Skills gap

Jul. 7th, 2014 01:44 pm
liv: Composite image of Han Solo and Princess Leia, labelled Hen Solo (gender)
[personal profile] liv
I'm bad at really a lot of things that women are expected to be good at. Some of them don't matter very much: clothes, make-up, fashion, personal adornment in general, for example. This doesn't matter to me because I'm cis, so people rarely challenge whether I'm "really" female, and I have a weak sense of gender identity so I don't feel hurt, weird or dysphoric if people do in fact think I'm unfeminine. And it's easy to dismiss looking pretty as just superficial; certainly my professional life doesn't depend on succeeding at it.

Lots more stuff in this category consists of valuable skills, but ones that men get away with being mediocre at, so although I would like to improve I don't worry very much that I'm below average compared to women if I'm at a level that's fairly typical for men in my society. Things like cooking and baking, housekeeping, fabric arts, domestic sphere type stuff. Being able to cook, clean and sew are in fact important, and they're devalued precisely because they're seen as "feminine". But I'm pretty sure if I were male I would be praised for keeping my living space as clean and tidy as I do, for being able to cook a decent if not extensive range of nutritious and tasty meals, for being able to sew on buttons and carry out minor clothing repairs. To some extent you could say the same thing about appearance-related stuff; in our particular society, men aren't expected to know how to put on make-up or wear a range of different clothes carefully matched to the formality of various situations, so these things are considered unimportant, not because they actually are.

The third category is where I'm more concerned about my deficiencies. I guess you could broadly call it social or communication skills. Empathy, intuition, emotional communication. I want to be better at these things primarily because I'd do better in life and be less likely to inadvertently hurt people, not really because women are "supposed" to be good at them.

I think I missed out on what feminists describe as female socialization. I remember trying to read Dale Spender and getting completely impatient with the way nothing she described about how women are "taught" to communicate bore any relationship to my reality. I'm loud, I expect my opinions and ideas to be taken seriously, I usually say what I think without hedging or prevaricating. I suppose as a child I did sometimes get criticism for being loud on a literal level, sometimes explicitly on gender grounds – my voice does carry – but it never really took. I still sometimes get glared at because people can hear my speaking voice too well over the general background noise on a train or in a restaurant. Mostly this is a good thing because my style of communication is considered prestigious, if sometimes masculine.

The problem is that my natural communication style is also seen as asserting dominance, precisely because it's associated with prestige / masculine approaches. So I end up unintentionally talking over or even silencing people, either because they're more traditionally feminine than me or because they come from high context cultures and find it difficult to be assertive in discussions. Consistently a small proportion of my students write in my evaluations that they find me intimidating, for example. I think I'm basically unsafe in consciousness raising women's (and minority) safe spaces, because everything that such spaces find problematic about how high-status patriarchal men communicate... is exactly how I communicate :-(

Also I run into conflict with other people sometimes, because they think I'm trying put them down. It's not something that happens all the time, but it does happen enough that I think it's probably a pattern and one I should try to address. It seems to be most common with women who identify strongly with their female gender, in particular American feminists of the school that focuses on raising the value of feminine-coded stuff (as opposed to those who focus primarily on getting women access to masculine-coded stuff). It can be online or in person, I'm trying to express enthusiasm and interest in someone's ideas, and she (usually she) thinks I'm attacking her or patronizing her or otherwise being aggressive. And when I become aware of these miscommunications my attempts to explain make it worse, because I use lots of words in a confident, assertive way and don't successfully signal respect and goodwill.

Does anyone have any advice for how to get better at this? I'd be especially interested in suggestions from other women who had to explicitly learn to communicate in feminine-coded ways as adults. (Some feminists erroneously assume that this category perfectly overlaps with trans women, but it clearly doesn't, some trans women have always communicated in what society sees as feminine styles, some trans women don't care if their communication is perceived as feminine, and I'm sure I'm not the only cis woman who finds herself in the position of needing to learn this.) I'd also like to hear from male friends about whether you ever think about balancing your communication style to avoid dominating over women and minorities, and if so, what you do.

I think it's not just avoiding hurting people and causing conflicts, it's being better at the emotional rather than factual side of communication. I am often bad at reading what kind of mood someone is in, and at expressing sympathy and kindness and support rather than trying to come up with practical fixes for people's problems. I know that it's stereotyped as masculine to react in that way, but for me, gender completely aside, it's very useful to be aware of the distinction between fixing type support and reassurance type support, because I can at least ask which someone prefers rather than assuming fixing is the only option. I have essentially no "intuition" and little ability to read body language, I need people to tell me directly about their emotional state, something I know many people find uncomfortable.

Online tests often tell me I'm borderline for an autistic spectrum condition, but I think this is the wrong way of looking at things, I'm pretty sure I'm allistic / neurotypical. Certainly I have no problem using resources aimed at helping people on the spectrum to deal better with allistic-style communication, because I would in fact like to get better at this whether I'm allistic or not, and also I do well with explicit rules and strategies anyway. However, a lot of these tests are based on Simon Baron-Cohen's flawed research and sexist assumptions about what autism actually is. Also, yes, I am very good at abstract reasoning and a certain kind of pattern matching (I tend to score off the scale on traditional IQ tests), and relatively bad at looking at pictures of people's faces and guessing what emotion they're pretending to portray, and yes, this is a typical pattern of strengths / deficits in many people on the spectrum. But that doesn't mean that everybody who happens to have those strengths and deficits is autistic. I'm particularly annoyed because if I lie to the tests and tell them I'm male, they say I'm normal; if how I am is normal-for-men it makes no sense to suddenly decide it's pathological because women are "supposed" to be more empathetic and less good at abstract reasoning.

