Monday, 9 August 2010

Auntie Seraphic & Banter Girl

I'm back from Evangelium! I skimmed this letter on Thursday around midnight, and my hair stood on end. This is the first chance I've had to reply to it, and I hope my answer is right. I know some older women in offices love catty gossip about sweet young things, but sometimes older women feel a motherly urge to keep sweet young things from deep-sixing their careers. Two or three older women have certainly given me good advice about dealing with priests and other men in religious life.

Dear Auntie Seraphic:

I recently accepted a position where my co-workers include two flirts. One of these flirts is a mature priest, around my uncle's age. The other is a bachelor my older brothers' age.

Both these flirts are congenial, charming, and hard working. The days are entertaining, with work periods peppered with good humor. I am not singled out for any quantifiable different attention than my married female colleagues. However, banter with me has a qualitatively different flavor than banter with my married female colleagues. I think this is the case because 1) I enjoy banter and they do not. 2) I'm younger and eligible, and different banter is possible with me, i.e. banter about me being eligible, young, and feminine.

Banter, however, is too easily conflated to flirting. For example, I find myself desiring to engage in some friendly activities, like puttering in the Bachelor's garden. However, if one of our married colleagues putters with the Bachelor over lunch hour, this is seen as just a Collegial Activity. If I go out too, especially if I go out without a Married Colleague in tow, I'll get an occasional lifted eyebrow from a passer by.

Similarly: heaven forfend that I go to a meeting that involves the Priest giving me a ride in his stylish car. I will hear no end of this from worried acquaintances, who have concluded that having a stylish car and letting me ride in it are two strikes against him, and it's only a matter of time before this man loses his priesthood and becomes a Nepali Mountain Guide.

There are few women at this institution. Even fewer are young and eligible. I DON'T want to cast aspersions on the reputations of Priest or Bachelor. Or my own either. But I also think it's possible to enjoy each other's company, fine things, and good ideas without necessarily being romantically entangled.

I don't want to give anyone scandal by flirting. I can't help what people think when they see me doing things in 1:1 partnerships which my job requires. But I can differentiate in my words, I can moderate the banter.

Do I have to?

Banter Girl

Dear Banter Girl,

In a word: YES. And to add three words: SO CAN THEY.

Two issues: priests and professionalism.

I can't think why you shouldn't putter with a single male colleague or get rides to meetings in the priest's stylish car although, perhaps like your acquaintances, I wonder at a priest having a stylish car. Even after I tell myself secular priests have no vow of poverty, I still wonder at a priest having a stylish car. Stylish cars are babe magnets, so why does a priest own a babe magnet? Why not a Toyota Corolla? Why not a boring old Ford?

What are we talking about when we say "stylish car"? You see that I am stuck on "stylish car". It leapt out at me from the screen. And--yikes! Now "fine things" has leapt out, too. What kind of "fine things"?! Not expensive dinners out, I hope.

Do you know what young, feminine and eligible makes you? No, not enviable. It makes you vulnerable. If people raise eyebrows, it's not necessarily because they are over-imaginative fusspots. It could be because they know something you don't--either about your new colleagues or about life. Older women tend to feel motherly about younger women, unless the younger women totally annoy them in some way--through unprofessionalism or wearing short-shorts or whatever.

Now I definitely sound like an over-imaginative fusspot. Listen, if you were married, engaged, or had a steady boyfriend--and if you didn't really give two hoots for this job--I wouldn't care less about Father Flashy Car and the Puttering Bachelor. "Flirt away," I'd say. "Well, maybe not so much with the priest."

But you are a Searching Single and that makes you vulnerable--not of necessity to raised eyebrows, though if you jest a little too daringly with the priest and laugh a little too loudly with the priest, you will certainly make your co-workers wonder about you--just as co-workers would if you jested and laughed too much with any manager or married man at work. Would you banter so much with a married man? My guess is No.

When I was studying for my M.Div., my profs talked a lot about professionalism and keeping healthy boundaries in ministry. In addition to finding a book on that, I recommend reading guides to manners for women in the workplace, for they could probably advise you in detail. The last thing you want, if you really want to pursue a career, is being seen not as a serious professional but as a cute young thing. Cute and young do not last forever, and things are not made spokesperson for the diocese.

Why don't the other women at work enjoy banter? Do they think it is unprofessional? Are they all sour-pusses? Why did my red alert siren go off so loudly? Why must priests banter? I've never had a male supervisor who ever dared. It bothers me, I must confess, that you get jokes about being "eligible, young and feminine" in the workplace. They highlight your sexuality and therefore are not appropriate to the workplace. They might make the women who have to listen to them uncomfortable, and if you didn't enjoy them, you would have grounds for a sexual harrassment suit.

I don't know this priest at all. But I do know that Searching Singles are vulnerable and that priests are very often lonely. It's a recipe for psychodrama. If I were you, I'd go out of my way to make friends with the other women at work, if you haven't already. And make sure Father Flashy Car is not the No. 1 man in your life.

Sorry if this answer is too dire and Father (despite his car) is next to the Cure d'Ars in holiness. It's just that so many women kneecap their careers by being obviously more interested in (or well-known for) their social lives, and that I've met too many women who have had psychodramas--and affairs--with priests.

As for Puttering Bachelor, if you want to keep your reputation for professionalism, you might want to cool it. But if you're just marking time until marriage and babies, what the heck.

I hope this is helpful!

Grace and peace,


aussie girl in australia said...

Hi Seraphic

I agree with your advice here and think that this young woman should be careful for her own sake and the sake of her future career.

