I have been wondering about myself. Because a few weeks back, at a party, I found myself walking up to a terrible woman. I know that if I never approached her, we would never speak. She is a beautiful, talented, ferocious professional climber who reserves her energy for people she has to impress; I offer her nothing, so she doesn’t talk to me. In fact, at several functions I have seen her see me then turn her head to pretend she hadn’t seen me.
It is on these occasions when I am especially compelled to walk up and greet her warmly, and watch her force out a half-hearted, “…oh hi!” This greeting is inevitably followed by a brief conversation during which she says drippingly contemptuous things while I nod and smile.
On this day, she did not disappoint. At some awkward pause, I told her that a mutual colleague, X, was around.
“Wow, what an honor, to get talk to X” she sneered.
Somewhat taken aback, I stuttered, “well—uh—you know—just saying that—friends are here,” to which she icily, instantly responded, “X is NOT my friend.”
This didn’t leave me much of anywhere to go, conversationally speaking, so I settled for a stammered, “hey, what do I know, I just—shucks”, etc.
Here’s the thing. I wasn’t really taken aback. I wasn’t really stuttering and stammering—not really, or at least, not authentically. In both moments, I was choosing to perform. To play the patsy.
The patsy: wide-eyed, low-status, gosh, aw-golly—too sweet and perhaps too naïve to notice when being insulted. A follower. A fool. The patsy persona serves as a protective shield against any flying shards from a brittle personality.
So then, of course, the question is: why do I put myself in the position to play the patsy to terrible women?
There’s the entertainment factor, of course. The conversations feel like Close Encounters with an 80s Villainess. One of my all-time favorite stories involves my husband’s ex-girlfriend, who once, when visiting, threatened to throw a screaming fit get us all kicked out of the hipster bar if I joined them for a drink. (It seemed unbelievable that a grown woman would choose to have a public temper tantrum, and at the time I said so. My husband shrugged. She would have done it, he said.) It’s been years since I’ve seen or spoken to this woman, but I remain fascinated by my few glimpses of her awesomely appalling behavior. Even though, each time, she left me no other role to play but the patsy.
My friend Deb says the patsy is an advanced, secretive form of condescension, and I suppose she’s right—a way of saying, “I refused to engage in your madness, and I am such the bigger person that you don’t even notice.”
But there’s something else. Patsy behavior amplifies—almost burlesques—my own general mien. I strive to project sincerity, warmth. I ask a lot of questions and listen intently. I talk to people as if I believe we are at once friendly and already friends. I make jokes in a way that assumes we have the same sense of humor—and I relax my eyes wide open and smile—a lot—to prevent any of my sharper barbs from being misunderstood as aggression.
I learned this behavior later in life, as Israeli parents tend not to put “overwhelming politeness” high on the list of qualities they try to instill in their children. Actually, I was angry as a younger person, and assertive, but this did not ever turn out well.
I don’t know if it’s my energy or just my face, but when I have presented the barest whiff of thinking too much of myself, I have always received an almost animal hostility from others—especially in professional situations, but even from friends and close colleagues. This means that over the years, I have come to feel like I live on the verge of being attacked. And it has made me very careful. I can never be in the least bit difficult and precise—or insist, or push hard, or put my foot down, or get angry when refused, or make demands, or be the squeaky wheel.
It was a painful lesson to learn: I only get what I want by being really, really nice. I have trained myself to communicate energetically and without pause: “I am not competition. I am not a hostile actor.” My smile becomes hunter’s orange: don’t shoot. When I do insist and push—or even when I jokingly give someone shit—I put it between two thick slices of warmth and coaxing encouragement.
It’s not enough, by the way. I can’t tell you the number of times in just the past six months that I have been told that someone found me “intimidating”, a statement I find alternately hilarious and sad.
It can be a bit wearing, I must say, having to be nice all the time. And there’s a very real nagging sense that there would be more waiting for me in a world in which I didn’t have to be.
This is deeply gendered. Do I even have to say this? This is deeply gendered. When the miserable Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook tells women that they aren’t being assertive enough, she clearly doesn’t know or perhaps remember the consequences of being an aggressive woman. When Jessica Valenti encourages women to stop being so nice, she doesn’t remember the punishment that comes when you are not nice. They offer ineffectual solutions to a real problem, and I haven’t been able to come up with a better one.
I’m only left playing the patsy to these rare and difficult women who somehow do seem to get what they want by behaving beyond the pale of decent human behavior.
Sometimes it makes me rage with jealousy. Why do they get to be cunts? Why not me? How do they get away with it, and why not me? I remind myself that for many of these awful and irresistible women, their behavior clearly does not emerge from a place of ease and control or even pleasure. Often, they are acting out their damage, or a void of empathy, or a chattering neurosis, or an embattled entitlement.
Even so, they manage to push past the normalizing training of the world in which we live. It is brave, in its way.
So when I encounter their gall, their temerity, their unpleasantness, I don’t want to punish it. I want to be the witness who creates space for it. By being the patsy, I become a kind of straight man for their social violence, the foil for a necessary corrective—and a certain kind of greatness.
Maya Gurantz : keeps practicing.