Let’s talk about assumptions. I maintain there is no area where we assume at more risk than when we think the other person just obviously has to see things the way we do.
Which leads me to gender differences. Specifically, to underwear. Not to compare the frilly and expensive nothings that ladies wear with the boring but sturdy and cheap cotton whatevers that men favor. But to talk about a strange, and apparently universal, maternal hiccup.
Imagine you are a youngster, leaving the house on some pedestrian errand. Your mother, normally the most sensible and caring of women, suddenly calls out, “Are you wearing clean underwear?”
It is possible that this strange query would pass unnoticed if it were addressed to a girl child. I wouldn’t know. As a male child, I recall that the first time it happened it raised the you’re-invading-me feeling being fussed over by my grandmother aroused. But children are used to being invaded, so I let it pass as simply another one of those petty tyrannies. Putting as much frost into “Yes, mother,” as I could, I lied my way out the door.
Little did I know, at the time, that this was not one of those momentary whims. Instead, it turned out to be the inauguration of a permanent ritual. From that point on, my mother could be depended upon to probe the condition of my unmentionables whenever I headed out into public. I can even recall being sent back to my room when, in a misplaced moment of honesty, I once answered, “I think so.” Mother took her ritual seriously.
Later, at some point of adolescent rebellion, I demanded to know exactly why she was forever asking that question. It implied a certain insult about my personal hygiene. (And, being a teenage boy, any such concern would surely have been misplaced…right?) My mother replied, with an air of unanswerable logic, “But what if you were in an accident?”
I suggested that if I were in an accident, the imperfect whiteness of my underwear might be a trifle secondary, what with the blood and all. With that same air of unanswerability: “But what about all those nurses and attendants? Do you think I want them to see you in dirty underwear?”
I implied, in a slightly shrill voice (I was a teenager, remember), that perhaps she should be worrying more about my broken and bleeding body lying in her imaginary ER than about some intimate revelation to anonymous medical staff.
Needless to say, she wasn’t buying it. Midwestern respectability clearly trumped any question of maternal concern. I simply had to resign myself to being challenged whenever I left the house. “Yes, mom,” became automatic, whatever the true state of the linens. After all, I thought my mother was a bit bats, anyway. This was just one more illustration, and a relatively painless one at that.
Until, that is, she pulled her little inquisition when I was leaving the house with some of my friends. Right there, right in front of my peers, she demanded to know if I was wearing clean underwear.
Well! Talk about humiliation!
Outside, and thoroughly red-faced, I tried with that lack of grace that comes with puberty to come up with some excuse to explain that, a) my mother was a little strange and, b) I wasn’t really in the habit of running around in dirty underwear.
My friends, with equal grace, confessed that it was really all right as their mothers, too, were worried that they might somehow be simultaneously in an accident and revealed to have on dirty underwear.
Amongst the universals I have discovered in my life, I have to confess I still find that one to be one of the oddest. I have tried, over the many years since, to grasp its basis, without success. It still reveals a certain distance between the genders I still don’t fully comprehend.
Mind you, I like women. I admire them as people and enjoy their company far more than men’s. In general, I also follow their thinking a lot more easily than I do the knuckle-dragging, beer-drinking, belch & fart set.
But still, there are some areas where I am reminded how irretrievably male I am and how incomprehensibly female they are.
Take, for instance, bathrooms.
Now I am one of those males who cannot understand how architects have never figured out the simple fact that, since women require more time in the bathroom, women’s public restrooms need more seating than the men’s do. I even have no impulse to find humor in that. On the other hand, can someone explain to me why a woman who feels the urge will turn to her friend and invite her to go along?
Of all of the human activities I can think of at the moment, going to the bathroom is the one that least demands a group effort. I think I was about three when I learned to manage it on my own. It was one of the proud steps of growing up, like learning to tie your own shoes.
Why do they do it? Well, the truth seems to be that there are certain things, like crying, that the female of our species likes to do collectively and the male alone. Some of them, like the collective bathroom trip, are so well known they are the butt of comedians. Others are hidden by those assumptions I mentioned earlier.
For instance: Even after I got to the age where I could browbeat my mother into not asking about my underwear whenever I went out, there was still one time when the dread question re-emerged despite my best efforts. If I were going shopping for clothes, nothing, I repeat, nothing could stop my mother from asking if I had clean underwear on. Even when I had gone away to college, if I happened to be home and going shopping, Boing, out it would come.
I must have been in my mid-twenties before I finally stopped and demanded to know why, for gosh sakes why, she always asked me that. Did she think I was secretly so unwashed that I would dirty any clothes I tried on?
She looked at me completely blankly and explained, in sweet reasonableness, that she didn’t want the attendant to come in and see me in anything but spotless underwear.
“What attendant?” I asked, completely mystified.
“Why, you know, the salesperson who is helping you,” she said.
“The attendants never come in the dressing room,” I said, flatly. I’d probably punch anyone who tried. Any guy would.
“They don’t?” she said, completely taken aback. She clearly couldn’t imagine buying clothes without someone helping.
“Wait a minute,” I said, a dreadful light dawning, “You mean that the salespeople actually come in while you’re changing clothes?” For a few seconds I was as dizzy as she was. We were both experiencing the disorienting shock of discovering that a very low-level assumption about the world was completely wrong.
I admit this was not the most earth-shattering revelation I have ever had. But, oddly enough, it has been one of the most useful. Now, when I look at humanity, especially the female half of it, and I feel the impulse to trust the self-evident universality of some truth, I am just a bit uncertain, a little wary.
Sure, I think, it’s obvious. Practically a law of nature. It’s rather like the one that says the salespeople will never come in. (And, anyway, they’d never check out your underwear.)