On priests with flashy cars - I would be hesitant to jump to conclusions on this one. The parish priest of my childhood was a very generous man who used almost all of his salary to give to others. On his 50th birthday his congregation bought him a new car. He would never have bought it for himself. We just don't know the circumstances.
That being said, this priest would not flirt with anyone. In fact, I have never known a Catholic priest who flirted at all. I find this quite shocking! Even banter from a priest I find shocking.

Seraphic said...

That is lovely what that parish did. Was it a Toyota Carola? They didn't get him a snazzy sports car, I hope. Can you imagine the bishop's shock if he dropped by and saw a sexy sports car in his priest's driveway? "Would would the Cure D'Ars drive?" that's all I ask.

The banter question is so difficult because there are different expectations in different cultures and there's the whole stage "Oirish" American and Canadian thing where the priest with "the gift of gab" who can "charm the birds from the trees" is many people's ideal priest. "Och, Mary Kathleen, and aren't you a refreshin' sight for sore eyes, if only I were thirty years younger, begorrah" sums it up.

I am wringing my hands because I don't want young women to start worrying over every nice comment or joke a priest utters, but at the same time we simply have got to figure out how professional relationships between priests and women are to work. The facts that priests are sworn celibates and we women are all supposed to respect that is simply not enough. I think drawing the line at comments about femininity and eligibility, to say nothing of out-and-out flirtation (e.g. "How's my special girl?"), is a start.

Jessica said...

Seraphic: Thanks for your refreshing honesty. It's probably not the answer that Banter Girl was looking for, but I think it's what she needed to hear. It reminds me of your "Don't mess with married men" post -- the workplace, unfortunately, can be a difficult social context for the searching single woman.

Last year, within the first week of my new job, one of my (married, male) supervisors came in to ask how my preparations for the school year were going, and left by giving me a one-armed hug and a kiss on the cheek. Now, he does come from a culture where kisses like that are common greetings, but he's lived in the US his whole life. NOT professional! I don't think it will happen again, but if it does I'll be ready to call him out on it this time.

I sympathize with the end of your post also, tho. I don't want to be so suspicious of friendly behavior that I can't enjoy the company of any of my male colleagues.'s a slippery slope sometimes.

Annie said...

Auntie Seraphic, you gave her wonderful advice. I agree completely.

Zadok the Roman said...

Seraphic, I think this is an area where priests need to be very careful. When I was a single man, I often observed that many a true word is spoken in jest. Joke-flirting is often a prelude to a genuine romantic approach. That's why I always suspect that what people say to me in jest isn't always totally detached from the truth. I don't mean that all - or even most - banter points to anything real. However, there will always be that suspicion - and in the case of a one-sided infatuation, flirty-banter can be a bitter-sweet experience for the one infatuated.

That's why - since I became a seminarian and then a priest - I don't banter about romantic matters or about being romantically interested in anyone. Firstly, I don't want to set off the radar of anyone as naturally suspicious as myself. Secondly, I don't want to hurt anyone who might inadvertently take it seriously. And, thirdly, I don't want to compromise the pastoral/professional relationship I have with anyone.

That doesn't mean that I'm a sour or humourless sort. I just banter about other things.
I'm also very scrupulous about commenting on female beauty. With the exception of complimenting a bride on her wedding day, I don't think that priests should discuss women in that way.

I don't pretend to have come up with a universal rule for clergy, but I find the above approach works well for me and I think I can safely say that I've not landed myself into any situations that I regret.

Seraphic said...

Thanks, all, for your comments so far, and special thanks to Father Zadok for his priest's-eye-view.

Awkward said...

Can anyone suggest what to say to the men in situations such as these? I've had several occasions in which I wondered if an unavailable man was flirting with me. I don't want to make a big deal if he isn't; I want to shut it down if he is. So far my best tactic has been to smile and try to avoid him if at all possible. Suggestions?

theobromophile said...

LOVE the line about being vulnerable when young and Single! So very true.

It bothers me, I must confess, that you get jokes about being "eligible, young and feminine" in the workplace. They highlight your sexuality and therefore are not appropriate to the workplace.

Young and Single and Searching, fine. Feminine and eligible? Crossing the line.

My boss sometimes asks me about my love life. When I told him that I'm dating a NCB (well, not a "boy", since he's older, but you get the idea), my boss responded with, "You know that I will do weddings for free?". The older lady whom I work with a lot said, "I'll pray for you two." It was far more an "Awww" thing than a creepy, vaguely sexual thing.

The Glo-ness said...

How about a polite yet firm, "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't say that".

I always thought the whole "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't do/say XYZ" was a classy way of clearly calling a man out on his lousy behavior.

The Glo-ness said...

To Awkward (cont.)
Oh, and I forgot to put this in my first comment, but if a man says something to you, always trust your "gut". If what he says makes you suddenly stop mid-conversation to mentally go "whuhh??" then that's probably a red flag. But since you don't want to look like a oversensitive nut, how about a 3-Strikes Rule: If a guy says one of those "Huh??" things, on the third time, then use the "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't say that to me" line (say it calmly yet firmly-no angry "drama" needed.) If he gets upset or feels misunderstood, too bad. He'll need to grow up and realize that certain things are just inappropriate. Just keep saying that line when appropriate, and eventually you won't feel bad about sticking up for yourself anymore.

Hmm...this makes me feel philosophical...I think the reason "men never grow up" is that us women, in the name of never wanting to make a man feel stupid, often protect them from the consequences of their own immature, boorish behavior.