The Right to an Opinion

Planet Ending, illustrated in Photoshop by Vjeran Lisjak, from http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1427851

Something happened yesterday that had me just a bit burned up…until I got to thinking.

I was talking (for the first time) to another consultant about a new project for a mutual client. The other consultant wanted to ensure that certain things had sufficient prominence on  the website; I raised an issue about a possible tension between the two purposes of the website, given the nature of the client’s business.

The other person essentially asked who I was to even be worrying about things like that, since I was just the web designer.

My instinctive reaction was to say “You arrogant so-and-so!” and attempt to commit actual bodily harm through a GoToMeeting connection, but I restrained myself.

First, the most important thing is not my ego, but doing a good job for the client, and this person did seem to have the client’s best interests at heart and to be providing her good advice.

Second, although a quick look at my LinkedIn profile would have revealed I have done a lot more with my life than build websites, it’s not as though I’m so world-famous that this person should have been intimately familiar with my background.

(I was reminded of a social media acquaintance who, after getting a few hotel upgrades due to a high Klout score, had come to expect them. After getting poor customer service one day, he found himself tempted to say “Do you know who I think I am?” until he realized how ridiculous that was.)

But I wondered a bit why I had been so particularly bothered. People disagree with me all the time. They ask me to explain my reasons for doing things, and they question those reasons. Sometimes the people doing the questioning know almost nothing about the context in which the decisions were made or the constraints of the situation, but I rarely feel particularly defensive, much less outraged.

Then I understood. It wasn’t that someone was questioning my decision or disagreeing with my opinion. This person had questioned my right to express an opinion.

This may be surprising in the wake of the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter and all the stories about attempts to silence women’s voices, but although I have experienced sexism in various forms and been groped on crowded buses and once walked out of the shower to find a strange man staring into my bedroom window, I take it for granted that in a business environment, people will treat me with respect. 

I live in a small town not known for being particularly progressive, and I work with a lot of men who are at least ten years older than I am, and nobody says to me “You can’t possibly know anything about technology: you’re a girl.” (They didn’t have any trouble electing me president of the Chamber of Commerce for 2013, either, but that’s one of those dirty jobs that no one wants to do.)

It’s true that this has all gotten a lot better since I passed the age of 40. I think that some of the difficulty I experienced in being taken seriously when I was younger were not just because I was an attractive woman, but because I was a young attractive woman. Once you have been around the block a few times, it gets to be difficult to believe that young people, irrespective of gender, have enough experience to know anything. That’s an unfair bias, but an easy trap to fall into.

So in a weird way, the fact that I got so annoyed yesterday indicates something positive. I’m better off than a lot of women in that encounters like that are the exception, not the rule.

It’s also a reminder to me not to assume that just because I encounter a person in one role, doesn’t mean that’s been the only thing the person has ever done. I recently met someone who was working as a coach, but who had practiced as both a nurse and an attorney in the past. These days, very few people over thirty have had only one career. You can’t assume that they have no experience with the topic at hand, just because you met them in a completely different context.

We owe it to ourselves, as well as to each other, to listen.

Sallie
WordPress fangirl, ghostwriter, linguistic alchemist, podcast consultant, and accidental vapor advocate. Married with 2 cats.

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