I wonder if there's some of this going on in the ways I get into trouble for being bad at certain kinds of communication. People expect me to be nice and emotionally aware and tentative about expressing my own opinions, because they see me as female, so when I communicate in ways that would (possibly, I'm speculating here) be seen as normal for men of my background, it's seen as aggressive. Be that as it may, I'd like to get better at coming across as friendly and kind and respectful, if possible.

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Date: 2014-07-07 01:17 pm (UTC)
nanila: me (Default)
From: [personal profile] nanila
I'm loud and opinionated, but I've spent the majority of my adult life working in research that is heavily male-dominated. I also live with a fellow scientist (male) and we are both unhesitatingly combative when having intellectual arguments.

I'm told, however, that I sound completely different when talking about work than I do when, say, chatting socially. In an informal social setting, my voice rises an octave, I become more giggly and am less likely to make eye contact. (Actually, I'm usually bad at eye contact because I prefer to express myself with gesture, and often that means I'm writing something or attempting to depict something using my hands.)

Anyway, the point is, I sympathise, and I'm not really sure how helpful I can be. But one lesson I have learned is that a feminine-coded way of letting me know that I've stuck my foot in it is silence. If I start on a topic and suddenly realise the person I'm talking to has stopped responding, I know to change the subject and/or soften my tone. I find this easiest to explain using an example. A friend of mine was lamenting how she had trouble losing her pregnancy weight after the baby was born, comparing herself to a friend of ours who'd lost hers almost immediately. "But you can't compare yourself to her," I said, "She's six inches taller and a different body type."

Cue thundering silence.

"No no," my internal monitor said, "This is not the time to be scientific about the problem. She wants reassurance, not facts."

So I cleared my throat and said, "Besides, you look great! You wore that dress before you were pregnant, right?"

And we were off again. Phew.

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Date: 2014-07-07 01:20 pm (UTC)
simont: (Default)
From: [personal profile] simont
I'd also like to hear from male friends about whether you ever think about balancing your communication style to avoid dominating over women and minorities, and if so, what you do.

In a big group conversation I think it's not really the right thing to never interrupt anyone, but I try to notice when I am interrupting someone, and if so, keep it brief, explicitly apologise afterwards, and invite the same person to resume what they were saying so they don't lose their turn to speak. And if I notice someone's been trying to say something for a while and been talked over repeatedly, and if I seem to be better able to get a speaking slot than them, I'll often use it to say 'I think [person] has been trying to say something' and invite them to speak.

I don't see either of those things as only applicable to minorities, of course; they're polite things to do for anyone who's having trouble getting into the conversation. But it seems to me that the people on whose behalf I find myself doing these things probably do correlate with minorities, although I admit that that's based on one of those mental 'vague impressions' that often turn out not to be supported by the real statistics.

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Date: 2014-07-07 01:26 pm (UTC)
nanila: YAY (me: abby)
From: [personal profile] nanila
Oh also, I feel like the feminine and the not-silencing-minorities issues are subtly different. I'm an ethnic minority as well as one of the small number of women in my field, and I'm fairly certain that being reminded of my East Asian-ness unnerves my work colleagues more than being reminded that I have boobs. :P They are certainly more discomfited if, say, I bring up how an experience has been coloured by my ethnicity than by my gender. I think what I value from them when these situations arise is an indication that they've listened and found my input interesting, rather than being keen to simply move on to another topic because they're uncomfortable.

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Date: 2014-07-07 01:31 pm (UTC)
highlyeccentric: Androgyny by Yakub Merchant: a woman's legs in fishnets; between them, a mirror reflecting a woman adjusting a wasitcoat (Androgyny)
From: [personal profile] highlyeccentric
Hmm. I don't have very clear advice on this, but I have been wrangling with similar ideas myself. Like you, I sometimes ping as 'possibly aspie???' (the deciding factor seems to be how visible or recactive my social anxiety is at the time). There's a lot of feminine socialisation which just didn't stick to me, or had to be administered so bluntly and verbally that it's easy to discard later in life (other parts, not so, because I contain multitudes). I think my age is a factor, too: I only noticed people (men) giving me directly negative responses for being assertive/aggressive once I got out of undergrad. Until then, I had trouble with negotiating empathy and emotional transactions, but was praised for being outspoken and assertive and precocious in most settings.

My mother and some of my teachers devoted considerable time and effort to talking me through processes of active listening. I was obviously empathetic enough that people wanted to tell me their woes, but I really struggled figuring out how to respond: was I supposed to fix it? Negotiate a peace treaty between feuding friends? What??? I also got some useful training under the banner of pastoral care training in church contexts - including explicit skills for reading non-verbal cues of comfort, discomfort, etc.

End result is that I'm OK at these skills - mostly. I still talk people down in some contexts, and I can never tell if I talk too much in academic circles. But I see them as skills, not innate lady traits, and I get really frustrated with people who haven't done the same work. This is often men, for whom "but WHY DID YOU COMPLAIN IF YOU DON'T WANT TO FIX IT" is usually an acceptable excuse for being short and un-empathetic. The mancreature and I have been in arguments not only about whether I should've *expected* x piece of advice, but the basic value of empathetic non-solution-seeking listening.

