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…

 

 

Aboriginal Women Deserve a Public Inquiry.

We Canadians have always been proud of ourselves; we are a democratic society ruled by the will of the people. We vote and the majority governs, represents our interests, and crafts the laws accordingly -or does it? We have a say in what happens in our several levels of government –a voice in what is done to us… Unless we are a minority. Then we must depend upon the goodwill of those in power to understand and protect our interests. We must trust that, in their blinkered majority, they will not abuse us. Neglect us. Forget us.

But suppose they do. Suppose they surround themselves with their own advisors and see the world through their own lenses, their own authority, their own priorities? Suppose they don’t even understand that anyone could see things differently..? History, after all, is written by the victors, and culture by the dominant.

A case in point is the growing concern in Canada over a series of  missing and murdered aboriginal women –over 1000 in the past 30 years: http://www.nwac.ca/files/download/NWAC_3D_Toolkit_e_0.pdf

There have been various attempts to address the problems of  our First Nations –from a 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1307458586498/1307458751962 ) which did not address the issue of the missing women, to a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Task Force in 2011 (http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/pubs/mmaw-faapd-eng.pdf ) which apparently did…

But the problem remains and the perception that it is not really being addressed is building. In fairness, though, solutions are not only complex, but also expensive and so excuses are rife and rationalizations abundant. Missing women –murdered women- are crimes, not sociological phenomena, says the Prime Minister. Then why are aboriginal women –only one of several minorities in Canada- over-represented in the list, says the other side? An inquiry will tell us nothing new so we should put the money  into solving the problem instead, says the government. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/chelsea-vowel/missing-and-murdered-women_b_5729738.html?utm_hp_ref=email_share  The cheque’s in the mail in other words; we’re looking into it -you might get it tomorrow… Maybe.

And on and on it goes –I am reminded of Macbeth’s Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time…  Authority versus Minority. Civitas versus Communitas

But hold on; I think both sides are missing something: a conversation closes when one side or the other is adamant that only their view is the correct one.  Dialogue is an exchange of ideas on a particular issue whose aim should be to reach a consensus, an amicable settlement agreeable to both sides. Dialogue is communal, discursive at times, but inclusive. It does not stem from authority, nor resort to it especially when all have not been heard.

Autonomy -the right to make an informed choice- is a difficult issue in politics, of course. And because in this context choice usually involves large groups of people, there has to be an accommodation, an appreciation of how any decision might affect the well-being of the rest of the population. It has to be fair, in other words. But more than that, it has to be seen to be fair. And for that to occur, the issue cannot always be resolved by simply resorting to a vote. The majority and its own world-view bias will always win. Some things require discussion. Consensus. Open, accessible and representative input from all affected parties.

A Public Inquiry, by its very nature, invites public participation -a dialogue between those in power and those who aren’t- and a chance for all who are interested to have a say, voice their own opinions. It is healing to be heard –especially for a minority. To discuss things openly and publically often exposes underlying issues that need addressing: poverty, access to services, educational gaps, cultural safety, discrimination… A problem that has been swept under a carpet of denial or ignorance cannot be solved until it is uncovered for all –not just the minority affected- to see and appreciate.

I have discussed relational autonomy in a previous essay. It involves considering information in the cultural context, societal values, and the community needs of the groups involved. It is the expectation of cultural safety that will allow the people to express those needs without fear of ridicule or disdain. And it is what a representative democracy should encourage. Nothing less will do.

It seems to me that we all need to sit around a table somewhere and talk with –not at– each other. Remember Summer Camp when we were kids? As soon as the lights were turned off and the adults had left, we regaled outselves for hours with stories and discussions about what really mattered. Everybody had something to say, and everybody listened. We felt heard; we felt known. And slowly, by the end of the week, no matter our differences and annoying ideosyncrasies, we felt bonded in a community. Although we still remained individuals with different pasts and different futures, and although there were still disagreements we were, at least, no longer strangers. And, if the need arose, we could talk again – and actually listen. Friends can do that.