There is an entertaining piece on the Economist’s blog site this week, about how gender affects conversational styles. It was neatly summarised by the mag’s own Twitter-feed as “man mansplains that men also mansplain to men.”
The post raises a couple of really interesting points, I think. The first is alluded to but not spelled out by the author, and perhaps should have been. It is that “But men do this thing to other men too!” is a completely bloody pointless defence to any charge or complaint about sexist or patriarchal behaviour.
It’s amazing how often this comes up. Where women complain about harassing and intrusive behaviour on the streets or public transport, you can always bank on some arsehole piping up “But that’s not sexism, men shout random abuse at each other too!” It’s true, they do. So it is not always sexist. Sometimes it is racist or ableist or homophobic or just plain, simple bullying. So can we cut all that out too while we’re at it?
Where women complain about feeling the threat of violence when walking outside at night, Mr Bloke can be banked on to respond “What are you complaining about? Men are much more likely to be randomly assaulted by strangers than women are.” This is also true. So can we please join with those women who are quite keen to see an end to such behaviour? Sooner than later would be good.
Or in the case in point, men use conversational exchanges not (just) to communicate, bond or exchange views and knowledge, but as a competitive sport, a test of dominance and status. It is quite true that this becomes an opportunity to establish social dominance over women (aka mansplaining) but also over other men. This is not an especially healthy trait. I’m sure we’ve all been in meetings (whether in work, politics, voluntary societies or whatever) which are dominated not by the person with the best ideas or the greatest knowledge, but the one with the most regard for the sound of (usually) his own voice. I’m dreadfully guilty of this myself, and am quite happy to acknowledge it and try to catch myself on.
The second point that occurred to me while reading the Economist blog is a bit of a leap of disciplines. (I’m thinking out loud here, so bear with me.) In discussing the ideas of psycholinguist Deborah Tannen, the author says:
“In Ms Tannen’s schema, men talk to determine and achieve status. Women talk to determine and achieve connection. To use metaphors, for men life is a ladder and the better spots are up high. For women, life is a network, and the better spots have greater connections.”
Reading this, a little lightbulb came on. For a few years I have followed with interest the work of Michael W Kraus, both as an applied social psychologist and an engaging blogger (and all-round good guy). Kraus researches the interaction between social status and empathy, so for example, among his more intriguing findings is that if you manipulate someone’s sense of social status upwards (ie making them feel more important) their capacity for empathy diminishes, or vice versa. The suspicion is that empathy is, at least in part, a trait with evolutionary survival advantages for those lower down the (literal and metaphorical) food chain. It kicks in more the more it is needed.
(When I’ve written about this before, a lot of people reply by arguing that it is the lack of empathy and consideration which helps people attain power and status in the first place. While undoubtedly true, it is important to note this is not the point. Increase someone’s status, and their ability to empathise diminishes even when they want to empathise and actively try to empathise.)
What occurred to me today was that when we discuss male and female communication styles, we tend to argue about whether they are innate or socialised. As a broad rule of thumb, feminists tend to argue that boys and girls are taught or trained to be dominant or submissive respectively, while anti-feminists are perhaps more likely to argue that these are natural and immutable differences between the sexes.
What I am now wondering is whether it is possible that this aspect to conversational style is neither learned nor innate but is, at least in part, a consequence of a (self-perceived) social status? If it were true, we would expect to see that as individual women achieved greater power and status in the boardroom, politics or wherever, their capacity for empathy and the urge to co-operate and network would diminish. I can offer no objective evidence, but I have to say that this does pretty much tally with my experience.
The other implication would be that it wouldn’t be enough to teach men to listen and teach women to have confidence, as the Economist suggests. We would actually need to smash the surrounding social context of structural sexism and all vestiges of patriarchal hegemony before men’s and women’s communication styles equalise. That may be slightly beyond the editorial remit of the Economist.
Anyway, I repeat, the above is really just me thinking out loud. I’m not aware if there is any kind of body of research that proves or disproves what I say, so feel free to argue back from a position of considerable knowledge or, like me, enthusiastic ignorance.