On February 4, 2019, a headline on BBC’s website read, “Backlash Over ‘Single-Shaming’ Banking Ad” (Plummer, 2019). The article revolved around an advertisement from British financial technology company Revolut, the headline of which read “To the 12,750 people who ordered a single takeaway on Valentine’s Day, you ok, hun?” Financial commentator and Young Money Blog founder Iona Bain criticized the ad on Twitter, stating that it was “patronizing” to single people, arguing that singlehood is a perfectly valid life choice. A debate ensued over the next couple of days on the comments section as to whether “single-shaming” was an actual problem. Opposing comments ranged from “if that offends you then you haven’t had a tough life,” “people are so sensitive,” and “they seem to be mostly women crying because they can’t get boyfriends.” The word “snowflake” abounded throughout the thread.
Singlism is a term coined by psychologist Bella DePaulo (2006) and can be defined as the stereotyping and stigmatization around singlehood. To specify, there is a host of laws and policies that explicitly favor married couples (Nolo, 2016). Additionally, things like club memberships and tickets are often offered at discounted rates for couples. Politicians and public figures often show their families to audiences to show they have “family values.”
A point of contention for many single people is that they are made to work longer hours or given less desirable shifts in order to accommodate those colleagues who have spouses or children because it is automatically assumed singles are able to do so because they “don’t have a life” (Siers-Poisson, 2017). Many organizations, including academic institutions, advertise themselves as “family-friendly” to be more inclusive toward partners; an unintended effect is that such language can exclude those who do not have a spouse or children. In everyday social interaction, singles report being subjected to piteous glances and comments like “you’re still single?” or “why aren’t you married yet?”
Philomena Essed (2016) coined the term “everyday racism” to refer to the slights and microaggressions suffered by women of color. In her study of a group of Surinamese women, one of her participants relayed the story of an incident when she went shoe-shopping with her mother. During their visit to the store, a white saleswoman said, in a hostile tone, “I don’t think there is anything in this shop you can afford to buy,” before opening the door for them to leave. Essed defined this type of occasion as “everyday racism” in that an ordinary event, shopping, was marred by the saleswoman’s assumption based on the appearance of two customers.
While racism and singlism clearly aren’t synonymous, having different histories and different social forces at play, singlism also emerges in everyday interactions, and there are myriad assumptions that single people encounter in everyday interactions, including the workplace. For example, in 2008, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, upon learning of Janet Napolitano’s nomination for Secretary of Homeland Security, stated, “Janet’s perfect for that job. Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family” (qtd. in DePaulo, 2017). Many workplaces cultivate such attitudes, often assuming single employees can work longer hours and take less desirable shifts (i.e., holidays). Moreover, the Family and Medical Leave Act allows employees to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave every year to care for an immediate family member, such as a spouse, child, or parent with a health condition (U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.). However, a single person would not be able to care for a close friend, neighbor, or domestic partner under that law.
In order to see how singlism affects people in rhetoric and writing studies workplaces, I conducted a small study of single people in our field to learn about their experiences. To collect information, I sent out a survey to the WPA Listserv in April 2018, to which seventeen people responded. As part of the survey, I offered respondents an opportunity to be interviewed, five of whom took the opportunity.
Out of the five people I interviewed, one respondent identified as male and the other four identified as female. [Editor’s note: all names below have been changed and are pseudonyms].
- Bob, a tenured faculty member, reported being ostracized by colleagues after his divorce due to rumors spread by an administrative assistant about how he treated his ex-wife. Such rumors included that he had been “on the prowl” at singles bars and had flirted with graduate students, even asking one out. Such gossip relates to the common stereotype of the single man as a “player” (DePaulo, 2006, p. 150).
- Ellen, a tenured faculty member at a community college in the Northeast, stated she had been denied a promotion to full professor. In the meeting, where this information was revealed, the faculty member who informed her of this said that the person who received the promotion had “two kids in college” before saying “oh, I was only joking.” While presented as a joke, Ellen wondered if there was some truth to it.
- Briana, a graduate student an R1 institution in the Midwest, stated that during discussions about the job search, much of the conversation amongst her colleagues centered around the importance of a spouse or significant other in decision-making. Briana indicated feeling excluded from such conversations, including the advice given to job candidates to put a picture of a significant other on a computer screen during a Skype interview so candidates can avoid looking at the screen.
