Saturday, October 28, 2006

Don't look at me when you're talking to her

The Setting

Yesterday’s visit to the bank should have been one of those routine things. Without offering too much detail, it involved us making a personal visit to sign documents. I will offer that in the world of finance, Cheryl, with a long background in the accounting business, is better at sorting through details than I am. She arrives armed with every financial permutation imaginable and whether negotiating interest on a loan or investing in retirement funds, she is fully prepared.

Bank managers, financial advisors and loans officers love it.

And still, yesterday would have been routine. With the moving around of money we rarely concern ourselves over which of our names appear on a financial document. In this case, because she had initiated contact with the bank while I was away, her name appeared as the sole responsible party on a registered document. I was there because the movement of funds was happening through our joint bank account and the nature of the transaction required both signatures.

That was the limit of my participation.

The document being registered required that Cheryl’s signature be witnessed by someone who could legally do so under the Evidence Act: a lawyer or notary public. The banker told us she had a lawyer on contract for such things and he would be arriving in a few minutes.

The Event

The lawyer, an older gentleman, arrived 15 minutes late. Not a big deal, but worth a brief apology for extending a simple, short process. And, this is the last time you will read me referring to him as a gentleman.

As he entered the office he introduced himself and shook my hand. He proceeded around the desk and sat down. Cheryl was raising her hand for a customary business handshake and then put it down. The lawyer made no move to greet her. Indeed, he did not even acknowledge her until the banker introduced her.

The document had to be completed in quadruplicate, inked signatures on each separate copy. When the lawyer looked at the top copy he noticed that the only name on the page was Cheryl’s.

The lawyer looked oddly at Cheryl. Then he looked at me. He then looked back at Cheryl and slid the first of four copies to her for signature. When he passed her the second copy he looked back at me. This time, however, it was a look I recognized as having a meaning. Let’s call it The Look.

The Look involved a glare of disapproval.

There is little doubt in my mind that the lawyer on entering the office, seeing a man and a woman, obviously together, expected that he would be conducting his business with the man. When it became clear that his business was with Cheryl and that my presence at this point was unnecessary he was taken aback.

So was I. He had several opportunities in which to correct his error and took none of them.

Instead, he gave me The Look. And, in that look lies a message:

You traitor. This is a matter of some importance and you are relinquishing your power over this issue to your wife. You are needlessly empowering a woman. You are not a real man. You are disgusting and represent a threat to established male dominion.

How do I know that was the message? Because I’ve met hundreds of him. I’ve actually heard the words before, directed at me or someone nearby.

The lawyer, after having witnessed the final copy, offered an apology for having arrived late – to me. He then packed up and started to leave. I was a little stunned by the fact that throughout the entire process he had completely ignored Cheryl to the point that he never even spoke to her, even though all his business was with her.

As he left he offered his hand in a customary business handshake – to me. This was his last opportunity to correct his behaviour and I expected him to reach over and shake Cheryl’s hand.

Not only did he not make the same parting gesture to her that he did to me but, he did not even acknowledge her on leaving.

Inside, I was more than a little angry.

The Rage

As we walked home I remained silent about the whole episode. I was replaying the entire event in my mind in an effort to understand what had happened. There were so many things I found unbelievable, not the least of which that in this century, regardless of how old and steeped in patriarchal dominance this lawyer may have been, a person conducting business could be treated with such blatant dismissal simply because she was a woman.

There was a slow burn in progress. I had witnessed similar behaviour before, but I had never been so directly involved nor so profoundly affected.

A part of me was wondering why Cheryl, who is not beyond providing a swift kick in the nuts to any man who really pisses her off, was not similarly and outwardly in a rage.

The Shock

When we arrived home Cheryl quite casually said, “Did you notice how I was ignored by the lawyer?” She accompanied it with a shrug and a sigh.

Did I notice? I was focused on it! I was furious! And, I said so. Through the whole of that few minutes in the presence of that lawyer I had contained my overwhelming urge to reach over and smack the sonofabitch. I went into a rant about how abysmal the lawyer’s treatment of her had been and how I really didn’t understand how she could actually dismiss it without some anger.

“That’s nothing new,” she told me. “That hasn’t happened a dozen times in my life. It’s not even hundreds. That has happened thousands of times. If I got upset every time I was treated that way, because I’m a woman, I’d be perpetually pissed-off.”

I was stupefied.

I knew that women endured that kind of treatment but I had no idea as to the degree and the frequency. And, I had erroneously believed things were changing.

I might have even believed there was some exaggeration in Cheryl’s statement except that she dismissed the way she was treated as so commonplace that she was unable to develop any anger over it. “I reserve my rage for the big stuff. That’s not worth getting excited over.”

Yes, it is. I won’t make the same mistake again. The next time something like that happens I’ll be the one getting excited. I’ll make it clear that it is big stuff.

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