The Equality Language Lab

By Juliana Jiménez

France’s Laboratoire de l’égalité brings you this awesome video, put together by Pacte Pour L’égalité, or Pact for Equality. Doesn’t require subtitles or translation.

Pacte Pour L’égalité  seeks to put pressure on France’s 2012 presidential candidates to address the obstacles toward equality between men and women.

The scenarios in the video serve mostly as metaphor of what it’s like to work or have a conversation with (some) men. I’ve had that experience many times, even if it’s just talking with friends or family. I never know if it’s “the gender thing,” or if it’s just me, and my ideas are just not that worthwhile and that’s why they get trampled in favor of someone else’s. But just having to ask yourself that question alone though, is definitely a self-esteem bummer and can affect how you contribute to the conversation, starting a vicious cycle of lack of assertiveness.

Now, the fact that that someone else is usually a man might push in favor of “the gender thing” — but again it might also be a matter of statistics, because most heated politics/religion/philosophy discussions I have are with men and not with women.

There are many, many linguistics and psychological studies on the differences between male and female discourse dynamics. University professor and professor of linguistics at Georgetown University Deborah Tannen says, for example, that

“Men grow up in a world in which a conversation is often a contest, either to achieve the upper hand or to prevent other people from pushing them around. For women, however, talking is often a way to exchange confirmation and support.”

Another 1976 landmark study demonstrates this concept by showing the difference between how often men interrupt other men vs. how often they interrupt women

“Early studies on interruptions and related phenomena seem to indicate a larger tendency on the part of men to interrupt in cross-sex conversations while in same-sex conversations no significant differences were found. Zimmerman/West (1975) reported the following results:

Same-sex conversations 1st Speaker 2nd Speaker Total
Overlaps 12 10 22
Interruptions 3 4 7
Cross-sex conversations Male Female Total
Overlaps 9 0 9
Interruptions 46 2 48

(based on Zimmerman/West 1975: 115-116)

Sad, but true. Another finding of a 1998 study shows not only how conversational style affects a peson’s standing in society but how that person’s standing affects the way they talk. This sentence is so packed with truth it almost made me cry/throw-up a little:

Men, the speakers of the dominant style, have more rights and privileges. They exhibit their privileges and produce them in every conversational situation. (Trömel-Plötz 1998: 447).”

These differences can be shown down to the very words we choose. Women will use words like “maybe”, “perhaps”, or qualifiers like “I think”, or “in my opinion.” If these sound like a 5th-grader’s essay it’s no coincidence (infantilization of women, I’m looking at you). Speaking and writing like this makes a person seem less confident, like he/she doesn’t know what she/he is talking about, which in turn could be taken as encouragement to speak over that person.

When I first realized this in a freshman linguistics class, I became very self-conscious about it, and have done pretty well over time in not using these words (although check out the “pretty” in that sentence… under-confident, sure, over-confident, never!)

I wonder what it would be like to have a very heated politics/religion/philosophy discussion with a group of women. I’m not sure everyone would be more tolerant and respectful; if you’re a woman and you’re having these discussions, chances are you started having them with men and learned how to argue like them. But I have a feeling they might just be. But what would be the off-side? Less bold ideas? What do you think? What are your experiences when arguing with either men or women?

13 thoughts on “The Equality Language Lab

  1. At first, I thought it might be a little bit exaggerated. But upon reflection, I have experienced this kind of interruption many times. I have been interrupted in the workplace by other women who have or think they have more status or a higher position than mine. You’re right, in a group of women, that doesn’t occur as often, so I generally prefer to be in discussion groups composed of all women. Much more pleasant and less stressful!

    1. Yeah, sometimes you don’t notice it because you’re not looking out for it, and because this is the way we have experienced things since we were born. I guarantee, if you keep your eyes open, you’ll notice the different words we use, the different tones, different body language, there’s a lot. Check out the studies that are linked in the post, they’re really revealing. I spent like 3 hrs today going from one to the next, like a Wikipedia black hole :)

      1. I will look at the studies. Thanks.

        I just watched a program on the History Channel this evening about witches. It talked about women’s place in religion in the early years of human history — the goddesses who were worshipped in almost every world religion, and how and why that changed. They talked about the women who had been healers and caretakers before the 15th century and how and why they were the first ones who ended up being accused of witchcraft. I will watch it several more times and then write about it on my blog. It was an amazing program.

      2. The history of witches is very interesting, and definitely is one of the many stories, chapters, that exemplify how gruesome the oppression of women can get. I’d like to learn more about that, definitely. Although now I’m wary about the History Channel, they do hit the spot from time to time. Sounds like a great subject for analysis.

