Friday, January 25, 2008

Alpha Women

(News-Herald, January 24) By now we all know about alpha males, big manly testosterone-spewing arm-flexing studly mountains of leaderliness. But what is the female counterpart of an alpha male?

Men and women, according to a wide assortment of learned sociologists and regular humans, communicate and socialize differently. Men, it’s said, tend to organize themselves in hierarchies. Like dogs and other pack animals, when you put men together, they strut or bluster or act commanding or just butt heads until everyone sorts out who stands above whom in the pecking order.

Men are pretty comfortable with this. That’s why we have the oft-repeated movie image of two men who punch the daylights out of each other, get up, brush off their clothes, and go get a drink together. Once they know how they stand with each other, they can be friendly. The man who tends to land furthest up the food chain is the alpha male.

But that, according to the learned sociologists, is not how women work.

Women socialize by networking. They don’t keep score by knowing who can whip whom, or who occupies the steps above and below a certain position. If the male social model looks like a ladder, women’s looks like a giant web.

Women get points for their connections. Women in this traditional model gain status by knowing more people, being close to more people, being the hub around which the wheel of their social circle turns.

This means that men and women compete differently. Men will bluster and boss each other around and push and shove and throw their weight around until the top dog is clearly identified.

But women compete by trying to make connections, collecting social ties like baseball cards. And it’s a competition that can get rather ugly at times.

Not that these competitions are always evident. Much of the working world is set-up to follow the male model—the organizational chart tells us who the alpha dog is. And traditional workplaces are not kind to women who try to play this game—often they are often given a dog-related label, but it isn’t “alpha.”

Still, we know what alpha dog competition looks like. Because you can’t beat people into being your friend, women’s competition is less obvious.

But sometimes it can be very visible. You’ll often find it, for example, after someone dies, and people compete for the role of Chief Mourner. They’ll play “Can You Top This” with a litany of special moments they shared with the deceased, special confidences that only they were privy to.

In a workplace where alpha females are competing, you’ll see a more subtle version of the same. Often the competition centers on information—you prove you’re closer to a co-worker by proving that the co-worker has told you things that nobody else knows. That’s why workplace gossip can be so important—not because it proves you Know Things but because it proves you’re the one that people talk to.

The appearance of a new face in the workplace can also trigger alpha female competition for the right to claim the new person for rival alpha networks. That’s why new people in the office can seem very popular, at least until they declare their allegiance.

The competition also plays out in family settings. In many traditional families, you show respect for the alpha female by respecting her right to be the hostess for holiday family gatherings. That’s why “Gram, why don’t you let us help with Thanksgiving this year” is often greeted with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. It’s not viewed as help, but as a challenge, on the order of one man walking up to another at a bar and saying, “Let me help you out by dancing with your wife.”

When the alpha female in a family passes, it often gives rise to as much chaos as the death of a mafia don. How many extended families have stopped gathering at the holidays because Grandma passed on, and the females of the next generation could not negotiate a new alpha.

Not all men feel the need to thump their manly chests when any other male comes within fifty feet, and not all women feel the need to own and operate a personal network of friends and associates. Likewise there are women who thump and men who network. But both varieties of alphas are worth recognizing, if for no other reason than to make sure you don’t cross them.

And yes, I’m aware that this column is full of gross gender generalizations. I’m not sorry I did it; I just want to let you know that I know so you can avoid the trouble of writing to tell me so.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The AFA Today

(News-Herald, January 17)Oddly enough, I’m often asked what Diane Gramley and the AFA are up to these days. I am not an expert on the American Family Association. I did interview Mrs. Gramley years ago, and I can report that she does not have horns, does not breathe fire, and does not brandish stakes and torches. I found her intelligent, articulate, and pleasant.

People in these parts have mixed feelings about being targeted by Mrs. Gramley and the AFA. A few years back they mounted a campaign against a production of “La Cage Aux Folles” at the Barrow; it was the most effective publicity campaign ever, filling virtually all the seats.

Still, more than a few school districts have turtled up when they’ve seen Mrs. Gramley approaching. It’s not just that the AFA stirs up supporters, who by and large seem to be happy to stay quietly a home while Mrs. Gramley sallies forth to raise a ruckus in their name. (Like the ACLU and the Moral Majority, the AFA is more a network of sympathetic individuals than a club that gathers members for meetings.) Like most strident and extreme groups, the AFA stirs strident and extreme opposition.

But Mrs. Gramley has moved up in the world, which may be why things have been a bit quieter on the Northwestern PA front (it could also be that we’ve all become better people, I suppose). Previously responsible for Northwestern Pennsylvania chapter, Gramley now heads the AFA for the entire state. She is responsible for keeping an eye on the whole commonwealth, including all the naughty folks in Philadelphia. Along with tax money and legislative attention, it seems that the big city also gets an extra share of moral correction.

