“Perhaps I haven’t followed the argument, but it seems to me you might have a problem with…”

A brand new blog has opened with an interesting discussion. Do questions that start by positioning the speaker in a possibly subordinate position make her less believable professionally? Does one invite epistemic injustice for oneself? And should one therefore take a more aggressive stance?

The discussion is interesting and more complex than I’m capturing here. The questioned centered on is whether the writer should change her style. Do go have a look.

One question raised is whether the style of speech is more typical female than male. My own sense is that there’s wide agreement in the relevant literatures that there is a female or feminine style that is more hesitant and deferential. The effects are perhaps fairly unexpected and odd, if this abstract is right:

Women with feminine speech patterns (i.e., use of tag questions, modals, intensifiers, and numeral approximations) are seen as less confident, less assertive, and less believable than women with masculine speech patterns. The present study examined how masculine and feminine speech patterns affect the acceptance by superiors of decisions made by male and female subordinates. Seventy-nine male and female students listened to a tape recording of a subordinate’s proposal for a new electronic game. The results demonstrated that the proposals of subordinates with masculine speech patterns were more likely to be accepted by male listeners, whereas female listeners were not influenced by the speech patterns.

If the conclusion is right, it looks as though it would behoove women in a male dominated context to present themselves non-deferentially, etc.

At the same time, if you are fortunate enough to be able to have some discussion in your department about biasing factors, this particular area could go into the list of things to cover.

28 thoughts on ““Perhaps I haven’t followed the argument, but it seems to me you might have a problem with…”

  1. I’ve thought about this issue a lot. I used to be an inveterate apologizer for all my remarks until a male friend called me on my pattern rather pointedly at an APA, and told me how much it undermined what I was saying, leaving me crying. It was a really transformative moment, though it could have been more gently delivered … although maybe harshness was what I needed, I dunno. (This was well over a decade ago.) Since then I have noticed which female grad students have this verbal habit and I have called them to my office for a serious talk about how it makes them come off. I’ve had a few really amazing turn-arounds after such conversations. One can perfectly well be polite and respectful and suitably humble without constantly apologizing for and undercutting each of one’s speech acts – that’s not respectful or humble; it’s just uncourageous and self-undermining. But many, many of us do it.

  2. It seems like the self-effacing opening can have the opposite effect in those instances when we actually do have the argument wrong. A bombastic response that interprets the argument uncharitably or simply gets it wrong makes the respondent look both arrogant and incredibly silly. The self-effacement gives you a bit of cover, in addition to presenting oneself as being intellectually humble.

  3. It does seem fairly important to determine how accurate it is to identify the self-effacing style as “feminine” and the more assertive style as “masculine”; at least one study suggests that badly misdescribes what is actually going on: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090825090749.htm

    Of course, if Palomares is right, there might still be a pattern of women being more self-effacing in philosophy, if philosophy is particularly strongly identified as a masculine topic (which, unfortunately, is not implausible).

  4. I really, really, really reject ajkreider’s way of framing the issue. I think this is a terrible dichotomy. Self-effacing is not the only alternative to bombastic and arrogant, and I think it’s a deep mistake to even think they are on a continuum. Indeed, I think looking for ‘a bit of a cover’ IS arrogant, in a way – conversation and debate should involve making yourself a bit vulnerable and taking risks. I don’t think it is bombastic or arrogant to make arguments and raise objections respectfully and with a charitable and cooperative stance towards one’s interlocutor. The apologies and ‘covers’ help the conversation not at all.

    I know I don’t always live up to my own ideals of respect and charm, but I am very sure it is not because I don’t apologize and back-pedal enough before I start saying anything contentful.

  5. I have a different view of this than others.

    In my experience, a lot of men use this speech pattern as well. In particular, I saw my male advisors use it and it came off very well. The men were seen as humble, non-aggressive, open. Then when I tried to use it, or saw other women try to use it, it did not come off well. I and other women were seen as lacking in self-confidence, and yes, it served to undermine our arguments. So, in my experience it’s not so much a masculine or feminine thing to do, but rather, given the perception of women, something that women cannot afford to do — which is unfortunate, in my opinion. We must always state our positions forcefully or risk not being heard. Of course, as has been well discussed, a woman who states her positions forcefully deals with other sorts of criticisms, but at least she is heard.

