Talking Heads

It has lately been brought to my attention that I speak differently than a woman. That wasn’t really a surprise, or anything -I mean, of course I do. I also dress differently, but that’s not what’s being pointed out -it’s just my speech, apparently. And yet, apart from the obvious pitch problems that I find myself unable to efficiently modulate, it was never my intention to discriminate. And I don’t want to stand out in a crowd -or, for that matter, create one either.

In fairness, though, the issue seems to stretch back into antiquity. Women have always spoken differently than their male companions: things like indirect or tentative answers, use of past tenses, or using questions as non-commands: the “Do you think we could…” or the “I was wondering if you’d mind if…” These, instead of “I want you to…” or “Have it on my desk before you leave!”

I have to say, I’ve never thought of gendered dialogue in those terms before, although they’re often readily apparent if you listen for them. I gather that not many other people have noticed, either -until recently, that is. In fact, it would seem that one of the first linguists to notice and study it was University of California Berkeley Professor of Linguistics Robin Lakoff (now Emerita) who published a book Language and Woman’s Place back in 1975.

I suppose that we habituate to things that seem commonplace around us, things that have always been the way they are until somebody, a stranger maybe, wonders about it.

We have grown so accustomed to the difference that when it is employed by the ‘wrong’ side, the disparity is glaring -and for some, annoying. Irritating. It’s almost as if there is a class structure in play with one side expected to behave deferentially to the other. And if they don’t, there are repercussions: assumptions of undeserved usurpation of authority, frequently alluded to in hurtful, gendered epithets, or sexual innuendoes. There are, it would seem, glass ceilings in both communication and social structures.

I have to admit that I first heard about this in a CBC Ideas podcast. The host, Paul Kennedy was interviewing Dr. Laura Hare on her PhD thesis about female speech patterns in the original text of the Hebrew bible (Old Testament). It would seem that women then used words and language patterns that were deferential to men. Probably the most flagrant example in that text of a female crossing the boundary by using decidedly male language was Queen Jezebel. She, of course, was characterized as evil and killed. The very fact that an important woman had violated convention no doubt contributed to her story being included in the Bible -as a warning, perhaps; certainly not as a role model.

But her example merely opens the curtains on a previously dark room. A solitary prisoner escaping from Plato’s cave.

*

You can learn a lot about yourself on a bus you know. Conversations are sometimes inevitable, although uninvited. I had managed to find a seat next to a window on a rapidly filling bus when an elderly lady plumped herself down beside me guarding an enormous blue canvas purse that she held prisoner on her lap. She wore a long, fading red coat and her greying hair, although at one time likely bobby-pinned in place, was now in regal disarray.

I tried not to notice, but the dimensions of the blue sack demanded a considerable overlap into my space. The woman, though, seemed not to notice its trespass and proceeded to rummage about in its innards on exploratory dives, surfacing every so often both for air, and to warn me off.

Finally, when I felt something hard in it knock me in the waist, I felt I should at least acknowledge her search with a forgiving smile. But she was unrepentant, and grilled me with suspicious eyes.

“That’s quite a purse,” I said, more to break the ice than anything.

“It’s where I live,” she muttered after a more thorough raking with her cold brown eyes.

I thought her metaphor delightful and broadened my smile, but that only hardened her expression. “I’m sorry,” I managed to say under the unremitting glare of her face. “I didn’t mean to…”

“Forget it,” she mumbled and dived back into her purse again like an otter. This time she seemed determined to find whatever it was and constantly knocked something against my leg.

I tried to move strategically out of the way of her constantly moving fingers, but they continued to gnaw away at something inside the bag no matter my efforts to escape. Finally, my patience wearing thin, I sighed and stared at the moving blue creature that seemed intent on encroachment. “I was wondering if perhaps it might help if we traded seats, ma’am,” I said as politely as I could.

She stared at me for a moment, considering the offer. “No, you stay there… or, actually, just squeeze over towards the window for a moment so I’ll have more room to search,” she added imperiously. No please, or thank you; I had been effectively commodified. Livestocked.