I think, although I'm not sure, that for some people with typically masculine communication patterns, I'm difficult to read, because I *am* assertive and I like debate, but I'm afraid of interpersonal conflict and I value empathy, non-goal-oriented emotional sharing, and validating feeeelings. After which we can go back to having an debate about ethics or something. It's probably puzzling for co-operative non-debatey people too, but I think that reads as 'sometimes she's really domineering' and less like 'what the hell happened you're normally robust and like straight talk and now you're crying'.

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Date: 2014-07-07 01:34 pm (UTC)
hilarita: trefoil carving (Default)
From: [personal profile] hilarita
I too tend towards the practical, rather than the explicitly emotional. So I try to remember to ask whether someone wants practical help or emotional help, unless it's clear from what they've said/written that they are obviously operating in one mode, or the other. I also try to indicate some level of emotional solidarity (*hugs*, *virtual tea*), even if I'm also being a bit practical. I also don't strongly identify as female, though I'm OK with using female pronouns.

I'm not afraid to interrupt people, especially men, but, like Simon, I'll try to let someone back in if we spoke over each other/ I interrupted them. I did deliberately make a decision to be less aggressive in asserting my views in certain situations - this was after I'd been at a male-dominated school, and I found that in supervisions (with one female partner), I'd speak over her in my eagerness not to get shut out. And then I realised this meant I was being a monopolising git, so in situations where I'm likely to be respected, I tend to take care to ensure I'm not a git. However, in a space where I have to defend my opinions more, or where I'm not likely to be respected, I will be more assertive. (Assuming I'm well enough to monitor my communications that closely.) Basically, I set a small trigger in my head (in supervisions first of all, and then in other situations) that said - give someone else a chance first. Then I could have a go if my point of view has not been covered/I can augment what's been said. Otherwise, I assume that I have a right to my opinion, and, in most circumstances, to express it.

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Date: 2014-07-07 01:40 pm (UTC)
staranise: A star anise floating in a cup of mint tea (Default)
From: [personal profile] staranise
People expect me to be nice and emotionally aware and tentative about expressing my own opinions, because they see me as female, so when I communicate in ways that would (possibly, I'm speculating here) be seen as normal for men of my background, it's seen as aggressive

Yep, I'm gonna agree that this is part of it. There are times when I'm talking in a mixed group and I say/do precisely the same thing as a man has done earlier with social success--and I get pounced on for being mean or rude.

IME the Autism Spectrum stuff gets mixed up for very smart people because these social skills are learned in late childhood and early adolescence, which is usually a time when nerds are socially ostracized and therefore don't get much practice. It's a bit of a time-critical window, kind of like how it's really easy to learn new languages before you're six, but quite difficult when you're an adult. So those of us with skill deficits from early isolation have to work harder to make it up later in life.

Anyway, these skills are things I was specifically trained in/had honed in psych grad school. Some of them you can find online as "counselling microskills"; their purpose is to help form rapport between people and reach a mutual understanding. It's actually amazing how non-intuitive and awkward some of them are.

For example, reading other peoples' emotions: most people only think they're as good as they are because they don't check. They think someone's angry when he's actually thoughtful, and so on. To be better than "good enough", you actually have to check in with other people and solicit feedback. Which results in a lot of grad students sitting around looking hella awkward saying, "It sounds like you're really mad about that" and then being corrected, "No, I'm not angry, it just makes me think a lot." Coming into empathy is kind of like tuning a musical instrument--you keep sounding back and forth until the two things finally match. This can be through words, or subvocal expressions ("Hunh", "Wow", "\o/") tone of voice (matching speed and pitch of the other person, like going "What is it?" with excitement when someone comes up to you bouncing and squealing), or by conveying that emotion in nonverbal body language.

All the little skills in empathy add up to being able to express to the other person that you understand where they're at. We humans really like being mirrored, having someone else indicate they see and now us--if you want to make a baby flip the fuck out, get them to look at an unmoving picture of their mother's face that doesn't smile back when they smile, or look concerned when they cry. That feeling of not being seen is distressing and fundamentally threatening. Meanwhile, being understood is so pleasant that often I can make fussy little kids smile involuntarily when they're upset, by showing them a really sad sympathetic face.

When I'm not empathizing or active listening, I often just listen to what somebody said to me, process it, and return my response, so it's like a tennis match. However, when I am trying to build a connection and come across as friendly and kind, I spend more time trying to make sure we're on the same emotional frequency. This is the kind of stuff traditionally feminine speech is littered with--"Oh, really?" "You think?" "I agree" "Yeah!" They're little utterances giving an indicator of what the speaker thinks is going on emotionally. (When men do it, I think there's often a status thing--lower-status men spend more time testing emotional temperature than higher-status ones.)

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Date: 2014-07-07 02:13 pm (UTC)
randomling: Natalie (Sports Night) looking a little shocked. (natalie)
From: [personal profile] randomling
Huh, that comment about men, empathy and status really made me stop and think. I wonder if that's partly at play when eg I communicate with people whose communication style doesn't do that by default, when mine does, because sometimes that makes me feel like a worm.

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Unrelated side note

Date: 2014-07-07 01:47 pm (UTC)
highlyeccentric: Sign on Little Queen St - One Way both directions (Default)
From: [personal profile] highlyeccentric
in our particular society, men aren't expected to know how to put on make-up or wear a range of different clothes carefully matched to the formality of various situations, so these things are considered unimportant, not because they actually are.