  6. Didn’t we recently have a thread about the “ox-bridge” style of aggressive faux self-effacement? Or was that on NewAPPS?

    I do this a fair bit to help insulate me from charges or impressions of arrogance, overbearingness, etc., and when I’m really feeling quite tentative, and to open space for countering. Sometimes I get the people using the trope to back an illegitimate counter, but this is comparatively rare. I also do the “Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, but” thing which I know can be read as aggressive, but I generally mean it. (Part of my anxiety structure is becoming really worried that I’ve made a basic error or have said something bonkers, etc. This is esp. true when the other side is being what seems to me way off.)

    My personal styles put off a lot of people, so I’m often not too sure how’ll they’ll react. I recognize some of my styles as understandably offputting, but other times it just seems random to me.

    Pulling back, I like, on the one hand, reasonable indications of epistemic status of claims but, on the other, a minimum of cruft and weasel wording. I wonder how much crap women get if they don’t weasel word enough. Seems like a classic double bind.

    (Julia Penelope discusses an artificial language…Láadan which has the interesting feature of an evidence particle which is used at the end of sentences to indicate epistemic aspects of the claim, e.g., wa (“Known to speaker because perceived by speaker, externally or internally”) and wáa (“Assumed true by speaker because speaker trusts source”).)

  7. I agree with that, justanotherfemale. That verbal trope comes off very differently when women use it. Although it ticks me off in men too, for some of the reasons I talked about above… but the uptake is really different.

  8. The effect of self-effacement is very different if it’s used by someone in a position of power, very often a male and with body language and facial expressions which convey self-confidence and empowerment or if it’s used by someone powerless, often a woman, with body language and facial expressions which communicate insegurity or weakness.

  9. I don’t think that a difference in body language and facial expression is necessary. In my experience, there is no difference between the body language and facial expressions of men and women when using such phrases, and yet the two are perceived and reacted to differently. But I agree that being in a position of power is relevant.

  10. @ Rebecca Kulla

    I agree that one should really object to the dichotomy between bombast and self-effacement. But I didn’t suggest this. I suggested that the self-effacing opener can have the effect of showing one’s intellectual seriousness.

    An example might be charging a speaker’s paper as containing a contradiction. This is a very serious charge, as it’s embarrassing for any philosopher, especially in public, to be so guilty. It’s rare but it happens. More common is the appearance of contradiction. To make a charge of actual contradiction, you had better be correct. One runs the risk of appearing intellectually careless, otherwise (that you didn’t put enough thought into so serious a claim).

    Starting out with, “Perhaps I misunderstood, but . . .” mitigates against this. I certainly wasn’t claiming that the raising of objections is arrogant generally. In fact, I think it’s part of the duty of audience members to do so.

  11. Hi all – thank you so much for having this discussion on my post!

    Anne, you have expressed the thought in your opening sentences much more clearly than I did in the original post: the question is whether I (and others like me) are in some way responsible for the epistemic injustices we experience. Protagoras is right that we shouldn’t too quickly label this kind of self-effacement feminine: as Just Another Female points out, it could well be the case that women are not any more likely to use this kind of speech than men, but we notice it more, and identify it as something different, when women do it. So perhaps my speculative assertion that women are more self-effacing and hesitant in their language than men is actually a result of my holding these prejudices about women speakers myself.

    I think Rebecca Kukla is absolutely right that I can continue to be humble and non-aggressive, and still eradicate these apologetic prefaces from my contributions. They are probably, more often than not, caused by lack of courage and self-confidence, rather than an attempt to appear modest and polite. A lot of the time I probably am trying to give myself space to retreat; or at least, trying to pre-empt any criticism that I’ve misunderstood or not widely enough read, by acknowledging this from the outset. It’s difficult though, because these habits are quite ingrained. And while it’s true that we should have the courage to take risks and leave ourselves vulnerable to criticism, this is especially scary when you’re a member of a group whose claims are more readily dismissed.

