A Lesson in Connectivity

Ever broke a social rule without meaning to? Here’s one I didn’t learn about until later in life.

It’s the unwritten rule that when a man meets a couple in a social setting, he should primarily address the other man.

This doesn’t mean the woman gets ignored. Rather, that she doesn’t get put in the position of primary conduit. Instead, he should just initiate and hold conversations with his male counterpart, politely acknowledging her participation as it is offered.

But he must never open the conversation by addressing her, nor should he use his introduction as an opportunity to engage her exclusively. It’s just bad form. Nothing more really needs to be said about that … does it?

Okay, so it does: It’s a long-forgotten, masculine-feminine thing.

Disclaimers:

  • This is not a primer for the Taliban/ISIS/other red herring.
  • I did not claim my wife by clubbing her on the head.
  • Women are first-class citizens.
  • Women have every right to be treated like men, if that’s what they want.
  • They also have the right to be treated like women.

The lesson hit me for the first time as I started to settle in for a transcontinental flight. In the usual shuffle of boarding a big airplane, we all took our time stowing our stuff, avoiding our actual seats as long as possible. We knew we’d be confined to those seats for the next nine hours, so we looked for opportunities to stand and socialize with those around us.

A few minutes into one such conversation, I noticed something about a young couple, missionaries from an American Christian church. The wife looked mainly at her husband, not at me, regardless of whether he or I were speaking. At first I wondered if our conversation bored her, so I made a couple of overtures to invite her in. She replied politely, then (again, politely) returned her attention to her husband. Eventually, we took our seats, and I pondered this observation for the rest of the flight.

Eventually I concluded that although her behavior seemed strange to me and—once I understood it—may have been on the far end of the spectrum, it wasn’t unreasonable at all.

She was simply unwilling to excuse my failure to direct my masculine energy appropriately.

Now, there was nothing intentional about my manner toward her that should have interfered with their relationship; of course I wasn’t flirting. But once you grasp that initiating a conversation is an inherently masculine act—it’s a projection of oneself into others’ world—you can see how directing that energy toward the female of a pair carries the ever-so-slight hint of a faux pas: She hadn’t invited my attention. Further, beyond her polite acknowledgment of me, she wasn’t obliged to talk with me at all.

Since I got schooled on this rule, I’ve started taking notice of how different women interact with me in various social settings when their mate is present. In general, the aversion to direct engagement is strongest among traditional, religious women. They seem to get it intuitively, or perhaps they were taught the lesson at home. But in agnostic, business, and secular circles, I’ve seen little to any regard for who is talking to whom. And that’s how the people in those circles want it.

I think we’ve been confused on this in purely social settings because American men and women have been mingling professionally for decades now. We meet ‘n’ greet each other in all circumstances, solo and coupled, all day long, and we aren’t supposed to give a second thought to which sex we are. So, this rule has limited use, primarily in the social realm.

But it’s a good one to know. I think that if we’re expected to know how to engage others socially based on their sensibilities and traditions, this ought to be one of them. Actually, it’s not even a sensibility or tradition: masculinity and femininity are facts, and gender underlies every connection we make.

At the least, there’s no harm done if a man waits for a woman to invite him to connect. As a gentleman, it’s his responsibility to know his own boundaries.