I didn’t like the way she said it, but I was on a bus, and trapped in a window seat that had only a limited squeeze range. “I’m not sure I have much room left. Do you think you could try turning the bag over, or something -redistribute the contents maybe…?”

I watched her eyes drift towards me like crinkled leaves floating on a slowly moving stream. “I’m looking for something, mister,” she said, impatiently. “Just be patient.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“I’m getting off at the next stop anyway,” she interrupted. “Pull the cord for me, will you?” she added, pointing to the little wire running loosely above the window.

I did what I was told, of course -anything to get the lumpy bag off my leg- and for the first time she smiled. “It’s a big heavy bag,” she muttered grumpily as she gathered it into a more carriable form.

“Hope I didn’t get in your way too much,” I said, trying to sound conciliatory, and thinking she had perhaps made a feeble attempt at apology. “I hope you find what you were looking for…”

She got to her feet, her smile now a sad remnant on an aging face lined with hardship, and I watched her hobble to the door, trying to manage the unmanageable bag as best she could.

It occurred to me then just how differently we speak to each other across the divide, although I’m not sure which side I’m standing on anymore…

 

 

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The Cloth of Words

Sometimes I wax nostalgic. Sometimes communication itself seems drab, with none of the makeup, none of the panache that identifies it as the look of someone I have grown to know.  Emails, like strangers in standard-issue suits, knock at my door then talk from the other side of the threshold, neither wishing nor invited to enter. They were hired for the job -messengers only; they do not expect a handshake or a hug, only an acknowledgement of delivery. And whether or not you are thankful for their service, or acquiesce to whatever their graphemes convey, is nothing to them.

It is everything to me, however. Often, if I cannot look into the eyes of whoever writes, I do not know their thoughts -there are too few clues to allow me into their head. A typed sentence, however thoughtfully composed, can disguise a world of difference, hide be-clothed thoughts, and without a face, is no more helpful than a dictionary.

Perhaps it is just my age that asks for more than words… and yet maybe there is more to know about a word than how it is defined, or whether it is polite. I do not care so much about the grammar or whether it is properly spelled, as I do about its intent. Information is more than message; it is often more than just the tapped collection of recognizable phonemes strung together across the screen. ‘Words, words, words’, Shakespeare’s Hamlet answers when asked what he is reading by Polonius. There are times when that’s all they are -hardly more.

But at least in those days, they were likely handwritten in cursive, marred by hasty smudges, the ink itself affected by whatever visible trembling the message caused. Readable as much by appearance as by content, in other words. That the writer actually touched the page as they felt the emotion they’ve conveyed, is one of the ineffable attributes of a handwritten note.

Recently, while cleaning out a cardboard box stuffed in the corner of a little-used closet, I found a wrinkled envelope written with now-faded ink in a hand that made a chill run down my spine. It was a letter written to me just after I first went away to university a thousand years ago. The writing was unmistakably my mother’s, with her carefully tailored ‘b’s and precisely dotted ‘i’s, the loop of her ‘q’s a set distance below the line to precisely match those of her ‘y’s and identical in length to the downward stroke of the ‘p’ -Grade school exactitude, like she had taught me and her students so many years ago.

In those days I had required lines to guide me horizontally across the page without any hint of slope -it’s how we were marked. It’s how she marked, at any rate. But, of course, she no longer had need of lined paper after so many years… and yet, lines were how I remembered her notes to me. I always assumed they were reminders of proper form: Address at the top right hand side of the page, and then the ‘Dear’, one line below that on the left (or sometimes two lines, as if she were granting me that styles were changing).

Maybe that’s why this letter was so unusual: it was unlined, and her customary measured loops and dips were erratic, although still readable. At times they seemed hurried -like she needed to get to what she wanted to say, but had to prepare things first. Prepare me

She had surrendered to custom and was using a ballpoint pen by that time, but even though the ink flowed freely from its tip, I could see areas on the page where she had dug it more deeply into the paper as if she had been tempted to underline a word for emphasis, but had thought better of it.