The national AFA espouses a variety of causes, from anti-pornography, to generally making gays and lesbians go away, to making advertisers use the word “Christmas” in seasonal promotions. AFA never met a boycott it didn’t like. Some work, some don’t. AFA takes credit for chasing smutty magazines out of 7-11’s, but when it tried throwing its weight at a major bookstore chain, it was sued instead.

AFA has backed off some of its edgier stances. They now endorse values from the “Judeo-Christian tradition;” a few decades ago founder Don Wildmon was suggesting that immorality in the media was a Jewish plot to drive Christianity out of American life.

Mrs. Gramley has mastered one basic trick of press release writing. If I send out a news release reading, “The squash festival will be the best event in world history…” no newspaper will run it. It’s an ad, an editorial, and not news. But quoting somebody—that’s legitimate reporting. So I just quote myself: “Squash Appreciation Society president Peter Greene announced the upcoming festival. ‘It will be the best event in world history,’ said Greene.” A quick google of Mrs. Gramley turns up a variety of press releases in which the AFA announces what she has to say about something.

She’s also producing a weekly radio program, usually featuring a telephone interview with a medium-prominent speaker or author.

Like, I’m sure, many people, I actually agree with some AFA positions. Smut and pornography aren’t good. Many elements of popular culture are toxic. Illegal drugs are bad. In the education biz, government occasionally tries to poke its nose where it doesn’t belong.

But I am naturally suspicious of people who have complete certainty that they know the mind of God, and I am doubly leery of people who believe that Being Correct gives them the right to bully people who are Very Wrong. The national AFA seems to attract those sorts of folks both as allies and as foes; in addition to its own attacks on others, you can find ugly attacks against the AFA from people who are certain that the AFA is dead wrong and so should be denied any decent treatment. I don’t buy this argument no matter how it’s applied. No footnote to the Golden Rule says “Do unto others, unless they’re wrong, in which case go ahead and treat them like garbage.”

I suspect that much of AFA’s agenda has more to do with politics and culture than with God (as Rev. Gene Carlson recently said, “When you mix politics and religion, you get politics”). But I’ve been on the receiving end of their disapproval, and I seem to have survived. Dissenting voices are an important part of a free society. I appreciate Mrs. Gramley’s willingness to sign her name to her opinions and assume the non-traditional-family role of lady political activist. It’s too bad she doesn’t have as much time for Venangoland any more, but I’m sure there’s a way to get AFA supporters to speak up.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Being a Good Audience

(News-Herald, January 10)Audience misbehavior has always been a challenge; it’s not just Kids These Days. The Franklin Band once threatened to stop holding concerts unless people got their children under control; that was in the 1930’s.

I’ve been both in and in front of many area audiences over the years, and there are plenty of highs and lows. For many years Oil City audiences were the worst, as if large groups had stepped into the OCHS auditorium to chat and were angry that folks up on stage kept trying to interrupt. They’re much improved since those days. Choir director Doran Gilhousen is legendary in Franklin for his lessons on proper concert decorum. Probably the best venangoland audience members are the red hat ladies; I know few performers who aren’t happy to see rows of red and purple in the audience.

There are some simple rules to remember. Be on time. If your child doesn’t have the concentration for anything longer than a short cartoon, leave the poor child at home. Leave the Items in Crinkly Wrappers there, too (which sadistic candy maker decided to wrap little pieces of candy individually in twelve layers of cellophane?). But the biggest issues deal with audience participation.

Less is not automatically better. One unnerving feature of many Sunday matinee audiences at the Barrow can be their unflinching politeness. They will later assert that they had a great time, but during the performance it seems they are reluctant to interrupt by clapping or laughing or otherwise showing signs of life. This can unnerve performers; a bit of audience reaction is the only sure way to know whether you’re doing a good job or not.

Audience participation must also take into account the occasion. I have always loved Franklin High graduation in the park downtown. But the open air setting invariably encourages a few folks to hoot and holler as if they were at a NASCAR rally.

It is not that an audience is not part of a show. If it weren’t, performers would do their thing in big empty halls and ceremonies like marriage and baptism would occur in silent sanctuaries. But some of us in the fifty-and-under age bracket seem to have lost track of what the audience’s role is.

You can see this in televised performances such as music awards shows or even the weekly concert segment on the Today show. The band is playing, the crowd is hollering and dancing, and as the camera swoops across the audience, people turn their backs on the performers so that they can wave and gesture for the camera. The performer could be presenting an awesome milestone, a memorable musical moment, but the camera-fixated audience will never know it. Enjoying the concert takes a back seat to putting on a little show of their own.

Well, here’s the only rule you need to remember when wondering about audience participation: if you are in the audience, the performance is not about you.

That’s why wedding audiences (most of the time) behave appropriately—because there’s no question who is the star.

