June 23, 2008

Taking the Stitches Off

THE HIGHEST COMPLIMENT in my grandmother’s book was “What a sweet girl! She keeps her mouth stitched up.” Of course, in Bengali, this has a nicer ring to it but it essentially means a girl who keeps quiet, who is silent in the face of adversity (and torture and ill-treatment), who endures. I grew up hearing this and, of course, consequently thought of myself as a very bad girl indeed. For as a child, I was what is commonly called ‘moophat’ in Hindi, loosely meaning brash and thoughtlessly expressive. Over the years, I mellowed (—or was made to?) and recently, I have sometimes found myself unable to speak even when it is urgently, desperately required.

Now, we know this scenario. It’s an old one. Women stop short of many things because they’re scared of being labeled loud, aggressive, and the dreaded ‘bitch’. Never mind that the reason they’re shrill sometimes is so that they won’t be silenced with a gentle slap from the old boy’s network. Between defiance and apologia is a thin line and we’re constantly scared of falling off. In this article, writer Verlyn Klinkenborg talks about a writing class he held where he noticed this:

Midway through lunch one day a young woman asked me if I noticed a difference between the writing of men and the writing of women. The answer is no, but it’s a good question. A writer’s fundamental problem, once her prose is under control, is shaping and understanding her own authority. I’ve often noticed a habit of polite self-negation among my female students, a self-deprecatory way of talking that is meant, I suppose, to help create a sense of shared space, a shared social connection. It sounds like the language of constant apology, and the form I often hear is the sentence that begins, “My problem is …” Even though this way of talking is conventional, and perhaps socially placating, it has a way of defining a young writer — a young woman — in negative terms, as if she were basically incapable and always giving offense. You simply cannot pretend that the words you use about yourself have no meaning. Why not, I asked, be as smart and perceptive as you really are? Why not accept what you’re capable of? Why not believe that what you notice matters?

Hilary Clinton faces a similar problem:

Education researcher Bernice Sandler and linguist Deborah Tannen have shown that women who speak in a conventionally “feminine” manner (soft volume, high pitch, upward inflection) are perceived as less competent, while those who speak in a more decisive (masculine) manner (lower pitch, downward inflection) are perceived as aggressive.

When Hillary conforms to the norms of feminine vocal comportment, she is too careful. When she raises her voice in passion, she is shrill. Lectern-thumping, emotionally charged rhetoric by a female candidate would be dismissed as hysterical. How, then, is a female presidential candidate to speak?

Glamour Magazine gave us advice on how to tackle this conundrum:

“Speak directly to male subordinates. Women tend to shy away from giving a blatant order, but men find the indirect approach manipulative and confusing.” Here women are told to speak directly to men, not because indirectness undermines their authority, but because men find it “manipulative and confusing”.

Firstly, why should we always modulate and modify ourselves? But even if we put that aside for the moment, years of conditioning is hard to break. I catch myself doing it sometimes more often than I’d like–voicing statements as questions, orders as pleas, sounding tentative when I’m not, sounding placatory, apologetic. I’ve noticed other women do it too. We do it because over time we have learned that this ‘manipulative and confusing’ technique is an easier, quicker way to get things done. We have learned to recognize raised hackles and thinly veiled ego bruises. We have learned to pat and smooth and ‘there-there’ our way through boardrooms and bedrooms. Frankly, it’s silly to tell little girls to be polite and sweet and all things nice and then expect them to grow up to be direct-talking, plain-speaking women who state their case without hemming and hawing, and hoping that they will not be labeled terrible things for simply stating their point.

At the same time, I can’t ignore the question and say we shouldn’t care because I’ve seen too often how it affects women in very practical ways. I’ve been privy to decision-making processes where women were excluded from important positions because they were not opinionated enough. Because they would not be able to ‘hold their own’ in a group of men. Because they were doers but not thinkers (in other words, they had not expressed their thoughts forcefully enough on too many occasions). Because they were viewed as terrific second-in-commands but not as leaders.