Depends what *our particular society* is. As with women, men's expected capacity here grades by class. I can still recall my father once recieving an invitation to a function at my undergraduate college which specified 'Morning Dress'. My father does not own a suit or tie. He wouldn't know what morning dress IS, let alone possess any. I had to spell out for both my parents acceptable outfits to wear at my graduation. A young man going from a working-class background into a professional career will have to learn a whole lot of incomprehensible codes about businesswear versus formalwear versus what do you wear to a party at your supervisors' house?

Watching men's clothing choices at conferences is nearly as much fun as watching the women, although the men are more difficult to group by institution (women in a given humanities department end up dressing alike). The differences between men are smaller and the overall wardrobe smaller, and there are more very young or fairly old men who can get away with the 'fuck it' school of dressing. But the differentiation by dress is still there.

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Date: 2014-07-07 02:38 pm (UTC)
wychwood: chess queen against a runestone (Default)
From: [personal profile] wychwood
Oh, this resonates so hard with me. I've been thinking about it again lately because of a situation that went sideways at work - a colleague felt strongly enough about an interaction to arrange a meeting with her manager to discuss it, and even three or four days later I kept thinking about it, and thinking, and thinking, and I still honestly couldn't see how it had gone so wrong. It's both frustrating and upsetting - I can understand running into trouble when I've lost my temper or been short with someone, but when I was really, genuinely work-focussed and not in a bad mood...

Like you, I suspect that my communication style is quite masculine-coded, and that I'd get less pushback from people if I were male; apparently people sometimes find me brusque and intimidating when I'm just being my normal self. My mother has the same problem. I've had to work a lot on temper and being gentler in the office, and I'm doing a lot better (mostly) than I used to, but I think some of it is just about me and my basic communication style, which I am reluctant to try and change, because I don't really think there's anything wrong with it? I'm polite, I try to be friendly, I think I show respect to others and I work not to come over as patronising, but I'm not going to go beyond that into trying to be someone I'm not.

The things I have worked on... Well. I've spent a lot of time getting better (...though still not always great) at turn-taking in conversations, and trying to genuinely listen instead of just waiting for my next turn. I've spent time at work, and had some training on, softening my writing in emails to colleagues. I work to be better at framing things - that's a big one, actually; not saying "No, that's a bad idea" but instead saying "I think there are some problems with this approach, including x y z, but have you considered alternative solution a?" - offering alternatives makes a real difference to how a refusal comes across, because it makes it clear I'm engaging with the request and not rejecting it.

(actually, I had an interesting conversation with my mother at the weekend - she asked me if I could run an errand, and I said "No." - I came out to talk to her about it and explain my (totally valid!) reasons, but I could feel it hanging in the air in this really aggressive kind of way! Even though it literally just meant "No, I can't do that" it felt like a rejection until I added the explanation on)

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Date: 2014-07-07 03:08 pm (UTC)
toft: graphic design for the moon europa (Default)
From: [personal profile] toft
This is really interesting. ([personal profile] wychwood pointed me to this post, I hope you don't mind if I butt in!). I've experienced similar issues - I behave in ways that are traditionally coded masculine, and I've been slowly working through what parts of that I want to keep and aren't willing to compromise on, and what I need to work on in order to get along with others. The field I work in is pretty forgiving of unconventional communication styles (and too forgiving of poor communication styles, I think), but nonetheless, I've definitely felt like I'm too loud, too aggressive, coming across as really arrogant, squashing other people's POV, etc, and I've been pulled up a few times (by men both times, interestingly) for doing what they felt was humiliating them in public before as superior, whereas I just thought I was disagreeing with them or pointing out a problem with what they were saying. I didn't even think about the fact that I might be embarrassing them, or that I might be speaking out of turn.

Some specific pieces of advice I've had on this have come from my gf - who has a very different communication style from me - and from teaching training, which of course is set up with the understanding that you're coming into a situation with an unequal power dynamic where one person (the teacher) has more ability to speak, and I'm often that person in situations anyway. They are:

1) Never offer unasked-for advice. I don't think this is a good blanket rule, but I do use it to check myself now when I find myself offering suggestions or feedback - has this person actually asked for advice, or do they just want support? More and more I'm not taking the risk of offering advice that hasn't been explicitly requested, and instead, when someone presents me with a problem or complains about something to me, I make sympathetic noises and do active listening but say very little other than "I'm really sorry that happened" or "that sounds like a really difficult situation". If I'm unsure, the script I use is, "Do you want advice, or are you not at a stage when suggestions would be helpful?" Or "Let me know if you get to a point where suggestions would be helpful."

2) When offering critiques/suggestions, I use 'the positive sandwich' model which was a template I was given for undergraduate essay comments but which I use pretty much all the time now. I always start with a positive thing, mention a point for improvement/a criticism, then end with a positive thing.

Good luck working on this!

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Date: 2014-07-07 03:29 pm (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
So as we've just discussed elsewhere, I did display a lot of traits associated with being socialised as female [thinking I couldn't do science right up until submitting my sixth-form application because I thought I was a girl, apologising for opinions/taking up space, etc], but I am also autistic and struggle/d with some of the communication stuff you've discussed here.

