Powerful or powerless communication?

18 Aug, 2015

As a woman, there is a lot of advice for me about how I should change the way I talk so others will listen and respect me.

The conventional advice is to “talk like a man. ” I am told to use power communication – assertive and direct – then others will listen. Frequently used examples are to stop saying “I’m sorry” and to avoid self-deprecating introductions to opinions. Some say that women who do these things are communicating fuzziness of thought or indecision – even where none exists – so they come off as less intelligent.

Debbie Cameron, feminist linguist and blogger, says, “the problem isn’t women’s speech, it’s the way women’s speech is pathologized and policed.” Other experts say that’s how women speak to maintain closer and more supportive relationships or to indicate an awareness of other’s needs, instead of being selfish. In fact, a recent HuffPo article can be summed up as saying the new power communication is using powerless communication. Be humble, ask for help, be open, frame opinions as suggestions, etc. This approach has its advantages and can influence people nonetheless.

No matter which way you look at the conflicting advice, it involves navigating belief systems about gender roles. Either I should act like a man so I can succeed and people will think I am smarter or act like a lady and find my power by gently manipulating and doing the emotional work in relationships.

Ann Friedman doesn’t think there is really a gender difference in communication. She states, “The supposed distinctions between men’s and women’s ways of talking are, often, not that distinct.” Cameron agrees, “Forty years after Lakoff’s groundbreaking work, we’ve learned that all such generalizations are over-generalizations: none of them are true for every woman in every context (or even most women in most contexts)” “We’ve also learned that some of the most enduring beliefs about the way women talk are not just over-generalizations, they are — to put it bluntly — lies.”

I think there is another aspect to the nature of less direct speech styles. I think women (and people with less power) are scared about what happens when they speak assertively. Using a “softer” communication style is an adaptation to existing power dynamics and its not just deference, consideration, or soft influence. We know the rule: Be nice and deferential to stay safe and keep relationships. But that’s not all. Speak up and you’re out of line and people want to hurt you or cut you down.

The news is filled with women who say “no” or “stop” and then suffer greatly, including paying with their lives. So, women get more advice about soft communication: Tell him you have a boyfriend. Say, it’s not you, it’s me. Say, maybe another time. The message comes across to the rest of us – saying “no” or speaking up can be dangerous so it is important to be very careful and soften your message at all costs. Or don’t say anything. It’s a survival skill, sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious. No wonder some people use a style of “softer” and less direct communication at times – lives (jobs, relationships) are at stake.

So when Prepare teaches assertive communication (and redirection, lying, bonding, calling for help from witnesses, and de-escalation) as a form of verbal resistance, there’s a lot to think about!

Students of all ages and genders take a Prepare class to be able to speak up for themselves and set boundaries, i.e., to be more comfortable being assertive and be able to ask to be treated decently – as everyone deserves. Students can “try on” various levels of assertiveness, sometimes for the first time. The goal is to become fluent in all the options on the spectrum and the ability to communicate non-verbally in a way that matches our communication goal.

Still, it begs the question of why we teach people (all genders) the option of how to change their communication style instead of teaching others to respect them and take them seriously regardless of how high their voice is or their body posture. Ann Friedman says, “Asking women to modify their speech is just another way we are asked to internalize and compensate for sexist bias in the world. We can’t win by eliminating just from our emails and like from our conversations.”

The same question gets asked about why Prepare teaches people to defend themselves against rape instead of teaching people not to rape. For me, it is not an either / or situation. Everyone is entitled to have a variety of options for how to communicate and how to protect themselves if facing assault. No one should have to rely solely on communication styles that we have been socialized into. Some communication strategies will help us be more assertive; some will help us be safer. Sometimes it’s both.

Karen

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