I’m a man, man: Failed sex categorization in daily life

I’m a man who is quite regularly mistaken for a woman. It has been happening for years, it happens every six months or so, and it happened again just last Friday at the dining hall here at Le Moyne as a female colleague and I paid for our lunch. The cashier was a bit occupied and, seeing the two of us approach said, “I’ll be right there ladies.” She noticed and said sorry; we paid and went on our way. My sociologist colleague and I threw around some possible reasons that I’m so regularly confusing: I’m short; my hair is curly to the point it’s a natural perm; I was with a woman and the cashier saw her first. I don’t recall the first time it happened and I’d guess it probably bothered me, but it happens enough now that when somebody does it I often turn into a field sociologist and ask them why they thought I was a woman. Nobody ever gives a very clear answer, and almost everybody is fairly flustered by their called out sex miscategorization. I may never know why this happens, but it makes me think about some fun sociological questions too: How does it affect the interaction? Why do people say sorry? Can I learn anything about gender identity in daily life?

When I tell the stories of my gender-perception-bending ways, those who’ve not heard them before don’t believe me. They’ll say, “What?! You’re joking! How can that be!?” Joy never believed it until it happened once a few years ago while we were out for dinner. Our waitress approached and asked, “what would you ladies like to drink tonight?” I sprung into field sociologist mode, and asked her to explain her ‘transgression.’ She said that it was because I was wearing a purple hat. Perhaps. I suppose purple might be somewhat more associated with women in our culture, but this was a ripped up, dirty, manly baseball cap. It’s the sort of cap a guy like me wears to say, “Look, I’m a guy!” I guess those representations we put out there really are dependent upon the interpretations of others. Whenever these disrupted interaction rituals occur I find myself in an awkward encounter that the other participant will try to end as quickly as possible. As you can see, I don’t always let them end it so fast.

My favorite story, from 6 years ago or so, illustrates how violations of taken for granted reality can be seen as moral lapses requiring some sort of apology. I’d ordered a pizza and gone in to the shop to pick it up. At the counter was one female customer waiting for an order that wasn’t ready, and a male employee. The male employee was one of those big, masculine dudes. You know the type – a bare armed, ripped, head nodding, bro. As I approached the counter he says, “Can I help you ma’am?” The three of us immediately noticed the moral wrong that had been done. The woman sort of chuckled and took more of an interest in the encounter than you’d expect of a typical bystander – there was now something to see! The very masculine employee damn near recoiled! And, why not since he had pretty much done the worst thing you could do in the ‘manverse’ – he had called me a woman! Remember, this had been happening to me regularly by now, and I’d already been asking people what prompted the miscategorization. This time I decided to have a little fun. I knew he felt bad about ‘what he had done’ because it was clear from his manner. He was sorry for something I thought was just curious. But, the wanna-be ethnomethodologist I am, I decided to see how far I could push this. How bad did this business man feel, and what would he do to repair this broken situation? So, I said, “well, I think you owe me a discount on that pizza.” I was making a claim I didn’t believe – that he owed me something to make up for mistaking my gender – but I was testing a hypothesis. If he believed he’d wronged me, he should be motivated to do something about it. My hypothesis was confirmed. He did reduce my bill by a couple of dollars, and I happily accepted payment for damages!

What’s this all mean, sociologically? I use these examples whenever I teach about ‘doing gender.’ We are being sex-categorized, and our performances of gender are highly dependent upon our audiences. At the same time, I think it illustrates that when we are interacting with others, our categorizations, or miscategorizations are also accountable. If a mistake becomes obvious, how will you explain yourself? What will you do to repair the situation? I’d guess this gender example happens to others, and I’d predict most of the time the miscategorized actor laughs it off just to get the situation back in shape. But, if you miscategorize someone who takes their gender performance as important and unquestionable, maybe it would turn out differently. Might someone get defensive and aggressive? Might someone’s feelings be hurt significantly, and their identity shaken? It also makes me think about the fragility of the interaction rituals that make up daily life. It’s surprisingly easy for the taken for granted to be called into question, and when that happens people are made uncomfortable. The small business owner, manly-man pizza guy was so uncomfortable that he gave up a little profit to make sure all was square.

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