At a meeting yesterday I was reminded of an introduction and recommendation that came my way some time ago. It was a strange one that was given with a warning: “don’t mention his size”. No other clarification was offered.
After a very pleasant phone call, I arranged to meet Jerry in my office and go for lunch to talk about potential coaching work. Leading up to the appointed time, I realised that I was focusing on the warning, not preparing for meeting a prospective client. What could the caution have referred to? I remember expecting someone who was obese – there was a great deal of radio and media chat that week about obesity.
For those of you who have never met or seen me, I am about six foot tall (1.86m) and fairly well built – not small and certainly not used to looking up to face someone at close quarters. Jerry is 7’ 1” (2.16m), exceedingly and unusually tall. We greeted politely and set off on our ten minute walk to the pre-booked lunch venue. I found the height difference to be a barrier and wanted to say something about it. However, heeding the warning I kept quiet.
As in most circumstances, before any focused talking we embarked on general conversation which fairly quickly got round to sport. In the past, I had been an active rugby player and I innocently stated “we could have done with someone like you on our team, did you ever play rugby”? His reply “actually, basketball is my sport”. The taboo of height was broken and we talked openly about being tall and the advantage it gives a person in certain sports and more generally. We also talked about disadvantages as he stooped to enter the restaurant.
Jerry welcomed the opportunity to talk about the obstruction his height was in so many work relationships, “it’s like everyone wants to mention it but never do” he said. Why, I wondered, would people avoid this so obvious feature, pretending his height was completely normal? Of course, it is something noteworthy and probably comment-worthy.
More recently, I have realised that most of my male friends are taller than me. I don’t deliberately pick out tall men to befriend, maybe this is just a coincidence (they happen to be bearded too). Sometimes, when travelling on a packed commuter train, I catch the eye of another taller person some way off down the carriage. We smile at each other, recognising with unspoken acknowledgement that our heads are above the crowd. When I mentioned this to a female colleague, much shorter than me, she was quick to tell me that “having your face in someone’s armpit is not too appealing”.
So how does ones height impact on who you are and how you behave? In the workplace, does the experience of being taller than your colleagues mean you automatically look down on them, or vice versa, do short people always look up to others? How many stereotypes are formed around a person’s height – the gentle giant, the little fire-cracker or she makes up for her size with personality, etc.
Jerry, and others like him, who are extreme in physical appearance are conscious about how the aforementioned stereotypes come with expectations from others and do inform judgemental behaviour.
Can you think of people you have worked with who would be considered to have an extreme physical characteristic. How were they treated? What were the reactions to them? Is it easier to be a tall manager, or are you more likely to be abrasive or bullying? Does height or size impact on the chance of promotion or even initial appointment?
In May, I posed the question in a blog post whether appearance should be the tenth protected characteristic of the Equality Act; well perhaps it should.