- Sharon, a tenured faculty member at a community college in the Southwest, relayed that at campus events men generally bring their wives, and she has been asked questions like “Is your boyfriend or husband going to help you?” When she informs them of her relationship status, a typical response is “Oh, you moved out here by yourself? You’re so brave!”
The majority of the respondents did not wish to be interviewed. However, some anonymous survey responses included the following:
- “When a colleague will be having a gathering, I know they are just trying to be nice but perhaps indicating that I’ll upset the coupled balance somewhat.” – Beatrice
- “People outright assume that I want kids and assume ‘I will have someday.’” – Lynn
- “A department chair doesn’t come to events because ‘I’m so busy, I adopted a child.’ In a newsletter, she wrote ‘I do all this as a mother of two children, ages 11 and 5,’ as if that makes her accomplishments more impressive than the rest of us, none of whom are parents.” – Shana
- “I’m in a long-distance non-marital relationship…which makes me effectively single for purposes of things like picking up the slack for married colleagues’ unwillingness to, e.g., attend late afternoon meetings.” – Margaret
In the survey, the majority of participants reported everyday singlism, such as:
- Being ordered, persuaded, or requested to undertake extra duties in order to compensate for the time a married employee wouldn’t be able to fulfill their duties, which included maternity leave or picking children up from school (10 of 17 respondents)
- Being ignored in conversations about spouses or children (10 of 17 respondents)
- Being excluded from social events that were “couples only” or “families only” (5 of 17 respondents)
- Having insulting, offensive, or passive-aggressive remarks made about your person, attitudes or their private life (5 of 17 respondents)
- Been required or “invited” to attend a workplace event that had a price discount for couples (5 of 17 respondents)
Two respondents, in addition to experiencing singlism, reported observations of it happening to others. Bob explained that two of his single, male colleagues have been rumored to be gay because they were bachelors, and Margaret, in her survey response, indicated that single colleagues are often subject to pressure to date each other and/or alumni of the school.
The two most frequent examples of everyday singlism were: 1) being asked to undertake extra duties for those faculty members who could not due to so as a result of duties related to their marriages or parenting; and 2) being ignored in conversations about spouses or children. That being said, I was unable to obtain interviews from the majority of respondents, so the sample is limited. I also note that “feeling” ignored is not necessarily the same as “being” ignored, but in the respondents’ minds, such feelings are valid.
This small study shows the need for further discussion and exploration of singlism; such thoughtless behavior has the potential to contribute to an exclusionary climate in academe based on assumptions that professors are married with children, and how anyone outside that “norm” is subject to mistreatment, ranging from gossip, social ostracization, being forced to do extra work, and even being denied promotion in favor of a married person with children. These everyday practices have the potential to reduce morale in our academic institutions. We need a singles rights movement in order to make the academic workplace more inclusive for this population. While many people, such as myself, are single by choice, others are single by circumstance; we should not be made to feel “less than” for our relationship status. Institutions can address this problem by examining the discourse they use, as well as their workplace policies, as they relate to married and single employees.
DePaulo, Bella. (2017, May 25). Single workers aren’t there to pick up the slack for their married bosses and colleagues. Quartz. Retrieved from https://qz.com/991030/
– – . (2006). Singled out: How singles are stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored, and still live happily ever after. NY, NY: St. Martin’s.
Essed, Philomena. (2016, May 11). Towards a methodology to identify converging forms of everyday discrimination. Paper presented at 45th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, NY, NY.
Nolo. (2016, May 11). Marriage rights and benefits. Nolo. Retrieved from https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/marriage-rights-benefits-30190.html.
Plummer, Robert. (2019, Feb. 4). Backlash over ‘single-shaming’ bank ad. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/business-47117649.
Siers-Poisson, Judith. (2017, June 15). How single and married co-workers are treated differently. Wisconsin Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.wpr.org/how-single-and-married-co-workers-are-treated-differently.
U.S. Department of Labor. (n.d.). Family and medical leave (FMLA). U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/benefits-leave/fmla.
Craig Wynne (he/him/his) is an Associate Professor of English and Writing Center Director at Hampton University, where he teaches a variety of writing courses. His research interests include composition pedagogy, critical discourse analysis, the psychology of writing, and Singles Studies. His upcoming book, How to be a Happy Bachelor, is slated for release in summer 2020.