Friday, February 07, 2014

Speaking from Uranus about Mars and Venus

"Menglish". I'll just leave this new word with you for a moment so you can process it . If you're a male reader of this blog, then you might need a few more seconds to process it than a female, because you're designed to be a bit slower with language. Females, after all, are experts in language and just better designed to deal with fancy stuff like words. At least, that's what a reheated brand of Mars and Venus cobblers from Julie-Anne Shapiro would have us believe.

Menglish has been featured in the Telegraph and Mail this week, with the Mail accepting the banal generalities of Shapiro's "research" at face value and The Daily Telegraph's Rebecca Holman taking a much more sceptical view of it all.

Menglish then is the language that men speak. "What the actual flip?! I thought we spoke English!" you might cry, but no, you'd be wrong. If you're male you speak a completely different language from women and that's why err...chicks can't understand you, man. If this sounds like a bad joke that you've heard before then that's because it is.

Back in the 1990s, John Gray - a US relationship counsellor - made a fortune from his Mars and Venus books, in which he argued that men and women were (almost literally) from different planets and therefore spoke different languages. In his version of the universe, men would retreat to their caves to sit in silence, skin a caribou or play Xbox (or in the 1990s, a Sega Megadrive) while women would be nattering to each other around communal cooking pots. His books drew on ideas from what we tend to call the Difference Model in A2 English Language - an approach influenced by the work of linguists Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker who in 1982 published an article about male and female communication being akin to communication across different cultures (i.e. a British person trying to communicate with a Russian).

Their idea was that a form of crosstalk or miscommunication would arise: the males and females would use language in such ways that they wouldn't actually understand each other and would mistake each other's intentions. What Maltz & Borker suggested was that even the same linguistic feature - in the case of their article, what they called minimal responses (described by Deborah Cameron in The Myth of Mars and Venus as "brief acknowledgements of others' speech like 'yeah', 'uh huh' and 'mm'") - might be interpreted differently by the opposite sex.

Their idea of crosstalk fed into the work of Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University in the USA who published several books (You Just Don't Understand and That's Not What I Meant! among them - the former being bought for me 20 years ago by a now long-ex-girlfriend...hrumph!). Tannen's take on it was that boys and girls are socialised into different types of language behaviour as they grow up and that's why there's miscommunication. More recent writers on the subject - Louanne Brizendine and Simon Baron-Cohen, for example - have claimed that the differences are hard-wired into us, but Tannen's was idea was more like soft-wiring.

So, Shapiro's take on relationships is really nothing new and her advice to women on how to understand their menfolk, is pretty vapid too. Men need time to process language; men need to feel appreciated; men like frequent sexytime...sorry that last one is made up, but you get the drift. Shapiro's dating consultancy (yes, she has something to sell us) is called Magnetizing Love, but Monetising Myths might be more appropriate. As always, her advice is mainly aimed at women, because they're the ones who need to change to understand their men. Men can't change; they're just too stupid.

But isn't all of this true? Aren't we actually different? You know...men have dangly bits and ladies have wobbly bits, so isn't it normal for our language styles to be different too? Shouldn't we embrace those difference and embrace each other? And have some sexytime? No, stop it.

As Deborah Cameron makes clear in her excellent and much-recommended Myth of Mars and Venus, the whole industry that has grown out of these "common-sense" differences between men and women is not only wrong-headed but dangerous to both sexes. In the third extract from her book, featured on The Guardian website, Cameron concludes by saying:

... if we want real understanding to take the place of mythology, we need to reject trite formulas and sweeping claims about male and female language use. The evidence is more in line with what it says on a postcard someone once sent me: "Men are from Earth. Women are from Earth. Deal with it." Clinging to myths about the way men and women communicate is no way to deal with it. To deal with the problems and opportunities facing men and women now, we must look beyond Mars and Venus.
Cameron makes many excellent point in her book, drawing on years of research, and outlines the Mars and Venus model as essentially consisting of 5 claims:

1 Language and communication matter more to women than to men; women talk more than men.
2 Women are more verbally skilled than men.
3 Men's goals in using language tend to be about getting things done, whereas women's tend to be about making connections to other people. Men talk more about things and facts, whereas women talk more about people, relationships and feelings.
4 Men's way of using language is competitive, reflecting their general interest in acquiring and maintaining status; women's use of language is cooperative, reflecting their preference for equality and harmony.
5 These differences routinely lead to "miscommunication" between the sexes, with each sex misinterpreting the other's intentions. This causes problems in contexts where men and women regularly interact, and especially in heterosexual relationships.
Referring to work carried out by Janet Hyde and Marcia Linn (featured here), Cameron tells us:

The conclusion they came to was that the difference between men and women amounted to "about one-tenth of one standard deviation" - statistician-speak for "negligible". Another scholar who has considered this question, the linguist Jack Chambers, suggests that the degree of non-overlap in the abilities of male and female speakers in any given population is "about 0.25%". That's an overlap of 99.75%. It follows that for any array of verbal abilities found in an individual woman, there will almost certainly be a man with exactly the same array.
In other words, once all the studies of communication and gender have themselves been studied (what we call a meta-study), there's very little difference between how men and women communicate. Yes, men may interrupt more and women self-disclose more (so Zimmerman and West and Jennifer Coates can rest easy...) but overall, there's probably more variation among men and among women than there is difference between the two sexes. But that doesn't really play into the Mars and Venus, worlds apart, battle of the sexes narrative that sells papers and racks up clicks.

So, it's refreshing to see that while the Daily Fail continues to reheat tired old Mars and Venus gumbo, the Telegraph's Rebecca Holman has a much more critical take on it all:

This press release has left me incoherent with rage – there’s a tiny grain of truth in it – enough that it doesn’t sound like total jibberish, but it reads like a pocket guide for women with no self-esteem. Don’t upset the apple cart by telling him what you’re actually thinking, or he might leave you. Don’t let him labour under the misapprehension that you’re an independent woman who won’t fall apart were he to leave you – he’ll fall unappreciated and…probably leave you. Supplant your needs, hopes, fears and dreams for his, and everything will be fine.
This is all great material for ENGA3's Language Discourses questions, so we'll look at these articles in class soon, but in the meantime, have  a good read of the other posts on here about Cameron's take on Mars and Venus and have a think about why such generalised, patronising, regurgitated cobblers is still picked up unchallenged by so many people.

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