Talk Like a Man?

Take a look at this commercial from about a year ago.

The caption even spells it out for us: “Mom wants the perfect family portrait. But some kid (or husband) always messes it up.  So… to the Cloud! Where Windows 7 and Windows Live lets her mix and match her family’s best faces until she’s able to piece together a photo she’s proud to share.”

In other words, man=child, an unruly, irresponsible, immature person who requires management and an occasional scolding. Amirite laideez? Erm, no.

This particular commercial is one that really got under my skin, but there are many out there that are based on the idea that husbands are no different from children. Further, there’s an entire category of entries right here on about what to do if you husbands are “In Trouble“; again, just like a child. If advertising includes this theme so often, and if it’s all over this website, then it must be working – whatever product is for sale must be flying off the shelves, and treating men like children must make them fall immediately in line. Personally, I’m having a hard time believing this, or understanding why it’s so prevalent. Perhaps it’s partly a feminist backlash against the hegemonic masculinity that has been the status quo since … forever. Still, in my mind, feminism does not involve belittling men in an attempt to make them pay for history. Instead, it is at least partly about demonstrating the desired equality, showing mutual respect as much as you demand it. Now, certainly there are many kinds of feminism, some of which do argue that the female gender is superior to the male. I always thought this was mostly an academic argument, a thought exercise, but a tiny part of me is starting to wonder how many women actually believe that they are a better person than their male partners.

One aspect of life in which I seem to find women claiming superiority is communication. Many of the articles here on GH are about communication, and are written to teach and guide men to communicate like women. As a woman, I am of course biased towards my own gender-pattern of speech, and often lament the pervasiveness of electronic communication, with its complete lack of auditory or visual cues (which, by the way, make up 70% of face-to-face communication). But I can’t help wonder if the number entries about how to talk to your wife, listen to your wife, and interpret what your wife is saying are quietly suggesting that a female pattern of speech is inherently better, and thus as a man, you are not sophisticated or smart enough to understand the nuances and subtleties of female language.

As I’m sure many of you know, evolutionary psychology will teach you that women are taught to be communal, to prioritize the group over themselves. This leads them to speak in a more roundabout pattern, not always saying exactly what they mean, but expecting the other party to recognize what didn’t need to be said. This can be both good and bad. I do appreciate a conversation in which things are not always stated plainly, when words are chosen in an attempt to create a satisfying sound, or to color an idea in a unique way, and when critiques are couched softly to reduce offense. That said, at its worst, indirect speech becomes passive-aggressiveness, a hallmark negative stereotype of women’s communication. Men, by contrast, are taught to be leaders, speaking directly and concisely, and to value clearly stated goals and directions, sacrificing nuance in favor of productivity and efficiency. These qualities are absolutely as valuable as any other. I find it extremely interesting that the women writing GH’s communication-advice blogs seem to either actively or subconsciously adopt a more stereotypically male pattern of speech – there are bullet points, specific directions and “dos and donts”. In this way, these writers use male gender-patterned speech to make a subtle statement (a female-patterned communication style) that both types of speech are important, and have their rightful place in a couple’s communication. Clearly then, these women have learned the speech patterns of the other gender, can use both interchangeably, and choose which is best for a particular situation. I am absolutely impressed, and I don’t doubt for a second that their husbands are capable of doing the same.

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About the Author: Sara Cherny is a board certified genetic counselor at a major academic medical center. She has been in clinical practice for over four years and has special interests in public health and family communication.

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  1. Paul says:

    I look forward to the day when we stop referring to speech as gender-patterned but rather as direct or as passive.  That’s half the issue right there.  Also, David Gray.