“Assume” Makes an “Ass” out of U and M-…Actually, No, Just You.

I’ve mentioned this before, but in order to fully understand this post it bears repeating that I’m an instrumentation technician by trade. What this means, for those who have never heard of the term “instrumentation” is that I work with the machinery, special technology, and programing that makes plants, factories, refineries, and so on run. These days it’s a very technological field with lots of computer-intensive work, but less than two decades ago it was a very grease-monkey-esque kind of job. Even today, depending on which area you work in, there’s a lot of bull-work, messy work, physically demanding work, and good old fashioned beat-crap-with-a-wrench-until-it-works kind of work. In other words, it’s a male-dominated field.

grouppicWhen I first began working at the paper mill where I got my first career-related job, I was actually the first woman to ever be hired to work on the maintenance team. From the day the mill opened over 50 years ago, to the day I was hired approximately 7 years ago, the only women who had ever worked at that mill were secretaries, clerical workers, or the types of engineers who spend most of their time at a desk. I was the first one to actually be out in the field, getting my hands dirty, working on the machinery. In those first few months I got quite a few looks from the men – especially the older ones – and I can’t really blame them too much because I was 22, short and small, and unassuming. I looked like the kind of girl who spent a lot of time fixing her lipstick in the morning (a stereotype that was exacerbated by the fact that I’ve always worn bright red lipstick, regardless of what I was going to be doing that day). But here’s the thing; even though I got a few looks here and there, and it took the guys a while to get used to the fact that there was a woman on their team, the guys I worked with were civil. Even if they secretly thought I was a joke and that I should go home and find a job more befitting a woman’s stature, they never said anything. If they had a problem with me being there, doing the job that had been a man’s job for decades, they kept that attitude to themselves.

Where it belongs.

Fast forward seven years to the present. Last week I woke up to an unpleasant surprise. The plastic tubing running to the water filter in our basement split, and was spraying all over the room. It was quite a mess. The tubing was shot and the small valve that isolates that particular piece of tubing was faulty, so we had to turn off our main water line to stop the leak. Until the tube and the valve were replaced, we had no water.

Now here’s the thing; I’m an instrumentation tech, and my husband is an electrician. Neither of us is a plumber, but instrumentation is a hell of a lot closer to plumbing than electrical is. As part of my job I understand tubing and valves. They aren’t rocket science, especially when you’ve seen a million of them. So since my knowledge was a step up from my husband’s, I detached the broken parts, hopped in the car, and headed off to Central to get some replacements.

Here’s where the story goes sour, because, you see, Central has a lot of bits and bobs. In the enormous aisle filled with shelves and shelves of parts, I couldn’t locate the one particular valve I needed, and after a lengthy search I decided to ask for assistance. The man who was running the Plumbing counter was about 50 years old or so, and I could see the look in his eye the second I approached him.

A few extra bits of information before I finish this tale:
– I arrived at Central in the clothes I’d been wearing while dealing with the leak, which were dirty and wet,
– I was tired-looking and probably a bit stinky because I hadn’t had a shower yet,
– I was holding the broken parts when I approached the clerk,
– I quickly demonstrated my knowledge by asked for  a replacement part by name, and explaining what size pipe I needed the part for.

In other words, everything about my appearance and the words that came from my mouth showed that I had been the one dealing with the problem. Regardless of all that, would anyone like to guess what the first words to come out of the 50-year-old male clerk’s mouth were?

“Well, hon, what your husband has to do is…”

It truly amazes me how in this day and age, a customer service representative would find it acceptable to jump to that sort of assumption. Also, he used that exact phrase at least three more times before I was finished talking with him.

IMG_0959I mentioned this encounter on Facebook later that day, once I’d (successfully!) repaired the leak and restored water to our home. The responses that I got were ones of empathy from friends who had dealt with the same thing. One woman had a real estate agent constantly hyping a large garage to her husband even though the husband doesn’t drive and it’s the wife who was interested in the garage in the first place. Another friend, who happens to be of a race with dark skin, was told by a salesperson in a formal clothing store that “someone like him wouldn’t be interested in those clothes”. Another man chimed in that he was once told that the most important thing women look for in buying a car is the cup-holders.

We all make assumptions sometimes – it’s human nature – but it amazes me how often those assumptions are put into play by people who should know better. So often these people are trying to sell you something and they don’t seem to be able to understand why it’s bad form to insult you in the process.

I have many other stories I could share on this topic, like the drum salesman who tried to convince me to pay an extra $100 to set up the drums for me (I built them myself in less than 20 minutes without instructions), or the furniture salespeople who used to ignore Jason and I because we wear geeky shirts and look young (we were making damn fine money at the time). I could probably go on and on forever, but I won’t because I’m convinced of something: that is, every person who is reading this right now probably has their own stories. Right now there are probably people reading this post who were accused of being fat cows when they were 9 months pregnant, or who were laughed out of a high-end clothing store because they weren’t “pretty enough” according to the snarky clerks, or who have seen mothers pull their children away from them because they have a lot of tattoos.

It’s a sad truth of humanity that these things continue to happen even in this day and age when we should have gotten past judging people by appearance alone. The old saying is that “assume makes an ass out of u and me”, but I disagree. To the jerk at Central who assumed that I was a fragile little thing who must be out fetching parts for my dear, manly, fix-it-all husband, I say this: assume makes an ass out of YOU, buddy. Me, I’m totally in the clear.

Have you ever had to deal with people making idiotic assumptions about you? How did you react? How did it make you feel? Please share!

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