Professor Deborah Cameron’s Language Theories
“Men are Not from Mars, Women are Not From Venus”
Since 1999, and the publication of John Gray’s book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” there has been a huge surge in popularity for the theory that men and women are so different in their communication, they might as well be from entirely different planets. Deborah Cameron, however, believes that not only are these books inaccurate and based on extreme stereotypes, that they also have the potential to be very dangerous. She believes books such as Gray’s bestseller, and similar titles “The Essential Difference” by Simon Baren-Cohen, “If men could talk” and “Why Men don’t Iron,” can lead to sexism and stereotyping, especially in the workplace. She believes that they have only stormed up the charts because the people attracted to them are desperate to understand why they sometimes have difficulties understanding, and being understood by, others. Suggesting that the differences are deeply ingrained within us all due to the way nature wired our brains rather than anything else, makes people feel at ease and less to blame. These people find comfort in the ‘Mars and Venus’ theory because it is the popular belief.
Cameron also claims that these ‘popular books’ (ie. The ones that are bought a lot) are written in an often humorous, easy to read style to attract the average person to them, thus increasing their potential sales. This means that they are far from the academic papers that they are attempting to be and so do not have to stand up to the same rigorous criticism and scrutiny and in fact do not really have to have reputable research to back up their claims. This instead supports her theory that they are merely myths with little or no scientific backing whatsoever, and it is true that in the academic world the Mars and Venus theories have little support. She indicates that people buy the books because they support the misconceptions that people often hear and believe, following the argument that you see what you are looking for and refuse to acknowledge (or simply ignore altogether) any counter-example. She says writers who, nowadays, announce these sex-differences to be natural, are simply following a line of argument that has, thanks to the bestseller charts, turned from a hypothesis to be investigated, to an “unquestioned article of blind faith.”
Her latest book, “The Myth of Mars and Venus” sets out to prove exactly what you would expect from the title; that John Gray’s theory, and all other versions of it, are wrong. To do this she quotes evidence gathered from various surveys and experiments carried out by other people. By doing this, she claims, she is finding the truth by looking “beyond Mars and Venus.”
The Myths and the Evidence Against Them.
Cameron is keen to dispute many ‘myths’ with regards to language and communication differences between the sexes. The first of these is that any differences that exist, are caused by male and female brains being wired completely. In fact, Cameron does not believe that men and women really differ fundamentally in the way that they communicate and use language, or that women are naturally better at it. She points to the TV programme “Ladette to Lady” in which working-class girls are coached to sound and act like upper-class women, to show that there is no generic way in which women speak.
Another popular ‘misconception’ is the one that says that “Women talk more than men.” Here, Cameron points out the wild inaccuracy of the many statements floating around the self-help universe, that say “women say over X words a day, whereas men say just Y,” with values of X ranging from 14000 to 35000, the most quoted value is 20000, and Y generally being just 7000. There has never actually been a controlled study of this, says Cameron, and so these facts are just pure guesswork (hence why they vary so much). She claims that this is just a statement made up to sound clever, that has somehow found its way into the general public belief.
Other claims made by the authors in the ‘Mars and Venus’ camp include that language and communication matter more to women, men use language in a competitive way (to get things done; they prefer to talk about things and facts) whereas women’s use of language is co-operative (to maintain equality and harmony, to make personal connections; they prefer discussing people, feelings and ideas). She does not believe that, even when these differences exist (and she says they are definitely not just due to gender) they cause miscommunication between the sexes, causing problems in situations where men and women have to regularly interact, such as relationships. She says that ‘miscommunication’ is fast becoming a wrongly used word meaning “I’m not getting what I want.”
A Summary of the Myths.
1 The differences in the way that men and women communicate is due to a fundamental difference in the way our brains work, and not down to the upbringing and environment of an individual.
2 There is a generic way in which female-brained people (and likewise male-brained people) communicate.
3 Language and communication matter more to women than to men; women talk more than men.
4 Men’s goals in using language tend to be about getting things done, whereas women’s tend to be about making connections to other people. Men talk more about things and facts, whereas women talk more about people, relationships and feelings.
5 Men’s way of using language is competitive, reflecting their general interest in acquiring and maintaining status; women’s use of language is cooperative, reflecting their preference for equality and harmony.
6 These differences routinely lead to “miscommunication” between the sexes, with each sex misinterpreting the other’s intentions. This causes problems in contexts where men and women regularly interact, and especially in heterosexual relationships.
Evidence to Disprove the Myths
The work of J Hyde, who looks at the effect of gender on many different aspects of life, including verbal and communicative behaviour, goes against the “Mars and Venus” theories. This is done by working out a formula for ‘d’ the difference, which can then be compared over the categories. The results show that in ‘almost every case’ the overall difference made by gender was either small or close to zero, ie. in conversation interruption, talkativeness and assertive speech. The only two categories that showed a moderate difference were spelling accuracy and smiling (both of which females were moderately better at). Hyde did find some differences that were very large such as in aggressiveness and distance they can throw, and she suggests that males perform better in these tests because as children, some mothers have been shown to act more warmly towards a boisterous boy than a quiet one, and vice versa for girls, encouraging certain behaviour. Enforcing these gender stereotypes from birth is what causes these differences, pushing the case for nurture over nature in the differences between the sexes. Hyde’s studies, Cameron says, show just how little difference there is between the sexes, disproving the “Mars and Venus” theory once and for all.
