October 08, 2007

Are pop gender studies from Uranus?

In the Sunday Times (of London), Ed Caesar has an article about Deborah Cameron's recent book, The myth of Mars and Venus ("Talking tosh on Mars and Venus", 10/7/2007). His tone is just a little bit patronizing (though perhaps he's only being British, it's sometimes hard for me to tell the difference):

So it turns out that after all the rows about the washing up, the shopping and the school run, men are not from Mars nor women from Venus. Both sexes are, rather prosaically, from Earth. And, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, men and women do speak the same language.

At least we do according to Deborah Cameron, Britain's pre-eminent feminist philologist (not often that you meet one of them) and the current Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at Oxford University.

Cameron, 48, is a firebrand with an impressive list of pet peeves, including Tories, Darwinists, GNER's passenger service announcements, Big Brother's language "so-called" experts, man-hating "pseudo-feminists" and societies for the protection of the semicolon. Don't get her started on Lynne Truss.

But the subject that has irked her most recently -- enough for Cameron to dedicate an entire book to bludgeoning its brains out -- is what she calls The Myth of Mars and Venus, published last week by Oxford University Press. In it Cameron tears into such seminal works as John Gray's Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus and Deborah Tannen's You Just Doní't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.

On the other hand, it's a long article in a major publication, and Caesar often gets out of the way and lets Cameron speak:

"The main thing about the book is that I wanted to offer people more than the evidence-free rubbish they get every day," says Cameron. "My pitch was basically the CSI pitch: let the evidence tell the story."

Where the book becomes interesting is when she asks why we have become interested in these myths. "The first point to make is that in the past 20 years we have become obsessed by communication," she says. "And that's not just in relationships; it's in customer care, it's in politics. All problems are seen to be communication problems.

"If, for instance, anyone disagrees with someone else, it's seen to be because they don't understand each other. Well, actually you could understand me and still disagree with me. Likewise, if a train is delayed or cancelled, all anyone's interested in is whether there is an appropriate announcement. Communication has become a substitute for actual problem solving.

"Where this relates to the Mars and Venus books is that they say problems in relationships between men and women are all down to communication. The misunderstandings are not, for instance, about the fact that men and women are both vying for jobs, or power, or status, or time. That's quite comforting to a lot of people.

"There has been a revolution in gender politics -- there is much more blurring between the roles of men and women -- and I think a lot of men and women are uneasy about that. Books like Mars and Venus tell us that although men and women may be very similar on the outside, we are profoundly different on a deeper level -- that we're 'hard-wired' differently."

I haven't read the book yet, but conveniently, as of today, The Myth of Mars and Venus is orderable from amazon.com in the U.S. (though there's a note that "This item is not immediately available to ship"). I'm reluctant to dismiss all claims about differences in communication styles as "evidence-free rubbish" (some further discussion is here), but I'm certainly sympathetic to Cameron's appeal to "let the evidence tell the story".

[Meanwhile, three excerpts from the book have been published in the Guardian: "What language barrier?", "Speak up, I can't hear you", "and " Back down to Earth".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 8, 2007 09:49 AM