I suppose anyone else simply glancing at the page would have judged it neat, and yet I could tell as soon as I opened it that there was something wrong. Everything was in the correct order, and in a quick peek at the bottom of the page, I saw the reassuring ‘Love, Mom.’ in its designated place, but with far more than the requisite number of ‘xo’s lining the space below the ‘Mom’.

And she still used my childhood nickname, but it looked forced, artificial -as if the news she was about to tell me demanded an adult name, an adult tone. I was, after all, a grown-up now in university, and no longer living at home. I sensed she hesitated over her choice, but wanted –needed– to maintain a mother’s reassurance to her little boy. We were still a family, no matter where I lived.

‘I tried to phone you several times,’ it started, ‘but I suppose you are at evening classes a lot, and there’s been nobody around to answer the phone in your room. So I decided to write.’ Her words were becoming hurried, I could tell, because the spaces between them were decreasing. She even forgot to dot an ‘I’ which, as I’ve suggested, is almost anathema to her.

I raced through the letter, more and more distressed by what I saw.

‘You know how much we all loved Boots,’ was when it hit me, and the tears started. The past tense! The dog I had grown up with, slept with, taken with me on innumerable walks, the dog who was as much ‘me’ as my reflection in the mirror, whose warmth I could still feel, whose eyes forgave me whatever I’d done -the dog whose tongue I can still feel all these many years later… Past tense!

‘He had been slowing down, remember, sweetheart? You used to carry him up the steps to bring him inside.’ There was something resembling a smudge on the page, but I couldn’t be sure -ballpoint ink doesn’t readily smear- but nonetheless, I remember touching the page in that spot just to check.

‘Dad put him on his blanket a few nights ago, and he must have died in his sleep, because he was gone when we woke up the next morning.’ Then she started a new line, so I’d understand how important it was. ‘His face was wonderfully peaceful, and he looked the way he used to when he had just fallen asleep as a puppy: relaxed and happy that things had gone so well.’

Even now, reading the wrinkled note, I felt the tears welling up again. Some things you just can’t help. Some things are more than just the words. More than just the message…

When I was at home, I was in a better place

I am a railway child -or, more specifically, I am the child of a railway father. And as a result the family was transferred to a new location every few years; I have lived in almost every province of Canada at one time or other, so home for me was always a shifting target -a work in progress. Even now, if anyone asks me where home is, I have to think. Is it where I live right now? The place I lived the longest? Or maybe my favourite house…? You wouldn’t think it would be that difficult; I don’t imagine it is for most people, and maybe that’s why they ask. Home, according to the English anthropologist Mary Douglas, ‘is always a localisable idea. Home is located in space but it is not necessarily a fixed space… It need not be a large space, but space there must be, for home starts by bringing some space under control.’ I suppose I’ve controlled many spaces, but it’s just that I’m being asked to choose.

The idea of Home has always been elusive for me; I have usually felt orphaned -or perhaps  foster-homed would be a better way to describe it. I lived with loving parents in pleasant houses that, just as I was beginning to feel ownership, were snatched away along with any roots I had put down or friends with whom I had shared some time, however briefly.

I mention this because of an essay in Aeon.com that caught my eye: https://aeon.co/essays/what-does-home-mean-if-your-bed-is-on-the-pavements-of-paris It was written by Johannes Lenhard, a research associate and coordinator at the Max Planck Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change. He did two years of ethnographic research on people living on the streets of Paris who had no fixed abode. As such, one would assume that they had no place they regarded as ‘home’, and yet that would be wrong.

