Thursday, July 15, 2010

Embracing personal responsibility in interpersonal relationships

This is Part One of a three-part series about personal responsibility and societal expectations in regard to gender.

In my interactions with men that I interact with often on a group level, I often find myself in situations where I am frustrated with these men's seeming lack of empathy and understanding for the female perspective. I often feel ignored in situations where a group conversation is most assuredly occurring, where I may be talked over, or interrupted, or have my experiences discounted before they allow themselves to truly listen to me. These are conversations that range from the everyday chat to the longer, more involved philosophical discussions ranging from politics, gender, or music.

When I feel as thought I'm not being listened to, or that my experiences or voice is being drowned out, it's very easy (and often quite accurate) to chalk up the experience to sexism. Now, I'm not calling all the men I know sexists; in fact, I would be uncomfortable applying the "misogynist" label to the vast majority of men I interact with on a frequent basis (most people I know likely would, too). I'm not slapping a "sexist!" sticker on their backs for later reference; I'm legitimately irritated, sometimes to the point of frustration and rage, at their very stereotypical male styles of communication.

Conversely, my husband is often annoyed with my sometimes utter lack of ability to talk about an important issue without starting to cry, or my overly-drawn-out communication style in a both casual and more intimate context. In a conversation, I tend toward a more stereotypical "female" approach: I listen to what is being discussed, and when I chime in, especially if I'm in agreement of the opinion of whoever spoke last, I tend to relate examples of how the statement is true from my own, or other friends' or family's experience. I also tend to ramble on a great deal, going on tangents and providing my audience with what I've later learned to be far more detail than they needed or wanted (perhaps my blogging style is similar). I've noticed that men, even the more wordy or conversational types, tend toward more direct, less detailed styles of communicating with friends. If they talk over me, it may be because they want to avoid what they assume will be more detail than necessary, and I may talk a lot and with great detail when given the chance to ensure that I'm being heard, because of the assumption that I won't be.

A similarity I've noticed between the things we are often annoyed with in regard to a typical behavior that we find in men or women respectively is that they are all stereotypical behaviors that receive the most universal complaints, that are so prevalent in the Western world that books are constantly written about them.

What I find to be also prevalent, at least in the feminist world in which I readily include myself, is a tendency to overlook those stereotypical, patriarchy-approved behaviors of our own and instead focus solely on those exhibited by men: aggressiveness, loudness, a tendency to believe that they should be listened to above anyone else, arrogance, and lack of emotion (at least, visible emotions other than anger). We fail to acknowledge and readily admit to the fault of our own tendencies to be passive-aggressive in speech and domestic disputes, our reliance on men with whom we may cohabitate to perform basic household maintenance (or required bug-killing, in my experience), a lack of personal aggressiveness in regards to jobs and careers, and even non-threatening-but-persistent wannabe suitors, whose feelings of attraction we may not reciprocate.

To further elaborate on the last point, the lack of assertiveness in regards to men who are romantically interested in a woman when the feelings are not reciprocated can be an especially tricky mess to navigate, and a frequent enough problem for women and men alike. Men aren't, of course, always forthright about their lack of long-term or other interest in a woman who shows clear attraction to him. This could be for a number of reasons; perhaps he likes her a great deal, and doesn't want to potentially hurt the friendship by shooting down her interest. This applies frequently to women, as well. Maybe the man is interested in the possibility of a sexual relationship, but nothing further, so he doesn't let on that he's not interested because he hopes for a sexual encounter and isn't sure she'd be interested in a sexual relationship without a commitment. While many women may delay telling a man she isn't interested in a relationship for this reason, it's understood to be a generally male phenomenon and also one that is highly frowned upon. Women, on the other hand, may hold out on telling an interested guy that she's "not that into him" because she enjoys the attention his interest brings her and her self-esteem, which is commonly understood to be a mostly-female phenomenon-- one that is frequently criticized among hetero men.

