September 16, 2021

What Are You Looking for Here?

Madonna wears a dark suit and peers through a monocle, while smoke rises behind her.
Madonna in 1989's 'Express Yourself' video

Recently I was given an unexpected refresher course in the art of saying what I need. 

While in Paris last month, determined to squeeze out whatever hot vaxx summer there was to be had, I got on a number of dating sites. Fairly quickly a trend started to reveal itself. I’m not going to get into a comparison of French men vs American men (there are plenty of good and bad things about both) but I will say the French operate with a directness that American men have yet to master (and if they did, would, in all honestly, probably be problematic). Where the American says “hey…” the French say, “what are you looking for here, Glynnis?”

This is not going to be a newsletter about sex. I will save that for the next memoir. However, I will say that fairly quickly it became clear that I better figure out the answer to this question, or get off the apps. (Reader, I figured it out.)

Women are rarely encouraged to say what they want. And when they do, they are told they are not being nice. Of course, when they don’t, they are punished for it, too. Think of all terms that get applied to women seeking results: feminine wiles, conniving, femme fatale, womanly ways. The list goes on. What is really being described are the ways women have been forced, over time, to contort themselves to get what they want, from men. Because asking for what you want, be it in bed or life, has long been a deep source of shame. Think of Charlotte rewriting her own engagement story to Trey so that it excised the fact she proposed. Think of Joan of Mad Men being shamed by her husband in bed because she suggested he let her “do the driving” that night, a move so disempowering to Greg, he later rapes her on the office floor.

It’s important to note that the opposite is often true for Black women who are saddled with the Angry Black Woman trope. Switch out “conniving” for “sassy,” and you get the idea. Meanwhile, for Latinas the word is “spicy” or “fiery”.

Nowhere, does there exist a trope for women who evenhandedly and reasonably state what they need and then are responded to in the same manner.

Which is exactly what happened the other day when I went into a work meeting and simply said, “before we discuss the items on the agenda I’d like to talk about…” and proceeded to calmly itemize the things I was concerned about which mostly had to do with paychecks and health insurance. 

The response was equally calm and respectful. Questions were answered. Issues were acknowledged. Great. Transparency on all fronts is a strength. Even if the answer is not what you’re hoping for, information is empowering and engenders trust. Win win for everyone.

The exchange was notable to me because, first and foremost, I had given it very little forethought. I simply made a note to myself that I needed to bring this up at the next meeting and then did so. Fifteen years ago, I would have agonized for days if not weeks over a similar conversation.

Part of my calmness no doubt has to do with the fact that after years of freelancing without the benefit of a human resources department, or any infrastructure at all really, I’ve learned the hard way to be my own advocate. The hard way means that rent is due, and the net pay schedule has not been adhered to. (Small, maybe obvious, pro-tip to freelancers: the second I sign a contract I note on my calendar when the check is due and on that day if it hasn’t arrived, I send an email, referencing the contract and calmly and directly ask where the check is and when I can expect it. This email goes out every three days until the check arrives.)

The other part no doubt has to do with my age. Something about exiting the decades where women are conditioned to believe they can only be made real by marriage or motherhood (this is changing, but not enough) has had the added benefit of curing me of the habit of waiting to be seen.

But mostly I have found the benefit to be much broader. What do I want? What do you want? So much of culture and commerce is dedicated to answering these questions for us, being required to articulate it in even small ways, is an extraordinarily helpful exercise. As with everything, the more you do it, the easier it gets. I no longer have to fake calmness when these conversations come up, I’m simply calm. “This is what I am looking for here,” I say. Let the other person agonize over their answer, or as is mostly the case, simply figure out how to make it happen.