conversation, gender, power

Reading a couple of posts from Liz Lawley on gender and communication — the second of which points to an essay by Dan Spalding aimed at “other men in the movement” and designed to help men “act better in meetings” by learning the value of silence — has me thinking about whether or not my as yet embryonic typology of the kinds of “moves” people make in conversations might be useful in thinking about gender. Conversely, perhaps thinking about gender will be useful in reworking my typology.

For example, Liz writes:

I spend a lot of time watching the conversations that are taking place these days in weblogging, social software, and other technology contexts. Yes, there are a few women involved in the conferences and meetings. But their voices arenít the ones we usually hear about from the men. To be heardóto really be heardóa woman has to break the rules. She has to be outrageous.

I had written that the move of affirmation (e.g. I agree.) wasn’t a significant contribution to a conversation, but clearly this is too simplistic. The value of that move will depend on context. If you are participating in a conversation and feel that no one is really listening to you, when someone says Yes, I agree. Good point. then something significant has taken place, and your participation is validated to some extent, depending on who has done the affirming.

I think that participants in a conversation that contains several “moves” of acknowledgment, affirmation, bridging, and synthesis will feel more comfortable than they would in one that is characterized more by disagreement, challenge, diversion, or digression. Would we want to say that men (or at least unselfconsciously masculine men) are more likely to engage in the latter than the former? As if every conversation was a contest to be won? This would certainly be true if those kinds of moves are considered more “valuable” in a conversation than others, and if we assume that men are socialized (I’m anti-essentialist) to acquire more of what’s valuable than the other “players” in the conversation. I might want to rethink my model of conversation as game where individuals earn points for their contributions. What kind of model would reward more collaborative or generous behavior?

Obviously, one way to affirm or acknowledge what someone has said is to cite them in your blog, conference paper, or journal article. This is what Liz means when she says that women’s “voices arenít the ones we usually hear about from the men.” Hmm. Even disagreeing with someone in such a context is a means of affirming or acknowledging them, though, isn’t it? These moves are more complicated than they appear at first blush.

More thinking to be done…

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4 thoughts on “conversation, gender, power

  1. Thanks, G, for the typology. I am strongly considering an online discussion component for a American Lit survey in the fall, and I too am thinking about strategies for evaluation. One element I might add to my calculation in accounting for moves in these onversations is how critical thinking is or is not taking place in the conversations, how the conversation is working toward helping to establish and reinforce patterns and strategies for critical thinking about American lit and culture.
    On gender: You’re probably expecting this as a reply, but a Deborah Tannen has written a good deal about communication styles and gender. I had my student read one of her anthologized essays back last fall and the point about men being socialized into thinking of conversations as contests is one of her findings. Even joking becomes a contest, where there is a percieved winner (have I told you the one about…). Women, on the other hand, tend to listen and use strategies such as acknowledgement to keep a conversation moving. I forget the details, but it seems to me that you are on to something.

  2. Been reading your post with interest. What slightly worries me is your method for developing “synthesis”; will it result in bland conversations? If everyone merely agrees and is “supportive” the dynamic of the situation is destroyed. Liz’s point seems to me that male behaviour is often to be basically boring and not listen to what other people in the conversation have to say. I have no argument with that, but I have noticed these boring tendancies in a few woman as well (Maggie Thatcher springs to mind) ;)
    There has to be a balance. For a conversation to simply degenerate to a mutual appreciation society is very dull. I think you are being way too serious, conversation should be light and playful! Life is to be enjoyed and some of that is the cut and thrust of interacting with sharp people, who will not let you get away with bland rubbish. The question is how to make it light and playful.

  3. I think Jake makes a very important point – while this might serve as an interesting and enlightening exercise once, unless some method is developed to make it (as he said) “playful” in some manner, I worry that the tedium of the exercise will detract from the conversation, rather than add to it.
    I’m also wondering about methods of assigning points – should you perhaps assign points on quality of evidence as well as style of presentation? So, “Mike, you get a point for the “Challenge” and 3 points for such a good collection of supporting evidence for that challenge.” Or, “Jason, you get a point for that bridge, but your supporting evidence only merits a point, since it was based on hearsay rather than a reliable source”
    The process of assigning points to “types” is dangerous in itself – what differentiates a relevant digression from an irrelevant one? What if a “bridge” is offered, but it has no legs to stand on (is that, instead, a digression)?
    And most importantly, how do you make sure that the point system does not favor a traditionally masculine style of discourse?

  4. Mike: yes, I’m definitely thinking about these moves in terms of conversations about literature. I only used the WMD example because I thought more people would be familiar with the issues. And considering the element of critical thinking is an important addition, but then I’d want to devote a good chunk of time to making sure the class was clear on what constituted critical thinking. Late Spring semester I was reading but didn’t get through _Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers_, edited by John Schilb and John Clifford. Their first chapter (“Reading and Thinking”) has a section entitled “Thinking Critically: The Value of Argument” that would be very accessible to (and the whole book is designed for) undergraduates. I plan to return to this soon and use it in framing what will be going on in my Fall classes. You might want to check it out, too.
    Jake: you are absolutely right to say, essentially, that a bunch of people who do nothing but agree with and support each other will not have a very interesting conversation. I had meant to write that a mix of the two, the proportions of which would vary depending on context, would be ideal. Such a mix would look different among friends who were already confident in their opinion of each other than it would among strangers who were still getting to know each other; past conversations will impinge upon current and future ones. On the other hand, a conversation that is nothing but disagreement and challenge will not be very good, either. Too often such exchanges are really just competing monologues, and not dialogues: I want what I say to have an effect on what someone else thinks and what they say, and I want to actually be affected by the utterances of others and to let them know that I’m affected. And I agree (a move of agreement!) that to categorize certain moves as only belonging to certain biological entities is inaccurate; there are social behaviors that have been characterized as masculine and others as feminine, but this does not mean that only men engage in the former and only women in the latter.
    Jason: I wasn’t really proposing an “exercise,” so much as trying to develop a system by which conversations might be analyzed in terms of game-like rules. But of course, a game does need to be “light and playful.” You’re right that the quality of a move is just as important as making the move; one doesn’t earn two (or three) points, for example, just by throwing the basketball at the net: it has to go through the hoop. As for the danger of assigning points, assigning points to any sort of assignment is always dangerous. The questions you ask (e.g. “what differentiates a relevant digression from an irrelevant one?”) are good ones, but they are not unanswerable. Favoring a traditionally masculine style of discourse? Hmmm. This whole exhange has me rethinking my prototype: what if the points are not tallied up for each speaker in order to determine which individual has won, but are instead tallied up for each conversation to determine which conversation was the best?

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