Today's Chronicle Review has an interesting brief piece on a new book about language differences between men and women (I think it's pay-only, so my apologies if you're not a subscriber). Pace Deborah Tannen, in The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages? (Oxford University Press, 2007), Deborah Cameron, a professor of language and communication at the University of Oxford argues that in fact, the idea that men and women speak different languages is "one of the great myths of our time." Instead, she demonstrates that differences in language patterns result much more from social position and what one does in society - which is often gendered - than directly from gender itself.
For instance, it is more likely to be the case that women will be in the frontline customer-service jobs and men will be in high-level decision-making jobs. There are numerical tendencies in who does what in the workplace, and those will have some kind of effect on how people talk. It's not gender directly having an effect; it's what people are doing in what level of the hierarchy. So if women and men are doing the same things, you don't find there's a men's style and a women's style. You find that there are perhaps distinguishable styles, more direct and no-nonsense versus more collaborative, but men and women both span the whole spectrum.
I must confess that I read this and went, Thank GOD someone's finally researched this! Because this argument makes much more sense to me than the idea that we're completely hard-wired for difference. (Not that I don't think that there isn't hard-wiring involved in differences between men and women. But we can never actually get at that hard-wiring outside the gendered expectations of our own society anyway.)
I was also very relieved to read:
Perhaps the most enduring [myth] is that women talk more than men, which is repeated endlessly and sometimes with actual numbers. There's never been any evidence to support this, and now there is quite full evidence to show that it isn't so. There's a lot of evidence that in more formal situations where status is a factor, it tends to be men who talk more than women — not because they're men, but almost certainly because the real correlation is the status.
Now, as a medievalist, I find this fascinating, because one of the most persistent (and misogynistic) assumptions about women in the Middle Ages is that they talk too much. They chatter, they gossip (did you know that "gossip" comes from the Middle English godsib, meaning godparent / god-related?), they run on at the mouth, they can't keep secrets - in short, they can't be controlled. They might not be stronger or more physically powerful than men, but by God, can they talk.
(This also makes me think about modern research about who gets called on more in the classroom, boys or girls; I read once that when one teacher decided to keep very careful track of who she called on, and made sure that she called on boys and girls in equal numbers, after a few days the boys in her classroom erupted in protest at how unfair it was that she was calling on the girls all the time!! This article included a great line to the effect that to the boys, equality was perceived as a loss. So I have to think that in a society in which women aren't actually supposed to speak, at least authoritatively, to men - medieval Christians knew their 1 Timothy 2:12 - any instance of women's speech is going to seem excessive.)
Along these lines, it was also really interesting to see this part of the Q & A (the Chronicle's question is in bold):
I love the anecdote in the book about the women in Papua New Guinea: When they get annoyed with their husbands, they deliver long, angry monologues for their neighbors to hear. Could that work for the rest of us?
Women can be obscene and abusive in all cultures, but I think the difference is, we tend to think of those women as taking on masculine attributes. Whereas people in Gapun [a village in Papua New Guinea] believe that screaming abuse for 45 solid minutes is exactly what women do. So it's a different set of beliefs about what's appropriate for men and women.
Because the thing is, that screaming abuse for 45 solid minutes (hypothetically speaking) also seems to have been what women did in medieval Europe. At least, given contemporary prosecutions for scolding, which was a crime for which people - that is, women - were prosecuted, especially in the later Middle Ages. (This and this are good studies of the phenomenon.) Scolding seems to have been something that women did, to men and to other women, and far from being seen as masculine, it was just another nail in the coffin of women's inferiority - because again, it was a flaw inherent to women that they talked, and that they talked irrationally, uselessly - like scolding. It sounds like Cameron's suggesting that women in Papua New Guinea employ their monologues to good effect, to shame their husbands into acting according to their wishes, and that there isn't a social stigma attached to so doing. In the Middle Ages, there was a social stigma, at least given that communities were willing to prosecute women for being scolds. I wonder, though, if communities only prosecuted women as scolds with whom they disagreed. If a woman berated her husband for being useless, and the rest of the community agreed with her, was she a scold?
In fact, I'm not so sure that screaming abuse for 45 minutes is actually seen today as masculine. What about the stereotype of the fishwife? Where else does the adjective "shrill" come into play? I suppose if you're talking about Donald Trump dressing-down a subordinate, it's masculine. Maybe that's what the women of Papua New Guinea are doing. But in a western context, in which we still suffer the legacy of medieval misogyny, isn't screaming at your husband one of the few things that a woman has enough power to do?