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This ain’t no party, this is empathy boot camp, ladies

By Amanda Marcotte
Saturday, June 14, 2008 18:29 EDT
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Those evo psych quacks are getting craftier about pushing their message (in essence: women are less worthy than men and therefore should have to do more work for less pay)—the trick increasingly is not to flatter male egos by telling them that they’re meant to roam around town fucking everyone in sight while “natural” women appreciate staying at home being monogamous. That was a crashing failure and made women eager to look for the flaws in research that doesn’t exactly conform to our experiences of being women. No, the trick now is to put down men and flatter women in hopes that women don’t notice that, at the end of the day, the evo psych theory is on shaky ground and is dangerous to our rights. That’s the trick in this article that uses the angle of arguing that our “hard-wiring” makes men boring, so see ladies, that smaller paycheck isn’t that big a deal. (Hat tip.)

It’s a clever article, because it addresses a real frustration I think a lot of women could relate to immediately (I know I can), and it subtly reverses a stereotype.

Are men boring? A straw poll among friends and relations would suggest the contention is so irrefutable that evidence is barely necessary. In Brighton, my friend Esme Jones, 38, who has just had a baby, spent a precious night out with her husband, a film editor, and said she kept nagging him to talk. “If I’d been with you or another girlfriend, even if we’d seen each other earlier in the day, we’d have been gabbling away 19 to the dozen.”

Prudence Barratt, 52, a management consultant, went to a dinner party in Hampstead, where she lives, at which the women sat at one end of the table, the men at the other. “And it was the nicest dinner party I’ve been to in ages. Normally when you arrive at a party, the women talk to the women because they know they’re not going to be allowed to later. It was like in the old days, when the women retired leaving the men to drone on over the port and cigars, but for the whole evening. It was bliss.”

It’s clever, because the stereotype gently being upended is that women are boring because we chatter all the time, and actually exposes how women feel about this—that our “chatter” can be interesting and meaningful and it’s frustrating how often you have to do all the work in a conversation while a man sits like a stone. But we know that women don’t actually talk more than men, so what’s going on here? I think when you consider the kinds of talk being detailed here, you get a better idea of why women might feel like this. It’s small talk and relationship maintenance chatter, both kinds of talk that are notorious for being hard work. Women’s resentment, I think, stems less from men’s silence (I’m sure at other times their men talk too much and stomp on them in conversation), but because they have to do all the relationship maintenance work inside the relationship and in social situations where small talk forms bonds.

We know that this work is traditionally relegated to women. Wifely talents have in the past been about being a bright, shiny entertainment for their husbands, being attentive to a husband’s desires and needs, organizing the social calendar, and bringing that brightness to social occasions so that her husband can enjoy the relational benefits of her ability to move the wheels of small talk. Cruise any Christian dating site, and the emphasis on women’s cheerful vibrancy—i.e., their ability to be the chattering glue that holds relationships together—still shows up on men’s profiles. I don’t especially feel a strong need to be the queen of small talk in my world, thank god, but even I’ve faced down the situation where you’re at dinner with a man and it’s all too easy for him to let go of directing the conversation and thinking of interesting things to say because he knows that you’ve got that responsibility. I know a couple of men who feel similar internal pressures to keep the conversation flowing, and contrary to the insinuations in this article, they aren’t gay. They just found themselves playing peacemaker a lot growing up, or are just someone who takes on stray responsibilities they see floating around.

But onto the hard-wiring and why it’s crap.

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of development psychopathology at Cambridge University, argues that the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and the male brain for understanding and building systems–though of course not all men have a typically male brain, and not all women a female one.

I’d be curious to see if he thinks it’s honestly “hard-wired” from birth, but I’ll return to that in a moment. What I want to talk about is the word “empathy”, which women are told we have in spades but men are missing. To clarify why I think this is bullshit, I looked up empathy in the dictionary: ” the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” It’s generally assumed that empathetic people are better at feeling others than non-empathetic people, right?

