If you didn’t already know this about me, I am an actor. My undergrad degree is in theater (musical theater, to be precise, so add singing and dancing training to the mix), and I’ve performed onstage many times, and worked backstage in many different capacities, over the last 15 years. More recently my focus has shifted to linguistics and applied research, but in reality these two professional arenas are very similar.

The blog post I found last week titled “Women Directors: Language Worth Repeating” is a good example of my two worlds colliding. And while I enjoyed reading it, the author makes some points that I feel could benefit from my sociolinguistic/theatrical expertise.

The very first examples the author gives of the kind of language she wants to change she refers to as “apologies.” Linguists call these “tag questions.” They’re used by speakers to check-in with their audiences, and they don’t necessarily indicate a relinquishing of power. Neither is (linguistic) accommodation necessarily a sign of fear or insecurity.

This may be surprising to hear, but everybody accommodates to others, or at least attempts to accommodate, when they’re in a conversation. The accommodation can be anything from subtly adjusting your body language to match the other person’s (often suggested to people going in for a job interview), to adjusting your tone, your word choices, the speed at which you talk or pause, etc. Sometimes it’s done strategically and intentionally, sometimes it’s unconscious. It stems from a desire to be understood and to understand, not necessarily to be liked as a person.

What’s most surprising is the author’s condemnation of accommodation early on in her post, followed by her call to embrace “empathy and action” later on, when empathy and action are precisely what accommodation means: respecting and attempting to understand another’s point of view and reacting accordingly!

As the post progresses, two professional directors are described: one male and one female. It’s very clear that the problems the author sees in the language of directors has to do with interpretations of socially constructed indices of gender. The author first describes a dominating male director who seems to be respected in spite of his dictatorial style. She talks about how actors go from complaining about working with him, to being grateful for the experience.

Now, any of my actor friends reading this will recognize this phenomenon, I’m sure. This response isn’t respect for the director. That gratitude they feel? It’s for surviving the ordeal, like a right of passage: I was there, and I survived, and I learned something about myself as a professional actor. The reality is that no one wants to be broken down and rebuilt in another’s image, no matter how famous they are. No one wants to lose their own creative voice.

The post goes on to describe a female director whose style has swung from the “apologetic” female side of the pendulum to the “dominating” male: “she adopted the language of power from her male peers.” This accommodation is unacceptable to the author as well, and it opens this female director to being referred to by others as (and reduced to) a “bitch.” But what’s important to remember here is that socio-linguistically speaking, language choices don’t directly index gender. Language choices index stances or acts, which index gender through a socially constructed lens (Ochs, 1992—see full citation below*).

Late in the piece, the author reveals that her goal is to adjust the socially constructed interpretation of her language by removing “excuses.” What she doesn’t address is what’s much more difficult to change: the social lens of the world she lives and works in, which is the context through which her language is interpreted. I can see her point of wanting to find a way to express respect for the vision and input of her collaborators without sacrificing her own ideas, but no matter what she says or does, her audience of collaborators will always hear her through their own personally and socially constructed filters.

*Ochs, Elinor. “14 Indexing gender.” Rethinking context: Language as an interactive phenomenon 11, no. 11 (1992): 335.

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One thought on “Power of the Language of Power (Part 2)

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