Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ending a Statement With a Question Mark?

Have you ever conciliated your way through a scientific discussions by ending negative statements or disagreements with an implied question mark? I do it a lot, and I'm not sure I like the reason why.

As a woman (and maybe as a man too, though I have not had direct personal experience with this, any insight would be welcome), I tend to walk the fine line between directness and conciliation. I am naturally emphatic, and used to state my opinions strongly-maybe too strongly-carried along by the force of my convictions and the absolute determination not to give in to anybody. Some of this crazy certainty faded with age and some wisdom, but I still am pretty definite in what I believe and inclined to be forceful in what I say.

One big reason why I stopped being loud and emphatic and thumping my metaphorical fist on the table is because I realized I hated being at the receiving end of such treatment. I hate being steamrollered, its uncomfortable and puts me off the discussion. I also found that not thumping table meant I could hear other people, a nice change. So politeness and a genuine curiosity to hear other people's thoughts started me off on my path of less declaiming and more questioning. As an added bonus, people warm to gentle conciliation more than they do to vocal steamrollers.

That there is the rub: within the reasonable demands of courtesy, how much should one conciliate? It's a reflex now, I always take the diplomatic path rather than just say what I think outright. I like to think that I stand by my convictions-I'm just more mellow about them-but is that really true? Have I gone too far down the road of conciliation? In lab meeting particularly, or during seminars, I ask questions and challenge people almost apologetically. In some cases, it makes the questioned feel more comfortable, and in some cases it makes them more dismissive of your question. Is a reputation for being thoughtful and a disinclination to put people on the spot worth being dismissed?

Why so I have this need to instinctively subdue my challenges? The saddest thing is that I think I do it because I am a woman. There are men in my group who are distinctly less indirect, often outright rude and in-your-face with their challenges and it doesn't affect the esteem in which they are held. And in the most bitter of stereotypes, when other women do the same they are called aggressive, bitchy and unpleasant. I used to be against overt feminism because I thought it was loud, exclusionary and exhaustingly unproductive, not to mention bound to get you laughed at. It galls me though that the natural instinct of intelligent ambitious women of my generation is to tone it down, to try and not become one of those women who became PIs in the 1970s and -80s. While I am certainly not a fan of rudeness or putting someone else down out of a sense of your own superiority, I am so tired and fed up of ending every sentence with an implied question mark.

This post is my 50th on this blog(I'm slow), and its also for my mother, the kind of feminist I would like to be.


MinCat said...

its a thin line and a touch call
*cliches over*
seriously though, i completely understand what yuo mean. im DEFINITELY the agressive woman, but then when my desi training kicks in i cant STOP conciliating! and bizarrely, the less i know a person the more conciliating i get which drives me nuts sometimes cos seriously you have to call some people on their behaviour!

and woo! *clinks glass of tea to mum*

Amelie said...

I've been on the receiving side enough to try to avoid the aggressiveness. I think (without supporting scientific evidence) that it has to do with the expected behavior by men and women in our society, that grants strong and demanding features to men, while women should be considerate, caring etc. Thus, strong women are often perceived as aggressive. I find it does help to pause and re-evaluate the situation if the person in question was of the other gender, at least for myself. Besides that, well, I'm still trying to figure it out myself.
Congrats to the 50th post! I'd be curious about what kind of feminist your mom is.

aparent said...

In scientific discussion - to stick to specifics - I think, the kind of behaviour to aim for would be the kindly academic...? have to ape the male role models - there arent any other. but lets just call them ..types - there the loud, hectoring,'im telling you', there's plain aggression, plain superiority, and there's professorial, academic, tutor-ish. I feel its OK to ape the last one...?
And yes, in some forum(s) gentle questioners are held in high (gentle) regard -at international meetings that I have attended. But these are not real in-lab, gloves are off type of questions.
I have noticed at the same meetings,unfortunately, that young women, try to use a very 'socially gentle - shrugs, smiles, fluttering of hands' style of interaction. it need not be so in academics, but alas...
maybe cultivate a matter-of-fact style that doesnt feel conciliatory? have to practise in front of a mirror though!

