Friday, August 17

Understanding Gumballs: From Trunk To Maltoni

If there is one secret to be learned after conducting hundreds and thousands of interviews, ranging from an emotionally exhausted mother staying at a Ronald McDonald House to billionaire Sheldon Adelson, it is that the success of any interview hinges on effective communication.

And, if there is any prerequisite to ensure effective communication, it is to see the interviewee as a person, regardless of any perceived labels — status, position, gender, whatever. The concept is simple. The execution is not.

For the past few months, one label that seems to have galvanized, if not polarized, online communities and bloggers is the most basic of all — gender. To this ongoing discussion in its numerous forms, I say gumballs.

Right, gumballs. You know what I mean. When we were all kids and could not care less about silly things like gender, most of us claimed certain gumballs were better than others — blue, red, yellow. We were all delusional. The gumballs all tasted the same.

The gender issue is much like that. It doesn't matter where it turns up. Last month it appeared on a post penned by the popular blogger Penelope Trunk when she abandoned career conversations in favor of sharing her perspective on her marriage, which quickly turned into a war of words about gender.

“So I’m going to tell you the truth about stay-at-home dads…” she wrote.

Not surprisingly, most of the discussion quickly descended into non-communication, with some claiming that any man commenter who disagreed was somehow invalid, if not sexist, because, well, they were men. Never mind that not all of them were men.

Ho hum. What most missed was that if there is a "truth" about stay-at-home dads … it is that there is no truth about stay-at-home dads. Just as there is no truth about stay-at-home moms. Just as there is no truth that accurately defines a good marriage, spouse, or parent. Just as there is no truth to any discussion that revolves around a label.

We saw the same descent into non-communication after Valeria Maltoni published her Top 20 PR PowerWomen list, which prompted Lewis Green to write his much discussed post, which questioned the validity of an all-woman list (he has since yielded and agreed to support it).

Before I continue, I might point out that I already commented at the The Buzz Bin and agreed with Geoff Livingston’s decision to support the Top 20 PR PowerWomen. However, I also understand what Green was asking, but think that he asked the wrong question.

In sum, it seems to me that Green asked whether any list segregated by gender, race, or ethnicity was valid. In other words, he may as well have asked if we group our gumballs by size or color, does that place the other gumballs at a disadvantage. Um no, they still taste the same.

But let's say he asked a slightly different question. Does the promotion of a label — status, position, gender, whatever — further erode the ability of people to interact as individuals without regard to labels (such as gender) or does it simply draw more attention to their differences as identified by such a label and breed resentment?

Well now, that depends solely on the gumballs who make up the group. In this case, there is no evidence that the Top 20 PR PowerWomen are promoting that pink gumballs somehow taste better than blue gumballs simply because they are pink, which basically means that the list is no more exclusionary than a Top 20 PR PowerPeople in the Washington D.C. Area list or a Top 20 Bloggers Who Own Red Socks list.

However, Green's question also illustrates why labels are tricky things. On one hand, humans have great cognitive capabilities, which includes processing large amounts of information by categorizing it by labels. On the other hand, if we are not aware of this process, we can become enslaved by it — either by subconsciously taking on stereotyped behaviors that are identified with a specific label or assuming other people will likely act like the labels that they are assigned.

The simplest truth is there are no typical women and there are no typical men. And if you approach either with the preconceived notion that they will react or respond to you as their label suggests they might, you will likely be disappointed. Worse, you could greatly increase the likelihood of label-centric non-communication.

In a different context, freeing us from the trappings of gender: there are no typical mothers to be found at Ronald McDonald House. And there are no typical billionaires. They are all people and each of them deserve to be treated with respect as individuals. Treat them any differently and you may as well argue that one gumball is better than another gumball, when we all know that they taste the same.


Sweet Tea on 8/17/07, 3:03 PM said...

Good article. Thanks.
This hits home today because someone made a comment and called me a he. When corrected she said she saw my screen name & thought no woman would call herself that. Does that mean no man should be called Pinky?

Rich on 8/17/07, 3:13 PM said...

That's hilarious (or maybe tragic ... I forget which is which sometimes), and it fits in nicely.

Sometimes when people aren't arguing about labels, they find new things to argue about within their label groups. Real men don't eat quiche; real woman don't leave the house without a purse. Blah, blah, blah, gumballs.

All my best,

Anonymous said...

What an interesting perspective and presentation, thank you. Whoever has known me for any length of time (there are a few, surviving ones ;-) knows that gender -- or gumball color, as you put it -- has never, ever been my consideration.

My value prop is connecting ideas and people. In this case, there were people who had not thought about connecting online and swapping links/stories/ideas, etc. That's where I came in. No more complicated than that, really.

Rich on 8/18/07, 6:26 AM said...


Thanks so much for stopping by. I haven't known you for any length of time and could immediately tell that you could less about the color of a gumball. :)

Your personal branding is spot on as well. When I first read about the list, it was easy for me to see that you working connect ideas and people. Very admirable.

My motivation is equally simple. If we ever hope to move beyond gender issues or other labels, the remedy is to celebrate the best qualities and differences that make us unique while ignoring the rest (suspicion, profiling, etc.). It seems to me you had done exactly that. Congrats!

All my best,

Anonymous said...


Excellent post. I agree with you completely. In my haste to write about a subject that touches all my hot buttons, I not only asked the wrong question, I failed to use a proper example. For that I am truly sorry.

Since the '60s, when I first marched for Civil Rights, and later joined NOW to support women's activism, I have been sensitive not only to labels but to segregation of any kind, including lists. Cam Beck, one of the most honest and honorable men I know, says that, if anything, I am hyper-sensitive. He's right. It is the baggage I carry into the social justice arena.

By the way, thank you for stopping by bizsolutionsplus and commenting. I had not discovered your blog, but now that I have, I promise to return. I will add you to my blogroll so others can discover you, as well.

Rich on 8/18/07, 12:29 PM said...


I appreciate the comment, added clarification, and addition to your roll. Thank you. Well said.

It does seem to me that your intent (though perhaps not example) was sound. There are indeed some people and groups that employ labels with the intent to gain rank and privilege over others (eg. Trunk), but I am especially happy to see we can all agree the Top 20 PR PowerWomen is not among those that do.

To the bigger picture you propose: sometimes hyper-sensitivity is an asset. Don't lose it as it could one day serve as a beacon of reason when some other group with a more sinister intent draws lines between people. The hard part, sometimes, it delaying those posts just long enough to be beyond the reach of emotion.

In closing, just allow me to add that I did not intentionally mean to exclude "green" as gumball color. Green tastes the same too. ;)

All my best,


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