Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Helping people to help themselves

An interesting experience today at the train station - which I wanted to write up ...

Today coming back from work, my head was spinning from a conversation about equality with Gabrielle on Twitter.  Seems I was almost immediately put to the test!

In the car park, one of the car's had it's hood up, and a woman was messing around under it with an adjustable spanner.  In my youth, I've owned a couple of troublesome cars, so know a few tricks with car engines.  There is also as described in Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, a strange male compulsion to take problems (especially mechanical ones) from women and "do the mechanical saviour" role.

Do I offer help?  There was a lot going on in my head though - mainly ...

  • "You're wearing clothes you'd rather not get oil on"
  • "It's broad daylight, she's not going to come to any harm here"
  • "Besides ... looks like she knows what she's doing better than you"

I walked past, she seemed to be tinkering with her battery, whilst I continued to my car.  But I was conflicted - male or female, I always like to be helpful if I can.  I got in my car, ready to leave, and noticed the lady still seemed to be messing with her battery.

If it was a flat battery, I resolved, she could use my car for a jump start.  But she'd have to do "the mucky stuff".  It was her car, she seemed to know what she was doing - don't offer to fix her problem for her, but DO offer her at least a jump start.

So, I drove up and said I saw she was doing something with her battery - did she need to use my battery?  She looked from her work and laughed, "no - my battery's flat, I bought a new one that's in the boot at the weekend, should have just put it in there.  I'll get there".  Help offered, but as I thought, not needed.

How can you help others?

As both a parent and mentor, I come across other people's problems a lot.  One of the fundamental things is a desire to help people solve their problems.  But this often manifests as a need to "take the problem off them and solve it for them".  The problem is, this doesn't allow them to learn how to fix it themselves.

There's a right and wrong way to do it.  Like me today, you want to be helpful.  But you choose how you offer it carefully.  I didn't offer to fix it for that lady, I offered her access to a resource which might help her (my car battery).

Similarly in mentoring, you give another person the option to decide how much help they need, rather than imposing it on them.  Sometimes they might ask for help, and you decide only to give them a little of what they asked for - not because it's mean, but because you're trying to help them find what they can do.

Ultimately it's not about you saving the day, it's helping them to save their own day (with a little assistance from a friend).  Today was a lesson worth remembering.

Is there a problem here?

Here's food for thought ... I never doubted this woman's ability to sort her car.  [In my books you shouldn't lift the bonnet of a car unless you have some idea what you're doing]

In writing this article, I just Googled "woman fixing car" - as a little experiment today, just try it out, and think about what you see.  Even worse, try "girl fixing car".

I'm going to show a few examples below - a few were just what I asked for (I used one at the top here).  An awful lot showed either a heavily frustrated women not achieving much, a sexualised models going "oh help me" (there was more of this when I Googled "girl fixing car"), or a woman plain out just watching a guy repair her car.

Now Google "man fixing car".  Do you see the same kinds of images?  Now, in fairness, I might expect the odd "hunk" in a tight fitting vest, smeared with oil - to be fair, this is as sexy as it got for guys ...

I could see JUST ONE example of a man too frustrated to fix his car ...

And in the few examples when a guy was watching someone else fix their car, that "someone else" was always another guy, and the "watcher" appeared to be helping the mechanic, rather than looking on helplessly ...

No wonder when it comes to mechanical tasks, many women feel like they're not taken seriously.

For the record, I learned my car maintenance and mechanics equally from both my parents. 


  1. I had a grade 9 teacher that once told the girls to make sure they knew how to fix a tire, but take help when offered. I have used that advice many times. For example: I had a troublesome truck that some gas "thingy" (lack of technical term) constantly got stuck. I learned to fix that, ... reaching up into the hood (bonnet), and reaching down to unstick it. I'm sure I looked ridiculous. However, one day the truck stalled going up a a small hill on a very busy bridge at rush hour. I had a problem .. it was a standard so 3 pedals (clutch, brake and gas) and my foot was not big enough to actually step on two at once (and no emergency brake). The nice fellow behind me, came and asked it he could help.. I looked down at his feet and said yes. I need to borrow those ... but the rest of you can come along. He started it and drove my truck up the hill, just enough to get me out of the way. His passenger drove his car and the traffic cleared quickly.
    Accept help when offered if you are having problems, but ... know how to fix it if you can. I am not a car mechanic and only know what I have to. ...

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  2. I liked the way you did not inflict help. You offered.

    I also find the images fascinating: what is our cultural approach to these situations?

    When I started to drive, my father made sure I knew how to unstick the butterfly valve in the carburetor. I also had to show him I could change a tire and pump my own gas. I learned to jump a battery.

    I had to teach my daughters much less. And, I'm glad they know.

    1. Thanks Johanna and Janet!

      Good to hear it's not just my me for whom both my parents knew how to maintain a car.

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  4. It's a little sad that you contemplated not offering any help even though your instinct was to do so. I get the intention. I prefer the neutral offer of "are you ok?" or "do you need a hand?" - as long as you don't push further if the response is "No thanks" then to my mind there's no insult or chauvinism or sexism offered, just a friendly hand.

    1. Probably a key thing to that is "does the person look distressed", which to be honest they didn't. It's a tough call.

      After all no-one wants someone rushing up to them going "OMG - do you need help", when they're just filling up the water for the windscreeen wiper. It's a subtle judgement call. And I have to admit, not always sure which way to go on it.