Friday, December 5, 2014

Women, Communication, and the Public Experience

It has been awhile since I wrote a blog post, not because I haven't had a lot to think about and a desire to write, but because I haven't had time.  My newest book, Joan de Valence: The Life and Influence of a Thirteenth-Century Noblewoman, is now at the publisher's (Palgrave Macmillan) and, presumably, in the early stages or awaiting peer review. The semester is nearly over and I have a brief hiatus before final paper and exam grading begins.  My next book project, a source book on the medieval British Isles titled Voices of Medieval England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales (ABC-Clio) is in the works but I am taking a very short breather before launching into that full-bore over my winter break.  The journal I edit, Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, is at the moment in good order and I don't have any hugely pressing deadlines on that end. In other words, for the first time truly in years, I haven't got a deadline looming like a sword of Damocles. I admit it has left me a bit befuddled.

Writing a biography of a dynamic medieval noblewoman, listening to Ashley Milne-Tyte's wonderful podcast The Broad Experience, and dealing with all of the nonsense that is part of academic life has made me think a lot about the ways in which women's forms of communication are circumscribed by social and cultural assumptions about women's voices and appropriate modes of presentation.  Joan de Valence, for example, was not the kind of woman who would be easily recognizable as "medieval" by most people not well versed in the ways in which women actually behaved in the middle ages.  She was direct, assured, determined, and not given to beating around the bush--indeed, her letters and other communications are significantly lacking in the kinds of flowery flattery her own husband, William de Valence, indulged in when writing to his socio-political superiors.  I, myself, am not known for being particularly "soft" in my discourse.  I'm a pretty direct person, and when I cannot be direct for emotional or political or professional reasons, I usually just shut up rather than try to go "girly" in my presentation.  I can be diplomatic, and I can be sympathetic and empathetic, but those are qualities that have to do with underlying personality issues, not just a mode of communication that is a convenient façade.

What is clear in the many conversations going on right now about modes of communication in the workplace and what happens when women begin to form a significant population in a particular work environment is that men are often not used to women actually expressing themselves, actually demonstrating their competence, and actually not deferring to men.  We now have a solid body of work--both research and anecdote--that demonstrates that men are unprepared for female coworkers speaking and interacting in ways that are not deferential in some kind of way.  The response in many workplaces is hostility, or harassment, or bullying, or just plain "but she is being MEAN to me" boyish whining.  Unfortunately, instead of the men having their wrists slapped for failing to understand that women are people too, women are being told to "moderate" their speech, to "soften" their message: that men won't listen to them if they are too "harsh" or "direct."  This drives me crazy.

I believe firmly and wholeheartedly in civil discourse.  I think that, especially in professional situations, there is no reason for rudeness.  But I experience rude people every day--and they are often men who are unable or unwilling to moderate their own discourse to behave appropriately.  Moreover, they apparently feel entitled to engage in such rude behavior with impunity, while women are constrained in all kinds of ways in similar circumstances.  This is not to say that women cannot be rude--goodness knows, it is a characteristic that is not dependent on gender, age, race, religion, or sexual orientation: an equal opportunity trait.  However, women are often rude . . . well . . . differently.  They are indirect, snarky, even mean.  And women can be horrible to other women, something I frankly find appalling.  But the ways in which men are rude to women has an edge all its own.  And it makes me want to get right up to their noses and yell.  Loud.  But I don't--most of the time.

Here is my dream:  that instead of everyone anxiously instructing women to be "softer," more "appealing," and more "indirect" in their discourse so that men will "listen" to them, we instruct men to Get. Over. It.  Men should have enough sense of self-worth to endure a woman being direct, professional, even brusque.  Men should have sufficient self-confidence to survive a woman telling them they are wrong, or their work needs revision, or they have to do something again.  And women should stop sighing and saying "okay, I'll moderate."  Isn't it time to just tell people to behave themselves, listen, and be respectful?