11 October 2007

Do the dishes, dammit

Oh the joy and relief! A tops lady called Deborah Cameron, who is a language professor at Oxford University no less, has written a book about why the ideas propagated in books like "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus'" are mostly a load of old tosh. Some of her big myth-busting concepts are that saying men's and women's brains are somehow hard-wired differently plays straight into the hands of conservatism and of fixed roles for men and women. That there is no real data to back it those ideas up anyway. That psuedo-science about communication implies that as humans we cannot change our roles and the nature of our relationships. She likens the language myths as akin to some forms of social Darwinism, too. Here's some great quotes from the Times:

The first point to make is that in the past 20 years we have become obsessed by communication,” she says. “And that’s not just in relationships; it’s in customer care, it’s in politics. All problems are seen to be communication problems.

“If, for instance, anyone disagrees with someone else, it’s seen to be because they don’t understand each other. Well, actually you could understand me and still disagree with me. Likewise, if a train is delayed or cancelled, all anyone’s interested in is whether there is an appropriate announcement. Communication has become a substitute for actual problem solving.

“Where this relates to the Mars and Venus books is that they say problems in relationships between men and women are all down to communication. The misunderstandings are not, for instance, about the fact that men and women are both vying for jobs, or power, or status, or time. That’s quite comforting to a lot of people."


There is, she thinks, something regressive, deeply conservative, in this outlook because what it seems to be saying is that we can’t change.

In the Mars and Venus world view, women stay women, chatting (probably too much) and being unable to say exactly what they mean, while men get on with their straightforward competitive existences. It’s a view, she feels, that does neither men nor women any favours.

“I realise that women are peddling this stuff as much as men,” says Cameron. “There is a cheap way for women to feel good in this myth. They are portrayed as sympathetic, good at communicating, whatever. Men, on the other hand, are autistic, inarticulate Neanderthals. If you’re a woman, that’s a way of feeling good about yourself when it’s still quite likely that the man you’re with earns more money than you. It’s a big trap for women.”


Even when there is less on the line, men can use the miscommunication ticket to their advantage. Ask any man who has failed to do the washing up after being asked, “Do you think you might have time to do the dishes?”

“Of course everyone knows what is being talked about,” says Cameron, “because in other situations men can understand and make indirect requests. But it’s sometimes convenient for one party to misunderstand. The Mars and Venus myth says this misunderstanding is an inalienable fact of male and female relationships, but it’s not. The only thing you’ve proved is that the man is a lazy arse.”

And the data (lifted entirely from the article above):

Myth 1: women talk more than men Nonsense, says Cameron. In a popular self-help book, The Female Brain, the claim is made that women say 20,000 words a day and men only 7,000. This statistic has been widely reported in newspapers and journals but has since turned out to be erroneous and based on no real research. It has since been removed from the book.

In fact a number of studies have found that men speak more than women, although others found that women speak more than men. A recent study by the University of Arizona, on a group of undergraduates, found that both sexes spoke an equal number of words a day – 16,000.

Myth 2: men and women communicate differently More hogwash, says Cameron. Linguistic studies have shown that men and women share a 99.75% overlap in the way they communicate. If there are differences in the way the sexes communicate, they are infinitesimal.

The only real markers of difference between men and women are that women smile more and spell better, and it is, says Cameron, only a “moderate difference”.

Myth 3: men’s and women’s brains are hardwired differently when it comes to language This area, says Cameron, is more difficult. Brain scans show that, when men talk, they use almost exclusively the left-hand side of their brains, whereas women also use parts of the right side. But, according to Cameron, this has had no bearing on how we communicate.

The only proven effect of this neurological difference between the sexes, comes in the case of severe head injury. If men suffer an acute injury to the brain, they are more likely to lose their speech faculties than women, because other parts of the female brain are able to take over.

Myth 4: men interrupt more than women The evidence suggests women interrupt as much as men do. Cameron argues that some men, naturally, will interrupt more than others. The dangers of grouping men together is that the differences between men and women are so slight, whereas the differences between men and other men are more interesting.

When, and how people interrupt, argues Cameron, is much more about power and social relations than the genetic make-up of the sexes.

If you dig it and want to read more chunky extracts - there are three posted at the Guardian with more ripper quotes about how the amount people talk in a social situation has a lot more to do with status than gender, for example.


Betty Sue said...

Can we get this woman a knighthood or at least a tasteful gift of some sort?
Attention journalists, you're going to have to find filler pieces somewhere else form now on.

And may I just add: interupting is a cultural thing. Zee Chermans interupted like no-one's business, and I picked it up and had to break the habit when I stopped working there.
(ps - word verification is 'ekkfut' - sounds like a swedish swear word)

BSharp said...

heh heh. I love the idea of a "tasteful gift" as an accolade for an academic.

meririsa said...

Thank GOD someone has rubbished this book. It is entirely lazy to just say "ooh there's nothing I can do because he's a man and I'm a woman" rather than address issues. I've never let my significant others or male friends or colleagues off the hook for behaviour traditionally seen as male, and would never expect them to do the same to me for being a woman. Except for the hormonal stuff - I have had to say sometimes that I can't explain my weepiness except for where I was at in my menstrual cycle/pregnancy.