Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More Fun With Totally-Made-Up Binaries!

Generally, I thought this Wall Street Journal article about communication styles, entitled
"She Talks A Lot, He Listens A Little,"
could have been a bit better by not making it about gender. I only say "a bit" better because of the way the author divides the world into simple binaries and uncritically accepts the dubious explanations of an evolutionary psychologist.

In case you didn't know, the world "really is" comprised of two different types of people: "talkers" and "non-talkers," roughly corresponding to "women" and "men," and this difference causes great frustration in relationships.

It can be difficult to take seriously such an absolute claim in a world brimming with nuance. For instance, I would categorize myself as existing somewhere in the murky gray boundaries of a "talker" and a "non-talker" depending on the communication context. At my blog, for instance, (if this even counts as "talking") I am decidedly a talker. In large groups, I am definitely a non-talker. In one-on-one settings, I am sometimes a talker (if the other person is not), sometimes a non-talker (if the other person is conversation monopolist), and sometimes (and most ideally) a little bit of both.

Nonetheless, while some might question that the world is divided into "talkers" and "non-talkers," many would take it as a self-evident statement of the obvious that men and women, because they are so vastly different, have vastly different communication styles.

Commonsense folksy folks wisdom tells us that, to men, women are annoyingly chatty and, to women, men are rudely uncommunicative. In reality, the myth of Mars and Venus elides the fact that incredible variation exists among each sex and that the sexes are much more similar to each other than they are different, even with respect to communication. For instance, from an article not invested in the gender binary:

"Another scholar who has considered this question, the linguist Jack Chambers, suggests that the degree of non-overlap in the abilities of male and female speakers in any given population is 'about 0.25%.' That's an overlap of 99.75%. It follows that for any array of verbal abilities found in an individual woman, there will almost certainly be a man with exactly the same array."

Not quite as exciting (or lucrative) as OMG Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, What Self-Help Book Can I Buy To Deal With This?!?!

Indeed, despite the heterocentrist title of the WSJ article, a gay man discusses how his communication style differs from his partner's. Whoops. So much for the sex/gender binary. Or, maybe the chatty partner is "the woman"?

But let's talk about this stereotype a bit more. Isn't it incredibly interesting that popular narratives regarding gendered communication styles consistently frame women as "talkers" and men as "non-talkers"? It's almost as though we don't live in a world where mansplaining is pervasive, where men constitute 80-90% of the voices on major opinion forums, constitute 84% of the voices on TV punditry on sunday morning talk shows, are 87% of Wikipedia contributors, are 85% of Hollywood producers, and constitute 83% of Congress.

Oh yes, I think we hear plenty of talking from men.

Indeed, one is led to wonder if this women-talk-too-much narrative is yet another way to culturally condition women to be even more silent than we already are by making us feel guilty for using our voices with the same entitlement and confidence with which men do.

Before ending here, I'd also like to highlight a fun evolutionary psychology "explanation" for the gendered differences in communication styles, uncritically accepted by the author of the WSJ article:

"Women also get a boost of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone, when they speak to others, and estrogen enhances its effects. While men get this, too, testosterone blunts its effects. 'This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view—men can't defend their families if they are burdened with high levels of a hormone that compels them to make friends of all they meet,' says Dr. Legato, author of 'Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget.'"

The thing about evolutionary psychology "explanations" is that they don't always "make sense" in the way evopsych advocates assume are so very self-evident. Many times, multiple "explanations" could be offered for any given set of biological or hormonal factors and it's as though the evolutionary psychologist chooses one after-the-fact explanation that fits his (oftentimes ridiculously ignorant) man-as-hunter, woman-as-gatherer worldview.

For instance, an argument could also be made here that men not getting that boost of the "feel-good hormone" that women do upon communciation does not make sense from an evolutionary point of view as testosterone has, historically, made men more aggressive, less friendly, less interested in cooperation, and thus, has actually hindered male (and female) survival. And indeed, what is remarkable, is that humanity has been able to overcome this evolutionary impediment at all, although it is not at all certain that we will continue to do so.

But rather than, say, exploring how humanity has adapted to this hindrance in order to survive, the evopysch advocate instead essentially states that ooga booga men are still essentially club-wielding cavemen, women are gatherers with papooses tied to their backs and that's just the way things are! What is the effect? Another variation of the idea that Men And Women Are Inherently Very Different, this time with a subtext that justifies male violence and poor communication skills.

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