  2. Interesting that you say, “I wonder what it would be like to have a very heated politics/religion/philosophy discussion with a group of women,” implying you haven’t experienced one of these conversations. If Dr. Tannen’s summary above holds true here, this could be because these topics tend not to get “heated” among women, since women haven’t been trained to try to “win” conversations. In my opinion (yes, I’m confident, yes, I know what I’m talking about, and no, please don’t take this as an invitation to speak over me), trying to win is about the worst thing you can do in a philosophical conversation, because, when you start trying to get the upper hand, you stop listening to the person you’re talking to and stop trying to actually communicate your ideas; instead, you’re trying to communicate the sense that you are powerful.

    As a woman who grew up having a lot of these “conversations” (arguments, really), mostly with men, I still fall back into this pattern sometimes. But following a series of particularly useless and damaging political and religious discussions, I set a goal to remove myself from any conversation that turned into an argument, or even better, restore a communicative tone.

    You can get a heck of a lot more accomplished in terms of learning, relationship-building, decision-making, and self-expression when you don’t have somebody constantly trying to come out on top.

    1. Thanks for the comment! yeah, I thought for a long time about whether I had or hadn’t had a conversation like that with women. Maybe I’ve had like 3 or so, but that doesn’t compare to the constant amount of arguments I get into with men. Every person is different, and in my case I don’t have conversations like that with women because I only have like two female friends, and they are not into this type of conversations at all.

      With female members of my family, they just skip right over subjects like these, and the minute it gets interesting, they switch to food, make up, clothes, etc. That’s really a generational thing, and I don’t think it’s necessarily always bad, sometimes there is a value to thinking about certain kinds of human interactions, but a lot of the times they are rather shallow, and I just don’t share their interests. Sometimes I’ll just talk to them about stuff like that because it’s a way to bond with them, something I enjoy.

      And you know, we have to be very careful to not always equate the “inferior” style with the feminine style and viceversa; that’s something a patriarchal society teaches us, and we should be able to rise above it and discern what’s best and what’s not. So I actually do think sometimes it’s best to say “in my opinion”, because it might just be a matter of opinion, and the fact that you say that says you’re smart and open-minded enough to know there is no right or wrong answer. So sometimes men are not being assertive and bold and awesome, sometimes they’re being pretentious assholes.

      I wholeheartedly agree with you about not focusing on getting the upper hand, that definitely should be a goal of mine, and that way to collectively achieve more as a group when these discussions arise. As a matter of fact, throughout history, philosophical, religious, political discourse would have benefitted enormously if women’s styles and input had been wholly incorporated, and we can definitely all make our lives much better if we take this into account. Thanks again!

  3. I believe a lot of women not only lack a natural desire to come out on top in a conversation. But also, I believe a lot of women have a ingrained fear of showing any kind of dominance. Especially when it comes to other women. In my most recent experience with an all female a cappella group I was writing music for this past fall. I would watch the group of them break into awkward silence whenever any controversial issue such as removing members, changing music, or demanding something be done came up. Even their ‘President’ ignored my many urges to take charge and make some decisions for her group. Needless to say after two semesters, they are the second all female group to dissolve.

    This is where I think the issue comes into play. If you don’t have a single female, in a group of 17 that is willing to attempt to be ‘right’ then what does that say about the gender as a whole? I wouldn’t expect a single one of them to want to discuss politics, religion, or anything else with any kind of fervor. Perhaps we need to look at what is happening in early childhood development to make young girls lose a sense of command and attack. We could also look to women in today’s society that aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, so to speak. We could look into their past and see what was done for them to have them develop such a radical social understanding.

    1. Thanks for the comment Jon :) I understand the situation you’re referring to, I’ve also been annoyed by a variation of this, many times. What you retell is very interesting because it connects with what we talked about in the Women in Music post. If this a cappella group were a band, they wouldn’t make it far if they’re sandbagged by untalented or irresponsible members, keep playing crappy songs because nobody dares to hurt anyone’s feelings, etc. These are all necessary steps to make basically anything work, and they all take courage. So if women don’t do that, the initial talent and potential get lost, and we end up with this current dearth of women in music.

      You also say that you “wouldn’t expect a single one of them to want to discuss politics, religion, or anything else with any kind of fervor.” So we might also ask, what happens when women self-censor themselves out of these subjects? Religion and politics are built without them, and men get free reign to create laws, moral codes, and entire institutions and systems that benefit them, not women. That’s the history of, well, of history, right there.

