The guy who thought I should not be there because I was “stealing a job from a man” was told that if he wanted to blame someone, he could blame my ex for abandoning us and non-support. The manager who would not let me train in the field “because she might get hurt” overheard a planned and planted conversation that he would not have such concerns about a 35-year-old man: permission to work out on the jobsite was granted the next day.

Standing up for yourself engenders respect, not reprisals. I knew I was not getting paid what I was worth, and that was okay at first since I had not gained experience or finished school. But once I finished my degree the $5K/yr raise that my boss was oh-so-proud to offer me left me $15K below what a male in my field with my level of experience and education should be making.

So I lined up a new job. When I called to give notice the president of the company wanted to make a counter-offer. What would it take to keep me? Frankly, I told him, I could not pay my bills on what he was paying me. So he wanted to know why I had not brought that up at the review where they gave me the $5K raise. “Because you said that was all you could afford, and I was stupid enough to believe you,” was my reply. He sharpened his pencil, and somehow got me the $15 K more a year it would take me to stay.

And for the rest of my tenure there, I was suddenly treated with wary respect.

You know, just like a professional.

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