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May 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 29, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Are Some Male Divers Too “Helpful?”

and how should female divers handle them?

from the May, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

A woman I'll call "Linda" from Seattle, WA, recently wrote on a diving online forum with an interesting question, "Have any fellow female divers been treated in a patronizing way by men in their dive group? My husband and I dive as a part of larger groups and I am often the only woman there. Although we are both experienced and watch out for each other, I've had random men in the group approach me to check that my gear is assembled properly, offer helpful tips for beginners, and generally treat me like an idiot. On one occasion, someone came up to me and tested my regulator and BC inflator while I was wearing my gear without even asking. I know that they're probably trying to be helpful, but I'm getting annoyed. My husband likes diving with these guys . . . any tips on how to deal with this situation without alienating people?"

I'm a female diver myself, and I've never had a guy sidle up beside me to check my gear. I assume that it's because I look like I know what I'm doing. But what if it's because my 5'10" height gives off a "don't mess with me" air? Or I'm subconsciously scowling and just look bitchy? Or I'm just not his type? That got me thinking about my fellow female divers. Are there lots of other Lindas out there getting unwanted attention on the dive boat? Are there certain situations in which male divers leap to help female divers -- and some women more than others?

So I put this question to Undercurrent readers of both sexes: When does a diver cross over from being friendly to becoming patronizing, especially when it's a male diver? I received plenty of responses -- "ithappened- to-me" stories, agreements and defenses about why men do what they do, and tips for both sexes on how to offer help and how to accept it or reject it nicely. Then I asked two psychologists -- one man, one woman, both divers -- to review reader comments and give their take on how men and women differ, and how those differences can be managed easily and respectfully during a dive.

Men: Just Born That Way?

"Linda" got some comments from men about "We were raised to be helpful," and Undercurrent reader Jason Propsner (Marietta, GA) is part of that group. "I was raised to be a gentleman, to look out for and respect women. I guess this diver can blame my mother and grandmother. But I would never randomly check any stranger's gear. I may observe that they look uneasy or confused and offer help, but this would apply to male or female. But a female taking offense to the male help is overanalyzing the situation, and I expect puts every situation into a sexist context -- when a man trying to be the 'knight in shining armor' is instead made out to be a 'chauvinist pig.'"

"Lady, be pissed if you want. But
solicitous men around you can keep
you a bit safer."

Dr. Michael Smith, a psychotherapist in Oakland, CA, who handles conflict counseling and sexual harassment issues, says that, from an evolutionary biology perspective, men have three main ways of behaving. "They're competitive, hierarchical and they're problem solvers. When a man sees a woman on a dive boat fussing with gear, he wants to go check it. It comes to three main drivers: They can establish themselves as an important person; they get ahead in the pecking order over a man thinking the same thing; and they're solving a problem. You see this among all animals; we're only one step above them in the evolutionary chain."

Another thing going on in a dive boat: latent sexual energy. "On dive boats, men and women are nearly naked," says Smith, and because men have the hardwired urge to procreate, they may be stimulated or aroused even if they don't mean to. "Men aren't always aware of it, but they can control these urges and aim to be more civilized," says Smith.

Al Kholos (Winnetka, CA) frankly agrees that pretty women will get attention on the dive boat. "I presume 'Linda' is attractive, and if she's the only woman in the dive group, she should expect a certain amount of come-ons even if she's married, and her expertise is known to her fellow members. I know I'm likely to keep an eye on the attractive ladies nearby, even if they are vastly more experienced than I. So lady, be pissed if you want. But solicitous men around you can keep you a bit safer."

What about not-so-attractive women? Two women readers wrote in to say they feel invisible on the dive boat. "A self-proclaimed overweight diver with 150 dives wrote, "No man has ever tried to help this little lady with her gear or give her unasked-for advice or whatnot. Occasionally I am looked at side-eyed, like, 'Uh-oh, here comes the heart attack that will fuck up our dive.' Then when they see my awesome trim, buoyancy control and air consumption, and that I carry my own gear and am the last one out of the water, I get a lot of compliments. Regarding sexism, however, I have seen younger, thinner female divers get unwanted advice and attention from men on boats."

