Speak, Woman!

Oprah. Hillary Clinton. The late Bella Abzug. Amal Clooney. Renée Fleming. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Camille Paglia. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. What do all of these women have in common? If you answered that they are all celebrities and at the top of their fields, that would be correct. But there is something more important I would like to point out: they are all excellent speakers.

Women are often accused, sometimes in very misogynistic ways, of talking a lot. There is, however, much evidence from neuroscience and linguistics that shows this is true. Linguist Deborah Tannen has done a great deal of research on gender and communication, and UCSF neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine’s well-known books on the male and female brains have highlighted both the similarities and differences in our common organ, but asserted that women do talk more (though other academic studies have proved her wrong). Women are encouraged to talk a lot, to emote, use language for expressing our feelings. Many of us enjoy “girl chats,” gabfests where we can let it all hang out, sending each other funny texts, etc.

But what if we also encourage women to learn to speak well, to communicate effectively about the things they want, and not only emotional release? What if we emphasize the need to express ideas with clarity, articulate concepts in our field with precision, and help women to understand that this is a source of power? Regardless of popular opinion (which generally seems to agree that women talk more), we have to recognize that anyone who speaks well in public and in the workplace has a distinct advantage. I am in no way advocating that women need to talk like men or act like men, for I find that this has been a huge error on the part of the feminist movement and this forced a lot of women in the 80s to adopt a “power stance” and a large-scale denial of the feminine aspects of ourselves. But speaking well is not incompatible with femininity. Look at the list of women above: no one would accuse them of rejecting their womanhood. If anything, their ability to articulate themselves makes them stand out more as a woman, for they are not just beautiful and well groomed, but they have something to say and can say it well. Public speaking and effective speaking enhances a woman’s attractiveness; being able to include facts when you are trying to make a case for something makes you even more powerful and credible.

Parents need to persuade their daughters to harness the power of words, not post ridiculous images on Instagram or Snapchat. Teachers in the classroom need to ensure that they attempt to give equal airtime to women and girls, though sometimes females hesitate to speak up in class, as I saw when teaching at a college this past semester. Our society needs to create a culture in which young women, even if shy or introverted, see that it is a source of strength to use the power of words. We don’t need the talk show model of spilling one’s guts; what we need is to exalt role models who feel confident in saying what they need to say. Never underestimate the importance of public speaking.

Watch any occasion Ruth Bader Ginsburg is speaking. You will never see anyone who chooses her words more carefully, even as an octogenarian. Bella Abzug was known for being quite vocal “I was born yelling,” but watch an interview on PBS from the 80s, and you will see that she is incredibly sharp and can back up her assertions with facts. Oprah became the queen of emotion on talk shows, but she also had a sense of purpose and her feeling was matched with tremendous perception and intellect. The soft-spoken Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who by all accounts was introverted and shy, still had a core of steel and knew how to conduct herself beautifully in public, very aware of what she was saying and the manner in which she was saying it. Motormouth Camille Paglia talks a mile a minute, but it is because she is a walking encyclopedia and has so much to say as a scholar and writer. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex is unfailingly and incredibly articulate, gracious and womanly, but never afraid to speak her mind, especially when it comes to social injustice–something that was perhaps quite threatening to British society.

These are only a handful of role models and the only ones I can cite to readers as common references, given their celebrity. But think of the women we know in our own lives who are effective communicators and know what they are saying. We can find much to admire in many people in our daily lives, be it an Ivy League professor or a hardware store manager. We still have a long way to go with equality in American society; speaking effectively can help us on that journey.

Why Prejudice Continues, Despite Good Intentions

None of us are perfect as human beings. No matter how much we try, we unintentionally will all end up upsetting someone, knowing someone, excluding someone, hurting someone. And, unfortunately, we will all be on the receiving end of those negative behaviors, inevitably. When these things happen systematically, as so many in the Black Lives Matter movement have tried to point out, the offended parties will naturally speak out. We can even see this on personal level in groups we belong to, when one person is somehow not treated well. And the offenders who truly care listen, and genuinely wish to do well. But why do some problems still get perpetuated?

I believe there is one key psychological/sociological process behind this: people are operating from a place of abstraction rather than personal experience. And when the reality hits, it is NIMBY–Not In My Back Yard.

It is easy for someone for someone to say they oppose the mistreatment of others, that they are pained (and genuinely so) to hear of someone being treated badly. Someone who is actively involved, for example, in a human rights group that protests against the abuses of an indigenous tribe might find it uncomfortable and not want to listen when a friend tells them they were abused by clergy in the Catholic Church. It is easy for people to talk about what they hear on the news about people’s lives being affected by the pandemic, but when someone in a group talks about how their own career status is at peril, they change the subject or do not respond. Recently, I was talking with an open-minded American friend who has friends of different backgrounds, and is widely traveled. However, when I told her that a European friend had suggested I move to her country, but my hesitation was the growing racism I could face there (implying I could be mistaken for a South Asian laborer), she was not able to respond.

I believe a truly psychologically healthy, Zen-like solution to this is to allow ourselves to feel discomfort that comes up. By this, I am not implying that we should torture ourselves or voluntarily be unhappy–this is a very unconstructive way of dealing with problems, and I truly believe that joy, laughter, and happiness are what will move us ahead. However, we cannot deny the difficulties that happen to those around us. Only in accepting the fact that we are uncomfortable, that things are not abstractions but realities that happen to our loved ones and those we know, can we see the reality of a problem and take constructive action to move forward. We have to accept that in hearing about these unpleasant things, sometimes we might feel powerless and not know what to say. Perhaps guilt is what is underlying people’s unwillingness to respond.

But simply taking the time to accept people’s individual experiences can go a long way. A more constructive response would be to offer empathy, a willingness to listen, and compassion. And we should feel gratitude for the good things we do have rather than embarrassment or shame. Sometimes there may be a limit to how much we can hear or handle, especially during this pandemic, and we may have to set limits on what we hear from others on a personal level or in the news. We have to offer ourselves compassion as well.

These are not easy things to do. I am by no means perfect in practicing this, nor is anyone. But understanding people’s experiences firsthand, on an individual level, just might be a first step to making larger changes. A professor of international education in developing countries at Columbia University’s Teachers College told us something so simple and yet profound when thinking about how we look at societal ills: “They’re people, not problems.”