Personal Stories of Rankism
A woman in her late forties writes:
Upon graduating from college I took a job in food service at a local university teaching hospital to earn money for graduate studies in music. My job-delivering trays to patients while wearing a polyester uniform and hair net-was certainly not a glamorous one. Often, as I wielded my cumbersome cart through the halls, I was blocked by clusters of medical interns on their rounds. They exuded self-importance and ignored me and I was forced to maneuver ever so carefully around them. After a while, in anger and frustration, I would deliberately run over toes. One day I stepped into an elevator in which there were two handsome young male interns. One looked at me, smiled and gave me a shy, friendly “Hi.” I returned the smile and hello. His buddy, eyeing the exchange, nudged him and said to him in a low snicker, “Slumming in the elevator?” That was 25 years ago and I still remember it. To this day I regret not having had the presence of mind to object to his behavior.
This example is from a book editor and illustrates the pride we take in social rank and the shame we feel at its lack:
During my freshman year at college I enrolled in a course in English literature. There were only about 16 students and I was looking forward to the kind of learning experience that a small class would afford. The professor conducted the first meeting in his home. As a kind of “getting to know you exercise” he began with, “I’d like all of you to introduce yourselves and tell the rest of us what your father does for a living.” I was dumbfounded. My father was a bus driver. He was a hardworking man and had always taken satisfaction in the fact that he could send me to this prestigious school without even a request for financial aid. Knowing that he was proud of himself and of me, and that suddenly I felt ashamed of him, made the shame doubly acute. One by one the students introduced themselves and followed with their glamorous pedigrees: “My father is a Dean of Harvard Medical School.” “My father teaches at Temple.” “My father is an attorney.” As my turn approached I felt my mouth getting dry. I simply couldn’t bear to tell the truth. I introduced myself and followed with a quick “My father is a transportation engineer.”
A woman who arranged for a hiatus from work to stay home with her children:
I left the “working world” from the time my first child was born until my second entered preschool. Except for naptimes, stretches without the children were rare. We couldn’t afford babysitters on one salary. Once in a while we’d manage to escape and attend parties given by my husband’s co-workers, most of them young and childfree. At first I looked forward to getting out into the adult world again, but soon I began to dread it because of the inevitable question, “And what do you do?” Having never before worked so hard, on call 24 hours a day and overwhelmed by the demands of two toddlers, I began to resent being made to feel apologetic for being “just” a mom.
A contractor recalling his days as an apprentice carpenter:
Most of the contractors I worked for during my apprenticeship were “screamers.” If you asked for help, they’d yell, “You should know that by now.” If you made a mistake it was the end of the world. There are contractors who just put you on foundations. You never get a chance to do the framing or the trim work; you’re just a grunt. How can you learn the trade like that? And when they’re through with you they send you down the road.
The worst is working for a contractor who has his son working, or a cousin, nephew, or friend. As someone without connections, you get the digging, the form stripping, the concrete pouring. You’re also expected to have a good attitude. Only the boss’s relatives are allowed to bitch. You feel that you’re judged on a whim and not on what you produce.
One contractor told me, “All I want to see are your elbows and your ass.” He wanted me bent over, working at all times. Even lunch was a walking sandwich. The ultimate humiliation is when contractors don’t provide temporary toilet facilities, so you have to relieve yourself in the bushes.
Until recently, Ellen was a principal dancer in one of America’s leading ballet companies. Now, in her early forties, she writes:
From the moment I took my first class, I couldn’t imagine an existence apart from ballet. With determination, hard work, and a little luck, I was accepted into a major company straight out of high school. Within a few years I was promoted to principal dancer. The sweat and pressure of carrying a performance, which I thrived on, were complimented with bouquets of flowers thrown at my feet, throngs of fans waiting at the stage door for my autograph, and parties at wealthy patrons’ mansions. I was treated like a princess.
But stardom was short-lived. At 29, I had a career-threatening foot injury that sidelined me for six months. Although I recovered, my foot was never the same. Bit by bit the aches and pains increased, as did my daily dose of anti-inflammatory drugs. I started losing roles, one by one, to young dancers. I realized I should think about a new career, but my identity as a dancer was all I had. My body was failing me, yet my spirit clung to the stage. I realized my days were numbered when the director told me I was “too mature” to dance a particular role on opening night. I was 33. My last years in the company were spent in disappointment over roles lost and anxious anticipation of the inevitable. Still I clung to the only life I had ever known in which I was a somebody.
From a Foreign Service Officer turned novelist:
My father was a wealthy powerful executive, and a flagrant abuser of his rank, both at home as well as at work. A few examples:
He loved to crack humiliating jokes.
When, at the age of eight, I broke a drill bit while trying to do an assigned task, his response was, “Never send a boy to do a man’s job.”
He dismissed my literary ambitions with the remark, “Art is merely for diversion,” then complained, “Why can’t you write like Morris West or Tom Clancy?”
To my fifteen-year-old sister appearing before him in her first party dress, he commented, “Humph! Do you think you’re a woman?”
“Men who embrace are queers,” was one of his typical pronouncements.
Naturally, I grew up with a loathing of arrogance. So it was quite a shock when I discovered that I myself am often guilty, at least in my heart, of pulling rank on others. In the last couple of decades, I’ve been reaching out more to different kinds of people, and in so doing have sometimes noticed I was secretly congratulating myself for practicing “the common touch!”
Another story involving self-awareness, from a graduate student in psychology:
Some time ago, I took my friend Susan out for dinner for her birthday. We ordered an appetizer and main courses, and soon both arrived at the same time. I was upset. Either the appetizer would go uneaten, or the salmon entrée would be cold by the time we got to it. I called the waitress over and began to express my displeasure. She suggested that she take the entrées back to the kitchen.
I could see what that would mean. The main dishes would sit back there and then she’d bring them out again in ten minutes, wilted and lukewarm. I looked her in the eye and told her I wouldn’t accept such a solution. With my jaw set and using my most intimidating tone, I told her in no uncertain terms that if the entrées were not cooked fresh for us, I would be very unhappy. The implied threat couldn’t have been clearer, and I felt so righteously justified about it.
While I was delivering my ultimatum, I glanced at my friend and saw she had a shocked look on her face. I suddenly realized, with stinging embarrassment, what I was doing. I was using my rank, as a customer to a “servant,” and as an older woman to a much younger one, to put the waitress down, threatening her as if she were a child.
When she left the table I apologized to my friend, who said, “Don’t apologize to me, apologize to her!” I couldn’t bring myself to do it, and this has haunted me ever since. The episode made me much more aware of the workings of rank. I’m now less prone to pull rank when addressing people who are lower in rank than I am. The pain of remembering how others have put me down (I was a waitress myself when I was younger!), coupled with the shame that arises in me when I find myself doing the same to others, remind me to have respect for the people I relate to.
Here is a telling story from a woman who works as a consultant to small businesses:
As a child, I used to play a game with my little brother. I would tell him I could cast a spell on him to make him invisible. Then I pretended I couldn’t see him, and he really believed me! I told him he would be able to see himself in the mirror, and that the cleaning lady would be able to see him. Despite those exceptions, he still thought the spell was working, and would get terribly upset. I was delighted with myself and my power over him. I told my girlfriend, and then we played the game on her little brother, too.