      It’s great that you ask these questions, that’s what’s most important. And you bring up excellent points: early childhood education, whether it is direct or subconscious, has a huge effect on every human being. That creates these ingrained responses that later on might seem “innate” and that feel natural. The problem of course, is that these social queues keep happening throughout our lives, so, say, even if a girl was raised to be assertive, courageous and autonomous, if her peers (male and female) call her a “bitch” every time she exerts this self-reliance, she’s going to get the message. She might decide to ignore it, or she might choose to conform. We all know which is more likely; the need to conform is universal and quite powerful. Thanks again :)

      1. I think my take on this may be different… or it may not. I definitely started out as a very shy child, with other girls as well as boys. In my young adulthood, I spent a huge amount of time studying communication techniques, because I wanted to be heard and understood. I learned that there is no absolute right and no absolute wrong in any argument. It’s ALL about the way we individually see and interpret things — it’s ALL a matter of opinion. I gained substantial courage in communication and am rarely afraid to speak my mind, be it about politics, sports or anything else. When I am involved in arguments, with men or women, I do not see myself as one down. Unless I am citing proven facts, I do say “in my opinion.” Even “proven facts” can be disputable, depending on who came up with them, and how. I have compiled statistics in my work, and have seen how they can be manipulated to prove whatever someone wants to prove. In an argument or discussion, when someone says they are “right” and tries to make my point “wrong,” I generally withdraw and go do something else. It’s just not worth it to argue with someone who is so hard-headed, they can’t be respectful and acknowledge the other person’s point.

  4. I have found that American society is becoming more and more rude, and less and less able to effectively and respectfully communicate, as time goes on. The art of conversation, if indeed it ever existed outside of the realm of ideals, has been all but lost, and the increase of text-based communication has only made this worse. I suppose I differ from everyone who’s already commented here, but I’ve encountered men and women alike who frequently interrupt and try to “win” arguments and debates. I have also observed a sort of “masculinization” of women, in which women are learning from and taking on the more negative and destructive traits that are typically characteristic of men (though in no way biological), such as aggression and dominance, and, well, this conversational rudeness of which you speak. While it would be preferable that society place a greater value on cultivating more of the feminine aspect, ie that men learn to be more receptive and yielding (traits that should be valued as constructive and respectful), and learn to communicate using phrases like “I think”, “in my opinion”, “maybe”, etc (these are wonderful phrases, no?), instead I see more and more women instead taking on more of the masculine aspect, and definitely not always for the better. I suspect that if that linguistic study you cited from 1975 were repeated again now, the results would be less divergent. Are women forced into doing this to ensure social survival? “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”?

    1. That’s a great point you make: the results of that study today would be more equal, but probably in a worse way, right? we would want there to be less interruptions in general, but we would find that both women and men interrupt each other a lot now. How sad.. This might come from a type of feminism that instead of finding the inherent value in women, it’s women finding value in themselves only after they have adopted male characteristics, and that’s the only way they will feel they have value. So when you think about it, this accomplishes nothing. It’s like women who feel very liberated and feminist because they don’t shy away from going to a stripclub or watching porn with their boyfriends, because they want to be the cool “man’s woman”.
      I also like a lot what you point out, that “it would be preferable that society place a greater value on cultivating more of the feminine aspect” in a lot of areas, especially in dialogue (maybe avoid a lot of wars?). I’m becoming more and more convinced of this, and especially since writing this post, becoming more aware of these communication styles, when I use them right, and when I don’t (which is not uncommon…). For a long time, I did many things that were “manly” because I thought they made me “better” or “cooler” or something, because I consciously or unconsciously saw that greater value was assigned to them. So, for example, for a while I got really into soccer, and I was a “great” drinker and ate whatever garbage I felt like, because it seemed to me that eating healthy was all dainty and boringly lady-like. Pretty sad people actually do this (and kind of weird, actually, that self-destructiveness is considered “manly”). So in the same way, for a while, and for a lot of women still, we see that powerful people, in most cases male, have conversations emphasizing dominance and trying to “win” arguments, so we think this is the “right” way to argue, because society has told us so, and we never questioned it.
      The problem is exactly what you’re hinting at: if philosophical/political topics interest you, and you want to discuss it with people, those people are overwhelmingly going to be men. If women were also interested in these topics (or expressed it) in equal numbers, but went at them differently and more collaboratively, that would be awesome, and there would be no reason to switch to this more aggressive style. But unfortunately, if you’re a woman talking “like a woman” with a bunch of men, chances are you won’t get to speak much and you’ll get shot down rather quick. So what do you do? you learn to argue like them. And, regardless, you gain a lot from it, I know I have. But we should all be better than that and learn to speak constructively like human beings, regardless of gender (constructions).

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