Like many kids, I relied on school-provided transportation and someone to watch me until my parents came home from work. But rather than using standard yellow busses, my small, Catholic grade school used maroon vans. And rather than day care, my grandparents took turns caring for my brother and me (Mondays and Tuesdays with my father’s mother, Wednesday through Friday with my mother’s parents). At the beginning of each school year it was a few weeks before the bus drivers learned our routine and dropped us off at the right house, but occasionally they would forget, and we’d speak up and let them know which house was expecting us. The regular drivers were used to this.
One day when I was in the 5th grade, we had a substitute driver who didn’t know our routine. When I realized that she might drop us off at the wrong house, I spoke up. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but the driver thought I was being disrespectful, and told me not to be “sassy” towards her. I’ve never forgotten it, because I remember being so shocked that she would say that; my tone was not rude and I was speaking up because I knew it was unlikely that she was familiar with our non-standard arrangement. My shock gave way to embarrassment and silent outrage–to me her response was completely unjustified, and I was a child who hated injustice of any kind (still rather true as an adult, as a matter of fact).
I think that’s why the two articles below touched such a nerve. They both have to deal with women and language. I’ve talked a little bit about language and gender in a previous post, mostly about work by linguists that describe how certain ways of speaking are not masculine or feminine automatically, but rather index a certain cultural idea, which then indexes the understanding of masculine or feminine in that culture (example: tag questions like “that’s right, isn’t it?” can index uncertainty—or accommodation—which can index femininity in certain cultures). But this post is more about how certain words have different meanings when applied to women than to men, and how women are treated (and thought of) differently than men when contributing to conversations.
Let’s start with a video. This was making the social media rounds a while back, but it definitely applies here:
It’s an ad for Pantene, sure, but more importantly it shows how men and women are subjected to a double standard: they have different labels attached to their behavior, even when the behavior is exactly the same. Personal grooming is “neat” (male) or “vain” (female); working late is “dedicated” (male) or “selfish” (female). And strong leadership goes from being a “boss” to being “bossy.” Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, would like to ban the word “bossy,” meaning she’d like to change the way the American culture applies it in a negative way to describe girls who display leadership attributes. Our language use is a powerful means of socialization, and applying negative connotations to words directed at girls who like to lead can have consequences well into adulthood. Even now, I wonder if my preference for sitting back and listening before speaking is mostly due to my introverted nature or my socialized nurturing.
Which is why I enjoyed this next article by Soraya Chemaly. Ms. Chemaly suggests 10 simple words, in 3 simple phrases, that women could use when they feel their contributions to a conversation are being overlooked, and especially when they’re being interrupted.
I feel like I have to say that being interrupted is not always a bad thing. Yes, it can be used to take the floor away from another speaker, but sometimes this is just a temporary shift. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: conversations are tricky, and involve constant negotiating. If someone is unclear about something someone else is saying, they may interrupt in order to get some clarity. Interrupting someone can also be a way of showing interest, although if this is the conversational style of only one person, or only a few out of a group, this way of showing interest can easily be misunderstood.
But this article talks about interruptions with an added layer of condescension or implied sexism: where the importance or acceptance of what’s been said is treated differently based on the gender of the speaker. Much like the Pantene ad and the “ban bossy” article, the point is that society has different ways of interpreting behavior and speech based on gender. It’s taught, not inherent, which means it can be re-framed and changed. And it can start with just 10 simple words.