Essay: Tall-man syndrome

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In journalism school I went on a T.V. shoot with a classmate who was short, maybe five-foot-three, a Canadian whose family emigrated from Britain when she was a kid.

It was her shoot, and she was fully in charge. But as we met with our interview subject to plan what shots we would take, where we would interview him, and so on, he seemed to ignore her about half the time.

Instead of looking to her for direction, he kept looking to me, a tall, husky white man who stands about six-foot-four and could probably have been a linebacker if he were not so soft, timid and shy.

I assumed the man we interviewed was being sexist, but when I told another friend about it she shot my theory down with a sentence or two.

“People naturally gravitate to the tallest person in the room,” she said.

I thought there was more to it than that, but I didn’t have anything to back it up, so I dropped it.

“Oh,” I said, chuckling softly, like a lummox.

“Yeah.”

I didn’t think about my size again until we graduated and I interviewed for my first job.

It was at the only daily newspaper in the city where we attended school, with a summer internship program that paid well and added heft to a resume.

As he led me to the interview room, the paper’s local news editor asked if we’d ever met, and I said we hadn’t.

“I didn’t think so,” he said. “I would have remembered meeting someone as big as you.”

At the time I was around 260 pounds, with a short beard and a buzz cut, pear-shaped and soft as a pillow.

“Yeah,” I said, chuckling again.

The job interview was not a disaster, but it did not go well. They rarely do.

I am usually nervous in these situations, and I lean toward self-deprecation rather than self-promotion.

Despite my qualifications—I’d been a reporter for about eight years, and I was one of the top students in my master’s program—I was not good at selling myself.

Also, I spoke with a small, hushed voice that contrasted against my size. This was a key criticism the local news editor provided later, when he told me I didn’t get the job.

“You’re a huge guy,” he said, in effect. “And you need to acquire a personality that matches it.”

I have the opposite of small-man syndrome, where diminutive adults push around larger subordinates in order to make up for the times they were bullied as kids.

Except when I am playing basketball or some other sport where my height is an advantage, I am a large man who wishes he were small.

In high school, when I was trying various identities to see what fit, I sometimes wished I were more like Will Smith’s character on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Will was tall, confident and cool. He cracked jokes and used Ebonics and was the big man on campus. He could make any ridiculous outfit look (to borrow a word he used) “fly.”

Apart from his short, nerdy cousin Carleton, everyone wanted to be Will’s friend. He gave people weird nicknames, like Cornflake, that seemed perfect and off-the-cuff.

“So look,” I wanted to be able to say to a girl out of my league. “Why don’t we just kick it over to Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles?”

Or, even better: “Yo wassup, baby? Hurry up, write your number down ‘fore I don’t want it no more.”

4.

I was not one of the cool kids in school, but I was not frequently ridiculed, and I did relatively well academically and in sports.

Along with five schoolmates, I played tenor saxophone in the jazz band, and they all deferred to me when it came time to stand up and play solos.

I hated this, because I got nervous and could barely hide it. Any mental effort I might have directed toward hitting the right notes, I used to trample the butterflies in my stomach.

It was sometimes the same in class presentations, where I felt obliged to take a leadership role and speak more than some of my peers.

In class, as well as in church, adults seemed to expect more from me than they did from others. This verse from the Gospel of Luke was a major theme of my upbringing:

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (12:48)

But I identified much more with Moses, who shied away from the spotlight when called upon, citing the fact he was, “slow of speech and tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)

I have benefitted greatly from being the tallest guy in almost every room I’ve entered since I was sixteen. But much of the time I’ve wanted to shrink down to the size of an ant and go unnoticed.

If you search Google for insightful quotes about being tall, you won’t find many.

Most of them are memes about annoying questions, like: “How’s the weather up there?” (Answer, according to the meme: Exactly the same, bitch.)

A majority of them hint at how being a tall woman is, like most other things we have in common, more complicated than being a tall man.

“I’m too tall to be a girl,” Julia Roberts apparently said. “I’m between a chick and a broad.”

Others note how being tall is a blessing, rather than a burden.

“When people are absurdly tall, they command everyone’s attention when they walk into a room,” said the musician Steve Albini, who is apparently six feet.

“Nobody’s ever dismissive of somebody for being too tall.”

My favourite is from the actress Sigourney Weaver, who also stands six feet: “It takes courage to be as big as you are, and not be intimidated by tiny people.”

In my journalism school there were only a handful of other tall white men, one of whom was our unquestioned leader and graduated at the top of the class.

That T.V. shoot with my diminutive friend (who is ridiculously smart, talented and funny in her own right) began to open my eyes about how circumstances and genetics have determined my lot in life.

Yes, I’ve worked extremely hard to get where I am today. And most of my success is the product of merit and ability.

But some of it is also due to the fact people naturally equate male tallness with authority, leadership ability, and potential.

We really do gravitate toward the tallest people in the room, especially if they are men. I’m not complaining, but for what it’s worth: Some of us would rather you didn’t.

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