Honestly the absolute best thing for me in terms of learning this shit was my maintainership at [community profile] vaginapagina: I spent a lot of time drafting appropriately sensitive and understanding responses to users who had contacted us for whatever reason, and workshopping those with my colleagues. I don't know where this kind of space (with actual practical outcomes you can adjust practice based on!) can otherwise be found, but that's more-or-less how I did it. (I kind of want to make the words at you about my angst about communication-as-coercive at some point, but I think that's something I'll find easier when I'm bouncing off someone still, and in any case COLUMNS... back later!)

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Date: 2014-07-07 05:09 pm (UTC)
ghoti: fish jumping out of bowl (Default)
From: [personal profile] ghoti
I am finding this whole discussion both "me too" and helpful.

I have definitely (recently) developed the skill of waiting my turn in group discussion, and apologizing/allowing the person I interrupted an explicit chance to finish. I work in a department of 10 women (self included) and 2 men which can be quite challenging for a dominant communication style.

We also went through some training a couple of years ago where there were explicit rules as to how discussions were run. Raising hands, waiting turns, someone keeping track of who was waiting to speak, etc. We've tried to stick with this, and I've definitely noticed that some people are getting better about speaking out of turn. It also gives an equal voice to those who are not of the "talk louder so I will be heard" school of communication styles.

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Date: 2014-07-07 05:28 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
whether you ever think about balancing your communication style to avoid dominating over women and minorities, and if so, what you do.

I find it really hard :(

I fight the urge to assume that I need to say whatever I've been trying to say, and maybe deferring to someone who's been quiet is more valuable. I notice interruptions, and decide whether to automatically turn to pay attention to the new speaker, or to keep focused on the original speaker, depending who's actually likely to know more, and who's not had a chance to finish, rather than who's loudest.

I try to notice when I've been talking more than 1/N and when I can't make the communication better by saying *anything*, but the best thing to do is just be quiet for a bit and hope that everyone else will get their turns in somehow.

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Date: 2014-07-07 05:56 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
I think I also find it difficult that different situations have different norms for who *should* speak. So a fairly free-ranging conversation, you assume that people jump in tangents that they find interesting, and people pick up the original thread, or not, as they find interesting, and as long as everyone says something interesting it's all ok.

But if I'm with a group of people in a conversation which has drifted into discussing something specific, like a plan for dinner, (or a technical or philosophical question), I have a bigger tendency to subconsciously assume there's some ways it should work. That if someone interrupts, that the original point was actually relevant, and expect the conversation to go *back* to it. And if someone makes an extended argument for something, that there's a response of understanding that and responding to it, or asking for clarification, or explicitly jumping to a new topic. And if people just ignore all that and go on talking about whatever they thought, I tend to get dispirited that there's no point anyone saying anything :(

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From: [personal profile] jack - Date: 2014-07-08 10:40 am (UTC) - Expand

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Date: 2014-07-07 06:05 pm (UTC)
ursula: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ursula
I am slow at speaking and fast at typing, which means I easily get talked over in in-person interactions, but can be intimidating in online settings. Many of my online interactions are in SCA contexts, where there are a lot of people who feel insecure about their levels of formal education, and I've picked up some more stereotypically feminine habits to avoid internet drama:

* I frame things as personal opinion or experience, rather than universal facts.

* I ask questions about things I think are problematic.

* I use exclamation marks and compliment people!

Occasionally, when I'm in more professional/male-dominated spaces (in my profession these are somewhat synonymous), I have to flip things around and be more aggressive. For example, I recently had an interaction with a male coworker where I wrote, "Why aren't you doing what I expect?", he replied with a reason, and I realized that I had to say explicitly, "I think your way is wrong."

I did recently stumble on a trick for dealing with angry and upset students, which is MAGIC: let them vent for a while, and then just ask openly, "What would you like to have happen?" or "What do you want me to do?"

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Date: 2014-07-07 07:18 pm (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
I have rather a lot to say about this. :)

But the first and most important of them is this: I caution you that you may -- quite likely -- have misidentified one of your problems.

I say that because there's this pattern of human behavior, where someone is getting feedback from others that there's something unacceptable about how they're interacting with others, and so they pick a candidate problem to serve their emotional needs, as opposed to the real problem.

I see this plenty in my patients. Someone comes in insisting they have a problem with X, and it turns out the problem is Y. For instance, there was a patient of mine presenting with social phobia and body dysmorphia: she was constantly afraid that others were staring at her and "judging" (i.e. finding fault in) her physical appearance and dress. Turns out, she (1) was "witnessing" her faith to people who didn't appreciate it, and (2) had a wicked and explosive temper and not infrequently made a spectacle of herself in rage. So, actually, yes, it was often the case that people were staring at her, or feeling hostile to her. But not because she was physically ugly. She was in effect, blaming her appearance for her conduct, to self-distract from how her behavior towards others was actually causing the phenomenon she was trying to discredit. She would rather think herself crazy -- to discredit her own perceptions of evidence of how people felt about her conduct -- than admit, no, actually, people really don't like it when you do those things.

I don't know that you're doing this, but I wanted to alert you to the possibility, and point out a place where I caught a smell that brought that to mind, which I will get to in a moment.

I think working to improve one's interpersonal skills is a fabulous endeavor which everybody should apply themselves to. I do not for a moment mean to discouraged you in this, and will try to get back to the specifics of that in your post in a moment. There may even be problems that you are having that can be solved in this way. It's just that it may not be the problems that you think.

So, about those student evaluations.

I'm going to take "intimidating" as a literal quote description of you by these students, because it's what you give us here and because intimidation is such an interesting psychosocial phenomenon.