Why the Myths are so Dangerous
A lot of what Cameron has to say about the differences between the way men and women speak is to do with language and power being linked to nature versus nurture. She says that because women in the past have always been expected to ‘serve’ men, that is why there are so many misconceptions about communication, and Mars and Venus gives men an excuse because it is always the woman who has to change the way she speaks; for example they are told to give direct requests like “Stop watching TV and take out the rubbish, now” rather than “The rubbish bin is full, could you sort it please?”
Cameron asks why it is the females who are expected to change and accommodate to the way men ‘communicate,’ even in the 21st Century when the sexes are apparently equal. This is especially dangerous, Cameron says, in events like rape-cases, where juries often let a man off if he claims to have “misread her signals,” making the rape therefore the woman’s fault. In the workplace it can lead to stereotypes which often lead to women’s disadvantage. For example, in Baren-Cohen’s book, he lists jobs which he believe are more suited to either the female or the male brain. According to him, women make better nurses because they are more compassionate and have better people skills, whereas men make better lawyers due to the ‘analytical and precise’ nature of their brains. Cameron points out that if nurses cannot give out precise doses of drugs to their patients, they will cause harm, and that lawyers, no matter how well versed in the law, will get nowhere without communication and people skills. She says that Baren-Cohen’s claims are “sexism, not science.”
Testing Cameron’s Ideas
Cameron’s ideas are hard to test, because I am unable to look at the brains of some male and female subjects and determine exactly what has made them work the way they do (be it childhood influence, environment or even that they come from different planets) so instead I have chosen to look at the ‘myths’ themselves, about the differences between men and women communicating.
I did a test which someone showed me, based on the diagram shown here:
A sentence is read to the subject, with the stressed parts of the sentence placed along the red parts, and filler in the black bits. Apparently, according to one variety of the myth, men will only hear the stressed, red bits, and ignore or not be able to process the black unstressed bits.
I read the sentence (stressed bits in bold) “I’m feeling tired tonight, because school was really cold and exhausting but I’m looking forward to going out even though it’s a lot of effort but hopefully it’ll be fun” and then asked the participants to tell me what I had said to them.
Participant 1, male, told me that I had said I was tired because school was cold, but “something’ll be…fun, right?”
Participant 2, female, told me I had said I was tired, and “going out was a lot of effort”
Participant 3, male, repeated the whole sentence back to me. I asked him to put it in his own words and he said “You don’t want to go out because you are tired, but hopefully it’ll be fun”
Participant 4, female, said “You’re feeling tired after school but you still want to go out tonight because it’ll be fun,”
Participant 5, female, said “You’re feeling tired, school was tiring, but you want to go out because it’ll be fun, but it might be hard work.”
Participant 6, male said “You’re tired because school was exhausting, you’ll still go out tonight because it’ll be fun, but you’re probably going to find it takes a lot of effort.”
M/F STRESS1 FILLER1 STRESS2 FILLER2 STRESS3
1 M Y Y N N Y
2 F Y N Y Y N
3 M Y (Y) Y (N) Y (Y) Y (N) Y (Y)
4 F Y Y Y N Y
5 F Y Y Y Y Y
6 M Y Y Y Y Y
There was both a male and a female (5 and 6) who told me everything I had told them, casting doubt on the thought that men could not process the filler parts of the sentence. All participants were able to repeat the first section of the sentence back to me, and four out of the six could tell me the next section too.
For the males, Participant 1 focused on the beginning of the sentence and the last bit, picking up on 2 out of 3 stressed sections and 1 of 2 filler sections. He also used a tag question for reassurance, something that is stereotypically female. Participant 3 was able to repeat the whole sentence word for word, but when I asked him to put it in his own words, he only remembered the stressed sections, which does prove the theory, as he had not processed all of the information in his head. Participant 6 correctly repeated all of the sentence, and put it in his own words, which shows he had processed the information fully.
Of the females, Participant 2 picked up on 2 of 3 stress sections and 1 of 2 fillers, (the same as P1) which suggests that not all men and women process and pick up different information. Participant 4 picked up on all but one of the filler sections, in her own words which suggests that her focus was at the beginning of the sentence but was lost in the middle (much like what the ‘myth’ says happens to men). Participant 6, like 5, correctly told me all the information in her own words, which shows they had both processed the information and were able to recall it.
Overall, there was no definite trend between which sex could recall which parts of the sentence, which casts some doubt on the theory that men and women communicate differently. It is clear that for both sexes, the beginning of the sentence is the easiest remembered, proving the need for front-focusing, but this experiment also cast a lot of doubt in my head that the way men and women communicate and understand is different.