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A professor and I spoke recently (I'm a grad student), and she told me about her upcoming sabbatical, and I wished her well and was genuinely excited for her and her travel plans. But the reaction that I got from her was one of caution and displeasure, with no reciprocation of good vibes. I mostly said stuff like "that sounds amazing that you're going to Country X for Y number of months! I hope you enjoy your time there, I love Country X!"

I'm a male student. Have I possibly said something condescending or disrespectful to a female professor, by showing my excitement about her travel plans?

When I analyzed it a bit, I came to the conclusion that I would have had the same reactions if a male professor told me of his sabbatical, travel plans. So, I don't think that I've said anything sexist. But I am not 100% sure.

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    Is it possible that the sabbatical is not for pleasure, and is instead to deal with, for example, family crisis or illness? Expressing enthusiasm for something she has no desire to do could well provoke that reaction. – Tom W Sep 25 '17 at 14:49
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    Is there something to suggest this was received as sexist? I'm not sure the reaction you described indicates anything like that, but your description is fairly vague, which makes me think there's some context missing. – Harris Sep 25 '17 at 15:05
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    Which country are you and your professor from? In some cultures there is a distance maintained based on seniority. You cannot just talk to an elder person like you talk to a friend. – Jay Sep 26 '17 at 4:10
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    Why did you immediately think about sexism? – immibis Sep 26 '17 at 4:17
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    @TomW Sabbaticals aren't "for pleasure" even if they're not for dealing with some sort of crisis or illness. They're for visiting a different institution to work with somebody there. – David Richerby Sep 26 '17 at 9:50
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From what you've said, it doesn't sound like a sexism issue specifically, but it might have come off that you regarded her sabbatical as a vacation rather than serious work. You might be worrying about this a bit too much--she's probably already forgotten the exchange.

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    A sabbatical is a vacation, so I doubt she considers it 'serious work'. – TylerH Sep 25 '17 at 20:36
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    @TylerH In academia, a sabbatical is usually more of a temporary change of work environment than a vacation. See this Q&A. – ff524 Sep 25 '17 at 20:49
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    @ff524 do you have any proof to justify your claims? – SSimon Nov 20 '17 at 14:27
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    In Germany a Sabbatical is a Forschungsfreisemester so the focus is really on research. Usually you have to write a report on your research outcome afterwards. – Dirk Nov 21 '17 at 6:39
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that sounds amazing that you're going to Country X for Y number of months! I hope you enjoy your time there, I love Country X!

I'm a male, so I can not speak from a female perspective. Although I can not see anything sexist or inappropriate in that quoted text but if anybody had said that to me in a student teacher environment I would for a second be taken aback by the excitement being displayed by the student.

I think the reaction you noticed was exactly that.

Why does it sound amazing? Why do you have to specify the time period? Why do you have to mention your love for that country? All those statements show a lot of excitement about the news and some people do not feel comfortable enough to receive such excitement from others which are not personally close to them.

Some people like to and like others to just keep it cool and that's nothing against your statement. I think it was just that momentary pause that made you feel she didnt like it.

Sounds good, X is a nice country.

May have been received a little better.

Edit

Most of the discussion on this question is focusing on the implied judgment by the OP of the professor's reaction. The professor in question did not explicitly say anything of that sort, nor did she express it by any reaction that she was disturbed by what the OP said.

OP was over excited in the first place and when the OP did not receive a similar reaction OP assumed that probably the professor got offended. There is no need to bash the professor about her lack of enthusiasm without knowing the complete picture.

There is no male/female aspect to the situation known so far to us. Just like the OP is entitled to his sudden excitement, the professor is also entitled to a cold response. This is more of an interpersonal skills question.

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    It might also be that she simply is very factual about her plans - it's what she wants to do, no reason to be excited about it, and even less to share any excitement with some co-worker or even graduate student. Not everyone is an extrovert. For an introvert it might even come off as somewhat nosy if you're trying to get a personal/emotional response from her. – Frank Hopkins Sep 25 '17 at 9:15
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    It still sounds like an overreaction on her part. If you describe something you're doing, and they find it really interesting or exciting, can you really blame them for expressing their reaction? Why was she talking about it in the first place? – Barmar Sep 25 '17 at 19:43
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    To me it sounds like an overreaction on OP’s part and then a normal reaction by the teacher looked like an under reaction n to an over excited OP – Hanky Panky Sep 26 '17 at 2:12
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    And the professor didnt say anything to that effect. It’s OP’s judgement that there’s even a question of blame. And as to why she mentioned it in the first place I find it very normal to inform the students about an upcoming long term leave of absence. – Hanky Panky Sep 26 '17 at 6:02
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    Is this a troll answer? "Why did you mention the time period"... Most people I know would assume that going to a different country for serveral months, is going to be exciting and fun. – Repmat Sep 26 '17 at 19:57
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Others have answered the titular question (no), and given some possible reasons for why she may have been unhappy with your enthusiasm. There's no cultural context in which to speculate about this, but I believe the other answers fail to point out what I see as the most likely explanation:

You may have just misinterpreted the professor's reaction.

