Finished The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages? by Deborah Cameron. Short book criticizing the rash of "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus" books claiming that there are fundamental differences between the way men and women communicate. Makes a pretty convincing case by approaching things from several angles.
Partly, Cameron takes an anthropological angle. If intrinsic genetic differences are responsible for males and females communicating differently, the differences ought to be consistent across different cultures. However, this doesn't seem to be the case. In the 19th century, women were believed to have an inferior grasp of grammar to men, and to be inferior communicators. In the present day, the consensus seems to be the reverse.
The current belief is that women tend to be more circuitous, less direct and more considerate of emotions. However, in the case of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, the opposite is believed to be true: they think women are more direct and more confrontational than men. Cameron points out that in this society, leaders are expected to conduct their business in formal and circumlocutious language, "kabary", that rarely risks a direct rejection. So conveniently for Malagasy males, women's naturally blunt and direct speech renders them generally unsuited for positions of power.
In contemporary Western culture, the opposite is often believed to be true: women's subtle communication is unsuited to the blunt, direct and efficient communication required of CEO. Curiously, the outcome is the same in that women are unsuited for positions of power.
Cameron also considers other examples, like the ritualized streams of abuse of women in Gapun, Papua New Guinea. And even in Western culture, she points out that deferential female communication is more common among the white middle class than in other groups.
Cameron also points out that differences in communication are largely linked to roles. Women use more "tag questions" (appending "isn't it?" or "aren't you?" to phrases) on average. However, men in a role that require them to elicit information, such as a doctor, use more such phrases. This is interesting insofar as it's sometimes claimed that men literally cannot understand women's styles of communication; in fact they seem to be able to use such styles themselves equally well when acting in an appropriate role. Also, it suggests that the differences between male and female communication styles may be due to the roles that they take rather than the supposed "brain differences".
While there are real statistical differences in the way men and women communicate, these are often overstated. The differences are generally small compared to the differences between individuals; often a tenth of a standard deviation or so.
The richness of the book is in the number of examples she uses. One interesting example was the differences between men and women's communication as members of the British Parliament, and the Scottish Parliament. In the national Parliament, women rarely speak "illegally": that is, barracking or interrupting from a sitting position without being recognized. In the Scottish Parliament they do so just as much as men.
Cameron considers this as an example of how speech reflects social roles. In the British Parliament, women are relative newcomers, are considered somewhat as interlopers, and therefore must adopt different standards: in the newer Scottish Parliament they are given more equal status.
It's a short book, only 181 pages, very lucidly written. Well worth reading for anyone interested in the subject.
What I'm Reading 2
Shooting War by Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman is a comic set in the near future. A activist/video-blogger is catapulted into celebrity after filming a terrorist bombing in New York, then accepts an offer to become a correspondent for a right-wing TV new channel in Baghdad; just as things there are turning really nasty for President McCain.
Interesting style of art, combining photos and drawings. Looks a little odd sometimes when line-drawings are superimposed on the photos.
Sadly, the script and story are pretty poor. The protagonist seems to be a Mary Sue for the activist/videoblogger author. While presumably a pleasant fantasy, it lacks plausibility that he'd be so instantly popular, or that the evil businessman would suddenly hire him, or even that he'd accept.
The future Iraq seems a bit pointless, since the present and recent past provide plenty of dramatic horror: life there's bad enough without inventing more of it. The high-tech terrorist and psychotic Colonel seem to be more like movie clichés than real people, despite the author's apparent first-hand knowledge of the situation.
Overall, nice idea, but not really executed well enough to be worth reading.
Bertrand Russell quote of the day
"Men who are unhappy, like men who sleep badly, are always proud of the fact".
Please do the middle section to test this spacejack hypothesis.
Julie Bindel on UK brothels.
More on Mars and Venus. Cross-cultural study shows less difference between men and women in other cultures. (MeFi). Not convinced by their conclusions. It suggests to me that the evolutionary psychologists view that contemporary Western gender roles are deeply embedded in the genes, is false. Their interpretation is that it's all in the genes, but in other cultures the differences are suppressed by poor nutrition.
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