|In 1990, this book got people talking |
about male and female conversation styles.
In social gatherings, it’s common to see men talking over women. I don’t think the Y-chromosome has a gene for interrupting women, but there’s no mistaking that males interrupt and talk over females more often than the reverse. In the geek population, it seems to be worse than average, and it’s probably also worse among people don’t know each other well, such as at a convention. The gamer and atheist communities can be uninviting or even hostile to women, and when women get talked over that doesn’t help. Geek conventions have taken to adopting explicit anti-harassment policies to help women be safer, and that’s great. I’d like to go further and implement an anti-interrupting policy. Women commonly have their voices silenced metaphorically, such as when their opinions are dismissed as hysterics. When a man talks over a woman in person, her voice is being silenced literally. How do we get that to stop?
In an open conversation with lots of people and no ground rules, a few people tend to dominate. They’re typically men, and I’m often one of them. To make the conversation more even, it helps to have some structure. The Burning Man discussions I lead are “walk and talks,” where everyone in the discussion answers yes/no questions by walking one direction or another. We also discuss the questions, and a few people tend to dominate the verbal discussion, but everyone gets to “speak up” by walking either left or right. When I’m moderating a panel at a game convention, during Q&A I give each member of the audience an opportunity to ask one question. We start at the front of the audience and work our way back one row at a time. Quiet fans get their chances to ask questions before we open the floor, and then a few people dominate the rest of the Q&A. The formats for Burning Man discussions and panel Q&As are gender neutral, but they have the net effect of reducing men’s dominance of the conversations. When I’m out with a group somewhere, I often notice women being talked over. There’s no moderator in these discussions, but sometimes I break in to ask the woman what she was going to say.
It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that geeks, gamers, atheists and similar populations see more talking over than average. First, the populations are skewed in the male direction, so a woman’s odds of getting talked over go up. Second, these populations include a lot of educated, analytical people who don’t always have the best social instincts. In tabletop roleplaying, several people are gathered around the table and only one talks at a time. That setup invites more aggressive talkers to shut out the less aggressive ones.
An explicit rule against talking over people should be phrased as gender-neutral, the way anti-harassment policies are. Loud people talking over quiet people is bad regardless of the genders involved. But making people aware of previously unconscious conversation habits is a teaching opportunity. The beauty of having a norm about men not talking over women is that anyone who doubts the feminist perspective can simply observe people talking and see for themselves what happens. You don’t have to hate men to say that they interrupt too much. You just have to watch them. And it’s hard to argue with the idea that people should be allowed to participate in a conversation. That’s why I bring up the gender issue, because men are the ones who need the most practice checking their privilege. A rule against talking over people would not only make our conversations more equitable, it would give men a good opportunity to see unthinking sexism in action. Maybe even in their own actions.
Presuming that anyone agrees with me on this point, how do we spread the norm of not talking over people? It’s a tricky question with different answers for different groups. In any event, it probably starts with some discussions on the Internet. Let’s see if that leads anywhere.