I often find that students and I have very different impressions of what transpired during some conversation.

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    +1 (and it could be NOT because student/professor, but simply because the other party is stressed out/in pain/annoyed at unrelated things/you remind them of unfavourite nephew they'll have to visit). – DVK Sep 27 '17 at 17:27
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In this case, I have a hard time seeing where the sexist behavior occurred. It may be the case that the professor was made uncomfortable by your display of enthusiasm for her travel plans, and may have misinterpreted things or was reacting to something else. However, if this was just a casual conversation (waiting for the copy machine, getting coffee in the departmental kitchen, or something similar), and you don't regularly interact with the professor, I don't think it will be a big deal in the long run. If she's someone you do interact with, then you might consider tempering your enthusiasm in future interactions.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Sep 25 '17 at 14:40
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"As a male student, did I say something wrong to this female professor?"

The answer is NO. You didn't say anything wrong. Also, there is no relevance here for you being male and the professor female. You cannot predict precisely human reactions and there may be many different reasons for her reserved reaction.

Viewing this interaction from the perspective of male-female power structure or feminist theory is wrong in my opinion. It is better, in my experience, not to be overly concerned about these political or social issues when interacting with actual people.

4

Much depends on how well acquainted you are with her and whether she runs a more "flat hierarchy" or a more authoritarian style.

In the first one, I wouldn't see a problem, especially if you already worked with her for some while. However, in the second one it may be construed as "patronising" for you to dispense judgement over her choice of sabbatical sojourn.

Much also depends on tone and context, but nothing in your formulation indicates that something would be wrong with it.

4

No, I don't think you did anything sexist.

Another possible reason that she didn't seem enthusiastic is that she could be stressed out about travelling, especially if she's leaving soon. Spending several months far from home requires a lot of organization, especially as one gets older and acquires more responsibilities (family, a home, etc.).

If you'd talked about how exciting California is just before I went there for five months last year, I wouldn't have thought it at all rude, but I doubt I'd've managed to reciprocate beyond a fairly flat and unconvincing, "Yeah, I'm looking forward to it. It'll be good."

1

Well from what I see is that you're just trying to have an effective communication with your professor by giving the impression that you're excited for her plan. This is one of basic communication skills that people have to connect with others. If she reacted differently/ negatively, I don't think she understands a proper effective communication in human relations.

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    I think you have overestimated the professor's reaction. All the OP said is that "the reaction that I got from her was one of caution and displeasure, with no reciprocation of good vibes". In other words, she did not react to his small-talk the way he had expected her to, and did not show the emotions he expected to encounter. This doesn't warrant a conclusion about her "basic communication skills" any more than it does about his. It might be that she just was not in the mood for small-talk, or she got a wrong impression of what he was trying to say, or she comes from a culture in which ... – darij grinberg Sep 25 '17 at 18:47
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    ... the kind of small-talk he initiated is considered rude (cf. the many jokes about Scandinavian greetings). (Also, I know of only one "proffesor", and he is fortunately no longer particularly effective at anything :) No offense, but I couldn't leave such a nice and famous typo uncommented.) – darij grinberg Sep 25 '17 at 18:48
  • @darijgrinberg Apologies, for not leaving "such a nice and famous typo" uncorrected. :-) – Faheem Mitha Nov 20 '17 at 13:25
1

There's a disconnect between the title, the actual question, and the tags you've chosen for it.

Here, I'll break it down for you.

As a male student, did I say something wrong to this female professor?

The word "wrong" is ambiguous. There's both a pragmatic meaning to wrong ("Did I do something wrong with respect to the goal of getting along with people and advancing my career?") as well as an ethical meaning ("Did I do something morally wrong?"). These aren't the same thing. For example, in the business world, being a corporate whistleblower is sometimes bad for one's career and not very conducive to getting along with people, but it's morally virtuous and good for the economy as a whole. On the other hand, telling the boss what they want to hear, instead of the truth, can sometimes to be good for your career, but it's morally dubious and it's bad for business and it's bad for the economy as a whole.