An "older, overweight, single" female diver wrote, "I have often almost been left behind at the end of a dive, because boat attendants, dive masters and other divers simply forget about me. Even though I am friendly, make an effort to be interested in others, and am interesting to talk with, many times it's for nothing, because most all the males (young or old) act as if I don't exist. When I was both thinner and/or younger, I would get offers of help all the time. But to touch me or my equipment unasked was an invitation to be stared at and hear 'Excuse me? If I need help, I'll be willing to ask for it.' Taking over adjusting someone's equipment is downright rude and condescending, but it does happen to petite, pretty women all the time, no matter how strong or capable they are."

Women: Just Playing Games?

However, women may be giving mixed signals when it comes to responding to men with offers of help. They can be inconsistent in how they want men's help, like saying they're strong enough to do anything but then having a man change their car tires," says Smith. When he was in Maui helping a friend run a dive shop, he saw lots of men doing the diver's equivalent of changing tires for a woman -- carrying their tanks. "Women could do it, but some have more difficulty than men, who are mostly stronger and, in my opinion, most women didn't object to handing off their tanks."

If you think that's just a man's point of view, it's not. Dr. Jeanne Reeder, a psychologist and diver in Columbia, MO, says that some women play games when it comes to showing their strength, and she saw a lot of game-playing comments from Undercurrent readers. "Some had regressive behavior -- sarcasm, defensiveness, and the desire to use payback."

Jerome Henkel (Las Vegas, NV) had a dive buddy like that back when he was living in Guam. "We were casual friends with no other relationship other than being dive buddies and having the occasional meal. She asked me for help when gearing up and moving tanks on and off the boat. Nothing I wouldn't do for any dive buddy. After a time she moved to the States, and I did so myself three months later. I contacted her to do some dives out of Ventura, CA. When we got to the boat, I started to move tanks but she suggested that I leave her tank to do herself. OK, I figure. Then, when we were gearing up, I again moved to help her with her gear, something I did on each dive in Guam. Now, it's, 'I can do this myself, don't be so condescending.' At that point, I realized there was something different in our dive-buddy relationship. I don't know what had changed, but I didn't like being raked over the coals for doing the same thing I had been asked to do previously."

"I make it clear to the folks
on board -- as well as reminding
my husband -- that I am a
diver, not a diver's wife."

Reeder cites a classic game-playing example from an Undercurrent reader from St. Louis, MO, who says that on the first dive of every trip, "I make it clear to the folks on board -- as well as reminding my husband -- that I am a diver, not a diver's wife. I will care for my own gear. I will handle all my tank changes. I will carry my own gear to and from the boat. I will rinse my own gear. I try not to be abrasive, instead explaining that it helps me to feel safe underwater knowing that I've performed all my own safety checks and maintenance on my own gear. If the crew forgets and changes a tank for me, I gently remind them of my preferences, and by the end of the trip, they all know to leave my stuff alone. I get a little ribbing about being so independent, but it's always been good-natured. I think the most important thing is knowing where your boundaries are, and communicating them clearly and respectfully to others."

But Reeder sees her as someone who may be overdoing it in wanting to prove her competency and outdive the men. "When females are into game-playing, that will hook the man in even more."

Women Talk Back

Readers who did get unwanted help told how they solved that problem. Dorothy McDonald (Cincinnati, OH) says that on the occasion when someone swims next to her and makes some unnecessary adjustment, "I choose to ignore the person and swim away. Or if it happens to me while still on the boat or on land, I would make a very loud exclamation of shocked and 'innocent' surprise to draw everyone's attention to what the offender was doing and make him explain himself. Something like, 'Ooohhh, you scared me! I didn't know you were there! Was something wrong?' Hopefully that would be enough to prevent him from doing it again."

Diane Gedymin (Huntington, NY) says her perfect solution is, "During the next dive go over to the 'helpful' diver and check his gear diligently, and if he says something, say with a smile, 'Just returning the buddy favor.' He will get the message loud and clear."

