We are five women in the hallway, most uncharacteristically checking out each other’s outfits before the workday starts. A male coworker arrives and necessarily cuts through our group: we fill the narrow hall. We stop talking and breathing, carefully avoiding eye contact with each other as he greets us without interest or comment, walking purposefully into his office. Stunned—and amused—we grin and disperse.
Today is Friday, Day 5 of our conspiracy. Through the power of group mailing lists on e-mail—relatively novel in 2001—the women in our office have coordinated their clothes, wearing a different colour each day. Shades of blue on Monday. Black on Tuesday—truly depressing. Red on Wednesday; green on Thursday. And Friday—the highlight of the week—animal prints. We’ve got stripes: zebras and tigers. We’ve got spots: leopards and frogs. We’ve got snakeskin patterns: ground slitherers and droppers-from-trees. What we haven’t got is the attention of our male colleagues.
We’ve all seen serendipitous synchronicity in dress at work. Two guys in adjacent offices wear brown suits on the same day; three members of a four-person workgroup show up in shades of purple, leaving the fourth to joke about ‘not getting the memo’. We’ve most of us said, We should organize this, sometime. And so, supported by the power of the network, we have.
We didn’t truly expect to go undetected all week. To us it was obvious, especially Black Tuesday. Every time two or more women stood together, it looked like a funeral. How could they miss that? But they did. Not just one or two men, but a dozen. Engineers, accountants, programmers, marketers, contract specialists, human resources staff, executives—a clean sweep across all occupational categories and age groups. Not dullards, either: clever people, gifted with senses of humour. It makes you wonder what you might be missing yourself.
Earlier that year, driving from Edmonton to Calgary, I began to irritate my companion by saying repeatedly, Oh, look. Another one. I’m pointing out hawks, a common sight at some times of year along that highway corridor. They’re circling overhead, sitting on fence posts, swooping into a ditch, chasing lunch. To me, they’re so easy to see that I catch them even when most of my brain is engaged by driving.
My companion, however, is always just too late to see them. His eye isn’t tuned for hawks, but airplanes are a different matter. As a one-time private pilot and a permanent fan of flight, he sees every airplane between us and the horizon, all 360 degrees of it. He knows whether it’s in the traffic pattern preparing to land or just flying through, inferring the presence of airfields hidden behind rolling hills by the behaviour of small airplanes overhead.
He misses the hawks, I miss the airplanes. Animal-print Friday reminds me of that trip.
Back in the office after lunch, finally convinced that the men are really not going to notice, we call the security guard at the main floor desk. Come and bring your camera, would you? we ask. Confused but game, he arrives in our office to find 30 women in various animal-print dresses, skirts, pants, blouses, jackets, sweaters, and scarves. A trained observer, he takes one look and laughs.
After we send out the e-mail and digital photo to our male coworkers, one of them comes by my office, plaintively.
I guess you’d have to know what animal prints are to notice them, eh?
I guess so. We don’t get into what explains the failure to notice the colours. I think he knows what red is: I think they all know. They just aren’t tuned to notice it.
Buddhism teaches a technique called ‘mindfulness’. Every day, you pick something to be aware of: a colour, a smell, a shape, an object, a sound, a word, anything. Mindfulness keeps you grounded in the moment, noticing something you’d otherwise miss, appreciating this world’s variability, its richness.
Pilots have a phrase to describe someone who isn’t mindful, who isn’t clued-in to what’s happening around them: they call it ‘nil situational awareness’. If you miss basics like weather and aircraft performance, flight safety is the casualty. Miss office politics overtones and career progression can be at risk; miss the nuance of interpersonal interactions and someone else’s feelings take the hit. When nil situational awareness affects life’s incidentals—hawks, small airplanes, what people are wearing—the loss is an appreciation of some of the richness of life, some of the fun, some of the colour. Or maybe, on Fridays, some of the animal prints.
What do you think? Could we get all the women in the city to wear the same colour some day? It’s the end of the day and a crazy week, and someone wearing a leopard print has stopped by to share this outrageous thought. Laughing, we head off into our uncoordinated weekends. But, you know, it’s not that outrageous a thought: it could be done. Stay tuned. You don’t want to miss that memo.