As Lenhard writes, ‘homelessness is very much the product of the malfunction of social, economic and welfare systems, paired with life events such as mental or physical illness, divorce, death and domestic violence. But what might surprise outsiders is that the people I met on the street often didn’t think of themselves as abject or suffering.’ Often, in fact, they ‘were actively struggling to make homes on the street, both literally and symbolically, not simply sitting still. Focusing on the negative and stifled experiences of the homeless invariably produces an incomplete picture, and obscures the creative and resourceful practices that people deploy to deal with their situation.’ Those people ‘on the streets of Paris were striving – in their own ways – towards being better selves’ and Lenhard ‘came to understand the activities, processes and routines that they [the street people] engaged in – begging, making a shelter, accessing temporary housing, etc – as practices of the self geared towards a better life, as practices of homemaking on the street, as practices of hope.’ And, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault said, the self is ‘not given to us … we have to create ourselves as a work of art’.

The hardest thing, I suspect, is imagining how a person living on the streets month after month, year after year, could still be aiming for a fulfilled life -for a home. Lenhard quotes something the American anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly wrote in her book, The Paradox of Hope, about chronically ill people in the United States. Interestingly, it applies equally to the so-called homeless people of his study: ‘Hope most centrally involves the practice of creating, or trying to create, lives worth living even in the midst of suffering, even with no happy ending in sight.’

Home, therefore, could also be somewhere, not in the present ‘but about one’s hopes, about making home [in] an imagined place where one has not yet arrived.’ Home making, then, is a process, ‘involving the material and the imaginative, social connections and mundane acts. Routines, habits and rhythms – often as simple as regularly visiting certain neighbourhoods, shelters and food kitchens…’ That can be home.

Maybe that’s why the young man who always seemed to be sitting with his dog on a busy street corner near my office, seemed so surprised one day when I asked him where his home was. Every day when I walked past him, he smiled at me like we were old friends. I suppose we were, really. For months, I’d made a point of putting any loose change I had in my pocket into the little tin at his feet -and yet he’d smile even when I didn’t contribute anything. He seemed as happy that I even noticed him each time I passed -most didn’t, he told me one time.

I suppose I was as intrigued by his dog, an old black lab that always wagged his tail at me, as I was by the boy. Anybody who can care for a dog is someone I can care for, so we sometimes talked. Nothing too personal, of course -I didn’t want to embarrass him- but both of us were curious about each other, I could tell.

We knew each other’s names: his was Brian, and his dog was Jeffrey -not ‘Jeff’ mind you, Jeffrey. He was quite adamant about that -he never told me why, nor why he’d chosen the particular corner where he sat, for that matter, although I suspect there are rules. Territories. Spaces available that are controllable for a while -until they aren’t… I never asked about that.

But I was curious about where they went at night. It wouldn’t be a safe space then, nor, for that matter was it ever sheltered in the rain. Brian and Jeffrey had not been there the previous winter, and on rainy days there was a space open on the concrete where they weren’t…

And yet when I asked him about his home he merely smiled, hugged his dog, and looked up at me as if the very question meant I could never understand: I had never lived like him -like them. They were a Magisterium apart. But, as I watched the two of them together, happy in the moment, I think I finally understood what Foucault had meant. Brian, I think, would be happy with that, too…

In fair round belly with good capon lined

Once an obstetrician, always an obstetrician. I am recently retired, admittedly, but I nonetheless carry with me the joys and expectations of those days -everything from a mother’s sudden, relieved smile, to the first cry of her baby as it emerges wet and glistening from her birth canal. No less, the gradual changes in the woman herself as she evolves from Girl to Mother as the being she carries develops in the inexorable way of life. A time when her self-image expands to an us-image, and the mirror -once no friend, perhaps- becomes a welcome calendar of change: a map on the journey.

None were more surprised, I think, than Julia. I had first seen her, in my dual role as gynaecologist, for various adolescent challenges as she worked her way through her formative years. She was always an attractive, although excessively thin woman, and yet she continued to worry about her figure. In fact, I worried she was teetering on the edge of an eating disorder, and each successive time I saw her, she seemed to be staring even more intently into an abyss. Eventually, despite multiple attempts at specialist referrals, she disappeared from my practice for several years.

