Wednesday, January 08, 2020

masculine discourse and male oneupsmanship

Deborah Tannen's 1990 book on male-female discourse, You Just Don't Understand, notes that men tend to engage in report-talk (the lecturing style I'm using now, in which I have the floor), whereas women are more inclined toward rapport-talk, i.e., discourse whose primary purpose isn't the transmission of information so much as it's about building relationships.

This clip from 1992's "White Men Can't Jump" seems almost as if it were lifted straight from Dr. Tannen's brain.

In essence, Rosie Perez's "Honey, I'm thirsty" was never meant to be taken literally: as she contends, what she really wants is the bonding experience that comes from knowing her beau is sympathizing with her "dry-mouthedness." Perez's Gloria goes on to say that men always make the mistake of thinking that the expression of a problem means the man needs to solve the problem. Tannen explains this male tendency in terms of male hierarchical thinking: by solving a problem for a woman (but this could also apply to helping men), the man puts himself "one up" in relation to the woman: she now owes him for his good deed. Gloria's statement that she was thirsty was, from her point of view, not a statement of fact but a gesture to initiate bonding. Rapport-talk, not report-talk.

Before I delve into the topic I intend to discuss, though, we should note that YouTube hosts a hilarious video that takes the female perspective to its humorously absurd conclusion: "It's Not About the Nail," in which a girlfriend angrily accuses her boyfriend of missing the point when she's talking about her "problem":

What I wanted to concentrate on in this post, though, was Tannen's notion of male hierarchical thinking and how it plays out in discourse. I don't actually question Tannen's position; if anything, I see it confirmed every day. When I talk with people, it's very rare for me to take the "dominant" role in an exchange. Normally, I'm content to let my interlocutor have the floor. Once in a while, though, I'll inject certain remarks, but because my interlocutor sees me in the "submissive" role (sorry if this terminology sounds too BDSM for your taste), he will tend to "one-up" my remarks as a way of reinforcing the perceived hierarchy. It's often amazing to me how many of my interlocutors fail to notice this dynamic.

Here are some specific examples of the verbal oneupsmanship I'm talking about (in bold):

A: That's not going to bode well for Iran.
B: Not only that, but it's going to have ramifications for the rest of the Middle East.
[one-upping by dismissing, or at least eroding/undermining, the significance of my statement]

A: So it's a broken system.
B: Yeah, but the point is that there's no solution to the problem.
[one-upping by dismissing the centrality of my point]

Other examples:

...but what we're really talking about is...
...true, but the crux of the problem is...
...and that's not the only problem.

Granted: you could counterargue that there could be perfectly logical reasons for people to talk this way—reasons that have nothing to do with egocentric, hierarchically motivated oneupsmanship. Maybe someone really is missing the central point, for example; maybe someone really is just scratching the surface and not following the implication of what one is saying. These scenarios are indeed possible.

But honest reflection demands that we examine the personality of the male speaker to see whether he's in the habit of engaging in this style of discourse. If he is, if he's a constant contrarian who is often or always trying to show off that he's smarter, deeper, or otherwise sharper, than what you're seeing is Tannen's oneupsmanship.

I'm guilty of this style of speech myself, so I'm not trying to one-up my male readers, here, by making it seem as if this phenomenon is something I merely perceive and not something I also engage in. That said, I do tend to observe this behavior happening around me quite a lot, and I think my often-quiet style frequently encourages male bluster in the form of pompous lecturing—rattling on and on.

This post was inspired by an encounter I had last night with a strange Korean man whom I've seen before in our neighborhood. The man is in his late sixties or early seventies, and he speaks excellent English. He's extremely well educated, and as I learned last night, he's also published two books on the history of Genghis Khan—books he's trying to get translated into English. His central thesis is stereotypically nationalist: the etymology of the title "Genghis Khan"—he claims—actually goes back to old Korean words, and the title originally meant "King of Korea." Mentally, I had to sigh. I've heard this sort of jingoistic bullshit before, which is always in the spirit of "Koreans invented motorized flight centuries before the Wright Brothers did." It bespeaks a sort of insecurity and oversensitivity regarding Korea's place in the world, and I wish Koreans would get over it. It doesn't burn me that Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space, or that Marie Curie got two Nobel Prizes, or that Japanese cheesecake tastes better than American cheesecake (your mileage may vary). Anyway, the man roped me into a "discussion" I didn't want to have, and I only managed to break away when another American approached us and succeeded in diffusing, if you will, the old man's attention. The man had no sense of when to shut the fuck up; it was an acute case of Report-talk Syndrome. I admit I have an ego, but I can't stand the discursive dick-waving that is so often a symptom of being male and having an ego. While the old man ran on and on, I thought of the old Zen story of the philosophy prof who couldn't help showing off his knowledge in front of the Zen master. The master quietly listened, then he began pouring tea into the philosopher's cup. When the tea began to overflow, the philosopher yelped, "Stop! No more will go in!"—to which the master replied, "You are like this cup: full of ideas and full of yourself. How can you learn anything new?" It's a cautionary tale, and not just for men: many women are prone to lecturing, too. Specifically, though, it's a cautionary tale for me, a warning that I too need to check my own tendency to go on at length when I'm caught up in an inspiring topic.

And now, I'll stop going on at length.


John Mac said...

Yeah, I understand what you are saying but...

Honestly, I've actually never really thought about my conversation style and I'm not sure I want to. If you are speaking your mind, shouldn't your focus be on presenting your thoughts in a coherent fashion, not the way you are presenting those thoughts? I could maybe see myself in the example you used here:

A: That's not going to bode well for Iran.
B: Not only that, but it's going to have ramifications for the rest of the Middle East.
[one-upping by dismissing, or at least eroding/undermining, the significance of my statement]

I would think that I'm totally agreeing with your premise and adding to the conversation by noting other aspects of the problem/issue you raise. Isn't that the point of a conversation--to enhance each other's knowledge on the subject? To me, a dominant style would be to respond "who gives a fuck about Iran, Syria is the problem!"

Anyway, as I said, I'd rather not overthink the conversation style. It's all I can do to add useful thoughts and information to the discussion. I don't take offense when someone uses a dominant style with me. Hell, I'm not sure I ever even noticed before. This post may have ruined my future conversational peace of mind! Well, I mostly talk to bargirls so it may not be a problem... :)

Kevin Kim said...

Yeah, as I wrote, much depends on whether you're making a habit of trumping your interlocutor in an attempt to appear smarter. I know a few guys who are like that.