[Paleopsych] LAT: (Debbie Tannen) The Feminine Technique
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Tue Apr 19 14:45:05 UTC 2005
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
"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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