Well, then, how come one of the all-time favorite complaints of straight men is that women are always asking how they feel and what they’re thinking? I mean, if women are so good at empathy, shouldn’t we already know? So why all the asking? I propose that the answer is simple: Women aren’t more empathetic than men, but we have a lot more social duties to know what our partners, friends, and family are thinking, so that we can adjust and react accordingly. So we ask all the time so that we know what we need to be doing. If men gather this information less frequently, it’s because they have less need for it. We tell ourselves that women are more empathetic, because admitting that women just have more of a duty to care about what others think would call the justice of the situation into question.

There’s an economic angle, too. If society believes that women are hard-wired for empathy and men for process, that justifies channeling women into low or unpaid service work, such as housewifery, nursing, teaching, food service, etc. And men get higher-paid jobs that are more about “process”, as if nursing, teaching, and housewifery wasn’t also a bunch of processes.

So did Baron-Cohen’s research find evidence that women are hard-wired for empathy and men are hard-wired for manly man money-making stuff? Well, define “evidence”.

Give a group of children a camera and the boys will get more than their fair share of looking down the eye-piece. “Less empathetic, more self-centred.” Leave out a bunch of big plastic cars for kids to ride on, and the boys tend to ram a vehicle deliberately into another child while the girls, on average, drive round more carefully, more sensitive to others. “When asked to judge when someone might have said something potentially hurtful, girls score higher from at least seven years old. Women are also more sensitive to facial expressions. They are better at decoding non-verbal communication, picking up subtle nuances from tone of voice or facial expression, or judging a person’s character.”

So the “hard-wiring” of stereotypically male and female behavior kicks in after a mere 7 years of hard training in gender stereotypes, from color-coded infant clothing on. Seven years of studying a subject is not “hard-wiring” where I come from. Where I come from, that’s a doctorate in many subjects.

I was somewhat saddened to see Deborah Tannen quoted in this article right next to crank Louann Brizendine, whose book is just a pseudo-science sell-out cash cow. I don’t know a lot about Tannen, but she doesn’t seem to be a wretched person on the make using phony biology to back up her claims. I mean, she might be a gender essentialist, and it’s easy to read her work that way, but her comments here definitely avoid essentialist generalizations and stick more to observational generalizations that could, in theory, be changed if circumstances changed.

Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, imagined in her book “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation” (1990) a simple scenario of a man and a woman driving along in a car. The woman says, “Would you like to stop for a coffee?” The man says, “No”, and the woman seethes for the rest of the journey because she would have quite liked to stop for a coffee. In her mind, her enquiry was the opening to a negotiation. In his, it was a question requiring a simple yes or no. When Tannen herself was working in a different city from her husband, and acquaintances expressed sympathy at her plight, her instinct was to indulge in it (thereby admitting to the vulnerabilities that create bonds, as Jess Spillane argued). Tannen’s husband responded defensively, listing the advantages of their circumstances. “For males”, she writes, “conversation is the way you negotiate your status in the group and keep people from pushing you around; you use talk to preserve your independence. Females, on the other hand, use conversation to negotiate closeness and intimacy.”

There’s not inevitable or hard-wired about any of that. If women tend to be more relational, it’s because we live up to the expectations put on us, and so do men. If a woman is “opening negotiations” with a question, it’s because women are strongly discouraged in our society from aggressively pursuing desires. I know that my thought process when I ask a question like that is that it will be easier to get my way if it seems like consensus instead of bending other people’s behavior to my will. Again, it’s evidence against the pop culture theory that women are more empathetic, because women are more likely to have to do a lot of information-gathering like that before venturing with an assertive statement or behavior. Training myself over the years to lay claim to the same things men take as entitlements has been hard work, and I’m not as far along as I like. I’ve overcome the fear of being a bitch to the point where I will make a declarative statement with regards to mandatory body functions—”I need to pull over to pee,” instead of, “Do you need a bathroom break?”—but I’d probably still choke on the coffee request unless I was in withdrawal pain or something. I hate myself for this kind of passivity sometimes, but that doesn’t mean it’s evidence of hard wiring so much as a very thorough training in the art of being a woman.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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