You have to feel bad for us men in the workplace these days, what with the #MeToo movement and everything. I mean, we just don’t know what we’re allowed to say or do anymore.
Can you hold the door open for a lady at the office? Compliment a woman on her new dress? Roll up to the parking garage blasting “Panama” on the car stereo?
Of course, back in the “good old days,” things were not so good for women in the workplace. There was plenty of overt sexism. It was wrong, but at least the rules of polite society were better defined.
That all changed beginning with the social upheavals of the 60s. Now everything’s upside down, and we need somebody to tell us the new rules.
Fortunately, there was a TV show in the 90s that examined the new social rules, sometimes in minute detail. It was billed as a “show about nothing,” but it was actually a meticulous comedy of manners.
Seinfeld was brilliant because it explored the social world’s unique standards of conduct. You don’t want to be one of those “low talkers.” You don’t make out with your date during Schindler’s List. You stand at a certain distance behind someone at the ATM. You certainly don’t double dip.
At the same time, Seinfeld showed that these norms cannot be reduced to a code of conduct with rules, sub-rules, exceptions, and counter-exceptions. This is what distinguishes manners from the law, or at least from what the law wants to be. It’s why someone with autism might be able to memorize the NFL rulebook but struggle with simple social cues.
And it’s why us guys might have a hard time grasping the new rules for how to interact with women. Take George Costanza, for example. In Season 5, Episode 4, “The Sniffing Accountant,” George gets a lesson in appropriate workplace conduct.
In the opening scene, Elaine gushes over her new boyfriend. They met at the office:
Elaine: So, I was sitting at the reception desk, I was looking pretty hot. I was wearing my sling back pumps.
George: What are those?
Elaine: Ask your mother, you live with her now, don’t you? Anyway, so then this guy comes up to me and starts feeling my jacket through his thumb and his forefinger, like this.
Jerry: So, what did you do?
Elaine: I said, “So, what do you think?” And he said, “Gabardine?” And I said, “Yeah.” That was it.
George: Wow, just felt your material?
Elaine: Yeah, Jake Jarmel.
George: Sounds like a cool guy.
Later, George decides to try out Jake’s maneuver. After a successful job interview with Mr. Farkus for a position as a brassiere salesman, George is on a roll as he waits for the elevator. There’s an attractive woman standing next to him, so he reaches out and touches the sleeve of her jacket. It does not go well:
Ms. De Granmont: What do you think you’re doing?
George: Oh, nothing.
Ms. De Granmont: Farkus, get out here!
Farkus: Yes, Ms. De Granmont?
Ms. De Granmont: Who is this perverted little weasel?
Farkus: This is Costanza, he’s our new bra salesman. He’s supposed to start on Monday.
Ms. De Granmont: If he’s here on Monday, you’re not. Take your pick.
Farkus to George: Get out!
You have to pity George. When Jake pulled this move on Elaine, it was charming. But when George tries the same thing, it’s just creepy.
How is this fair? What is the applicable rule?
The problem, of course, is that all men are not created equal. Jake is handsome and smooth. George is short and bald and awkward. But you couldn’t have an employee handbook that says “debonair men may touch women’s clothing and comment on it; others are prohibited.”
That’s the difference between manners and law. This episode teaches us two things about social conventions: they are hard to rigorously define, and they are decidedly unequal as applied to different people.
This is just not fair, us dudes tend to think. How are we supposed to navigate the gray areas of acceptable conduct towards women?
You hear this kind of complaint a lot from certain guys. But then a funny thing happened on the way to Monk’s Diner. The #MeToo movement exploded, and it exposed an ugly truth: a lot of men have done a lot of really horrible things to women at work.
Let’s just take some of the obvious public examples:
- Harvey Weinstein
- Matt Lauer
- Al Franken
- Bill Cosby
- Donald Trump
- Update: Jeffrey Toobin
Obviously, some of their alleged offenses were worse than others. But all of them have one thing in common: these men allegedly did things that everybody knows you shouldn’t do. These things were wrong before the Sexual Revolution, and they are wrong after it. They are not gray areas.
Not only that, I’d wager that part of the attraction for these men was knowing the things were wrong. That’s the whole point. Proving you’re a big shot guy who can take advantage of women and get away with it. “When you’re a celebrity they let you do it.”
Of course, everyone is innocent until proven guilty . . . yadda, yadda, yadda. But let’s assume for the sake of argument these men did the things they’re accused of. One defense they cannot assert in good faith is “I didn’t know it was wrong.”
That’s why the common lament of “we just don’t know what’s ok anymore” rings a little hollow to me.
And that brings me back to Seinfeld. Specifically, Season 3, Episode 12, “The Red Dot.” It’s another one of George’s misadventures at work. George has an affair with the cleaning lady at his office, leading to this confrontation with the boss:
Boss: I’m going to get right to the point. It has come to my attention that you and the cleaning woman have engaged in sexual intercourse on the desk in your office. Is that correct?
George: Who said that?
Boss: She did.
George: Was that wrong? [audience laughs . . .] Should I have not done that? I tell you I gotta plead ignorance on this thing because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon, [more laughs] you know, cause I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I tell you people do that all the time.
Boss: You’re fired.
This time we don’t pity George at all. It’s not like the fabric incident at the brassiere company, where we laughed because George was so pitiful. In this case, the “was that wrong?” line gets laughs precisely because it’s so absurd. Of course it was wrong!
And once again, Seinfeld delivers an insightful lesson about social norms. Some rules don’t have to be written down; they’re just obvious. The employee handbook doesn’t need to say “employees may not have sexual relations with the housekeeping staff in the office.”
So men, here’s my modest proposal on sexual harassment: let’s agree not to tolerate the stuff we all know is wrong, and not complain so much that there will inevitably be borderline cases.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that women should just chill about the minor incidents and only complain about major felonies. I’ve got a wife, a mom, sisters, a college-age daughter–I don’t want them or any woman to be subjected to even minor incidents of harassment.
I’m also not saying that men are totally off base when they complain that the standards are so ill-defined today. There is at least a grain of truth to that.
But maybe us guys could focus more on cutting out the stuff we know is bad. I think #MeToo has done a great service by shining a light on those things.
Was that wrong?
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a 2020 Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation.
These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.
Thanks to Rebecca Wolfe and Hailey Wolfe for their advice on my initial draft (though I bear full responsibility for the final content).