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…