Both behaviors that seem to be nearly exclusive to men or women are clearly not exclusive, but the prevalence of any behavior in one sex or another are both directly related to what we could call a "patriarchal influence." Women hold on to the affection and attention a male gives her, while men pursue the possibility of a sexual relationship with a female. It's an annoyingly generalized way of chalking up a variety of individual experiences, but it's often true, and it's often a result of social norms that both men and women are attempting to live up to. Women feel personally validated if they are the recipient of male attention, as popular culture tells us that securing male affection in one way or another is our lifetime goal. Men validate us and they are supposed to "take care" of us, with their money or muscles or comfy, over-sized shirts or something. Men feel personally validated by sexual prowess, because popular culture tells them that in order to be "a man," they have to "conquer" as many women sexually as possible. Settling down with a woman is to say "no" to more sex with more women, and is to be avoided at all costs.

As both common behaviors are harmful to the recipient, and really cannot (and should not) be compared in terms of what is more harmful to whom, it would be beneficial for women and men to stop focusing solely on the ways in which men or women respectively behave that are influenced by patriarchal ideas, and more on the ways in which they can begin to shed their own role in perpetuating negative stereotypes. A woman's bad behavior that she learned from popular culture's sexist expectations shouldn't be ignored because most people would agree that, as a woman, she's on the losing end of the patriarchal ideal that put the expectation in place. As we know, men and women both have generally agreed-upon "privileges" that are directly related to patriarchal expectations. While the privileges bestowed on any particular gender or sex may come from a system run primarily by and for men, the more tangible the immediate reality of those privileges and oppressions are in every day life, the less important "the patriarchy's" becomes.

For example, a communication problem between my husband and myself won't improve if I'm hollering about the patriarchy's influence any time he criticizes a less-than-ideal habit I have in my communication style. A better way to approach a criticism like that would be to first, think about what he said; second, think about whether or not it could be true-- and for more than a few half-hearted seconds. Then, if it still feels unwarranted, try not to cry, and explain why. Naturally, he'd also be expected to let go of his patriarchy-influenced expectation that emotions not be present in a conversation about an issue we may have-- especially considering that few problems would occur in any relationship if someone didn't have an emotional reaction to something-- and no one could say with a straight face that women are the only ones who start arguments based on emotional reactions to something their partner did, so reacting emotionally should not be unexpected; an emotional reaction, on the other hand, can certainly be minimized or "calmed down" before engaging in the problem-solving.

While I am certainly using my own experiences to extrapolate very generalized conclusions, I hear similar complaints often enough that I feel they are applicable to a broader audience, as well as to friendships between a heterosexual male and female, or mixed groups, and are not exclusive to heterosexual partnerships. The relationships between men and women, whether in the context of friendship or romantic and/or sexual relationships, could be greatly improved if we all attempted to rid ourselves of negative behaviors influenced by "the patriarchy," and not leave the responsibility solely on the shoulders of men.

This does, of course, mean that men must also take responsibility; I write this based on the experiences I have with my own male friends, all of whom are the progressive type, for whom sexism is not an intentional behavior and rarely goes unacknowledged if called out. What I find most immediately pressing, though, for the sake of progressive dialogue to occur, is the inconsistency in which this method is thought of as necessary by the general population of self-identified feminist women-- especially in a group setting, whether it be online in a comment thread, or a backyard barbeque. We hear far too often that men created the problems, the war, the violence, and that they're in charge, and that women shouldn't be held accountable for the ways in which they are continually brought down by patriarchy; while it's true that no one is responsible for their own oppression, no matter how small of an oppression we may be experiencing, it is not necessary to avoid our own flaws because they are caused by the very system in which we are fighting. And let's not forget that men, too, are not immune to patriarchy's negative influences There is no reason to forgive someone the duty of being responsible for oneself when possible, when those behaviors continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes and hinder important progress in working with men to end negative gender-based expectations.