In any kind of modern concert situation, hollering will occur. Hollering that occurs because an audience member is so excited and transported by the music that he just has to holler—that’s good hollering. The audience member who hollers because he would like to get everyone in the room to pay attention to him—that guy needs to go home and stay there.

This rule also applies to sporting events. Cheering, hollering, getting caught up in the excitement of the game—that’s all appropriate behavior. But if you’re not wearing a team uniform, relax-- the game is not about you.

Oddly enough, this is also all true of the performers. A performer who steps out on stage for no purpose other than to proclaim, “Hey, look at me!!” is not destined for greatness. A player needs to be about the game, an actor needs to be about the character, and a musician needs to be about the music. That’s why audience misbehavior is a problem—it takes the performers attention away from where it needs to be.

It’s as true now as when we were children—it is rude to interrupt (whether “interruption” would require poorly time clapping or a flamethrower).

Oh, and for folks in the fifty-and-older group, there is another issue, and I mention it here because the people close to you don’t know how to broach the subject nicely. But when you’re sitting in the audience, sharing comments, questions and reactions with your seatmate, you aren’t nearly as quiet as you think you are. Just one more reason the Kids These Days are not the only audience members in need of training.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Schools and Difference

(News-Herald, January 3) We’re at the beginning of that winter school stretch, the long grey road that runs from New Years to Easter, where the natives become restless and start to get on each others’ nerves. In the ed biz we’re expected to be sensitive to that mutual irritation in the school setting, given the tendency of many irritated students to grab either a gun or a lawyer to better express their irritation.

The cluster of issues most often turns up under the heading of “tolerance” or “bullying.” It would be a mistake to ignore them, but it’s not always easy to address them.

I believe teen bullying really is different from adult oppression. The beginning of an adult assault, whether by an individual or a nation, is to prove that you’re under attack. Virtually every charge in history begins with some version of, “The Mugwumps are a threat to us. Therefore, we must fight them.” Sometimes the threat is real, sometimes imaginary, but before we are okay attacking someone else, we need to know we are Just Defending Ourselves.

Teens do use that rationalization. But teens can also be completely comfortable deciding that someone Just Deserves to have something bad happen to him. “I can’t believe that kid wears fuzzy pink slippers! Who does that? It’s just wrong! Someone should punch him!”

Teenagers can be absolutely vicious, in ways and for reasons that are invisible to the adults around them. And the cycle of bullying can be even more complicated, because some students do, in fact, get an enormous payoff from being Victims. If I’m the butt of Mean Treatment, then my lot in life is everyone else’s fault and not my failure. And there can be an enormous rush of righteousness that comes from being Picked On Unfairly. Some people would much rather Be Right than solve a problem, and nobody is more Right than someone who is victimized by the mainstream. The fact that you’re picking on me proves I’m a better person than you—why would I want to give that up.

After Columbine it was fashionable to suggest that if other students had just been nicer to the shooters, they wouldn’t have picked up those guns. I don’t believe it; they got enormous emotional payoffs from seeing themselves as Outsiders, and I don’t think they were about to give that up just for the chance to eat lunch with the homecoming court. And, despite adult romantic imaginings to the contrary, Outsider kids can be just as judgmental, prejudiced and mean towards others as those others are towards them.

Bullying and the sheer meanness of the school years can be a complicated and ugly dance.

Some schools have had some success dealing with some of these issues. Some have not, and their failures are a fine example of the law of unintended consequences.

Starting with the Columbine aftermath, the nation wrung its hands and tried to figure out what the problem was. What they finally came up with was, “Some kids were picked on way too much because they were different. Fix that.”

The assumption was that schools would fix the picking-on part. Instead, many schools looked at the problem, analyzed it and concluded, “If people weren’t different, nobody would pick on them.” All we had to do next was just stop students from being different. Hundreds of schools outlawed long black trenchcoats on the assumption, I guess, that if the Columbine killers had been stripped of their trenchcoats they would suddenly have joined a 4-H club and run for Prom court.

There is some small justification for stamping out differences among students. Students who seek out the victim role need a way to draw targets on themselves and pull someone into singling them out. Outlawing self-inflicted targets could be a way to break the cycle.

Beyond that, though, it’s an approach doomed to failure. It assumes that all Different behavior is some pig-headed struggle against the natural order of things. You wouldn’t be different if you weren’t trying to be difficult. So stop it. And not doesn’t it stop bullies—it takes their side. “If you’re going to insist on being different, you’re just asking for it.”

People are different (and lets just not get into “different from what, exactly?”) because they are. Teenagers even more so, because they’re still trying to figure themselves out. For the sincerely different, “Just stop it” isn’t much help. For those after the rush of righteousness, being pursued by both their peers and school officials is just further glorious proof they’re In The Right.

Bullying is always wrong. I’d rather get through the rest of the year by assuming everyone deserves to be treated decently, different or not.

From my Flickr