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Burt S., Contributions from CSMMD Writers

Gendered Environments Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Buy a Tire

When I was in Social Psychology Class in grad school, we talked about gendered environments (perhaps there was social psychology jargon for it, but I think gendered environments speaks clearly). These are environments that are specific to one gender: for women, it might be a ballet class, or a beauty parlor—environments where feminine clothing might be de rigeur (such as tutus or tights) or in which a man might not know what is expected and what the script is to proceed. For men, it might be a locker room, or a barber shop. It seems that the first time visiting a new barber shop, I have felt intimidated, overwhelmed by a testosterone heavy environment, feeling I was being scrutinized for signs of failed masculinity: boy, you’d be better off at a hair stylist than a barber shop. Barber shops separate the men from the boys, a consideration that does not necessarily take into account age or thickness of beard. [I would mention gendered environments for other genders, but am less familiar with what, say a transgendered, asexual, or intersexed environment would be like. Well, not quite true. I have been to drag shows in SF and to transgender bars in NYC.]

The barber shop in Indiana, PA, had antlers hung on the walls, and magazines about hunting, fishing, cars, and athletics available to read. One entered, checked out who was ahead of one in the queue, and silently took a seat, usually picked up a newspaper (preferably the sports section), and silently waited until a barber waved one into a recently vacated barber chair. Then one engaged the barber in tales of hunting, golfing, hair loss, or boss problems. The barber shop I go to in Macomb has pictures of fish on the walls, and the wallpaper is of deer. The rest of the ritual is the same. My barber is a beekeeper, and thankfully I can talk to him about gardening. Also, his daughter Is a lesbian, which allows for some latitude in the conversation. Sadly, I have never been brave enough to tell him I am gay. Why would I?

There was a barber shop in NYC that I attended which was a huge place with more than 10 barber chairs; it was rarely busy, and even though it was many years ago, the $5 haircut was a bargain. Women told me that at the time, they had to pay $50 or more for a hair trim. And women could not resist: a few pioneers came into that strongly male environment and asked the all male staff if they could work with women’s hair. Is it so different? Suddenly, the price went up, and there were lines around the block. I no longer went there (my bargain haircut was gone).

 There is a plaque in Macomb for an African American barber shop that no longer exists. I have been told that white barbers often refuse to work on Black men’s hair; Black men in Macomb must make other arrangements. And I know that when I went to a barber shop in Chinatown in NYC, the barber refused to work on my beard. So it isn’t just gender we’re talking about. As in most aspects of American life, it is racism as well.

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Be that as it may, this is a story about a gendered environment I avoid as much as possible: the world of cars. I had a flat tire the other day, and had to deal with it. I felt humiliated every step of the way for not being knowledgeable about cars in general, my car in particular, and for being too talkative. Was the gendered environment a contributing factor?

When the dispatcher asked me what color my car was, I gave him the official Ford version of my car’s color: KIWI. There was silence on his end of the line, and I meekly and weakly added, “Green.” He said, “Green.” The mechanic who arrived to deal with my flat was about my height, but he must have had 50 pounds more of muscle than I. He was no nonsense and took care of business quickly and without much comment. He asked if I had a spare, and was surprised when I told him the car came with a compressor (which was useless in this instance), and not a spare. I felt foolish and let him check the trunk (which I knew did not contain a spare—I’m not that car ignorant), but I did ask if it might be under the car: people at my office who did not believe I did not have a spare told me it might be there.  One person at the office asked if I knew how to change a tire: “Sonny,” I told him, “back in my day I had to change many a flat tire.” Okay that was rude, so I thanked him for his offer to help me if I needed it.  

The mechanic informed me he would have to go back to the garage and get a replacement tire. I told him I had tried the compressor and it had not worked; he said he would rather have a spare than a compressor any day. I asked if I could ride with him back to the garage so that I could pick out a set of new tires. He looked very uncomfortable, as if he was not used to having his cab space violated by a passenger. Then he said, “I have to come back anyway.” He removed a crumpled shirt from the passenger seat, and I swung up into it from that first high step that truck cabs have.

On the way back to the garage, I tried to engage the mechanic in conversation, mostly my concerns about flats, and having to buy tires. I asked if the flat had a nail in it. He said, no. I asked what the tires might cost me. He said he was not a salesman. I got the impression I should be silent, so I was. I didn’t want him to think I was a Chatty Cathy (but I am).

