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Is Feminism Being Lost in Translation?


When I was young and reading Robert A. Heinlein,(as opposed to now that I’m older and reading Robert A. Heinlein), I was puzzled when I came across a sentence in which he, or at least his character, implied that men and women might be different species, not just symbionts.

Yes, I do know he was making a joke. In the same way I know the people who continuously say that men and women are exactly the same aren’t.

Neither statement is true, of course, not even at the utmost end of statistical oddity.

But I recently became aware that I speak something that’s not my native language, and no, I don’t mean English. English too, of course, but also… I do not speak female.

I became aware of this due to a commenter on my blog (who is a woman but also apparently doesn’t speak female too well) who told of a situation she’d run into that illuminated all my difficulties in female-dominated environments.

It also explains a lot of other things, such as why women think they’re discriminated against in work environments, that civilization is a tool of the patriarchy, and that everyone – including females who don’t speak fluent female – are out to get them.

The anecdote my commenter told, stripped of identifiers to protect the guilty, went as follows:

Commenter, engaged in some task for which she’d been given a newbie as a helper, got approached by one of her superiors. “If you could spare Newbie and don’t mind,” the superior said. “She’d be really helpful folding the shipments.”

Since Commenter couldn’t spare Newbie and still get her task accomplished, she said, “I can’t spare Newbie.”

Superior went away obviously fuming, much to Commenter’s confusion. For two days, tension prevailed, and then Commenter asked why Superior was being cold and distant. At which point she was treated to a rant about how Superior should have fired her or disciplined her for refusing to obey an order.

Deep breath.

I keep running into this.

Blame the fact that I was closest to my brother and his group, and that I read a lot of books designed for males. Oh, also that in my training, I was in a country where work (and academia) was still dominated by males. I instinctively learned to speak their language to the point I don’t notice I do it.

Sure, I’m still bashful and close to timid in public (more so now that my work is done in solitude and I am, therefore, all out of practice speaking to human beings). In social situations, I’ll still say “if you would please — if it’s not too much work — could you give me that cup from the upper shelf?” But then again, I also won’t be mad at you if you say it’s too much work. And if there’s an emergency, I’ll be the one to bellow “Move your buns out, now.”

I started paying attention after that comment on my blog. Here is what I’ve noticed: Women, even in situations of distress or need — or particularly then — and even when they’re supposed to be in a position of authority, tend to phrase their orders as requests.

“If you can, we’d like this back by Friday.” “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to borrow the computer for an hour.” “If you don’t need that, I’ll use it now.”

Sometimes this is larded with even more apologies and begs.

You can understand why, from an evolutionary perspective. Women are smaller, slighter, and, certainly on average, weaker than men. I figure this kind of appeasing behavior is instinctive. It’s sort of like puppies rolling on their backs and weedling on themselves, so the adult dogs can smell and not hurt them.

Another part of it is probably learned. Either that or I (and some other women) a on the far distant end statistically and missed that instinct. Females tend to associate with and play mostly with other females, at least until about age ten or so, even in mixed classes. I figure part of that behavior is also learned. But it’s learned and it persists, because it fits, because evolutionarily it’s healthy for a smaller, weaker person to appease a stronger one.

The problem is that most men (and a few of the women) simply don’t understand the bowing and scraping of female-language. We certainly don’t understand them as orders.

Perhaps in another time, this would be all right. Perhaps women after the third time someone “outright refused an order” would ask “Did you understand that was an order? Why not?”

Unfortunately these days most women grow up swimming in a soup of victimhood and feminism, in which they’re told they’re paid less because Patriarchy, and men disrespect them because Patriarchy, and people refuse to obey them because Patriarchy.

So most women, on getting what they think are clear orders outright refused, assume that this is because that mean, evil Patriarchy is out to get them. And most women, being no more aware of their style of communication than most people are, can’t understand why men don’t run into these problems and why with a grunt and a nod a male boss can get more out of subordinates than most women can.

In a life long ago and far away, in which I was trained in languages, I thought I’d end up being a translator/interpreter.

I’m going to attempt to perform this service for my readers:

If you’re a female and you think that all your subordinates and co-workers disrespect you and disobey you, watch how you’re speaking. Then phrase your orders as orders, your requests as requests, and don’t put in any more conditionals than you mean. Instead of “I wonder if you could have that dossier ready for me on Monday,” say “I need that dossier ready, on my desk, on Monday.” Instead of “If you no longer need that machine, could I have it?” say “I need that machine, now, please.” Be prepared by the way to be considered incredibly rude by other females. I know, because I’ve been accused of it a few times. (Of course, my tendency to lead with “poppycock” about some precious theory probably doesn’t help.) But you’ll find that in work environments, your orders get obeyed far more often, and, particularly if you work with men, a lot of your complaints about them ignoring you should lose all foundation.

Meanwhile, if you are a man or a female who doesn’t get this female language very well, pay attention when she says, “If you could, I wonder if it would be possible for you to fix those bugs by Friday.” If you can’t tell if it’s an order or a very conditional request, ask: “Is that an order?” This might puzzle the woman boss (or co-worker) but she should be able to answer.

There might be a war between men and women, but it’s entirely possible that war starts with communication problems. In the days of our species’ childhood, when men were hunters and women were gatherers, this might not have made that much difference, but now that we must work together, let us learn to understand each other.