Friday, February 20, 2009

Language, Women's Culture, and Manners

A terrific post at Feminist Mormon Housewives about housework, expectations, language, and what it's like to be a woman (at least, it matches my experience of being a woman).

The phone rings, its electronic jingle unnerving – I still prefer the warm bell of the old pink rotary phone my parents had when I was a child. I wonder absently what happened to it. My husband’s voice travels upstairs: He addresses his sister by name, and then casually responds with, “Yes, of course. We’d love to have you.” His sister – the nice one, the one I like but only see two or three times a year – is in town. She will be by in half an hour.

Immediately the process begins: Dress the children. Clean the house. Where to concentrate my efforts? Would she be giving us something for the baby? (Do I have enough thank you cards?) No, that’s right, she gave us something already. (Have I sent her the thank you card?) An outfit. “Can you put the baby in the white outfit with the blue teddy bears?” It isn’t a question but a request. “She gave it to us.” My husband looks at me, part adulation, part confusion. “I don’t know how you keep track of all of that,” he says. I shrug and say, “It’s important in a woman’s world.”

Immediately, I think of Virginia Woolf and her ill-advised choice of hat.


This domestic arithmetic is second nature. Women speak their own language, tonal and nuanced as Mandarin: the same words will differ in meaning depending on circumstance. Years ago, I inadvertently shared this with my husband, not realising that men did not know this language. A woman on a TV show remarked that the house of her not-as-well-off friend was “cosy.” I breathed in sharply through my teeth. “Isn’t cosy a compliment?” my husband asked. And so I translated: In that circle, cosy means small, inadequate. Cosy means poor. Cosy means the friendship – so heavily based on money – is not equal, and may not survive. All that, my husband pondered, from a simple word that could, if the circumstances were different, be a compliment.

This domestic arithmetic, this language of women, exists in all cultures, though in different forms: A gift is a gift, but it is also a showing of largesse and wealth. Or, A gift is a gift, but it is also a silent recognition that your family needs help. Or, A gift is a gift, but it is also a showing that you are no more wealthy than I am. So many different meanings.

Negotiating this complex world is a learned skill, and one most women begin to learn very young. We are socialized into it, there are magazine articles and advertisements on television and role models everywhere we look.

And in comments, the same rebellion I've often felt but never had the courage to completely implement:

Bleah. Loved the post, but hate the rituals. To me, it feels like games… games i deeply distrust. I think I must have issues or something; if there is one game I play it’s the “I’m not going to play any games. You want to say something to me? Say it. Otherwise I’ll ignore any signals you may be trying (or not trying) to send me”.

I think it’s part of the reason why it takes me a good long while to make friends with people… I’d say, on average I’ve been in a ward or workplace 2 years before I start getting comfortable with people. But it’s worth it to me, to save “friendship” for the situations where I know that everyone is being honest, transparent… I am only friends with people who I know will say whatever they’re saying about me to my face.
by sare.

1 comment:

Laura Back said...

I like this account, and I appreciate your inclusion of the comment about rebelling against "women's culture" -- it's easy to read the original account through an essentializing lens, but the comment is a reminder that even women from similar backgrounds are diverse in how they experience and respond to their socialization.

Personally, I have a lot of affection for the cultural forms that the author is describing -- I like the thoughtfulness that goes into things like the subtle acknowledgment of a previous gift, the little efforts to show appreciation for someone's kindness, or make that person feel cared about, without shifting the focus to oneself and one's own graciousness. (There's less care and generosity, of course, in things like the "cozy" comment, but even that language seems to have its caring functions; we can communicate those difficult things that really need to be said without putting the other person on the spot to acknowledge them right then and there.) But at the same time, her observations on the differences between her and her husband point out an interesting facet of what happens when these things are gendered -- it's another way that women work behind the scenes so that men *can* go through life without having to notice its complexities, in this case the work of attending to other people's feelings. Maybe in a world where people express their care for each other (and their criticisms of each other) more visibly, the work is more readily shared?

I also think it's just plain cool that there's a feminist Mormon housewife blog. :-)