So at the tire place, he took the garage entrance and told me he would meet me in the showroom, which is stark. Tires provide the only decoration; the chairs and tables in the waiting room are minimalist; there is a TV and a vending machine. There are unadorned utilitarian desks and a service desk. It lacks any hint that a decorator had ever set foot in it. [I want to say “gay decorator” but god knows, I have no sense of style, so let’s explode that stereotype.] There is a large sign hanging in the middle of the room, saying: “Intermediate: 70,000 miles” and “Premium: 80,000 miles.” A salesman greeted me before the mechanic joined us: if I had known the script, I would have said, “Let’s wait for the other guy.” I explained to the salesman that the guy had come to my house, and I had come back with him to pick out new tires. He asked what make car I had; I told him; and without another word, he walked out the door. He did not say what he was doing or if I should accompany him. After a few minutes, he returned and said he did not see my car. I told him it was still in my driveway, that I had come with the mechanic to get a tire to replace the flat. By then the mechanic had returned and informed the salesman that I wanted a set of 4 new tires. Without asking another question, the salesman calculated what a set of 4 would cost and told me a price for the Premium 80,000 mile type. I asked about the original tires. He asked what kind they were. Since I shamefully did not know, I indicated that the mechanic did. When the salesman heard the brand, he told me they did not carry it but could order it for me. Of course, I needed at least one tire that day, so I asked if there was a cheaper option than the one he had quoted. He calculated again, and gave me the price for a 40,000 mile type. I pointed to the prominent sign and said what about the 70,000 intermediate type? He said they did not have those for my car. It was 40,000 or 80,000. I was feeling a dearth of information, but I was also feeling pressured to make a decision, so I went with the longer-lasting tire, forgetting of course that they would probably outlast the time I would keep the car.

The salesman asked me: “Hydrogen?” I said, “Hydrogen?” He said, “Do you want hydrogen?” I was tempted to say, “Sure, can I get a glass with ice?” or “Sure, can I snort it?” But I played along and asked, “What do you mean?” He said, “Do you want hydrogen?” This time I waited him out, and he eventually told me that filling a tire with hydrogen reduces the moisture level or something, but what convinced me to go with it was his statement that it was only $5 per tire. I agreed, and was pulling out my credit card to pay for all this, when he abruptly walked out of the showroom into the garage without a word about where he was going, why, or how long he would be gone.

 I stood at the front desk for a while, feeling foolish, but eventually took a seat on one of the stark utilitarian chairs. Eventually the salesman returned to the showroom, did not glance at me, but sat down at his desk and started talking to the other salesmen. I tolerated this for a while, but finally summoned up the courage to go up to him and say, “What’s going on?” He told me the mechanic was preparing my tire. Eventually the mechanic entered the showroom and summoned me to the truck. On the return trip I ventured one question: “Should I tell the dealership service people my tires have hydrogen in them?” He said, “No need,” and we rode the rest of the way in silence.

When I had my new tire, and returned to the showroom, the mechanic took my car key and was walking toward the garage when I asked how long it would be. “Half hour,” he shrugged. Thankfully when I returned ½ hour later, a female salesperson took over. She explained things more fully, and when I asked her if I needed to tell my regular mechanics about the hydrogen, she said, “They put green caps on the valves to indicate hydrogen.” “ Did you put green caps on?” she asked the mechanic. I felt I had stepped in it again.

Here’s my point (I can hear you saying, “At long last”)—I was in an environment unfamiliar to me and for which I did not have a script. Nothing was done to ease my passage through these unfamiliar waters, and a lot was done that resulted in me feeling ignorant and “not a regular guy” for my ignorance. I have never thought of cars as much more than transportation—witness my ownership of a Ford Focus, the most dressed down, cheapest car I could find—and have never joined the obsessive car culture, which I suppose, includes knowing that hydrogen is the latest fad for making tires more expensive. Maybe this culture is designed to make more money off us ignorant suckers, and is not about hypermasculinity including knowing car and tire jargon. And maybe not.

And here’s the thing, in the gendered environment of the university, where male professors are talkative (not necessarily the strong silent type), and in the gendered environment of the counseling center, where male counselors are sensitive communicators, some visiting men feel intimidated not knowing the script or what is expected; they sometimes fear they might be asked to share emotions or do other really unfamiliar things. I try to be aware of how difficult an unfamiliar situation can be, and try to smooth the way as much as possible, sharing as much information as I can.

In the broader perspective, the whole concept of gendered environments is from sociology or social psychology or other similar fields of study, and most people are not familiar with it. So it is not fair of me to expect a barber shop or a tire shop to be anything other than what it is, or for me to make assumptions about what the thoughts of the people there are about me.

It seems that a simple trip to buy a tire can be seen as an intersection of 2 very different subcultures to us social constructionists, and a profoundly complicated experience.

- Burt Sorkey

About CSMMD Admin

The Center for the Studies of Masculinities and Men's Development at Western Illinois University. Research is clear that men are in crisis, particularly men from underrepresented populations. However, considerable disagreement exists about how to most effectively support men's engagement and development, while maintaining focus on social justice. The Center for the Study of Masculinities and Men’s Development aims to provide quality scholarship, advocacy, and programming that positively influences college men’s development in a manner congruent with gender equity and social justice.

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