Saturday, September 22, 2012

Cameron: "Is there any ketchup, Vera?" (1998)

In reaction to Beborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand (1990), Deborah Cameron wrote a short and insightful paper that, for various reasons, only got published much later.

In the paper, she argues that the observable differences in women's and men's conversational styles are the visible sign of strategies for handling gender roles rather han direct consequences of either gender differences or gender inequality.

"Thanks, mom"

According to Cameron's summary, Tannen's central thesis is that women and men have different conversational styles, and this leads to systematic misunderstandings. She gives an example, repeated by Cameron on page 79, of a female and a male co-worker walking between two buildings on a cold day. The following exchange takes place:
  • Female speaker: Where's your coat?
  • Male Speaker: Thanks, mom.
According to Tannen's analysis, this is an example of a frustrated communication situation that arises because a typical female move (showing consideration for others) is interpreted by a male hearer as a typical male move (status-grabbing through pecking).

Cameron is uncomfortable with this analysis, among other things because we have no overt evidence that the man actually misunderstood the woman's question. Instead, this "momming" might instead be a case of
'strategic' misunderstanding, where the relativity of linguistic strategies is exploited as a weapon in conflicts between men and women. (p. 86)
Here, the relevant "relativity" would be the two different functions of a question, as an expression of interest, or as a covered command.

"Would you like to finish that report today?"

To illustrate this point further, Cameron cites two more examples. One comes from a magazine advising women in managing positions to use "on record" strategies when giving orders to male employees. Forms like
  • Would you like to finish that report today?
are, in other words, not recommended, since the employee receiving this request could worm his way out of the obligation under the excuse that "if it was really urgent you should have made that clear" (p. 86).

The other example is an anecdote she heard from a friend about a recurring dinner table exchange between the friend's parents (p. 87). Every night, the mother would serve dinner, and the father would ask,
  • Is there any ketchup, Vera?
This was, of course, intended as a request or order and always understood as such.

The Use of Forms

Cameron's point is that the inderect form of request – a "feminine" form according to the stereotype – is not invariably produced in all women and all circumstances. Rather, using one or other form is a matter of choosing the right strategic move in a particular situation.

A key aspect of the situation is indeed the power distribution, and this power distribution is not independent of gender. In the classical dinner table setting, it is thus almost unthinkable that Vera should respond "Yes, it's in the kitchen cupboard," while this might be appropriate if the young daughter had asked (p. 88). On the other hand, as the magazine said, it is absolutely conceivable that a man would exploit this ambiguity strategically; hence the recommendation.

This is not necessarily due to any differences in cognition, nor even global differences in power between the sexes. It is rather the visible trace of a strategy/counterstrategy dialictic that follows in the slipstream of social change and challenges to traditional privileges.

In Camoron's words:
One might paraphrase Marx: 'men and women make their own interactions, but not under conditions of their own choosing'. (p. 91)

No comments :

Post a Comment