[Paleopsych] LAT: (Debbie Tannen) The Feminine Technique

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The Feminine Technique


The Feminine Technique

Men attack problems. Maybe women understand that there's a better way.

    By Deborah Tannen
    Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University,
    is the author of "The Argument Culture" (Random House, 1998).
    March 15, 2005
    In asking why there aren't more female newspaper columnists, Maureen
    Dowd confessed that six months into the job, she tried to quit because
    "I felt as though I were in a 'Godfather' movie, shooting and getting
    shot at."
    "Men enjoy verbal dueling," said Dowd, who is the only female Op-Ed
    columnist at the New York Times. "As a woman," she explained, "I
    wanted to be liked -- not attacked."
    Dowd put her finger on one reason fewer women than men are comfortable
    writing slash-and-burn columns. But she didn't take her argument to
    the next level and question the fundamental assumption that attack-dog
    journalism is the only kind worth writing.
    That is the blind spot that explains why women are missing from many
    of the arenas of public discourse, including science (as noted by
    Larry Summers of Harvard) and opinion writing. (The Los Angeles Times
    was recently criticized for not running more women on its opinion
    No one bothers to question the underlying notion that there is only
    one way to do science, to write columns -- the way it's always been
    done, the men's way.
    There is plenty of evidence that men more than women, boys more than
    girls, use opposition, or fighting, as a format for accomplishing
    goals that are not literally about combat -- a practice that cultural
    linguist Walter Ong called "agonism," from the Greek word for war,
    Watch kids of any age at play. Little boys set up wars and
    play-fights. Little girls fight, but not for fun. Starting a fight is
    a common way for boys to make friends: One boy shoves another, who
    shoves back, and pretty soon they're engaged in play. But when a boy
    tries to get into play with a girl by shoving her, she's more likely
    to try to get away from him. A recent New Yorker cartoon captured
    this: It showed a little girl and a little boy eyeing each other.
    She's thinking, "I wonder if I should talk to him." He's thinking, "I
    wonder if I should kick her."
    Older boys have their own version of agonism, using fighting as a
    format for doing things that have nothing to do with actual combat:
    They show affection by mock-punching, getting a friend's head in an
    armlock or playfully trading insults.
    Here's an example that one of my students observed: Two boys and a
    girl are building structures with blocks. When they're done, the boys
    start throwing blocks at each other's structures to destroy them.
    The girl protects hers with her body. The boys say they don't really
    want their own creations destroyed, but the risk is worth it because
    it's fun to destroy the other's structures. The girl sees nothing
    entertaining about destroying others' work.
    Arguing ideas as a way to explore them is an adult version of these
    agonistic rituals. Because they're used to this agonistic way of
    exploring ideas -- playing devil's advocate -- many men find that
    their adrenaline gets going when someone challenges them, and it
    sharpens their minds: They think more clearly and get better ideas.
    But those who are not used to this mode of exploring ideas, including
    many women, react differently: They back off, feeling attacked, and
    they don't do their best thinking under those circumstances.
    This is one reason many women who are talented and passionate lovers
    of science drop out of the profession. It's not that they're not
    fascinated by the science, don't have the talent to come up with new
    ideas or are not willing to put long hours into the lab, but that
    they're put off by the competitive, cutthroat culture of science.
    The assumption that fighting is the only way to explore ideas is
    deeply rooted in Western civilization. It can be found in the
    militaristic roots of the Christian church and in our educational
    system, tracing back to all-male medieval universities where students
    learned by oral disputation.
    Ong contrasts this with Chinese science and philosophy, which eschewed
    disputation and aimed to "enlighten an inquirer," not to "overwhelm an
    opponent." As Chinese anthropologist Linda Young showed, Chinese
    philosophy sees the universe in a precarious balance that must be
    maintained, leading to methods of investigation that focus more on
    integrating ideas and exploring relations among them rather than on
    opposing ideas and fighting over them.
    Cultural training plays a big role too. Mediterranean, German, French
    and Israeli cultures encourage dynamic verbal opposition for women as
    well as men. Japanese culture discourages it for men as well as women.
    Perhaps that's why Japanese talk shows rarely include two guests
    (they'll have one or three or more), to avoid the polarized debates
    that our talk shows favor.
    This brings us to our political discourse and the assumption that it
    must be agonistic in method and spirit. If we accept this false
    premise, then it is not surprising that fewer women than men will be
    found who are comfortable writing political columns. But looking for
    women who can write the same kind of columns that men write is a waste
    -- exactly the opposite of what should be the benefits of diversity:
    introducing new and different ways of doing things.
    In a book about female lawyers, Mona Harrington interviewed successful
    female attorneys who said they were more successful when they were not
    being as aggressive and confrontational as possible but instead
    listened, observed and better "read" opponents. In taking depositions,
    they got better results by adopting a "quiet, sympathetic approach"
    (instead of grilling and attacking) so that witnesses tended to forget
    that the attorney deposing them was their adversary. But, Harrington
    noted, they couldn't tell this to potential clients, who assumed
    aggression was the only way. Instead, they had to emphasize that they
    were seasoned veterans of large aggressive firms who could slug it out
    with the best of them.
    Of course a political columnist must be ready to expose wrongdoing,
    look critically at events and public figures and be ready to offend if
    necessary. But attack-dog journalism is not the only way to do this,
    and it probably is not the best way either.
    As Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for
    Politics, has put it, we tend to think that if you're not an attack
    dog, you're a lap dog, taking everything politicians say at face
    But the true role of journalism should be a third way: a watchdog. And
    a dog who is busy attacking is not watching.

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