I went to an all-girls college and I often heard even the strongest, most confident women there say that they liked being in an environment where they could grow without having to compete with men. That they could express themselves better because there were no men around. It is astonishing how many of these really bright people went on to have no career or worklife (maybe out of choice but maybe not). Is it because they had not learned one of the most important aspects of coping with a career—dealing with men? Did they lose their voices when they stepped out of those hallowed pink portals and into grey tube-lit corridors? Or were they like untrained singers thrust onto the stage, unable to find the right pitch?

I wish there were easy answers to this issue of women’s voice, tone and speech patterns but there aren’t. Here are some of the questions instead:

  • If women natively have a different speech pattern, why should they have to change it? What are the advantages that ‘feminine’ speech patterns accord women and society? Why should we not try to preserve them?
  • How much of this is genetic and how much is created by environment?

What we say and how we say it is inextricably linked to who we are. While some of it may be biologically defined, a lot of it has to do with how we were brought up and who we were to conditioned to become. It would be useful to remove the gender-based environmental conditioning as far as possible and then see whether men and women do speak all that differently. Parents, families and teachers need to stop placing stress on how (and how much) girls should speak. And it is astonishing how much (consciously and unconsciously) we still perpetrate this sort of conditioning.

Things are changing though and those in their twenties now are bolder, less hesitant and reticent, less worried about being ‘polite’–and hopefully—less bothered about being ‘sweet’. (I mean really, what are we? Stacks of mithai at Kanshiram halwai’s?) Certainly, I don’t hear people talking about ‘keeps her mouth stitched up’ as a virtue anymore.

As for me, my real self is still in there somewhere, kicking away every now and then. And at age thirty, my family’s hold on me relatively weaker, I’m (re)learning to let it out more and more. But having grown up with contradictory messages, finding the right pitch is still a challenge. And yes, the original question still gnaws: why is it always us who must work so bloody hard at it?

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14 comments to Taking the Stitches Off

  • Have you read Anne Carson’s essay The Gender of Sound? It’s part of her 1995 collection Glass, Irony and God. I suspect you’d find it interesting; actually, I suspect you’d find the whole book interesting.

    Personally, I’d say that ‘feminine’ speech patterns are useful – in that they involve valuable negotiation / persuasion skills that a lot of men would benefit from having. So in an ideal world we would get rid of the ridiculous notion that one’s gender has anything to do with one’s speech patterns / communication style and develop a repertoire of ‘speech roles’ so we could use the one most appropriate in a given situation without subscribing to a one size fits all approach.

  • FInally, a post that speaks with a personal touch. I was so happy just reading this.

    I think after this I will be very conscious of the way I speak. And I am damn sure I am going to be brash, if not to assert myself, at least to let people stop having stereotypes about women.

    Closely related to what you have so beautifully written, is also the issue of women and swear words. Pitch is a problem, but so are the choice of words. Men can never stomach profanities coming from a woman. Even if we are going to do it for the love of the shock value, one can never really understand what makes it so f**ng hard for them. Women who are considered loud and aggressive and attention-grabbing, are also the ones who are accused of using crass language. Conditioning has, I feel affected not only the delivery of speech, but also the content.

    (Reading this made me immediately think of the huge backlash that Tamil women poets had to face when they wrote of the body and the typecasting that followed.)

  • Very interesting post, Anindita. Modulating your voice is something one does regularly. But a woman’s perspective is, like always, different and revealing.

  • Sowmya

    Boy! Tell me about it….

    Once, a colleague of mine asked me why I (being senior, officially), could not request other colleagues to do things instead of telling them – “hey, XYZ, get this done today”. I, in his humble opinion, must have asked that XYZ – “will you be able to do this today?”….

