I posted my electronic records essay this morning - thank the gods - and so have finally gotten around to writing about The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages by Deborah Cameron, as promised many moons ago. It was very kindly sent to me by Oxford University Press before Christmas and has been rattling round my brain ever since I finished it. It probably comes as no surprise that a book exposing the erroneous claims about gender difference in popular science and self-help manuals went down well with me.
But let's begin with an excerpt from a different book, The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain by Simon Baron-Cohen:
People with the female brain make the most wonderful counsellors, primary school teachers, nurses, carers, therapists, social workers, mediators, group facilitators or personnel staff... People with the male brain make the most wonderful scientists, engineers, mechanics, technicians, musicians, architects, electricians, plumbers, taxonomists, catalogists, bankers, toolmakers, programmers or even lawyers.
If you had to make a guess as to when said book was written, what would you venture? I was shocked to discover that it was published, by an imprint of a major publishing house, as recently as 2003. Deborah Cameron is shocked too. She is taken back to her school days when 'the aptitude tests we had to take before being interviewed by a careers advisor were printed on pink or blue paper. In those days we called this sexism, not science.'
As she points out Baron-Cohen's book is not just a postcard from the nutty fringe. On the contrary, it is just one of a raft of popular science and sociology books that tout a fundamental, biological difference in the way that men and women think and communicate. (A prize for the worst titled goes to Why Men Don't Iron: The Fascinating and Unalterable Differences between Men and Women by Anne and Bill Moir.) The rich old granddaddy of the genre is, of course, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray. This book, which has sold millions of copies world-wide, mines a deep seam of sexism in Western culture (directed against both men and women), and taps into popular wisdoms about what men and women are and ever shall be. It, and all its descendents, suggests that the gender status quo - that men are competitive, creative and emotionally obtuse, while women are co-operative, empathic and caring - is native to human nature and should order our lives and relationships.
Deborah Cameron is particularly interested in the intimation that men and women 'speak different languages', leading to frequent miscommunication between the sexes and difficulties in heterosexual relationships. She notes that most books about male/female difference share classic assumptions on this score, namely that:
- Women talk more than men, because interpersonal communication means more to them.
- Women are more verbally skilled than men.
- Men talk about events and facts, whereas women talk about emotional and relational issues.
- Men's use of language is direct and competitive, designed to acquire and maintain group status; women's use of language is indirect and passive, reflecting their desire to create harmony and equality in their relationships.
- These differences lead communication breakdown between the sexes.
The Myth of Mars and Venus sets out to demonstrate why (and how) these assumptions are incorrect, why they have such currency and why they are terribly dangerous.
The evidence for the first proposition is compelling. Cameron reveals just how few claims about gender difference and communication are based on solid fieldwork. For example, the much reported statistic claiming that women use 20,000 words per day in comparison to men's 7000 has no basis in fact. It was taken from a popular science book called The Female Brain, which in turn had taken it from a self-help book, which had plucked the numbers out of thin air. The author later admitted it was an error to include the information, and has removed it from subsequent editions, but the damage was already done. Our already firm belief that women are incouragible chatters while men only speak when necessary had been reinforced. The insinuation that this reflected badly on women was generally implicit, if not explicit. In fact, studies show widely variant word usage in both genders - some women talk more than others, and some men more than other men. More importantly (and rather obviously), all people talk more or less depending on the context they're in. No doubt everyone knows this but, as Cameron points out, the power of stereotypes is such that they can appear reasonable without any grounding evidence. It is common knowledge that women talk all the time and yet say little of substance, isn't it? Apparently so.
One by one Myths holds the stereotypes up to the light and knocks holes in them. Men are more assertive speakers than women? Not so in all cultures, nor in all contexts. People are more assertive when they feel in a position of superior knowledge and greater power. Since our culture still accords men more authority and respect in the public sphere it follows that they may often appear more assertive in politics, business and even academia; but those same men may be entirely passive out of their comfort zone. Women are more co-operative speakers than men? Well no, not really. Again, it is the individual in context that matters. Women can be as linguistically competitive as men, just as men are as capable of verbal negotiation. The difference, Cameron points out, is that competitive language in women is very rarely interpreted as a positive characteristic. Similarly, co-operative behaviour in men. Competitive women are uppity and unnatural; co-operative men are weak and immasculated. She sites a sociological study of office behaviour in Australasia which showed how the assertiveness of female managers was often combined with a self-deprecating humour to mitigate the shock of their authority. One woman encouraged her colleagues to nick-name her 'The Queen', a title that suggested her role was symbolic rather than functional and that the real governing/managing took place elsewhere.