You teach med school students, yes? The population of students subjected to "Grand Rounds"? Where the fundamental style of pedagogy could be described "calling on the carpet"?

Being grilled at any moment by an authority figure, in front of one's peers, about one's knowledge and work -- and with the underlying justification that the work of doctors is literally life-or-death: people who have subjected themselves to this process sometimes call you intimidating?

This leaves us with a few possible interpretations. In no particular order:

1) Some people are just week/whiners.

1a) Your students when you get them are so junior that they have yet to experience the rigors of supervised clinical practice, and thus far in their academic careers have been intellectually coddled.

2) Somehow, you are managing to be even more intimidating (in a lecture class?) than the attending when (s?)he turns to one and asks archly, "You did check obscure test X at admission, right?" at patient bedside and in front of all one's cohort.

3) Maybe "intimidating" doesn't mean what you think it means.

You have assigned to "intimidating" faults in your interpersonal style, such that if you were more "feminine" in certain identified ways -- less loud, less assertive, less fact-focused, more emotion-focused, gave more space, better listener -- these students who tell you you're intimidating would no longer feel you were intimidating.

To which hypothesis: reeeeeeeeally? You are proposing that having a softer less domineering presentation would remedy being seen as "intimidating". By med school students.

From where I stand, that seems... supremely unlikely to be true, in light of what you've shared.

Let me tell you a thing. There's a scientist -- another biologist, actually -- who is a friend of mine. She's not the least forward speaker in groups I know, but... generally takes a back seat. A musician, a foodie, good with kids, very non-aggressive (even conflict averse to a fault), very non-dominating, very egalitarian, generally welcoming if a bit shy, in her approach to others.

For a while, her journal title was "unintentionally intimidating". Because that was what somebody once called her, and she was aware that a bunch of people had that reaction to her.

Turns out that there are people in the world who find others who have their act together, who are very competent in a non-flashy way, who don't wear their neurotic insecurities on their sleeves, quite "intimidating".

Not because they aren't doing something right, but because they're living proof of a higher standard of conduct/competency/development. They don't make people feel inferior, but some people judge themselves against them and wind up feeling inferior.

So that's one thing.

Here's another: sometimes people have expectations of women being emotionally available to them -- expectations that they don't have of men -- that are, sometimes, ridiculously inappropriate. It's not a conscious double standard, but it's as if some part of them thinks, "But you're a woman! I should be able to pour out my feelings to you and you should make me feel better!"

When a woman professional keeps appropriate boundaries and successfully signals, "I am not your mommy and not your therapist, and you are not to use me as your emotional dumping ground," some people feel so entitled to use women authority figures that way, that they will be indignant -- or even shocked. Surely, they surmise, this must be a mistake. She can't mean it. She must be giving off those signals in error. They conclude something like, I will indignantly point out that she is remiss in having not fixed her broken communications apparatus which is falsely transmitting signals which deter me from approaching her in the way I feel entitled to!

And this comes out with someone "helpfully" or aggrievedly explaining one is too "cold" or "unapproachable" or "intimidating".

The previous situation (invidious comparison) is more common to young women, and the latter (entitlement to free emotional labor) is more common to young men, but neither is wedded to either.

Now, here's the thing. In both these cases, I've located the moral/psychological problem in the person using the word "intimidating", in that they "should" not do what they're doing. But the fact is, if they're doing it with you, their problem can be a pragmatic problem for you.

So, for example, in the case of the invidious comparison case, you might decide it's worth your while to do something about it. That something probably shouldn't be your being less capable or self-assured, but rather something to help the students engaging in that sort of comparison over their emotional hump. (Speaking of free emotional labor!)

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the ways to address that is to assert some dominance -- benevolently. If one secretly fears that one is not the equal of someone else, them through their behavior acknowledging, "Nope, you're not my equal" while also telegraphing, "But I am fond of you and with use my power in this hierarchy only in your protection and cultivation" can be quite reassuring. After all, it doesn't invalidate one's observation about the power differential the way it does when the superior tries to be inappropriately chummy. But it still resolves the potential threat.

And a lot of insecure people respond really positively to benevolent dominance.

The simple way to do this is to initiate any kind of positive 1-on-1 communication. Since "intimidating" is often used to mean "I am afraid to approach", and in the invidious comparison case means "I am afraid I'm not worthy to approach", don't wait for them to initiate contact with you. Take an interest in them. It can even be as trivial as, "Jones. Nice tie." Something that communicates, "I see you. I remember your name. I bear you no malice."

Notice this bears no resemblance to being softer, more feminine, less assertive, and is, in fact, the opposite of being less dominating.

In fact, we could call it dominance skills.

So moving on a bit to your soft-skills agenda, I would propose you have an unexamined assumption that is false: that if other people are reacting poorly to what is read as dominance in one's presentation, that the solution is to be less dominant.

I propose that dominance, submission, and egalitarity (to coin a term) are skill domains that all people need to learn, and ideally master. The solution to doing dominance poorly isn't to not do dominance, it's to learn how to do dominance well.

