I work five days a week in an office. I sit in a cubicle, but not the kind with high walls that allow for privacy. These cubicles, rather, are like big tables with mere foot-high dividers—not nearly tall enough to impede a supervisor’s casual glance at your monitor or even the air that your cubemate expels from his mouth eight hours a day. Fortunately, I sit right next to a man who makes me chuckle with his insight and witticisms. Unfortunately, he burps all day.
These are not loud, in-your-face belches that would stop you in your tracks. They are tiny, fairy-like burplets with a sound radius so short that, for the majority of the day, they are reserved for my ears alone. I am also occasionally subjected to a whiff of the minuscule air pockets, whose aroma confirms my suspicion that the diet soda my cubemate consumes for breakfast, at lunch and just before day’s end is the culprit.
If the infrequent Aspartame-tinged wind makes me fidget in my seat, the sporadic constancy of the burps—essentially the opposite of white noise—is what drives me mad. It’s inescapable: headphones are frowned upon at my place of employment; this isn’t something I can tattle to our mutual superior; and a seat change would be detrimental to our workflow.
In my madness, I ponder: Why is this OK? As a lady, is this just something I have to put up with? If he were a woman, his behavior would surely be considered questionable. Imagine if I, in a pencil skirt and fashionable shoes, were to burp throughout the day, blowing out a thin line of acidic air like a cigarette onto unknowing visitors at my desk (as he does, I’ve noticed). I wouldn’t get fired. Surely, though, the image of the crude young woman would linger in my bosses’ heads come promotion time. On the contrary, they likely wouldn’t think twice about the mouth activity of my cubemate, a gregarious and gruff middle-aged man whose actions are expected to come with a moderate level of lewdness.
You must be wondering why I just don’t ask him to stop. It’s not so simple, though, because I am not a dude. A dude has the luxury of saying, “Heh, good one,” after a more-sonorous burp is released; he thus acknowledges in his dudeness, “Hey, I can hear you when you burp. It’s all good, but could you keep it down over there?” I’ve rehearsed how to be casual like this. I would puff up my shoulders and snicker, “Hey, that was a really good one,” but it would sound utterly stiff and perhaps even be perceived as catty. If we were pals outside of work, I would tell him over a cocktail, and we would have a laugh. But we’re mere professional acquaintances, and the burp barrier in this setting is one only a dude can cross—it’s my own miniature, less consequential glass ceiling in the shape of a too-small cubicle divider.
But then again, why should I have to adjust how I speak to make myself sound “chill”? What is “chill,” after all, and why does dude-speak have the patent on it? Why can’t a rational and even slightly irritated comment, like “Would you mind cutting back on the burping? It’s kind of distracting,” be construed as chill? It’s how I feel; it’s logical. Maybe as a lady, I’m too compliant, perhaps even deferential and fearful of being perceived as bitchy. This feeling pops up in all kinds of situations for me and my female friends: while debating a hot-button political issue, when wanting to express distaste in movies or commercials we find offensive, while keeping quiet about what we want in the bedroom, when asking for better pay in the boardroom, and even when a co-worker drinks too much diet soda.