    Thinking about it, perhaps – there’s the disclaimer! – what all this discussion shows is that far more is communicated by our manner, posture, gestures, tone, myriad other things, than the actual words we say. As Bijan acknowledges, there is a way of claiming not to have understood that is actually quite passive-aggressive and hostile, rather than hesitant and deferential, and most of us instinctively know which of these we are dealing with, even if the content of the utterance is identical in either case. So then if I am reinforcing anyone’s biases about my knowledge or capacities, I am doing it far more by my hesitant intonation, nervous facial expression, shaking voice, than I am by apologising for asking the question.

    The problem then of course is that the only solution seems to be: get more confident! Which is great, and I’m trying. But we could still be doing more to make sure that philosophy seminars are less combative and aggressive, and to ensure that those who are more timid and nervous are still taken seriously.

  12. Nice post and nice follow-up, Rebecca R-C. I would just add a Pascalian twist. Sometimes practicing at acting more confident (not more arrogant, which is different) can inculcate that confidence, and even in the mean time it may let us be heard better and more productively. (And nothing boosts confidence like being heard well and productively! Positive feedback loop alert!)

  13. Thanks for coming over Rebecca R-C. Indeed, a nice discussion.

    I do want to echo Rebecca Kukla’s point about practicing and add that there are things the rest of the interlocutors can do as well. We can make space. We can be encouraging of people who are unduly tentative and helpfully corrective with those who overreach. We can try to provide intra conversation and inter conversation (preferably without making people too uncomfortable or distressed) advice and support. (“Hey, you made a lot of really good points. You don’t need to qualify everything all the time. Some people read that the wrong way and you clearly know your stuff.”) Etc.

    I, well, “like” is a strong word…I prefer it when people let me know that my mannerisms are making them uncomfortable. I can’t promise that I’ll successfully change them, but I’m happy to make a variety of efforts to have things work out better.

  14. Yes, I agree with Bijan. Talking to people about how they come off can be very helpful – I touched on that in my first comment but I think it is really important to stress. We can especially make a big difference by mentoring our students well in this regard. They are the next generation of philosophers after all! Too often people let smart boys just get away with being dickheads, because they somehow don’t think it’s part of their philosophy education to learn how to engage properly (having never read Socrates, apparently :-/) And likewise people let women undermine themselves. And vice–versa of course; I realize I am overgeneralizing blah blah.

  15. Rebecca R-C, thanks for coming over and for raising the topic in the first place!

    I agree with Rebecca K (and so with your exploring this option) that one should think of how one comes off. It isn’t all that hard to leave out the opening apology for speaking! You might think of have a list of alternative openers, e.g.,. “Your interesting observations about X have raised a concern for me” still leaves lots of wiggle room. Or “Could we revisit that transition from X to Y that you seem to make.”

    No doubt others will have better suggestions. I hope I’m not just revealing my own disguised self-deprecation. My own worry has really always been about a timely follow-up.

    Somehow this whole discussion is reminding me of occasions when I was treated as though I didn’t have a clue, even though I actually did. One occasion was when a FAMOUS PHILOSOPHER was giving a talk at Princeton. He has giving an analysis of something in terms of “Person P is F if and only if condition C applies.” I realized that he had a huge problem because, though his initial analysis looked plausible, it was clear that it yielded a faulty account of “It is not the case that Person P is F.” So I said that his analysis had a problem, because though it seemed to fit the affirmative, it clearly did not fit the negative. “Well, young lady, you see this is how “not” works,” he replied. “If someone says P and then you use “not” … .” I tried once or twice more, but it was for him clearly much more plausible to think I hadn’t grasped “not” than to think he had made a mistake.

    Gil Harman later picked up the point and, to his credit, attributed it to me and explored it further. But occasions like that are pretty awful because they do situate one absolutely outside the discourse, and the remark’s getting picked up later doesn’t suddenly get you back inside.

  16. I’m now wondering if I’ve been to quick to assume that aggressiveness is closely linked to confidence, when perhaps there’s no necessary connection at all between the two. Indeed, it seems possible (likely?) that those who are especially bombastic and combative in their manner are actually deeply insecure and anxious themselves; they just respond to that differently from how I do. If so, then As Rebecca Kukla points out, I’m really drawing a false dichotomy, with politeness/hesitance on one side and aggression/confidence on the other. Perhaps all these competitive, self-promoting aggressive people that I’ve been assuming are super-confident and self-assured, are actually no such thing.

