By Omar Souaid
Cover picture taken from healthline
When I was a child, my favorite activity during family gatherings was sitting and observing the adults talk. Even if I did not understand the discussion, I could feel the ambiance and would study each person’s character. As I grew up, the conversations started to sound less like gibberish, and I sometimes got included in them. That is when I started observing even better, as I now was an insider, instead of an outsider looking in. These interactions helped me notice that some people get to control the course of the dialogue: they get to listen, be heard, and stand out. However, I also got to discern the people that did not get to have a prominent part in the exchange, even if they had a valid point to share. In the end, I became an adult as well. Suddenly, I could and was supposed to actively participate in these discussions which made me realize that I sometimes wanted to be the person in control of them. Nevertheless, taking a place at the table can reveal that not everyone has the same opportunity to be heard. What kind of factors determine this opportunity?
My early observations coupled with my experience as someone who is part of the conversation have helped me detect a pattern. Conversational power depends on many dynamics: the topic in discussion, linguistic skills, and of course, the people you interact with. But even though these variables are important, other factors can still influence your chances of holding this power. Being a Middle Eastern man whose experience have been gained from living in a Lebanese household and among this society, has taught me that gender does have an important role in determining your conversational dominance.
Indeed, in mixed sex dialogues, conversational power opportunities are highly biased. This bias stems from either the different assimilated dialectal styles between genders and cultures or due to the stereotypes that lead the way conversations are shaped.
Linguistic Style: Singularity or Grounds of Exclusion?
Each person’s input in a conversation is characterized by a unique linguistic style which is a set of deep processed cultural experiences. All these differences in conversations are not harmless as seen in Deborah’s Tannen Harvard Business Review article on conversational power. Her analysis on the establishment of individual linguistic styles shows that it comes with a huge price.
Truth be told, people tend to believe that their way of speaking is natural- and should be the universal method of communicating. This is what their education and cultural background has taught them to believe. However, when it is time to listen, interpret, and evaluate what others are saying, people fail to agree. They cannot understand what others are sharing because they would not have said it the same way.
This process of thinking helps us understand the position of gender in the middle of this conversational power dispute. Gender stereotyping at a young age has led boys and girls to dissociate very early on in life. As shown in Deborah’s article, girls are found to gravitate towards smaller groups, sometimes playing with a single best friend, talking a lot, and learning to be less proud and more modest to avoid being called “bossy.”
Boys, on another hand, play in larger groups. Led by leadership ambitions, they always aim for the highest status in the group.
This difference in the upbringing of both genders has created distinct linguistic styles, patterns, and styles of communications.
I have personally seen this distinction between men and women even in the naming of the simplest communication concepts: “report vs. rapport,” “debate vs. relate”, “competitive vs. co- operative” …
On a long-term basis, this early-on separation resulted in a deeply rooted gender stereotyping which consequently assimilated men to power and women to powerlessness. This taste of power given to men triggers the greed of human nature for more control while “the powerless” women are unconsciously condemned to be silent.
This kind of greed drives men to try and take over all discussions. Joanna Wolfe who is a professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences , conducted research about conversational interruptions and amount of talking and found out that: “While both sexes interrupt, men talk and interrupt more often than women. Some of that is because society has accepted that it’s normal and natural that men tend to talk more. And when a woman complains or stands up for herself, she’s more likely to be negatively viewed than her male peers.”
I was curious enough to follow up with this hypothesis and asked my female best friend about her own experience in mixed-gender conversations, according to her:
« Many men converse respectfully, but it rarely seems natural. Most of the time, it’s only for the sake of gallantry. However, if we’re in the middle of a competitive debate for example, I see that men find it easier to cut off others. »
This direct and unconscious link relating women to powerlessness and upholding the historical ‘Man equals Power’ stereotype has given men the permission to easily take over the dialogues.
This has also been confirmed by the study of EFL learners on “The role of gender in conversational dominance” showing that for 3 out of 4 topics men had an interruption rate of 60 to 70%. Being totally unaware of this kind of situation in my professional environment, I wanted to check the viability of these results, so I set up a survey asking my female peers at AUB about their public speaking experiences. Through the establishment of a wide sharing campaign, I asked women to reply to the following question: « How does the presence of men in the room impact your speaking performance? »
After the results came through, I found that 60% of the respondents replied that they felt uncomfortable talking and sharing thoughts with men around. Nonetheless, linguistic manners are not the only factor influencing the gender bias in conversational dominance.
