feminine discourse
April 28, 2003 05:49 PM

The [first since we brought the site back up] question I raised to the WHB group this week is on the subject of "feminine" vs. "masculine" styles of debate and communication.

Do these differences in debate style even exist? Neither all men nor all women communicate according to certain patterns. Patterns may be detectable, but I wonder how useful that even is - does it matter if women are more likely to communicate a certain way, or is it most significant that people discuss things differently? The answer is that it matters because we've given it airplay. So, in beating ourselves over the heads with the idea that there are differences between men and women on the communication front, we could in effect create these differences.

Something to think about.

Kerri and a few others who've answered this question already have noted their English class experiences - being told, for instance, that couching an opinion in soft words ("I feel", "I think", "You may disagree, but...") is a weak mode of speech. My perspective is different. I never heard that lecture in school, and instead heard the dual lectures of "you don't have to tell me it's your opinion; this is a debate afterall" [debate, high school] and "people need to differentiate between fact and opinion" [business, college, life in general]. Kerri and I are both women, we're both annoyed by the idea of "soft, feminine" arguments - in completely different ways. [And we express that annoyance in different ways, too.]

I'm annoyed that a mode of stating opinion as opinion is equated with weak arguments at all. That's preposterous. I'm positively pissed that these weak arguments are then attributed to a feminine communication style.

It's no surprise that young feminists (as Vic alluded) would want to avoid thinking in terms of this sort of difference at all, if their experience teaches the "masculine" mode is the acceptable one, encouraged by academia and politics. And here I have to give credit to my business education for teaching a more practical mode of argument, where allowing for or glazing over disagreement is a strategy, not an accident of your gender.

Posing this question happens to coincide with my reading of Jordynn's blog essay, which discusses the communication modes of feminists in the context of feminist communities. Something she said about the invitational mode of the collab resonates with my feelings on this issue; essentially, that the non-confrontational approach to discussion, though seemingly lacking in passion, helps foster mild shifts in opinion. The collab wasn't intentionally formed along one line of feminist community building or another, but the heart of this is true. Mild shifts are my goal. I hold that mild shifts in opinion are the most useful - that's the rate at which social change happens.

And I like to think practically - so, if my purpose is to change someone's opinion, I tend to adopt a non-confrontational mode of argument, ask leading questions, and work towards consensus. There are times, of course, when I argue simply for the sheer joyous logic of it all, but those occur in a context in which I may not even argue my own perspective. And there are other times when the goal is simply distribution; this is my opinion, and you will hear it, with no concern over whether it sways you. I use myself as an example, but the point is that these modes of debate are not constrained by gender.

Yet men and women do, in the context of traditional gender roles, communicate differently. Robert Bly, for instance, talks constantly about the different speeds of men's and women's thinking mid-conversation. The Men/Mars/Women/Venus guy, the crazed ladies who wrote The Rules, and a host of other individuals of varying credibility has weighed in on the subject, almost always in the context of heterosexual relationships. Each book read individually seems to speak an aspect of truth. But. What I find most interesting about all of it is that you don't see one single message, one clear pattern of differences between men and women. In fact, if you read enough of these books, they manage to simultaneously conflict and blend together, ultimately approaching the message that the Women's Way of communicating (whatever that is) is the right one, the properly feeling one, for relationships. Convenient, considering women are more likely to buy those books. [I suppose this means everything balances out after a fashion; if women are better at relationship talk and men are better at debate, then it's all good. Or conversely, women are soft and feely and men are good at that important "serious" conversation stuff. Excuse me for breathing.]

The conclusion I draw from this is that men and women don't have to communicate in gendered ways at all, but we've managed to convince ourselves we do. It lends more mystery to the interaction between genders. It's also getting more out of date in a world where gender and sexuality are getting blurrier.

I think, as Vic said, the solution is in training people to communicate with other people - in a way that allows for interpretations of different styles and encourages us to see the value in different modes of discourse. There is no one way to argue or one way to discuss one's feelings; we all ought to know that by now.

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these are the thoughts of zip codes on September 6, 2003 03:50 AM
















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