Taking the Stitches Off

Cross posted on UV

The highest compliment in my grandmother’s book was “What a sweet girl! She keeps her mouth stitched up.” Of course, in Bengali, this has a nicer ring to it but it essentially means a girl who keeps quiet, who is silent in the face of adversity (and torture and ill-treatment), who endures. I grew up hearing this and, of course, consequently thought of myself as a very bad girl indeed. For as a child, I was what is commonly called ‘moophat’ in Hindi, loosely meaning brash and thoughtlessly expressive. Over the years, I mellowed (—or was made to?) and recently, I have sometimes found myself unable to speak even when it is urgently, desperately required.

Now, we know this scenario. It’s an old one. Women stop short of many things because they’re scared of being labeled loud, aggressive, and the dreaded ‘bitch’. Never mind that the reason they’re shrill sometimes is so that they won’t be silenced with a gentle slap from the old boy’s network. Between defiance and apologia is a thin line and we’re constantly scared of falling off. In this article, writer Verlyn Klinkenborg talks about a writing class he held where he noticed this:

Midway through lunch one day a young woman asked me if I noticed a difference between the writing of men and the writing of women. The answer is no, but it’s a good question. A writer’s fundamental problem, once her prose is under control, is shaping and understanding her own authority. I’ve often noticed a habit of polite self-negation among my female students, a self-deprecatory way of talking that is meant, I suppose, to help create a sense of shared space, a shared social connection. It sounds like the language of constant apology, and the form I often hear is the sentence that begins, “My problem is …” Even though this way of talking is conventional, and perhaps socially placating, it has a way of defining a young writer — a young woman — in negative terms, as if she were basically incapable and always giving offense. You simply cannot pretend that the words you use about yourself have no meaning. Why not, I asked, be as smart and perceptive as you really are? Why not accept what you’re capable of? Why not believe that what you notice matters?

Hilary Clinton faces a similar problem:

Education researcher Bernice Sandler and linguist Deborah Tannen have shown that women who speak in a conventionally “feminine” manner (soft volume, high pitch, upward inflection) are perceived as less competent, while those who speak in a more decisive (masculine) manner (lower pitch, downward inflection) are perceived as aggressive.

When Hillary conforms to the norms of feminine vocal comportment, she is too careful. When she raises her voice in passion, she is shrill. Lectern-thumping, emotionally charged rhetoric by a female candidate would be dismissed as hysterical. How, then, is a female presidential candidate to speak?

Glamour Magazine gave us advice on how to tackle this conundrum:

“Speak directly to male subordinates. Women tend to shy away from giving a blatant order, but men find the indirect approach manipulative and confusing.” Here women are told to speak directly to men, not because indirectness undermines their authority, but because men find it “manipulative and confusing”.

Firstly, why should we always modulate and modify ourselves? But even if we put that aside for the moment, years of conditioning is hard to break. I catch myself doing it sometimes more often than I’d like–voicing statements as questions, orders as pleas, sounding tentative when I’m not, sounding placatory, apologetic. I’ve noticed other women do it too. We do it because over time we have learned that this ‘manipulative and confusing’ technique is an easier, quicker way to get things done. We have learned to recognize raised hackles and thinly veiled ego bruises. We have learned to pat and smooth and ‘there-there’ our way through boardrooms and bedrooms. Frankly, it’s silly to tell little girls to be polite and sweet and all things nice and then expect them to grow up to be direct-talking, plain-speaking women who state their case without hemming and hawing, and hoping that they will not be labeled terrible things for simply stating their point.

At the same time, I can’t ignore the question and say we shouldn’t care because I’ve seen too often how it affects women in very practical ways. I’ve been privy to decision-making processes where women were excluded from important positions because they were not opinionated enough. Because they would not be able to ‘hold their own’ in a group of men. Because they were doers but not thinkers (in other words, they had not expressed their thoughts forcefully enough on too many occasions). Because they were viewed as terrific second-in-commands but not as leaders.

I went to an all-girls college and I often heard even the strongest, most confident women there say that they liked being in an environment where they could grow without having to compete with men. That they could express themselves better because there were no men around. It is astonishing how many of these really bright people went on to have no career or worklife (maybe out of choice but maybe not). Is it because they had not learned one of the most important aspects of coping with a career—dealing with men? Did they lose their voices when they stepped out of those hallowed pink portals and into grey tube-lit corridors? Or were they like untrained singers thrust onto the stage, unable to find the right pitch?

I wish there were easy answers to this issue of women’s voice, tone and speech patterns but there aren’t. Here are some of the questions instead:

  • If women natively have a different speech pattern, why should they have to change it? What are the advantages that ‘feminine’ speech patterns accord women and society? Why should we not try to preserve them?
  • How much of this is genetic and how much is created by environment?

What we say and how we say it is inextricably linked to who we are. While some of it may be biologically defined, a lot of it has to do with how we were brought up and who we were to conditioned to become. It would be useful to remove the gender-based environmental conditioning as far as possible and then see whether men and women do speak all that differently. Parents, families and teachers need to stop placing stress on how (and how much) girls should speak. And it is astonishing how much (consciously and unconsciously) we still perpetrate this sort of conditioning.

Things are changing though and those in their twenties now are bolder, less hesitant and reticent, less worried about being ‘polite’–and hopefully—less bothered about being ‘sweet’. (I mean really, what are we? Stacks of mithai at Kanshiram halwai’s?) Certainly, I don’t hear people talking about ‘keeps her mouth stitched up’ as a virtue anymore.

As for me, my real self is still in there somewhere, kicking away every now and then. And at age thirty, my family’s hold on me relatively weaker, I’m (re)learning to let it out more and more. But having grown up with contradictory messages, finding the right pitch is still a challenge. And yes, the original question still gnaws: why is it always us who must work so bloody hard at it?


Filed under Gender

5 responses to “Taking the Stitches Off

  1. Sumana

    Excellent piece!

  2. Bobbi J

    michelle obama faces that as well and she’s not even running for anything

  3. Sumana: Thank you

    Bobbi J: Yes, I know 😦

  4. Hey Anindita,
    That made a good read. I so get what you are saying… I went to a girl’s school (convent) and I am quite sure I am partly screwed up because of that. Between our cooking and sewing classes and the pressures of being a ‘good’ girl… I think most of us grew up with skewed ideas of who we were/could be. Most of my peers are a confused bundle of conditioned, socially acceptable Stepford wives with equal parts of a thinking, questioning rebel thrown in. Still, I am glad I grew up in these times! Thanks for dropping in on my blog. 🙂

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