March 1, 2009

You're Not Speaking My Language

Genderspeak: Men, Women, and the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette Haden Elgin PhD (John Wiley & Sons, 1993, ISBN: 0-471-58016-3)

This book was written by: Suzette Haden Elgin, PhD, an expert in applied psycholinguistics and the founder of the Ozark Center for Language Studies. Dr. Elgin has also written several science fiction books, including the Native Tongue series--in which she developed a new language, Láadan, similar to Klingon but less popular.

What is in this book: A way of looking at the way men and women use language differently. These differences are subtle and vary from person to person, but “men are usually bigger and stronger, which means they can often drown other people out; women are more likely to start crying, a different kind of power play that nevertheless brings conversation to a halt”(p.166). Dr. Elgin wants to help people move from masculine or feminine extremes to realize that “Male/female communication does not have to be either armed combat or endless mystifying tedium”(p.xvi).
Dr. Elgin explores nuances and pitfalls of intergender communication with clear explanations, like her declaration that “a man asked to talk openly and easily and in detail about his feelings is like a woman asked to talk openly and easily and in detail about her urination”(p.258). Both are perverted deviants, but there aren’t nearly as many websites where you can pay to hear men talk about their feelings.

What is not in this book: Pacifism. Verbal self-defense may be gentle, but Dr. Elgin is realistic about the violence of the realm in which it must be practiced, noting that “differences in semantics can be as dangerous as missiles, and are often as well hidden”(p.40). This self-defense is an important art to master because “hostile language can kill you as surely as hostile driving can”(p.165). Not only does hostile language pose a health risk, but if you don’t get out there and make friends, you’re in mortal danger. That’s because “research has proved that people who are disliked and lonely have far more health problems than people with a strong social network”(p.167).

Would you recommend this book to Don Roberts? Yes, because “using the Gentle Art techniques will bring you extra benefits—fringe benefits—that are valuable to you on the basis of pure self-interest alone”(p.97), which may inspire him to write "Fringies 2: The Fringe-ening."

Would you recommend this book to Richard Gere? No, he’s done pretty well for himself through his mastery of gerbil self-defense.

What was interesting about this book? Dr. Elgin’s discussion of sexual harassment. “One man will say ‘That’s a pretty dress’ so suggestively that every word in the sentence might as well be one of the classic ‘four-letter’ ones; another can say ‘Nice tits’ as inoffensively as if he had said ‘Yankee Doodle.’”(p.211)
I want Dr. Elgin to teach me how to whistle “Yankee Doodle.”

Special Award
Bitterly Books would like to give the I Just Pantsed Arthur Miller While He Was Giving Eugene O’Neill A Wedgie Award for Excellence in Dramatic Accomplishment to Dr. Elgin for the realistic scenarios, written out in narrative form, that open each chapter of her book. She may have intended Genderspeak to be a nonfiction work that explores intergender differences through the scientifically rigorous discipline of linguistics, but these dramatic, realistic scenarios play out in such a gripping fashion that they almost eclipse the book's analysis of social interactions. Readers follow the trials and tribulations of Mary, who struggles to be understood by her parents, her coworkers, and her boss. Mary also has problems with her husband Frank because it “seems to Frank that even when, as in this case, Mary can see that he’s busy, she doesn’t hesitate to interrupt him and demand that he involve himself in what he sees as her soap opera. He resents this, and does everything he can to discourage it”(p.230). The mindset of John, her boss, isn’t very helpful, either:

“As John perceives the situation, he has no choice but to put up with women in the workplace–the laws require him to do that—but he’s under no obligation to make it easy for them. [....] The sooner he can maneuver her into giving up the idea of a business career, the sooner she’ll be out of all this stress and tension.
He is of course careful at all times to maintain the surface position of a nonsexist male. That’s part of doing business in America today, and he recognizes and responds to that fact in spite of his own more conservative views on the subject. He enjoys the strategic challenge this offers him, and prides himself on his skill in dealing with it.”(p.3)

Dr. Elgin, please enjoy your I Just Pantsed Arthur Miller While He Was Giving Eugene O’Neill A Wedgie Award for Excellence in Dramatic Accomplishment, because you (and your complex, nuanced characters) have worked hard for it.

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