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

When I think back to my earlier days, I have mellowed down a lot in tone and demeanour when I try to challenge or argue a point. But I think it's a good thing, for the same reasons that you've mentioned. I cannot stand the overaggressive contrarians now. But I still think a confident stance is required, not one ending in a ? or an apologetic tone. Especially in American culture. I have actively worked on maintaining one after living my first few years here in the US.

Veo Claramente said...

M: Clink darling!

Amelie, I would like to tailor my reactions to the appropriate situation, but so often one just reacts in the way one has been conditioned, and the appalling thing is that I have conditioned myself. And my mum is the best kind of feminist, she gets what she wants done and walks over nobody to do it. And has daughters who have no insecurities about being female.

Aparent, its always the fluttering that drives me crazy! But its so easy to do. I foresee some sessions in front of the mirror.

Girl, culture has sooo much to do with it!

Thank you so much for all your inight.

Mad Hatter said...

This is a great topic! I wouldn't be surprised at all if there were gender differences in whether someone is conciliatory in expressing opinions. Like you say, aggressiveness is less likely to be viewed as a positive quality in women than in men.

In my lab, though, it seems that whether one is conciliatory in an academic discussion depends more on seniority than on gender. What I mean is that people tend to be more conciliatory when addressing someone of much greater seniority, or when addressing someone of much lesser seniority. Obviously, this is for two very different reasons!

By the way, I'm tagging you for the shuffle meme!

Veo Claramente said...

Hatter, I am late to the game! Sorry.
And I do think that sometimes the most infuriating implication of female conciliatory behavior is the implication of inferiority that comes with it because one is traditionally more "respectful" with one's seniors.

I will shuffle sometime this week :)

la rebelde said...

I'm so glad i finally read this post! I struggle with the same questions and have been thinking of writing a post on it. In college, I was trying so hard to be a certain kind of feminist that my aggression too often alienated people who I actually really liked. I decided I don't want to be that kind of person. But recently, in a diss group, I pointed out to a colleague that his argument was sexist. I looked him in the eye. I was firm, but not attacking. Later, one of the others--a super macho guy--told me that I was too nice and I'll never be taken seriously. My response in the moment was, I don't have to act like a macho man to be a feminist. I think I still stand by it, but your post makes me rethink my effectiveness. Hmmm...

ScientistMother said...

It is a thin line, and maybe why 'those women' you spoke of are that way. I would hesitate to put all women into "that" category. I have had the opportunity to work a number of older women you slogged their way through the stereotypes and glass ceiling. They have been nothing but generous with their time, mentoring us young ones on the path, hoping we can nudge it that much wider. Like men, not all of us women will be good role models or mentors.

Wayfarer Scientista said...

yes, and I've heard of studies that show that women typically end their firm statements with a question mark and men don't. Good post! (Off to do some catch-up reading)

Dr. MCR said...

Great post, and a topic I've been thinking about *a lot* lately. I just blogged about this in a couple of posts on "the F word" and inweuity in academia on my blog: I'd love to get your take on the issues I'm thinking about- gender differences in communication always seem to come into this, as you've said. Thanks again for a great post!

bala said...


Even though my comments wont fit directly in this topic I am posting my thoughts here , I did see in many of the posts you wrote , how tough it is become a faculty, and about the non-=existence of intermediate career position in the academia or how tough it is to change career , but I had never seen you commenting any thing about numerous opportunities in the biotech /pharma industries for scientists especially for immunologists . Its not as tough to get a faculty position and many biology scientists are also payed very well in these industries like in any other profession , I guess many biologists (including me) feels moving to industry is a defeat unlike many mathematicians, physicists and other engineering phds who happily work in technology or finance companies after their phds, many of them with whom i had interacted wont have a strong desire to become a academician only like a biology phd or they dont see leaving academia is a sin, they are more happy to move to finance and technology companies, I partly blame the work atmosphere in the biology which trains many phds that leaving academia is a defeat and sin. if our colleagues in physics, engineering and maths dont see it that way, there is no reason why a biologist should see it that way.

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Anonymous said...

It's just irritating and annoying. Stop. It makes you sound irritating and annoying. Notice I didn't end with a question mark.

Anonymous said...

All we hear about is the victim-hood of being female since time incarnate. When will the lies stop?
Get over the biology, treat people with respect, stop using men as your excuses just because men allowed it before.
Then maybe you will see genuine progress in your lives !!!