Stereotypes in Conversations
Power dynamics in conversations are a mirror of gendered stereotypes in communities. Every job, interest, or topic is now gendered and each of those labels is furtively embedded in the majority of people’s minds. Consequently, these labels resurface in conversations. If we were to take the case of sports from a stereotypical point of view, this topic is prejudiced to interest men in general while being foreign to women. I can take my own experience as an accurate representation of this matter. When newly meeting a girl, the last thing I expect is for her to know about football, basketball, or any male dominated activity. Even though it has happened quite a few times, it stills comes as a surprise to hear about a girl who watches or enjoys talking about football, and I can say that most of my male friends would not expect it either. Subsequently, when discussing such a topic, our instincts or more socially induced reaction is to leave females out of it. This does not only apply to sports-related conversations, but also to exchanges on politics or finance. I have witnessed numerous situations that could be a concrete example of this bias. In our Sunday lunches with my extended family, I cannot help but notice that all discussions about politics are dominated by male voices and women are hardly taken into
consideration. Naturally, some women accept their unfair fate and give up on the idea of making their point. However, other women have adapted to this exhibition of inequality and have learnt to make their way into the discussion. As I analyzed these Sunday conversations, I discerned women’s subtle ways of entering the exchange. Some slightly raise their voices while others ask questions (even if they might not be ignorant).
These stereotypes incite us to presuppose the other gender’s ignorance about some matters, thus giving the male gender another opportunity in their quest for conversational control: the self-attribution of informational power. As such, society has carefully built up men’s conversational arrogance, inciting them to feel that anyone would enjoy their so-called superior knowledge.
This phenomenon inspired the sociopolitical journalist Rebecca Solnit to write the essay “Men Explain Things to Me” in 2012. The title itself paints a perfect picture that would later be labeled as “mansplaining”. This term is defined as the explanation of something to a woman in a condescending way. In her essay, Solnit (2012) shares her numerous experiences on this matter, one of them being a man explaining to her the book that she wrote herself even though he had not read it. The man in question was not paying attention to whatever she was saying and did not believe that she was the writer until later in the conversation. This stranger provides us with a textbook example of some males’ conversational arrogance: regardless of the woman’s actual knowledge or point of view, the stranger’s unsupported overconfidence puts the woman out of earshot. This kind of disrespect toward female voices occurs on the family table, in meeting rooms, in politics, and the list goes on. In her 2017 study, Anna Grace Kidd defines mansplaining as “The Systematic Sociocultural Silencer” or in other words, women’s invitation to silence. Women are constantly interrupted, patronized, and reminded that they should be weak and silent. This is a man’s world and in particular, this is a man’s conversation.
Teaching Children About Their Roles in Conversations
As Anna explained in her paper, some concepts from our childhoods have helped in the normalization of mansplaining. Women are taught to be “young ladies” while men are brought up with the mentality of “boys will be boys” to avoid the accountability of their own actions. Once again, this kind of mentality is exposed by observing parents with their kids. On one hand, I have often seen women in my family teaching the young girls to sit and talk politely or in a “feminine” way. On another hand, as a child, I often saw my family members laugh and approve whenever I stood up for myself, regardless of my manners while doing so. Subsequently, girls are asked to follow subservient behaviors while boys are expected to be dominant. These early learnt notions remain present in the adult’s linguistic styles and have an impact on the conversational hierarchy in a mixed sex dialogue. Women should remain compliant and when necessary, silent, while men speak up in order to live up to the expectations of being a “real man”.
“The Man Box”
Another point worth noting is that men are also victims of society’s stereotypes and especially its perception of “real men.” Traditionally, masculine behaviors include courage, strength,
leadership, and dominance. All those characteristics that are related to “masculinity” compose the social conduct of men. The latter can also be dubbed “the Man Box” which strips males from the freedom of acting however they want. A “real man” always has a firm position in conversations. He leads and is never led, and he is always in control. If for a moment, a man does not live up to these standards, he is classified as weak, or worse, he is described as womanly (the greatest insult in the history of toxic masculinity).This biased hierarchy in conversations is present in my Lebanese household where the “man of the house” always sits at the head of the table, a strategic position that allows him to easily jump up in conversations. Moreover, as boys and men keep entertaining discussions, females are obligated to clean up the table. This illustrates how our community devalues a woman’s role in conversations, as she can easily be absent for the sake of cleaning.
Everything in our lives, even the most mundane things such as table divisions or parenting are inducing a gender-biased conversational power.
Ultimately, the discrete fight for conversational dominance is not fair. The chance to be heard is connected to the gender you identify as. In some cases, the bias is obviously displayed through our cultural folklore and experiences, yet it can also be caused by latent factors such as diverse linguistic styles or deeply embedded social labels. As such, my personal experience has shown me that women need to make an additional effort in order to be heard. Therefore, further research on this gender bias in conversations would help determine its influence on women’s lives (professionally or personally).
Kidd, A. G. (2017). Mansplaining: the systematic sociocultural silencer. University of North Georgia, https://digitalcommons.northgeorgia.edu/ngresearchconf/2017/englishcommunications/22/
Maderer, J. (2020). Women Interrupted: A New Strategy for Male-Dominated Discussions. Carnegie Mellon University, www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2020/october/women-interrupted-debate.html
Pakzadian, M., & Tootkaboni, A.A. (2018). The role of gender in conversational dominance: A study of EFL learners. Cogent Education, 5.
Solnit, R. (2002). Men explain things to me, www.guernicamag.com/rebecca-solnit-men- explain-things-to-me/.
Tannen, D. (1995). The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why. Harvard Business Review, www.hbr.org/amp/1995/09/the-power-of-talk-who-gets-heard-and-why.