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…

 

 

Advertisements

Words without thoughts never to heaven go

I don’t very often get involved with ‘causes’. It’s not that I don’t believe that some things are sufficiently important that they deserve special attention, I think it’s more that my enthusiasm tends to get in the way if I’m not careful and obscures the ultimate goals I’m seeking to achieve.

It first became obvious in my undergraduate years in University when I took it upon myself to raise the membership of the chess club to which I belonged. There were only about ten of us in the club, but it became so stratified that the really expert players stopped attending our Wednesday night games because the rest of us were so easily beaten. And as the numbers dwindled, so did our Wednesday night meetings. Eventually, only three of us could be counted on to attend.

It was in those awkward days before the Internet, and so I decided that the three of us should make some posters advertising the club and tape them up across campus. I was taking some courses in psychology at the time, and I thought we could take advantage subtle behavioural manipulators like colour and shape to attract interest. I decided we should use a deep-purple paper because it is usually associated with royalty, and a really large, flesh coloured pawn to show that even the least of us were important -I thought that featuring a bishop or a knight would just confuse people who weren’t acquainted with the game. And over the pawn, written diagonally in huge dripping blood-red letters, the word ‘CHESS’. To me at least, the symbolism was obvious and jarring: chess was a way to become powerful and exact revenge, even if in real life, you were actually a milquetoast. And, at the very bottom of the poster in tiny but bright yellow lettering, I added neatly printed instructions as to when and where we held our meetings. We put the posters up all over the campus -especially in the cafeterias where the freshies seemed to congregate.

I was really proud of my effort: it was both succinct and visually commanding. All three of us met the following Wednesday, each bringing our own chess sets from home to meet the expected demand.

I suppose it was a bit of a success –three new people showed up, although one of them said she’d just been walking by and wondered why all the lights were on in the usually dimly-lit lounge. A six-person club was an improvement, I guess, but I still couldn’t understand why the posters hadn’t commanded more interest. A few weeks later, one of my non-chess playing friends happened to mention seeing the posters, and I asked her what she thought of them.

I remember she hesitated before answering. “Well…” she started, obviously choosing her words carefully. “It attracted my attention, but…” A worried look crept over her face.

“But…?” I tried not to look hurt, but I’ve never been very good at disguising my emotions.

She attempted a little embarrassed smile, but I could see that she was sorry she’d brought up the subject. “Well… I thought that the way the word ‘chess’ was written suggested…” Another hesitation. “Uhmm… violence.”

I softened my expression, and then tried to smile as if I wasn’t offended.

“And that flesh-coloured thing -Judy told me it was a pawn, or whatever- but it looked more like a…” She suddenly glanced at something on the wall behind me, hoping I wouldn’t notice she was blushing.

“You’re saying I didn’t make my point?” I chuckled at how she’d read it.

She finally rested her eyes gently on my cheek, and reached across the table for my hand. “Well, it didn’t make me want to join, or anything…”

It made me realize that merely attracting attention was not sufficient. Nor was the assumption that creating an emotional response would necessarily entice people who were otherwise busy with their own lives.

A while ago, I remember listening to an audio podcast on the CBC Ideas program hosted by Paul Kennedy, that featured the well-credentialed environmentalist Graham Saul. His thesis was that despite the gloom of an impending global climatic catastrophe, there seemed to be little decisive action being taken to prevent it. He wondered whether or not the problem was one of messaging: that, unlike other successful movements, there seemed to be no single coherent message around which people or the media could rally. With the women’s movement, for example, equality is perhaps the dominant theme -a word that expresses the hopes and expectations of half of the world’s population. It’s much like freedom as the rallying cry for the abolitionist movement, or independence for the many anti-colonialists factions.

But what is a word that could unite the hydra-headed segments of the environmentalist movement -let alone draw attention to the need for urgent action on climate change? I’ve appended a link to his talk: https://metcalffoundation.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/2018-10-10-Environmentalists-what-are-we-fighting-for-web.pdf

As he said, words matter. ‘Great social movements use powerful words to sum up their ultimate goals— words like freedom, equality, liberty, and independence. People participating in those movements take many paths and approach the issue from many directions, but these words, and the ideas that they represent, are like north stars leading society out of the ethical fog and guiding people in a common and righteous direction.’

He interviewed 116  leaders in their fields who were either directly or indirectly involved in the environmental movement. When he ‘asked interviewees to sum up the ultimate goal of past social movements there was overwhelming consensus on the words as well as agreement that words played a very important role in helping the public understand what those movements were fighting for.’ But, ‘ When [he] asked interviewees to sum up what environmentalists are fighting for, the answers were far more diverse and people were generally unsatisfied with their answers. Most did not think that their own choice of words would clearly convey, for the general public, the goal of the modern environmental movement… There was no one word or expression—like equality—that clearly dominated the answers. The three most frequently mentioned concepts were survival (22% of respondents), sustainability (14%), and justice (9%)’ All the words are undoubtedly important, of course, and yet somehow -like my long-ago poster- failed to encapsulate the overall need, the universal importance -in short, they failed to resonate.

And it’s not just in the verbal realm that resonance is required. I was interested to learn that photography could also cause a very visceral stimulus to action, but only if it, too, captured more than mere curiosity -more than simply rubbernecking an accident as we surfed through the pictures: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20181115-why-climate-change-photography-needs-a-new-look

As the  author of the article wrote, ‘Climate change has an inherent image problem. While you can clearly visualise plastic pollution or deforestation, climate change has a less obvious mugshot: the gases that cause global warming, such as carbon dioxide and methane, are colourless, while impacts are slow-paced and not always visually striking.’ And traditional climate images just aren’t that compelling -even skinny, lonely-looking polar bears on shrinking icebergs.

So ‘psychologist Adam Corner, director of Climate Visuals, a project that aims to revitalise climate imagery’ commissioned an online survey, as well as convening panels in London and Berlin. The conclusion was that ‘people were more likely to empathise with images that showed real faces – such as workers installing solar panels, emergency respondents helping victims of a typhoon or farmers building more efficient irrigation systems to combat drought. It also helped when photographs depicted settings that were local or familiar to the viewer, and when they showed emotionally powerful impacts of climate change.’

Interestingly, the chess club didn’t ask me to do any additional advertising for them. As a matter of fact, the three new members convinced us that we didn’t really need more than six in the club -and would we please take down the posters?

I still think the pawn was clever, though…