Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Responding to "How to Talk to Women Without Pissing Them Off"

Here's another in my series of responses to articles published at The Good Men Project. Each post I do in this series is written in a deliberately brief period -- usually an hour for the writing proper, though I really didn't like what I had at the one-hour mark for this one so I took a bit longer -- and so is not necessarily super polished. For a rationale as to why I'm doing this, see the first few paragraphs of this post.

I'm responding today to "How to Talk to Women Without Pissing Them Off" by Dr. Christie Hartman. In this piece, Dr. Hartman lays out the problem of men not knowing how to have respectful, productive conversation with women. She then presents three simple "conversational ditches" that men should avoid -- "criticizing her tastes or beliefs" in ways that amount to personal attacks; "needing to be right"; and, "offering unsolicited advice."

On a certain level, this article is addressing some pretty core elements of how sexism and patriarchy are reproduced in interpersonal relating between men and women. The author is, I suppose, making a strategic decision to avoid politicized language. The things she is talking about could be named for what they are, which is elements of the everyday enactment of social relations of gender domination and oppression. Some of what she describes might in other contexts be called "mansplaining". Much of the rest could also be identified as men acting on an ingrained sense of (and need to maintain a sense of) superiority over women. Rather than making these aspects explicit, she is choosing to name and respond to those things in neutral, technical, strategies-for-success kind of language that might slip under tendencies towards knee-jerk defensiveness by some men.

While I have no doubts at all that addressing such oppressive gendered practices in interpersonal relationships is extremely important, and the chosen strategy might be effective in reaching some men -- I'm unconvinced, but it might -- I still feel quite ambivalent towards the article. I mean, her advice is extremely basic -- it really just boils down to telling men to listen, be respectful, and not be jerks -- but it is part of conversations that desperately need to happen about how many men currently relate to women and how they should relate to women (and, though she ignores this, to each other). But it also feels a bit simplistic, and I wonder if a different approach might in the long run be more effective.

Part of my ambivalence is personal on my part. I don't claim that I've never done the things that she argues men need to stop doing -- I know I have -- but for all of the limitations I see in my own communication style, I am much more likely and able to have good conversations with women than with men. In fact, that's true in part because of the exact things she identifies about how people who do dominant masculinities tend to be present in conversation, which I often find it very hard to engage with. But I do plenty of messed up things in conversational contexts myself that are also related to troubling aspects of masculinity, they just are more often than not different from the ones that this article focuses on. I tend to stay closed when I would be much more likely to cultivate the kinds of connection I want if I was open, for instance. And I tend to be quite avoidant regarding interactions with other men, particularly men who do common dominant masculinities, which isn't good for me and is definitely not a good thing politically. So there are definitely things that I need to work on around masculinity and interpersonal interactions, but there are things that loom a lot larger in my life than the things that she identifies.

Moving beyond just its relevance to me, some of the ways that the article is simplistic seem common to pieces about masculinity on the site. Similar to one of the pieces I've already responded to, this one is built on an incredibly simplistic take on gendered differences. Similar to another of the pieces I've responded to, it treats the category of "men" as pretty monolithic. The article claims that "as a man, you have a communication style" -- that is, all men have a similar style -- that works with other men but not with women. The idea of mars vs. venus essential and non-overlapping communication styles might capture the way that some specific men and some specific women relate, but I seriously doubt whether leaving it at that level is going to ultimately lead to the kinds of improvements that are necessary. Framing it all as three simple rules that will lead to success may get past defensiveness for some, but at the expense of underplaying the magnitude and significance of the issues at its heart. If your baseline is not really listening to women and behaving like a jerk towards them in an overt or covert way -- and those are pretty common among people who do dominant masculinities -- those are signs of bigger questions than individual quirks of conversational practice, and I don't think we're doing either women or men any favours by staying quiet about those bigger questions. Related to this is the way that the early paragraphs of the article try to cultivate buy-in from readers by offering secrets to "success with women" and to not "pissing them off." In other words, it uses but does not challenge the premise underlying how at least a subset of men think about women, which is largely in terms of potential sex and potential for 'irrational' anger.

But I don't really know. Maybe treating this kind of piece as a sort of harm-reduction front in the larger struggle to transform gender oppression is a good idea. Maybe it will get some men thinking about some of their practices in a way that will make micro-level improvements to how they relate to the women in their lives. But I also think there are all kinds of reasons to be reading, writing, and discussing pieces about masculinity and interpersonal relating that are much more up-front about the complexity of it all, as well as the political implications.

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