Gender identities and behaviour

This musing began as a reply to Nat on LiveJournal.

In the "Beyond Gender" workshop at BiCon 2001 we were discussing people's need to gender other people - how strong that impulse was for each of us, and why. As far as I can tell, I don't seem to need a gender for someone in order to relate to them, but I do have a social concern about accidentally upsetting someone by relating to them as a gender they feel doesn't fit, because I know some people take that personally and may even find it distressing. So gendering someone seems to be a social task imposed on me in order to take care of them.

Of course most people have more-or-less accepted the gender assigned to them at birth and gone with that, so most of the time a guess based on their body or their presentation will turn out to coincide with their own idea. But by now I've met enough people who have a different gender than one might guess from their appearance, to experience it as not particularly surprising when sometimes you have to find out someone's gender through language.

I suppose it's a bit like names - it's usual and polite to find out what someone's name is, and what version of it they like to be called. Sometimes people do make up nicknames for other people, or shorten their name without being asked to, and there are quite complex social conventions about that. Like, sometimes having a different name for someone is an expression of friendship and/or intimacy, and sometimes it's an expression of rudeness. And some people don't like it if you mess with their name, but some people don't mind. But in general, I find out what someone would like me to call them and then call them it. And I think that's more or less how I relate to pronouns.

That doesn't mean I never experience you [Nat, who had asked a question about perceptions of their gender] as having any, sort of, gender-reminiscent qualities. That's a different thing. Thinking "That's quite girly" or "that's a boy thing" doesn't mean I think you "are" those genders, since I find questionable the whole idea of someone "really" "being" a particular gender. It's convenient most of the time to assume that genders "exist", but it's not really true. They are a function of what in Landmark jargon terms would be called "agreement reality" - something that is experienced as real or true by virtue of people agreeing on it. Money is the classic example.

So for me, when I'm talking about the genderishness of any particular behaviour, I'm usually talking about something that (a) was deemed gender-linked in the first place as a function of cultural beliefs, and (b) is traditionally "installed" differentially in boys and girls by the behaviours and expectations of the people around them.

There could be some differences influenced by brain function and/or hormones, but in most areas where that's been theorised, I remain sceptical. I'm just in the middle of reading a book (Myths of Gender, by Anne Fausto-Sterling) which analyses various research purporting to prove one or another kind of mental/emotional/behavioural difference between women and men. Most of the studies which claim proven differences turn out to have been poor science.

(Behaviour directly connected with reproduction is the most plausible field for genuine differences i.m.o., since the optimum propagation "strategies" would be slightly different for genes-in-a-female-body and for genes-in-a-male-body, due to the biological investment in pregnancy. But a lot of complete bollocks has been written about this as well.)

At the very least, genetics and hormones are overlaid with significant amounts of cultural programming, possibly/plausibly to a degree that would dwarf by comparison any inherent differences.

So what I'm primarily talking about in terms of gender-typical behaviour is a tautologous loop: This is how girls behave, so we expect and socialise girls to behave this way, so girls do behave this way, so this is how we recognise people as girls. And: this is how boys behave, so... etc.

For instance, in mainstream western culture, girls are socialised to be aware all the time of how other people are feeling, and boys usually aren't. Girls are socialised to make sure everyone else is OK, and boys usually aren't. On average, boys are expected to suppress sadness more than girls are, and girls are expected to suppress anger more than boys are. And so on.

And, of course, there are cultural conventions about appearance.

Going back to the behavioural stuff, I don't think there are many people your age who were socialised all their lives as female and are as confident as you are about putting out their opinions in front of a group. I'm not by any means saying that all girls get that confidence squashed out of them, but I think a certain apparent faith in the validity and interestingness of one's own opinions is more typical of boy-socialisation than of girl-socialisation.

Yes there are plenty of confident women speakers (by most people's standards I am one). But I think a lot of women who can express their own opinions with confidence (particularly in a mixed-gender group), and who can trust that they will be found interesting by other people, have had to work to get (back) to that place, and it often doesn't happen till later in their lives.

That thing of interrupting yourself and going like "oh sorry, I'm talking too much, I'll shut up now, sorry, sorry", strikes me as very girl-socialisation-typical: both in the sense of expressing awareness of "share of the time", and of how other people in the group might be reacting, and just because (to dramatise slightly for the sake of illuminating the point) boys aren't supposed to apologise for having opinions and taking up people's time with them, and girls are  :-/

(This is not to suggest that boys never receive the less empowering variation where differences in socialisation exist. For instance, it's typical for boys to be disadvantaged with respect to girls in their capacity for intimacy. Intimacy, especially with other males, is incompatible with the classic western-mainstream-culture social construction of "being a real man".)

To elaborate some more on behaviour patterns in communication:
Some people seem to have almost no awareness of group dynamics or how the people around them are reacting. (E.g. elaborating at length on their own opinions, apparently without ever questioning whether their listeners are interested, while the body language of the people around them clearly indicates "polite boredom".) In my experience it's quite common to meet men, especially straight white men, who exhibit this phenomenon, and much rarer to meet a raised-all-along-as-female woman with that degree of obliviousness. Most women, even quite confident women, are brought up to have a strong awareness of "what are other people around me thinking and feeling about this?", and they'll get uneasy if they're not getting back encouraging cues for something they're saying. Girls are socialised from a very young age to be aware of the effect of their own actions on the group, and to put the needs of the group first, and to be aware of how everyone else is doing.

So, while many men have good communication skills, when someone does make inappropriately intrusive/nosey comments to their fellow workshop participants, or take a big share of the time without noticing, or bore people, or rebel against the workshop structure, the chances are fairly high that it'll be someone who was raised as male. I think this goes a long way to explain the popularity of women-only workshops. It's not fair on the more aware men, but on a practical level, some things tend to get much simpler to manage when the only people in a group were raised as girls.

I could go on about this stuff for ages - there's lots of fascinating research about women & men's typical conversational patterns, some of which I have read. The classic statistical stuff is things like: women ask more questions than men (vs making pronouncements), and do more verbal and non-verbal cues to encourage others to speak; men and women collude to allow men to take a longer share of available time; men interrupt more often, and so on. Women are socialised to interact conversationally with men differently from how they interact with other women (I would expect the same to be true of men, but I don't recall seeing that documented).

Some people think those cultural patterns are inherent - men are natural leaders, and that kind of bollocks - but I see no reason to assume this kind of thing is anything but socialisation. Occam's razor, and all that.

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rainbow line

Copyright Jennifer Moore 2001

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