Thursday, March 08, 2007


Let me preface this by saying that it's not much about knitting. But because I'm still thinking about this episode a day later, and because it ties in to some themes that have come up for discussion before, I'm going ahead anyway.

A customer (let's call her "Customer A") was in the shop browsing, choosing some yarn, looking through some books. A second customer (let's call her "Customer B") came in to look for some buttons.

Customer B wasn't sure whether I was the same person who'd helped her pick out the yarn on her last visit (I wasn't). She asked my name, and I said, "Lisa." She looked more closely at me and asked my last name. I said, "Myers." "Oh!" she said. "You wrote the book! I've seen it in the library."

"Yes," I said, "that was me."

"You have a Ph.D. in English!"

"Yes," I said, "I do." It's difficult to know what else to say to a comment like that.

"Wow. A Ph.D. That's hard."

Now, at this point, I'm frankly groping. On the one hand, she's correct; graduate school is incredibly difficult and the achievement of completing a doctorate is one I'm proud of. On the other hand, I was raised to be modest, and I'm just not comfortable saying something like, "Yes, it was, and I worked like a dog to do it." Also, I'm not sure that it's more difficult than lots of other things--like owning one's own business, or giving birth, or writing a book--not to mention any of the very difficult things I have no firsthand knowledge of, like running a marathon or having a life-threatening illness or being a nun.

But while I was struggling for a reply, Customer A chimed in, "Well, but it's not like math."

Take a moment to consider your own response--spoken or unspoken--to that.

I'm afraid you can't compare your response to mine, because I said nothing at all. I was completely stuck. And frankly, it wasn't the rudeness of it that hit me first. It was the hypothetical Barbie-style sexism of it. (Remember the talking Barbie doll that was re-designed after people protested that one of her sentences was "Math is hard"?) Do we still all assume that math and science are inherently more difficult than the humanities? Or are they just assumed to be more difficult for women?

In a comment on a post not that long ago, I was taken to task for belittling women's achievements by claiming that knitting is easy. I disputed the specific accusation (there's easy knitting and there's hard knitting, and I don't think saying "We're all smart enough to do this" is dismissive of the effort involved in it), but I'm right there with the overall point: many girls are taught that modesty is becoming, and this can lead to an unwillingness to claim credit when we deserve it.

And I guess I'd have to say that the score was Sexism 2, Feminism 0 here yesterday--once because I couldn't find a way to acknowledge my achievement without feeling like I was bragging, and once because I couldn't say, "Hey, you don't really think advanced math is harder than advanced literary studies, do you?"

Why am I blogging about this, which has so little to do with knitting? Because I feel bad about not being able to speak up yesterday--and about hiding my silence behind some phony idea that, as a shopowner, I'm prohibited from saying anything critical or unpleasant to a customer. I also think that's why some people around here didn't want me to blog about it: the point is not the anonymity of the customer(s), but the taboo against saying anything negative to or about any customer, ever. It's fascinating to me the way traditional retail policy dovetails with a traditionally "feminine" upbringing.

Sorry, no tidy insightful conclusion is forthcoming. But I promise that the next post will have knitting, and pictures.


Anonymous said...

First of all, I brag when I can. Second of all, I learned along the way that both honesty and humility are virtues that make a person a happier and a better person.

These are not contradictory. A marvelous word I learned to say (if not to spell) was "kvelling"- and to do it over my own successes- it sort of invites other people to share in my pleasure at something that has worked.

If "bragging" means only proclaiming one's achievements in a way that inherently disregards other people, or creates false superiority, then boo! But surely it is possible to relish success without making comparisons?

That said, one very functional (if illogical) reply to "That's hard," would have been, "Yeah, thanks. Are you looking for anything particular today, maybe some rhinestones?"

I suppose that a possible response to Customer A, the sexist, anti-math person, would have been a mellow, "No, indeed, entirely different- much less Greek."

Anyway, Customer A might (in charity) not have meant all those mathaphobic things, and ANYWAY on top of that, anyone who has watched you (Lisa, in particular) calculate the adjustments on a pattern to accommodate a change in gauge, or shape, knows that you are mathematically phenomenal, in a way that comes into practical use all the time.

Long reply, but my points are:
(1) So, brag, already, why not?
(2) Math, English, knitting- there's always something to learn, and often someone around demonstrating they haven't.

Bridget said...

Lisa - I'm glad you wrote about this - it drives me crazy! I also have to say, been there, done that ... though much of the time I will admit that my non-response is a result of being completely caught off-guard by the whole thing, since in my case, I'm usually not expecting the conversation to take that turn.

I posted a Top Ten Things Not to ... on my knitting blog last October. I got a lot of comments, and a lot of e-mails from people who were sure I'd made it up. Not only did I not make it up, I had to choose ten out of the x number of stupid things people had said to me!

I like coming to Rosie's because all of you who work there are intelligent people, but not on your high horses. There are plenty of other places to go for that.

Gauss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gauss said...

Such a comment could only have come from a person who has no idea what a PhD (in English or Math or Basketweaving or whatever) entails.

Lisa, congratulations for having a PhD in English, for running a great yarn store and for writing that nice book.

Laritza said...

I am with you. I am on my way to my second doctorate degree. I have had people look down on me because of my ethnicity! go figure!Now I decided I will brag and can brag when ever I please! Math, English what ever! it is all hard and it all science!

OfTroy said...

the perfect responce always arrives day's later--but i suspect i would have smiled at customer A and said, "Oh you have your doctorate in Maths?" and when flustered (since she likely hasn't even gotten her MA) Just gone ont to speak of my own experience.
(of course my experience doesn't include a PhD!)