    So the issue of the philosophy-seminar-as-gladiatorial-arena might then be completely unrelated to the question of some speakers’ lack of self-confidence. I’m not sure though; I don’t think these combative environments help the anxious or timid to build up their self-confidence and their belief in their right to speak. It’s clear that some people see the purpose of seminars not simply to arrive at the truth, but to display their own vast insight and debating skill, and to make others look foolish. Not only does this deter those who are nervous; it’s also antithetical to the stated aim of arriving at the truth.

    Plus, if you’ve read the comments on my blog, you’ll see that one of the worries about this is that some people might be genuinely impressed by the loud, assertive types. I heard anecdotally that one person got his job at least partly because of how impressed the hiring committee were with his seminar contributions, when I know these to be often obnoxiously arrogant and dismissive. So as an aspiring philosopher, a lot can ride on being loud and assertive.

  17. Something else that occurs to me is that sometimes I want to be able to throw a thought or idea out there which I am unsure about. I want to be able to say, “hey, I’m just coming up with this off the top of my head, it’s probably half-baked, but let’s see”. I would prefer to be honest about how tentative these ideas are and how uncertain I am about them, and I think that’s the right thing to do if we’re all aiming to get at the truth. But I don’t want this honesty about my uncertainty to be held against me later as evidence of my incompetence or lack of confidence.

  18. justanother:

    I think that there are subtle cues in facial expression which communicate the fact that someone is in a position of power as well as cues that communicate insecurity or lack of power.

    In any case, self-effacement seems to be a luxury (it’s pleasant to be self-effacing) that women and powerless people cannot allow themselves.

  19. swallerstein, just because someone is perceived as being less powerful doesn’t mean that she perceives herself as less powerful.

  20. Rebecca R-C, I definitely sometimes become more aggressive (or otherwise poorly social) when I’m tried, stressed, and/or feeling vulnerable. It’s not always when I’m feeling attacked, sometimes it’s just when I’m feeling very frustrated. I have to be especially careful when dealing with students in that mood.

    Not being understood, being misunderstood, being ignored etc. these can really get under my skin. My response is not always maximally appropriate, alas.

  21. Yes yes yes to R R-C’s and Bijan’s latest. I don’t equate aggressive/bombastic with confidence AT ALL. And I too get aggressive when I am feeling threatened, often. (I’ve always identified strongly with the wolverine – both the mammal and the X-men character!)

  22. Am I the only person who suits their mode of delivery to the situation, rather than speaking as a person of a particular gender?

    When I am very sure of my ground, very confident that I have a useful contribution to make then I will be assertive, while never refusing to hear others’ comments. However, when I have no very strong view or am unsure about what is the best solution to whatever issue is being discussed I will speak more hesitantly and invite others to come forward.

  23. I’m sure Anonymous in #24 is not the only person to try to suit their mode of delivery to the situation. However, whether one thinks about it or not, one is speaking as a person of a particular gender.

    I have always liked the anecdote that John Rawls, a white man at Harvard who enjoyed some repute, would respond to criticisms with the tranquil opening, “Well, you are probably right. However…” Although it sounds like he was a lovely person, I do not believe the same response would yield the same deference from others when given by someone without the intersecting positions of privilege Rawls enjoyed.

  24. Hi Anonymous,

    Yes, cf my first comment in this thread!

    But, I don’t think we’re talking about a conscious decision to speak “as a person of a particular gender”, but about how being of a particular gender 1) inclines one to certain tropes and 2) the effect of using those tropes has on the course of the conversation. And the tropes are gendered and status bound…epistemic confidence marking is read very differently (i.e., negative in a specific way) coming from a women (by default).

  25. Kathyrn Norlock:

    Responding to criticisms with “you’re probably right, but…” is a luxury that you have to be John Rawls to permit yourself.

    If you’re John Rawls, you can pretend to be or even be modest and people will admire you for it, perhaps rightfully, but if someone without power or status is modest, no one will pay attention to them.

  26. This seems to overstate things a bit. While many of us have had experiences like that mentioned in #17 above, for the most part I’ve found that speakers respond to the substance of the challenge – or attempt to, at least – regardless of nature of the opening.

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