    It did not end there….loads of allegations about me being “dominating” followed…..what enraged me most was “Why did I need to explain myself?” – even if that colleague had sugar-coated all his allegations with the words – “Nothing to hurt or criticize, just a friendly observation” ………Men just cant take it. They will never be able to.

  • Thank you for this post, it was excellent. I would argue that there isn’t a native difference between the way men and women speak but a difference so deeply socialised that it makes no difference whether it is “native” or not. You raise very good points.

  • I’ve noticed that women apologize a lot when they speak….like, “I’m sorry, but….” such conditioning!

  • Falstaff: No I haven’t…thanks for the reco. Will definitely check it out. I agree with you that speech roles should be delinked from gender. On another note though, I’m also uncomfortable about too many speech roles per se. Maybe, I’m being idealistic and purist and all that but what happens to finding the authentic voice in a world where we’re always being pushed into roles and labels? Isn’t this part of why in most situations, most people sound so hideously unoriginal and boring because the leap from modulating how we say something to what we actually say is a small one, no?

    Meena: Thanks. And yes, of course swear words is a big problem. It’s amazing how even the most liberal men find it either offensive or vaguely titillating when a woman uses swear words.

    Apurva: Thank you.

    Sowmya: Oh god, yeah this is such a refrain in most offices, isn’t it? Don’t give up home though — I’ve met some men who are okay with it. And maybe in time, more will be.

    Iona: Thank you.

    Linda: That’s a favourite opening line, I think, for many of us. And of course, when a man speaks like that he is considered namby-pamby and ineffective.

  • Great post, and again you’re raising a question that has been playing around quite a bit in my personal life, but one I never voiced as clearly as this. My voice is naturally powerful(read: loud) and low-pitched, to top it off I naturally speak with a low inflection.
    These days, I’ve learned to tone it down to the extent that I speak softly but firmly, adding a “please” but keep repeating it till the work gets done. Caters to the men’s insecurity, gets the work done. A compromise.

    The question I’m yet to figure out is – do men ever think, do they change, or is it just us doing all the thinking, planning, acting and demanding action? What is actually going on? I feel really foggy about this feminism thing, and gender as a whole.

  • Oh, and I like the idea of dissociating “speech roles” from gender – if we are to have “speech roles” at all. After all, everything in a conversation depends upon the participating individuals. We – all, men and women – need to settle on the balance between being ourselves and getting our ends met.

  • Brilliant post. That’s all.

  • Hiya, just wanted to leave a comment to let you know about Glass Castle, a new feminist webzine focused on Singapore but also with some international coverage. I thought this post was really fabulous so we linked you in our latest blog entry. Looking forward to reading more interesting stuff here.

    – Jolene

  • we all share the same plight…women are always expected to ‘shut their mouth’, they aren’t suppose to have opinion…they are to only follow them. “aage ghar jana hai”( you’ll have to go to the other house, where you’ll be married) is a common phrase i hear in many households, mothers asking their girls to be decent. ( by decency they mean everything that is “expected of a woman”)

  • High Priestess

    When in India I noticed that women tend to have very high pitched voices there as contrast with other countries I have travelled to.

    And if you notice the female vocalists who sing popular and much loved songs, they tend to have even higher pitched voices (when singing), than even the already high pitched masses.

    I assumed that high pitched voice is considered “beautiful” in India.

    I also read that it is common for women to go very high and very loud when they feel they are not being heard, in India.

  • The days of assertiveness, strong talk and bossy attitudes have all but numbered.

    Even when I allocate the work to my sub-ordinates , I never say “Do that or else…”. It is always to adopt the approach “This task is really vital and challenging. This is the reason for putting you in responsibility for this . I am sure you would be able to finish this by today”.

    Workplace has evolved and insisting women to be bossy and ultra- assertive, as men of 70’s and 80’s, is counterproductive. In fact I had the rare misfortune of working with one such female supervisor. I intently bungled up the work to get her a lesson from higher management.

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