20 October 2007
Men and women, it has long been thought, speak in different ways. But curiously, people can’t quite agree on what the difference is. Deborah Cameron cites a 1777 passage by Lord Chesterfield:
Language is indisputably the more immediate province of the fair sex: there they shine, there they excel. The torrents of their eloquence, especially in the vituperative way, stun all opposition, and bear away, in one promiscuous heap, nouns, verbs, moods and tenses.
The giveaway here is the word “promiscuous”: Chesterfield’s theory of women’s language is informed by his fantasies about their sex lives. Let us note, however, that Shakespeare in As You Like It had Rosalind express the opposite stereotype, that women are incapable of aggressive speech: “Women’s gentle brain / Could not drop forth such giant-rude invention”. Whom to believe?
It is Rosalind’s version (which Shakespeare, the summoner of Lady Macbeth, plainly did not take for truth) that is closer to the modern popular wisdom summed up by John Gray’s book title, “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus”. Men’s speech is combative and functional, when they can even manage to articulate their lips around their manly cheroots; women’s speech is a gentle torrent or promiscuous heap of emotion.
Deborah Cameron, a linguist and author of the excellent Verbal Hygiene (1995), is having none of it. In this vigorously argued book, she also combats the cliché by example, writing in an enjoyable mode of pugnacious sarcasm. Among the Mars and Venus literature through which she has courageously waded, there is apparently a tome, written by a man, called If Men Could Talk. Cameron’s response is delicious: “A book called If Women Could Think would be instantly denounced: why do men put up with books that put them on a par with Lassie or Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (“hey, wait a minute — I think he’s trying to tell us something!”)?”
Well, I put up with it because it doesn’t threaten me; on the other hand, Cameron argues persuasively that the Mars and Venus myth does threaten women. Consistently, as she shows, aspects of the way our society is currently structured are taken to be clues to some basic difference in the nature of men and women, which always turns out to be to women’s disadvantage, a “natural” reason to keep them in lower-status roles. Cameron discusses Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, The Essential Difference, which posits a distinction between the male and female brains and concludes that “people with the female brain”, supposedly more empathetic, are better at jobs like nursing (just as Rosalind’s notion of “Women’s gentle brain” would predict), and the male-brained, supposedly more analytical, make better lawyers. Cameron comments aptly that nurses also need to be analytical and lawyers need people skills: “These categorizations are not based on a dispassionate analysis of the demands made by the two jobs. They are based on the everyday common-sense knowledge that most nurses are women and most lawyers are men.”
Some gender differences do exist: for example, “Men are more aggressive and can throw things further.” But even then, there is as much if not more variability within the groups as between them. (Your correspondent cannot throw anything as far as Tessa Sanderson threw her javelins.) Ethnographic studies of young girls in LA or male university students, meanwhile, show the girls acting confrontationally and the boys gossiping. Nor does the inherently “speculative” nature of evolutionary psychology inspire Cameron’s confidence. Where there do seem to be empirically attested variations between women’s and men’s language use, such as that women use more “tag questions” (“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”), Cameron argues that this, again, is owed to the present gender-biased distribution of social roles. That men and women habitually “miscommunicate” owing to some notion of direct versus indirect speech-habits is also, as Cameron shows, a useful get-out clause for men, as well as being highly implausible. Cameron cites a rape case in which the accused claimed he didn’t know the woman was not consenting, and ripostes: “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.”
In the end, the most economical disproof of big theories about innate differences in language-use is that things are actually the opposite way round in other cultures. The men of the village of Gapun in Papua New Guinea prize indirect and subtle speech, while the women practise a form of highly abusive monologue called a Kros. As Cameron comments: “In John Gray’s terms, Gapun would seem to be a place where men are from Venus and women are from Mars.” She is to be applauded for having resisted the temptation to conclude that John Gray is from Uranus.
Last year, a book claimed that women talk three times as much as men, on average speaking 20,000 words a day against men’s 7,000. This nugget raced around the world, fuelling countless newspaper headlines, before it was pointed out that it was a factoid, based on zero evidence. Cameron suggests that such “news” is welcomed by those who resent the fact that women no longer meekly stay at home to cook and look after babies. “Culture change is hard: it causes anxiety, conflict, and, in some quarters, resistance. That is why the myth of Mars and Venus has had such a warm reception from the educated western middle classes.”
At one point, Cameron mentions a website called the Gender Genie that, by counting the frequencies of various words (“the” is supposed to be a “masculine” word), predicts whether the author of a supplied text is male or female. Excitedly, I raced to perform an experiment. The Gender Genie told me that an essay by Susan Sontag was written by a man, and an extract of my own work in progress was written by a woman. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, isn’t there?