“I’m six foot five,” a man named Joe said. He did not work this into his greeting, and he did not say it in the early minutes of our introduction but it hung over our heads until I acknowledged it.
Some of us drop our last name with pride to suggest that our family’s lineage means as much to us as our first name does, and some will list their occupation soon after the listener learns their name. Joe was 6’5”. Joe was more 6’5” than he was Joe, and I never learned his last name or occupation. Those fortunate enough to have an extended conversation with Joe will learn how 6’5” he is. If that conversation evolves into a minutes-long discussion, and the listener doesn’t acknowledge his height, with verbal or nonverbal cues, he’ll break the news to them:
“I’m six foot five!”
Although Joe and I spoke for a total of about three minutes, I got the feeling that he could’ve written a bestseller, won the Heisman Trophy, saved children from a fire, or discovered the cure for cancer, and his height would still be his most prominent characteristic in his mind. I had the feeling no matter what happened to him in life, he would prefer to have “Here lies Joe. He was 6’5” chiseled into his gravestone.
Joe was an interesting guy. He told interesting stories about his life, and he was funny. He was self-deprecating, deferential, and humble. He hit all the bullet points we design for those who want to be good guys. Yet, he couldn’t let the one defining characteristic of his life go: he was abnormally tall when compared to the average human.
His height was the reason he had trouble finding chairs to sit in with comfort, the reason his 5’3” mother was always on him about stuff, and the reason he couldn’t be as particular as he wanted to be about the clothing he wore:
“You can’t be finicky about clothes when you’re 6’5” and built like me.”
Joe, we should note, was not only tall, he was big. If he were lucky enough to find a room of 6’5” and taller, Joe would feel out of place among them, because he was so large. He had shoulders the size of my torso, and those big, old sausage-sized fingers that require jeweler modification for any ring. These attributes, coupled with the idea that he was 6’5”, were the reasons he had trouble going door-to-door to talk to people.
“Would you be comfortable discussing politics, if a man my size came-a-knocking on your door?”
His height was also the reason that he had such trouble finding a decent woman. The intimacy of this portion of the conversation might have shocked most people, or at least made them somewhat uncomfortable, as most people would deem such a discussion inordinately intimate for a conversation between two people meeting for the first time. I had a best friend in high school who was 6’7” however, so I was well versed in the travails of being a tall male in America today, and I was used to my friend going into such intimate details to make his point with people he had just met. Joe and I did try, at various intervals, to move on to other topics, but he was unable to let the fact that he was 6’5” go as easily as I was.
What struck me as odd was that I never mentioned his height, and I don’t think I provided any verbal or physical cues that called attention to it. Was that the point though, I later wondered. Was my refusal to acknowledge his height such an aberration to his experience that until I acknowledged it in some way, he would not be able to move on until one of us did?
Being a tall man has numerous advantages, but it has almost as many disadvantages. As I wrote, however, I was well versed in the details of being an abnormally tall man in America. I knew, for example, that a person’s height is the first thing people notice about someone who is taller than 6’3”, and the thing they talk about after you leave. It’s the first thing people in malls notice. It’s the reason some guys won’t mess with you, and the reason others do. It’s also the reason some women want to date you and others don’t. You could be the most charming person in the world, in other words, and most people will have preconceived notions about you based on your height.
With that in mind, one would think that an abnormally tall male, or a woman with large breasts, would find it refreshing when they’ve encountered that one person who seems to be genuinely unconcerned with their attribute(s). One would think that they would find it refreshing that they’ve finally found a person who is willing to talk geopolitics with them without looking down their shirt, or saying, “How’s the weather up there?” One would think that the person who broke those patterns of human interaction would receive a bright smile as a reward, and maybe even something along the lines of, “Thank you. You may not even know why I’m thanking you, but thank you!” Yet, tall men, and large-breasted women, just like all humans with exaggerated attributes become so accustomed to these patterns of interaction that they feel compelled to draw your attention to them just to comfortably complete a line of dialogue.
Most people will try to avoid talking about a trait generally considered a negative, and they will do everything they can to avoid noticing it. When they notice something generally considered a positive, most people think you should feel privileged to have it, so they don’t mind drawing attention to it. “You’re tall Joe!” they will say, or “I wish I had those,” and “You should feel privileged.”
As my conversation with Joe continued, and he began to belabor the point about his height, I initially thought he was trying to assert some level of dominance. I may have been wrong on that note, and it might have had more to do with everything I thought later, but I began to rebel against his theme by making a concerted effort to avoid the topic of his height. Our conversation ended soon thereafter, and we moved onto other people at the gathering.
“What did you say to Joe?” our mutual friend later asked. This friend notified the two of us, beforehand, that she thought we had so much in common that we would hit it off.
“Why?” I asked.
“He says he doesn’t care for you.” When I asked her for more details, our mutual friend said, “He said he can’t put a finger on it, but he doesn’t like you as much as I thought he would.”
Without going into what I deem to be the unnecessary details of our otherwise innocuous conversation, I can tell you that it involved no disagreements. To my mind, there were no moments of tension, subtle or otherwise, as far as I was concerned, but he decided that he didn’t like me. The question why someone doesn’t like me used to bother me a great deal, whether that decision was an informed one or not, and there were some sleepless nights mixed in. Age and experience teach us that we can only control what we can control, and if someone decides they don’t like us based on the notion that you didn’t recognize their height, there’s nothing we can do about that. Joe and I also proved to be as like-minded on certain topics as our mutual friend believed we would be. The only thing I did, and that which I presume led Joe to state that I didn’t live up to the characteristics our mutual friend detailed for him, was my refusal to acknowledge his height in any way.