Angela Didde (Kansas City, MO) says her solution is just to outdive them. "I was diving in Hawaii and was the only female in a group of four male divers. Being older and at that time slightly overweight, they assumed I would hold the group back and make their dive shorter. The result was much different -- after less than 20 minutes, the majority of the group needed to ascend due to low air. A full 25 minutes after they went up, the divemaster and I came up after a wonderful relaxing dive. A good dive is the best payback."

Hey, Guys: Ask, Don't Assume

Now that we're living in the 21st century, all men need to learn that they should ask, they should not assume. "When it comes to paying for dinner on the first date, nine out of 10 women assume that the man will pay, but a man should not throw out his credit card," says Smith. "Instead, he should first ask, 'Do you mind if I pay for this?' While he does end up paying, he is not assuming, so both parties win. Same with diving. A man should say, 'Would you like help lifting this tank?' And ask in a genuine, sincere way. Learn to be sincere and not be competitive in an 'I'm stronger and bigger than you' way."

Reeder cites Undercurrent subscriber Jeff Bennewitz (Albuquerque, NM) as a good example of a male diver offering help sincerely, even if he did piss off another man in doing so. "I don't concentrate on female divers, but find a certain majority either ask for assistance or are offered assistance with gear issues. Case in point: On a recent trip to Palau, I noticed a female diver with a grossly fogged mask. She was totally blind underwater and didn't have the skill to rinse her mask to clear the fog. Back on the boat I offered to clean her mask, but her husband declined and said he would take care of it. Next dive, again I observe her in distress with a fogged mask, and holding onto her husband as they surface early. Back on the boat, before I can remove my gear, she hands me the mask and asks, 'Please help me with my mask.' I cleaned her mask and applied a fresh defog solution. Final dive of the day, I feel a rough tug on my BC. She is trying to get my attention, but she is wide-eyed in a good way, showing double OK signs, that she can see clearly now. I was thanked profusely as we cleaned and rinsed our gear, but her husband didn't speak to me during the rest of the trip."

Sergio Pereira (Chula Vista, CA) says he now plans to change his ways. "After reading Linda's story, I believe I may have been guilty. In the future I will take your advice and not be too quick to offer not-needed assistance that you correctly state may be based on sexism."

Ladies: Be Kind, Not Cutting

Some women struggle with the question, 'If I'm accepting help, am I showing weakness?" The answer is: You're plenty strong as men in lots of ways, probably just not as much in the upper body. "Men are physically stronger, it's a given, so it's easier for them to schlep tanks and gear," says Smith. "But in other areas -- law, medicine, diving -- women are as good as, if not better than, men, no question. Women just have to believe that in themselves."

If you're confident in your own skills, then act accordingly when rejecting help, says Reeder. "Don't get hooked in by someone else's actions, whether male or female diver. If someone shows behavior that interferes with you and your gear, give a quick negative shake of the head, say, 'I got it, thanks.' Be straightforward and direct, not passive-aggressive. And if a guy does it twice and doesn't take the hint, then have a private talk with him to set him straight."

But ladies, please don't assume all men are jerks, Smith says. "If you're not accepting his help, do it in a kind way. My experience is that most men are not cads. Ninety percent of that unwanted behavior is because the guys have not been socialized to what's acceptable behavior. Ninety percent of them will stop when women ask them to stop. It's easy and kind enough to say, "Thanks, I appreciate it, but I can manage it on my own."

As an example of how men can look like gentlemen and women can look confident while together on a dive boat, I'll let reader Sandra Quick (Grand Rapids, MI) have the last word on how to handle gender differences. "I don't feel I particularly need extra help; however, I'm not offended if someone wants to help me schlep a tank or pay a little extra attention to my gear setup. The more eyes, the better, as far as I am concerned. I have been known to set up my gear with the bungee cord still attached to the tank, and ask a fellow to help zip/unzip my wetsuit. These are things I am happy to do for other divers, too. Divers are a friendly and helpful group of folks. And if you are a competent diver, it doesn't take long for others in your group to recognize it, regardless of your sex."

-- Vanessa Richardson

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