And here we come to an issue of sexism I've been contemplating since I first joined the workforce as a teenager. It has seemed to me that a lot of women (less now than 30 years ago) in positions of authority were conducting themselves modeled, in a very crude way, on the worst ways men behave. I found myself wanting to say to some bosses, "You know, when male managers behave like that, usually the other male managers think there's something wrong with them, and that's a bad example." As if they were thinking, "Well, this is how I've seen men behave in power, so I guess it's how people in power are supposed to behave," unaware that men who behave thus are seen as dicks by other men. (Example: when I was 18 (Summer 1989), I did a series of one-day inventory jobs in a bunch of different retail establishments, and I was struck how, usually, when the supervisor was a woman, we were expected to ask permission to take breaks, but when the supervisor was a man, we were expected to take reasonable breaks when we felt we needed them.)

There is an argument to be made that girls and young women are not traditionally taught how not to be dicks in positions of power, whether implicit or explicit, and wind up experiencing their inevitable mistakes (learning is intrinsically a process of screwing up) as evidence that being "masculinely dominant" was not socially acceptable for women.

It may be being read as dominant is read as "masculine" and to some extent not socially acceptable for woman. But not all pushback about one's dominance is necessarily because one is a woman.

My general advice on learning dominance skills is to pick good male role models, study them closely, and emulate them. Specific men, men whose handling of dominance seems to you particularly graceful, just, suave, and accepted by others. Men whose authority is widely accepted, who are admired, whose blessing is often sought, who are seen as humble, who seem to you moral in their handling of power. Do that. When uncertain, ask yourself, "What would he do this situation." Or even go ask him, "What would you do in this situation."

Learn to look at the assholes in power, and realize, "He got to where he is in spite of his dominance skills, he would never have gotten away with it if he were a woman, and he is not an example to emulate." (I like to add, "He'll get his.")

There is this idea that women can't get away with what men do, therefore there's no point to trying to learn to do what men do. Poppycock. A lot of what men get away with you don't want to learn -- it doesn't benefit even them! Even as women are held to a higher standard than men in dominance conduct, even as they pay a penalty for their gender, the people who still have the most opportunity to learn these skills from a young age and hone them to the highest levels are still men, and learning from them still, even with those gendered taxes, is a net win.

Out of spoons, gotta run. Maybe more later.

PS: There's a huge intersectionality with class here; if I can, I'll come back to talk about how men's dominance skills are class-mapped. There's also an issue of MB Type.
Edited (Closed tag. Added PS) Date: 2014-07-07 07:24 pm (UTC)

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From: [personal profile] highlyeccentric - Date: 2014-07-08 11:09 am (UTC) - Expand

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Date: 2014-07-07 08:22 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] khronos_keeper
Wow uh, so I'm actually very similar to you re: commuication style, in that I tend to be loud, assertive, and persistent.

BUT I;ve found that in my female-heavy professional cohort, the way I've made myself more approachable and made it so that I don't silence others is that when I'm speaking in my career field or classes, I tend to be very very heavy on the conditionals and qualifiers.

"I believe that...", "In my experience...", lots of "would, should, could, might, may/might be", reassigning sources, so rather than "I heard that XYZ", it's more along the lines of "a study done in California found that XYZ".

Example of a masculine coded speech I would use in my work space, "Resilience in communities is critical. There are studies being done that find that resilience after a disaster is a major predictor of survival."

Example of a feminine coded speech, "You know, I've heard that studies being done on resilience are finding it more and more crucial to individual survival. At least in my experience, in my research, I've found this to be reflected in a number of cases."

Basically the same thing, said differently. It works most of the time.

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From: [personal profile] highlyeccentric - Date: 2014-07-08 11:04 am (UTC) - Expand

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Date: 2014-07-07 08:30 pm (UTC)
coalescent: (Default)
From: [personal profile] coalescent
I'd also like to hear from male friends about whether you ever think about balancing your communication style to avoid dominating over women and minorities, and if so, what you do.

Much more now than ten years ago. The vast majority of my interactions with people are online -- even my work interactions, now that I live 250 miles from my company's nearest office -- so mostly I just try to say less. Nobody seems to think I'm being unnaturally quiet, so that seems to be going OK.

In person I do -- or at least, I think I do -- a lot of the "Oh, really?" "You think?" qualifiers that [personal profile] staranise mentions. But I feel like I've always done that, that's not something I've actively tried to change, whereas the saying-less is.

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Date: 2014-07-07 08:44 pm (UTC)
highlyeccentric: (Beliefs and Ideas)
From: [personal profile] highlyeccentric
A few thoughts: siderea's comment, above, is very interesting. I was myself thinking of saying - but hadn't integrated into the existing discussion - that it's probably not helpful to try to fix Your Communication Style at large. The practical route - and I was getting this from a communication skills module on an australian mental health site that's unfortunately for you locked down to registered australian members - is to identify trouble spots and work on those. Either by noting your priorities, or what this module did was ask you to jot down during the week three difficult communication episodes and bring them back to the homework module (whcich I didn't do, because I didn't have any communication problems that week).

There aren't many resources on Fixing Your Communication Style, but there are resources on improving your emotional communication in marriage, say. If Jack were willing to join in, there's a good exercise on p. 142 of the second edition of 'The Ethical Slut' which is designed for negotiating jealousy but could be used for any emotional problem. It's got a script for a talker and a listener (emphasis on acknowledgement and validation). If the two of you have similar communication styles, vis a vis problem solving and turn-taking, it might be really weird and out of the usual and perhaps even not a good sharing tool for your relationship - but it could be good to practice the listening skills even if you aren't a couple who'd use such a script in an actual conflict situation.

