I can’t seem to sleep without reading a few pages of something. This week I have been reading Deborah Tannen’s Talking from 9 to 5 Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex and Power, published in 1994. She talks about the use of first names in the workplace to suggest power:
A kind of connection is established by symmetry: two nurses call each other by first names; a doctor telephones another doctor he doesn’t know well and they address one another as “Doctor.” Regardless of formality, the mutuality of addressing each other in the same way implies shared experience or equal status.
Nowhere is the double meaning of status and connection clearer than in the use of first names. I recall a colleague reporting at a faculty meeting his committee’s shortlist of four candidates for a faculty position: Turner, Smith, Jones, and Annie. He referred to the three men by their last names, the one woman by not only her first name but a diminutive, even though she was older and more experienced than the other three candidates…
Soon after president Clinton took office…some senators were delighted that they got to address the first lady that way: “You can’t imagine how great it is to talk with her, to call her ‘Hillary,'” one senator was quoted as saying. On the other hand, another article reported some senators’ resentment that the first lady was addressing them the same way: “Did you hear, they muttered among themselves,” an article in the same newspaper reported the day before, “that she had actually been calling some senators by their first names?
This morning at a faculty meeting we were provided with an incredible array of fruit, donuts, bagels on trays and several coolers of juice. There was a huge amount of food left over. Where would it go? I had a few errands to take care of in the building. Later, on my way out the door, I saw students registering for class helping themselves to a similar tray of food. Was it the same tray? I thought back to my days as an undergraduate when the food from various meetings of the Important People had been left for anyone else who was around. This time I had been in the first group to eat from the tray, not the second. Does that mean I have Arrived? Is this another indicator of status?
I also remember a meal I was invited to in Jordan–mansaf, the national dish. It’s lamb over a bed of rice and pine nuts and is eaten with a yellow goat cheese sauce poured over it in stages. In this case there were three men at the table along with myself. Three of us ate with our hands. The fourth, who was from the Bene Hassan tribe, ate with a large soup spoon. He was teased gently for this, as well as his tribal status. Then the tray was whisked away to the kitchen.
As a foreign woman I had access to both the front and the back of the house, and I followed. As soon as the the tray arrived in the kitchen the man’s wife and children started hungrily picking at the remains of the tray. They had not eaten yet and were relegated to the leftovers. I have since read accounts of similar occurrences in Saudi Arabia, and have concluded this is a typical Arab custom, at least among some groups.
If you are hungry and powerless, you may not have any control over whose leftovers you eat. But what if you are higher in the food chain and have more control over who eats with you? Who has to eat your leftovers?