She resurfaced one summer, a changed woman. Now in the mid-trimester of her first pregnancy, she glowed with the prospect of motherhood, and seemed delighted in her new and ever-changing shape. No longer the angular stick-figure of her early years, gently flowing curves now softened her hips and rounded her growing abdomen. Each time I saw her, the smile on her face had grown as well.

“It’s all very interesting, don’t you think?” she asked me, one time as she neared her delivery date.

“What’s interesting, Julia?” I said, as I measured her abdomen and checked the position of the baby inside.

“The roundness…”

I smiled. “The baby, you mean?”

She shrugged. “Everything…” Her voice trailed off as she thought about it some more. “I used to like all of the angles in my body. I used to think it was beautiful to see my hip bones when I was in a bathing suit…” Her smile enlarged and suddenly she giggled. “Interesting, eh?”

I suppose we’re all biased against one thing or another, aren’t we? At my age, though, it’s hard to keep track anymore. I seem to blunder into something whichever way I turn, no matter my intent. I have no quarrel with political correctness, or anything -I am quite happy to be correct- it’s just that, well, some of this stuff is invisible at first or even second glance. Effectively camouflaged in the background of my everyday life, it’s a Where’s Waldo that’s getting harder and harder to solve.

Maybe I should watch more YouTube, or follow the news on Facebook more closely, because (blush) I do neither. Of course, that’s how you learn about what’s trending in the biasphere -if you really care, that is. I suspect I don’t. I just try to be polite and considerate to all and sundry; only occasionally does my naïveté surface to any noticeable, and hopefully harmless, extent.

So I have to confess, to being caught amidships with an essay in the BBC Future series that somehow makes its way unaided to my inbox from time to time: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20181115-anti-fat-bias-round-shapes-are-sold-to-overweight-customers It would seem that we all have cleverly disguised anti-fat biases -and were I a salesman, I would apparently be less likely to meet the eyes or smile at someone of that persuasion.

And, believe it or not, ‘An undercover shopping experiment has now shown that this  bias even extends to the shapes of products that customers are recommended: customers of a greater weight are encouraged to buy rounder items… the researchers found that when wearing [a] prosthesis [to make the actor seem obese], the actor was recommended rounder watches and rounder bottles of perfume… Online experiments with study participants who weren’t shop assistants confirmed the bias Vallen [the study author Beth Vallen, a researcher at Villanova University in the US] and her colleagues measured in the real-life setting. Participants were shown a picture of a potential customer and asked to recommend products, selecting from pairs of images that were either round or angular. “We wanted to show that this was a bias that reflects the thoughts and decisions processes of all people, not just sales people,” says Vallen. This turned out to be the case: they found the same effect of matching rounder products to people with a higher BMI. It also held across different types of products – from watches to mirrors, lamps and candles. And it happened whether the imaginary customer was male or female.’

I must live in a protected bubble, I guess. My watch, for example is round -I didn’t think they came any other way, to tell the truth. Anyway, ‘The bias goes beyond an urge to match people of a particular body type with a particular shape of product… it is the stereotypes associated with the product and the people that are at play. In particular, one stereotype is that overweight people are friendlier. Rounded shapes are also seen as friendlier.’ Come on, eh? ‘actors were recommended more rounded products when they were smiling than when they were stern-faced – an effect that held whether they were wearing a body prosthesis or not.’

This rather idiosyncratic finding seemed to take the researchers by surprise: ‘“We don’t find any evidence that overweight people themselves prefer round products, or that normal weight people prefer angular products,” says Vallen.’

So is this telling us anything important -other than that grant money must be getting easier to come by? It made me remember the Julia of so many years ago, and I wondered whether or not Vallen might be on to something -something so ancient that it was locked, like Bluebeard’s secret, in a room we had not dared to enter in all these years. When I think of Julia, I can appreciate what Vallen may have inadvertently uncovered. But, far from the horrors of Bluebeard’s skeletons, it may be an atavism that can speak to us in modern times: maybe rounded shapes are somehow friendlier…