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From: [personal profile] jack - Date: 2014-07-08 11:28 am (UTC) - Expand

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Date: 2014-07-08 07:49 am (UTC)
sophiacatherine: A sign to Tir na nOg (25 km away if you swim) (Tir na nOg sign)
From: [personal profile] sophiacatherine
So I do happen to be on the autistic spectrum, so I'm not sure how useful I'll be here. Personally, I don't relate to gender at all, especially not in communication terms. I've learnt most of my socialization by rote, but when it comes to communicating 'as a woman', I can't identify the styles of communcation enough to. I dominate conversations because I interrupt a lot because I have things to say and get impatient with the waiting till my turn to speak thing. I forget social niceties like "How are you?" because they're not always relevant. I have trouble relating to the idea that these are either 'male' or 'female' styles of talking, not least because a lot of the linguists who identified these styles were just plain wrong.

But I'm told that 'The Gender Communication Handbook' by Audrey Nelson & Claire Damken Brown is a good guide to learning how to communicate in what are considered gender-acceptable ways.

I'll carry on ignoring gendered expectations of communication, though. I just remind people I have AS about ten times an hour, when I offend them or whatever. I'm getting too old to care!

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Date: 2014-07-08 08:14 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] shreena
I agree with lots of things that have been said already so won't repeat them. But to add one thing - I think, very often, people are inclined to give some types of people negative/constructive feedback on their people skills and not others.

By which I mean that there are lots of people (ok, let's face it, women) who I have encountered who have very traditional 'soft skills' and are super 'nice' and lots of people seem to really like them and these women clearly have a lot of their identity bound up in being empathetic and people people. Lots of these women drive me round the bend and are actually particularly poor at reading me and what I want from an interaction. Partly because I've been told again and again that these people are 'good with people' and partly just because I don't want to upset someone by suggesting that they aren't as good at people as they think they are, I don't tend to really let them know when they upset or annoy me. However, they don't tend to feel that reluctance vice versa.

I also think (ok, so turns out I had two things to say) that there can be that element of what often happens when you're studying for exams and focus so much on what you think is your weaker paper that you end up doing best on it. I think there are some people who are told from a very young age that they are great with people that they stop really putting the effort in and start assuming that everyone is the same. And, vice versa, some people who were so continually told that they were bad with people that they put a lot of effort in and consequently end up really good with people. It's taken me three or four years now to finally start to accept that, when my line managers tell me at my performance review, that my people skills are excellent that maybe they actually are and maybe the amount of time and attention that I put into reading people has resulted in my being good at it now. But it continues to be hard not to be disbelieving of that when I've spent so long being told that I'm rubbish at that type of thing.

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Date: 2014-07-08 08:18 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] shreena
(And, FWIW, if I were hosting a party and thinking 'aaargh, X is a bit left out, who can I introduce to them who will talk to them and draw them out and stuff and make sure that they have a better time, you'd be right at the top of that list - I really don't think of you as someone who has any problems at all in this area')

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Date: 2014-07-08 11:26 am (UTC)
nicki: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nicki
Adds to the "active listening" skills suggestion group. Fair warning though, it takes a certain amount of energy and I basically have to flip a switch to full concentrated active listening when I'm communicating as a counselor and then off when not because I can't maintain that level of concentration on a constant basis.

My communication style is kind of a mess in part because I'm quite conflict avoidant and in part because I lived in enough different cultures as a child/teen/young adult that my instincts all conflict with each other, but active listening does help, even if I have to "turn it on" because it has "rules".

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From: [personal profile] nicki - Date: 2014-07-09 06:46 pm (UTC) - Expand

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Date: 2014-07-08 11:30 am (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
The response has been incredibly informative, thank you for making this post!

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-08 07:45 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
[deleted half-written comment]

Erm. Ask me about this in person some time.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-08 08:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] woodpijn.livejournal.com
*finally getting time to sit down for long enough to compose a reply to this*

I identify with a lot of this. (Not quite all of it: I'm not loud in either sense, and I find it very difficult (on a physiological / auditory-processing level) to talk at the same time as someone else, so I rarely interrupt, and usually automatically shut up when interrupted.)

But I also need/want to get better at empathy and stuff. I am sometimes perceived as a bit brusque, and I tend to do the stereotypically masculine thing of jumping in trying to find solutions rather than offering emotional comfort. (And, like you and several other commenters, I test as borderline-Aspie, and have difficulty with things like face recognition.)

I often think I should make a point of consciously thinking about how a conversation looks from the other person's point of view and how each interaction looks to them; but I never remember to do this when actually in a conversation (especially one involving any tension or conflict) because there's already too much to think about.

I know I tend to respond to the literal content of what someone says rather than the subtext, and often miss subtext entirely. Example: when I was at work, my boss was explaining something technical to me and a colleague, and the colleague was just not getting it. My boss said "You probably covered this in your degree, didn't you, Rachael?" I said "No, I didn't," because I thought I was being asked a factual question, so I gave a factual reply. It occurred to me afterwards that he was trying to make my colleague feel better by providing a plausible reason why I was understanding the material and he wasn't, and then I'd inadvertently sabotaged that.

I find this issue particularly important now I have children to interact with. You know how geeks can sometimes find non-geeks frustratingly irrational - small children are like that but more so :) Sometimes Bethany will tell me she's sad or scared about something nonsensical, and I'll jump in to try to reassure her with all the reasons why it's not the case, but maybe I should be just trying to empathise with the emotion instead.

Soundbite

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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