liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
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Author: Deborah Cameron

Details: (c) Deborah Cameron 2007; Pub Oxford University Press 2007; ISBN 978-0-19-921447-1

Verdict: The myth of Mars and Venus is an accessible and important contribution to the debate about gender and language.

Reasons for reading it: I've been meaning to read Cameron for ages, because people keep quoting her or linking to her articles and I have a lot of sympathy for her views.

How it came into my hands: Thuggish Poet gave it to us as a wedding present, to dispel any worries we might have that men and women can never communicate effectively.

It turns out that people refer to Cameron so much that I've actually already absorbed most of her arguments, so there wasn't a whole lot that was new to me in The myth of Mars and Venus. I was interested to discover that she comes out just as strongly against people like Lakoff and Tannen who claim that women use language differently from men because *sexism*, as against people like Pinker and Baron-Cohen who argue that women use language differently from men because *evo-psych*. Cameron's argument is that women don't use language differently from men; people adapt their language use to their roles, their circumstances, to what they're trying to achieve. Also "women" are not a monolith; language use also depends on social class, geographic origin, level of education, age and so on, and can sometimes be a marker of other specific identities such as geek or Queer. This means that she can dismiss a lot of contrary evidence on the grounds that it's based on a convenience sample of WEIRD college students.

I found the book very easy to read - I got through most of it in a couple of hours' train journey - and its arguments very plausible. However my disappointment was that Cameron presents surprisingly little primary research. Three quarters of her bibliography refers to either the pop science and self-help manuals that she's debunking, or media articles which illustrate wrong popular beliefs about language and gender. And although I do basically agree with Cameron's thesis, she sometimes veers off the track of carefully presenting both sides of an argument, and simply presents speculation as fact or uses annoying polemical techniques such as ridiculing her opponents' views rather than actually dealing with them. The primary research she does cite consists of a bunch of absolutely fascinating examples of language research done on people from a more diverse range of cultures than the typical subjects, everything from 19th century Japanese schoolgirls to blue collar African-American women with diversions via trans women and phone sex operators. (One example I really liked was a study by Mary Bucholtz on Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls who apparently used a very 'correct' and formal kind of speech to symbolize the value they accorded to knowledge and intellect, and they avoided the slang expressions favoured by other teenage girls.) The trouble is that the book at times felt like just a bunch of probably cherry-picked anecdotes rather than a coherent argument. To an extent, if Cameron is trying to convince us that there are no universal differences between "men" and "women," then even a few examples of women who don't fit the popularly accepted pattern are enough to make her case, but I think it would be an uphill struggle to convince a skeptic using this approach.

Some aspects of Cameron's (clearly marked) opinions I found quite interesting. For example, she has quite a lot to say about the assumption that men are, essentially, less verbally skilled than women which can disadvantage men in the modern workplace where being able to build a rapport with customers is often more important than technical skill. She also proposes that one reason for the popular obsession with "hard-wired" differences between men and women may be a way of coping with the anxiety produced by a rapidly changing society, particularly when it comes to gender roles. I could definitely see some merit in her view of the rise of companionate marriage, so that people have much higher expectations than in the past of a strong emotional connection with their spouses, but at the same time, people have less strong support networks in terms of families, religious organizations, geographic neighbours etc. So there is a huge pressure on spouses to be able to "communicate" almost superhumanly well, and when reality doesn't quite live up to that ideal, innate gender differences in communication style make a good scapegoat.

I think tMoM&V is a book that everybody who wants to have an opinion about gender and language should read, it's very much a key aspect of that debate. And I don't think most of my friends are likely to take John Gray or Louann Brizendine seriously, but may well be a bit less skeptical when it comes to people like Baron-Cohen who sound "sciencey", so it's definitely good to have access to the other side of the argument. But it's not a book that every right-thinking person should accept wholesale, because it's just not rigorous enough. I think I need something one notch more academic than this, perhaps something aimed at university undergraduates rather than complete laypeople or subject experts.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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