One never knows what pretext the wasted loner slumped at the bar will use to strike up a conversation, but it often hinges on a casual observation. He wants to know what you’re drinking, what you’re reading and exactly how tall you are. I got this question not long ago, from a severely intoxicated barfly who was shocked to learn that I’m only 6-foot-2. By the time I realized the cause of his misperception—he was so drunk he didn’t realize I was standing at the bar, not sitting on a stool—he’d already spoken at length about how suited I’d be to basketball. When he realized the error himself, and that my height is fairly unremarkable, he apologized and went totally quiet.
I’m used to being asked for a hand reaching groceries on the top shelf or to watch my head when boarding a plane, but for a moment there, I was experiencing the world as a man who towers at 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-10, which apparently involves direct inquiries from strangers regarding your physical dimensions. There’s an entire spectrum of attention, from salacious stares to literal catcalling, that makes women aware of how their figure is observed as they move through the world — “I felt I dragged my body around behind me like a net,” writes author Alexandra Kleeman — yet unsolicited commentary on men’s bodies is limited to the matter of their verticality.
It’s a topic tall guys cannot escape.
For me, that means people I’ve known on the internet registering surprise at my altitude when we meet in real life, or shorter acquaintances I haven’t seen in a while wondering aloud if I’ve gotten taller since we last hung out. But for the tallest of the tall, small talk is an endless parade of “how’s-the-weather-up-there” quips.
In fact, every few months, a giant goes viral with a business card designed to put an end to those conversations.
Being tall a man, of course, comes with an array of perks that far outweigh the problems of low showerheads and insipid ice-breaking. They make more money and are seen as more attractive by women; they have healthier hearts and are less likely to develop dementia. They “may have greater self-esteem and social confidence than shorter people,” according to the American Psychology Association, which, in turn, gives them a “leader-like and authoritative” aura.
Surely fielding some innocent awe over your stature is a negligible inconvenience in light of these benefits, especially considering the way women’s weight, shape, makeup and clothes are policed and surveilled everywhere.
Besides, being shorter than average is no picnic. Why get touchy because you’re tall?
If I had to guess, in my capacity as a not-quite-tree-sized man, I’d say this prickliness comes down to a few different factors. To begin with, height isn’t something you choose or control — you don’t wake up in the morning and decide to put on a few extra inches like you would a favorite T-shirt. So pointing it out, even in a friendly way, isn’t that different from saying, “Hey, you’re really bald,” or “Wow, some tiny ears you’ve got there.” Then there’s the unspoken implication behind the tall callout, which is that you’re taking up too much space compared to a “normal” person. This is definitely a situation that bigger guys are conscious of — I’ll always stand in the back of a concert so I don’t have to hear someone grumble that I’m blocking their view, and dudes develop a range of strategies to diminish their intimidating presence.
Lastly, there’s what I think of as “the giraffe in the room” problem: All it takes is a single reference to your elevation for everyone to redirect their focus upward and use you for comparative measurement.
It’s almost as though because tallness is an advantage, nobody sees an issue with treating it like a freakish spectacle. You wouldn’t approach a little person just to talk about life at 4-foot-2, but you can safely voice your amusement when I bang my head on a light fixture. That’s another thing I can tell you about being tall: Sometimes it genuinely impairs my kinetic understanding of a place and the other bodies in it. There’s a disorienting quality to living in excess of the average, coasting this high up.
That said, and as those business cards prove, many lofty men have a sense of humor. They know they’re lucky — they just don’t want their proportions to define them, same as anyone else. After all, you can only respond to “big guy” so many times before you fight back.