A professor and I spoke recently (I'm a grad student), and she told me about her upcoming sabbatical, and I wished her well and was genuinely excited for her and her travel plans. But the reaction that I got from her was one of caution and displeasure, with no reciprocation of good vibes.

People are strange sometimes. I wouldn't worry too much about this.

I'm a male student. Have I possibly said something condescending or disrespectful to a female professor, by showing my excitement about her travel plans?

Suppose we're talking about ethics. Then we should ask the question: is it always morally wrong to be disrespectful? Assuming the answer is "no," then even if your enthusiasm was construed as disrespectful, this still fails to establish that you're morally in the wrong. Ergo, if the other side wishes to establish your moral wrongness, they will have to make a rather precise argument. For example, it might be of the form:

  • In [specific set of circumstances], it is always morally wrong to perform an act that ends up being construed as disrespectful.

  • We were in the aforementioned set of circumstances and you performed an act that was construed as disrespectful.

  • Therefore, the aforementioned act you performed was morally wrong.

To my mind, this seems like a pretty tenuous line of thinking, to say the least. My point is that even if the other side did construe your actions as disrespectful, this is still a long long long long long way from establishing the moral wrongness of those actions. And, I wouldn't worry about the morality of your actions in this context. In my estimation, your actions seem perfectly ethical.

Suppose, on the other hand, we're speaking from a career advancement perspective. Well, it's definitely bad for one's career to perform actions that are construed as disrespectful by the people who are holding the reins of power. However, to some extent, you can't tell what will be construed as respectful or disrespectful. Sometimes, you will be friendly, and this will be construed as disrepectful. Sometimes you will be respectful, and this will be construed as cold and unfriendly. I think that the basic rules, for those who wish to be perceived as respectful, are:

  1. Be friendly, but don't be whimsical, flippant, silly, absurd.

  2. Don't exaggerate.

  3. Don't come off as sexist, racist, or otherwise judgemental of the other person's socioeconomic background.

  4. When people speak, listen to what they have to say.

  5. If you disagree, let them finish speaking; don't interrupt them.

  6. If you disagree, use phrases like "I respectfully disagree," and "I strongly object to...," which make you sound more civilized and worthy of being listened to.

Again, this has very little to do with morality; it's just a bunch of tips & tricks for appearing respectful.

It sounds like you may have violated (2) somewhat, insofar as your excitement may have seemed exaggerated or feigned. I see no reason to think (3) was violated, except perhaps in the other person's mind, and purely as a corollary of moderately violating (2). It's (2) you should be worrying about, not (3). But of course, people are strange, and even if you follow the above dot points, you will still sometimes offend people. I recommend getting used to it, since this will probably happen again, and the alternative to getting used to occasionally offending people is basically a pathetic life lived in fear, which is not something I can, in good conscience, recommend.

When I analyzed it a bit, I came to the conclusion that I would have had the same reactions if a male professor told me of his sabbatical, travel plans. So, I don't think that I've said anything sexist. But I am not 100% sure.

Once again, people are strange sometimes, and I wouldn't worry too much about this. But the idea, implicit in the question and it's tagging with "ethics" that there's this thing called, sexism whose moral wrongness is somehow pre-established and beyond question, is in my very honest opinion deeply suspect. The word "sexism" is thrown around a lot, but in practice a lot of the people who use it can't define it, and those who can define it, usually define it so broadly (e.g. "discrimination on the basis of sex") that it becomes impossible to argue in favor of the position that sexism is always morally wrong, or otherwise use it to establish the moral wrongness of any given act. All they can really do is point out that certain sexist acts are morally wrong. Holding women's mathematics to a different standard than men's mathematics, for example, is certainly is certainly morally wrong, but this can be deduced from general principles of fairness, and more to the point, giving a single example of sexist act that is morally wrong fails to establish anything like a universal moral wrongness of sexism, and therefore fails to establish any viable general principles from which to infer the wrongness of any given act. So, although I do recommend avoiding sexism if you want to advance your academic career, I respectfully object to the position, implicit in your question, that there's this unambiguous thing called sexism (which there isn't), and that all instances of it are morally wrong (which it's not clear that they are).

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    Some comments and answers have said that OP is maybe overthinking things. Your answer doesn't just solidly go into the realm of overthinking, it gives a whole new definition to the term. – AgapwIesu Sep 26 '17 at 14:37
  • That's a fun answer. I'm not sure if it is tongue in cheek, but it's the sort of reply you might expect a moral philosopher to give. Upvoted. :-) – Faheem Mitha Nov 20 '17 at 10:25

protected by ff524 Sep 25 '17 at 14:39

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