The centrepiece of Cameron's book concerns miscommunication between the sexes, and particularly the proposition that men have difficulty understanding indirect requests. This is the central argument of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, which states that women are too passive and indirect in their conversations with men, leading to unnecessary upset. According to John Gray, when men fail to do things they're asked to it is because they were asked indirectly, or because requests have been framed tentatively. For example, 'Could you empty the trash?' is merely a question gathering information, while 'Would you empty the trash? is a request. Women shouldn't blame their menfolk for not taking out the trash in the first instance. It wasn't that they were being lazy or forgetful or unhelpful. They just didn't get it. Women have to make some allowances and communicate more clearly. Cameron is rightly incredulous:
Gray seems to be suggesting that men hear utterances like 'could you empty the trash?' as purely hypothetical questions about their ability to perform the action mentioned. But that is a patently ridiculous claim... Human languages are not codes in which each word or expression has a single, predetermined meaning. Rather, human communication relies on the ability of humans to put the words someone utters together with other information about the world, and on that basis infer what the speaker intended to communicate to them.
She points out that the common conception of men's linguistic comprehension is incredibly offensive - it suggests that they are incapable of using subtle cues to communicate and negotiate requests, and that they have a fundamental inability to process all but the most basic instructions.
There is also a more sinister side to the miscommunication claim, and Cameron writes convincingly about the effect it has on convictions for rape. If a male defendent can't understand indirect statements or cues, then it follows that the rape victim must have made her 'no' to sex absolutely and irrevocably clearly before it constitutes a crime. Otherwise the man may have wrongly interpreted her refusals as consent. Myths uses a seemingly straightforward Canadian case as an example. A young woman was held down and raped in her apartment by a man she had dated earlier in the evening. The incident had begun consensually with kissing, which had progressed to touching and then to forced sex. The defendant maintained throughout that the woman had said or done nothing that led him to think she did not want sex, despite the fact that she had repeatedly told him she was tired and pretended to fall asleep. He said 'she said she was tired, you know, she never said 'no', 'stop', 'don't', you know, 'don't do this'. He was subsequently acquitted. Cameron is coruscating: You don't have to be a rocket scientist to work out that someone who feigns unconsciousness while in bed with you probably doesn't want to have sex. But nobody criticises the defendent for being so obtuse. On the contrary, it is the victim who comes under attack from the judge. She was asked 'Did it not occur to you that your signals were not coming over loud and clear? Did you not think to change your signals?' Clearly the responsiblity for the rape was being assigned to her - she should have communicated better. The defendent couldn't help it. Like a five year old child, he didn't understand the meaning of 'no'. Again, this is offensive to men, and puts women in an impossible position. When Cameron asked the young woman why she hadn't used direct statements to communicate 'no' to her attacker, she said that she had been afraid and hadn't wanted to escalate the situation by appearing overly assertive. She was terrified of being beaten or even killed.
The Myth of Mars and Venus is an entirely necessary book, and has the added benefit of being scholarly, well-written and entertaining to read. It clearly seperates myth and assumption about gender difference from fact and real-life experience, and demonstrates that sex stereotypes do nobody any good. They serve neither men (who come out looking like emotionally stunted brutes) or women (who emerge under the burden of their feminine inadequacies). People do communicate differently, but the differences are only incidentally to do with gender and are just as much to do with age, class, culture and society. More than anything context impacts on the way we talk and signal to each other. Many people are susceptible to the argument that if difference between men and women is real, innate and even biological, then it is inevitable, desirable and the world should be organised around it. Perhaps this is a comforting idea in a society so recently reshaped by feminism but, as Cameron proves, it isn't right, and it isn't clever.