The speech wars

I was at a meeting today at work and a guy I work with mansplained me, telling the meeting after I’d finished speaking about a point, “Let me qualify that…” He’s done this to me before, once in front of a company staff meeting where he mansplained me, after contradicting what I’d just said, when in fact what I’d commented upon was a new workplace policy that we were actively moving towards.

And these certainly weren’t the only experiences I’d had of this kind with men in workplaces. His comments made me look foolish, made me appear to not know what I was talking about and were designed to unsettle and challenge me. He recognised that he’d done the wrong thing because he approached me afterwards to apologise and he made a great show of being sorry. However, while the humiliation was public, the apology was private.

Would a woman have gotten away with this? Do we get the opportunity to speak our minds, to contradict others and then privately apologise? Or is this simply a personality difference, a difference of work styles meeting at crisis point?

For the women out there, what do you do when the men in your worlds – work, home and social – take centre stage and want to interpret, qualify, rephrase or simply repeat what you’ve just said? “What she means to say… “ is another form of this. For the men out there, do you find yourself doing this, and if so how do you explain this to yourself?

Thinking that it was just me, I questioned myself, questioned my motives, and questioned the premises of my arguments, opinions, and presentations. Was I wrong? Had I not explained myself clearly? Had I not read the mood at work correctly? Did I not understand the policies? I knew I had because I’d been involved in working parties, meetings and reviewed job descriptions that supported the very things that I was saying.

The issue of gender and language has been in the social press again, with a brief article referring to mansplaining, which reduces women’s language to one of credibility, requiring a man to interpret a woman’s intention and meaning through rephrasing and ‘interpreting’ her speech. The article reprinted from the Huffington Post and commented upon through another website can be read here:
It’s a great read and points out the 10 words that all girls should learn and use regularly. Here they are:

“Stop interrupting me.”
“I just said that.”
“No explanation needed.”

But of course, questioning myself was a typically gendered response. Women do that. But maybe only some kinds of women, women who’d been vulnerable at other times in their lives and who were used to questioning themselves because of long-standing insecurities. Other people noticed too though, so I knew it wasn’t just in my mind. And they’d had bad experiences being mansplained too. It’s frustrating and immature and prevents open, honest expression and discussion. I can’t stand being ‘interpreted’ all the time.

I think the article makes a good point about credibility. However this is a product of culture, our acculturation within our own society to conform with the roles and rules of social intercourse. We learn this behaviour through the examples set for us, through the lessons we’ve learned through social interaction and the modelling provided by adults around us as we were growing up. Culture that shapes us in these ways is very hard to break because it’s so ‘normal’. We socialise children to respond ‘appropriately’, often castigating young girls for behaviour that may well be rewarded in young boys, and certainly aspired to in business worlds. The commonalities between successful businessmen and psychopathy are renowned. Even Googling ‘assertive girl’s behaviour’ raises websites that are to do with aggressive behaviour in girls and teens and how to identify and manage this. And this comes up on page one! How can assertiveness be construed so quickly, associated so readily with aggression in women?

But perhaps this sort of behaviour points more to the public spaces that women now inhabit which, once upon a time, were predominantly male domains. In the industry that I work in there is a strong patriarchal culture accompanied by a paternalism that is often marked by men who wear suits. This paternalism is evident in so many ways and is seen for example through the predominance of male management where the industry is clearly if not dominated by women, women make up at least 50% of the workforce. Yet this is not reflected in the new management structure which is overwhelmingly dominated by men.

Workplace cultures too are not generally spaces and practices that reward women, being unfriendly towards reproductive women and carers, two major roles that women often undertake in their lives, sometimes contemporaneously and accompanied by an active work life as well. Legislative changes – at least for many working in the public sector – have allowed women to adopt multiple roles and there is recognition in pay and conditions for some of the complex changes and demands that are made on women’s lives, for example through maternity leave and recognition of the rights and needs of carers. But I would still argue that the workplace is constructed as a male domain, with taken-for-granted understandings about how to work, workplace practices and interactions being embedded within worlds that are constructed through inherited, dominant understandings of what it means to be a worker that are gleaned from history, both past and recent that reflect male understandings of work practices and processes.

And this is reflected in the practice of language and workplace communications too. I recently witnessed a co-worker forced to take down a magnet with a message about angry women and hormones because it was ‘offensive’. It wasn’t offensive to everyone, but it certainly was a caustic but humorous joke about the stage of life that all women go through with its accompanying, inexplicable but predictable mood swings.

The question of language and its use and abuse raises issues around acculturation and how we reward and punish transgressions in children’s language. What do we teach the generation of young girls growing up now? By ‘teach’ I mean too the unspoken, inchoate lessons that are taught through our own responses, our own behaviours, our own modelling of how to be in the world. Children watch closely, often mimic but above all learn through experiencing life at the hands of their qualified teachers: siblings, parents, friends, extended family, school and the wider society often represented through media and entertainment. How do we teach them to privilege their own voices, their own experiences, author their own stories without these having to be constantly qualified by others?

If the authentic voice is what we seek to hear, seek to experience, witness and participate in, then why as a society are we muzzling and reinterpreting our women’s and girls voices?


One thought on “The speech wars

  1. Debbie says:

    Thank you for this important post. We seem to have gone two steps forward and 50 steps back with women’s rights lately. thing is, in the situation you describe, if you are a woman, you just can’t win. if you get angry – and who wouldn’t – men wouldn’t stand for it – then you are seen as the one with the problem.

    for me, calling people out in situatins like this is important. take a deep breathe, and so, NO, I’m sorry, that’s NOT what I said. “would you like me to explain it to you later, slowly, so you can have a chance to understand?’
    everyone else will chuckle.

    of course, big problem – since it’s your boss saying this, you can’t very well do this, without risking your job.

    but then, we can’t just sit back and take it, either. “manxplanation” or “mansplained” – good word! hadn’t heard of it before!

    Liked by 1 person

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