You can learn to speak well of your acheivement, with out bragging. (bragging is bring up the topic when it is not appropriate--but taking pride when someone else raised the topic isn't bragging)

Carol said...

What I find fascinating (in a morbid way) about this incident is what is says about a society that raises women to be so ruthless when it comes to other women. The patriarchy has managed to get us to do its job for them by teaching us how to stick the knife in each other's backs, with bitchy comments like Customer A.

Or as a very wise woman once told me, "Working in a yarn shop may make you a misogynist."

It's a pity that Customer A doesn't say "Hurrah! I live in a society in which a smart, capable woman can write a book, get a Ph.D, own a business, freely and proudly."

I am reading "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and am struck by the extent to which a totalitarian, antifeminist society can repeatedly oppress women by, e.g., making them wear heavy veils, forcing women to use a different door to the university and arrest them so they can be given "virginity tests." Perhaps if Customer No. 1 spent her summer vacation in Tehran, she might better appreciate the freedom and accomplishments of her American sisters.

Off to burn my bra.

Anonymous said...

Lisa: I'm glad you shared this. Sometimes people do not really know how they sound. (Sometimes they do and they don't care, I know). Your comment about retail/feminity is interesting and has me thinking. It is obvious that Customer A is not a Koigu fan - if she were she would have been enjoying the yarn selection way too much to even think about being so snitty! Can't wait for my next KAD!! I hope that this at least made you smile. Pam

Anonymous said...

Recall Georges Perrier and the chicken. . . Knockers up!


Courtney said...

I must know more about Georges Perrier and the chicken now.
Who and the what?
And if "knockers up" means what I think it means that is the best thing I've heard in a while!

Sheila said...

Hmm. I thought I posted late last night, but I guess I didn't.

Former part-timer here, de-lurking. Hi Lisa! Hi Courtney! Hi everyone else!

The jist of what I wanted to say was: 1) It's hard having your reputation so closely tied to your store's. Now that I have my own store (books, not yarn) I'm often much more reserved than I would be otherwise. 2) Lisa, you think awfully loud and if those customers didn't notice ... well, I'm sure other folks did. 3) Your insight into female roles and retail personas was something that shifted my thinking instantly, but I'm not sure where it'll take me.

Hope all is well down there in Center City. I wish I could get down there more often.

Beth said...

My daughter struggles with math, yet is amazingly articulate and well spoken. Everyone who meets her remarks at how intelligent she is - and is correct.

Being good in math or science alone will not get you very far in this world - even math majors and engineers have to understand what the word problem is asking them to do. However, having a creative and intelligent command of the language and the ability to communicate with other humans - now that makes for a satisfying life and career.

Anonymous said...

I think that I am in the wrong place. Wasn't this the blog that women were meowing at men a few entries ago?

Anonymous said...'s Janet here in you remember I wrote to you last Labor Day in appreciation of your putting me in contact with the guy in the Southwest who sent me the Errata on the sweater that was befuddling me....It was Labor Day and yet you took the time and patience to help me out-a total stranger....I told you to save my letter and reread it when someone was unkind to you...what really matters here is how kind and helpful you are to other people...don't waste any time on Customer A...just delete her from your mind and know that I appreciated you last September....from Janet

eyeknit said...

I identified with your comment about your role as shop owner not allowing you to speak frankly or negatively to a customer. I have a similar taboo (as a physician). Unfortunately, insensitive and ignorant people don't filter their thoughts very well. They feel they have a right to invade our privacy and offer rude comments regarding number of children, childcare arrangements, choice of training institution and current working hours. So many times, I'd love to shout, "My personal life is none of your business! Please stick to telling me about the problem you came in for today".

BTW, I think you are very clever with math. You explained to me once the geometry of why you've used only half of the yarn when you're 3/4 done with the rows on a triangular shawl. Thanks!


Sarah (AKA Fleecy) said...

I think sometimes people have a skewed picture of what is hard. I have a degree in Russian which never ceases to impress (or confound) people. But for me, Russian wasn't hard. What do I think is hard? Parenting teenagers (do not even mention the words, text message, IM, or MySpace to me.) Blogging (Blogger gives me fits, despite years of computer experience, and don't even mention PhotoShop.) Living with a chronic condition. Aging parents. These things are hard.

But knitting - that's just fun. :-)

Sarah (AKA Fleecy) said...

Oh, and one more thing. I just found your blog and I have to tell you that your shop looks lovely. Unfortunately it's a bit far for me to drop in. See you at Maryland. :-)

Carly K said...

I'm late to the game but just had to say that woman is probably kicking herself for her stupid comment.

And to add to Carol's comment - "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other." - Madame Secretary Madeleine Albright

Lisa you rock!!

Jessi said...

Customer A here. May I offer an alternative interpretation of the event in question? Perhaps customer A was responding to the incredible awkwardness of the moment as customer B attempted to make conversation with you and the silences became longer and longer (as you apparently groped for replies to her friendly overtures). Perhaps customer A meant not to disparage your English PhD (she herself might have a degree in English as well!) but instead to express admiration for the incredibly complex-looking charted knitting pattern you were working on at that very moment (pale blue, elbow length cabled fingerless gloves). Perhaps customer A went to a women's college where she saw lots of intelligent women succeed in many different academic fields and has no hang ups at all about women's ability to achieve at whatever they choose. Perhaps your interpretation of that moment as is reflective of your own baggage or hang-ups. And by the way, I would not have minded at all if you had called me on a thoughtless comment, made essentially to fill an awkward silence. But reading about it on your blog 3 weeks later left me feeling kind of bad.

Anonymous said...

let it go lisa. its not always about you personally. lighten up and don't always assume the worst.