Saturday, August 8, 2009

Communicating the Gender Gap

For a post like this I wish I had access to some of my notes, books, and such. Alas, they are boxed in storage. But I do remember enough to get the point across (I hope).

I've gone and embroiled myself in another discussion on the Internet, something I have been trying to avoid, but something my own itching passion for intellectual and theological debate has gotten the better of in me. In this latest debate I was reminded of something from my college days. Men and women generally communicate (and especially debate) differently.

I must be getting old. I actually have a story to tell that relates. I went to a Lutheran college, Concordia Ann Arbor. I took a class on biblical hermeneutics with a wonderful old pastor and professor, Rev. Dr. Jakob Heckert (who is still around, I hear). Our text was Voelz's What Does This Mean, which was also used at the Ft. Wayne Seminary. The class was almost entirely female Lutheran school teachers-in-training. Most of them seemed to despise the class; Voelz was not easy on them. Other than the teacher-ed students there was my now-wife, Emily, my good friend, David, and me. Emily was taking it as an elective, and David and I were taking it as part of the pre-seminary curriculum.

Emily, David, and I enjoyed the class. It wasn't difficult for us. We sat in the front and enjoyed leisurely meanderings off the central topic to related theological topics. This usually upset the ladies behind us - at least the ones who were having a hard time figuring Voelz out. We weren't trying to upset them, but we were just trying to get the most from the class as possible. It's not like tutoring wasn't available for those who needed it. Anyway, I digress.

One day David, I, and our kindly professor found our way to discussing Lutheran beliefs about the Roman Pope. It was germane, but not the strict content of the chapter. Anyway, the discussion hit upon the Lutheran belief that the Roman Pope is the Antichrist. As we talked about this more and more, the ladies behind us became more and more upset. On our part we (the prof, David, and I) were tossing the facts back and forth, the various doctrines of Lutheranism and those sorts of things. For us it was about the facts, the things Lutherans said they believed, and the theological implications.

For the young ladies behind us, soon to be Lutheran school teachers, it was a horrifying discussion. I won't say their were gasps and people fainting left and right, but it didn't seem far from that. The girls were plain offended. They couldn't believe that we would say such things about that nice man, the Pope. After all, they argued, he did so many good things. How could we so casually label him "Antichrist" and all the other things that Lutheran theology says of him?! We were so mean, so rude, so offensive for talking as we were! One poor girl got so upset that she stood up mad as all get out and did just that - she walked out of the class. David and I and the professor looked at each other calmly but surprised and thought the whole scene was rather strange. The emotional outrage seemed so inappropriate.

In my latest foray into Internet debate I noticed some similar trends. There have been gasps of "How rude to show up and say so-and-so is wrong and you're right. You're so offensive, so rude, so not-humble!" and other things of this nature. I can only laugh to myself. It seems so familiar, and in some ways reminds me of my experience in that class (and similar experiences on campus, in other classes, and in other Internet conversations).

Returning to my college days I learned in other classes about something called gender communication. It was taught in these classes that the sexes generally debate and discuss differently. For one thing, women normally don't play Devil's Advocate. In fact the women in the class where this was discussed had never even heard of such a thing. They were shocked to find that men would actually take up an opposing viewpoint that they didn't really believe and argue that point just to learn the issue better from all sides. They were shocked, but the men were like, "What, this is new to you?"

Another issue of difference is a little more subtle. Men tend to focus on the facts and issues, aiming to grow in knowledge or further a point. They can be very blunt. Emotion in these exchanges is often passion associated with the exileration of the discussion. That's not to say men (generally) won't get offended. However, offense tends to come from lack of respect for their ideas or their ability to discuss meaningfully.

Female discussion, though, usually revolves around the idea of closeness and community. The interjection of facts in a discussion is interwoven with the immediate condition of the relationship between the participants. When women talk with each other it would be horrifyingly bad form for one to say to the other, "Your idea is wrong," or, "I think you're wrong and I'm right." That could end a friendship! Women will analyze the facts, but simultaneously analyze the relationship, to make sure no one is getting overly offended or hurt. If it seems that someone might get hurt or offended in the conversation, women will generally find a way to back off, tone it down, or change the subject. Men, though, compartmentalize their emotions and deal with them separately from the pursuit of ideas and knowledge.

What is ascribed to one gender is sometimes exhibited by the other gender, but more or less these trends are identified in the communication and psychology fields as specific gender traits.

So men, be extra kind and considerate when debating with women. Their feelings are on the table with their ideas. And women, be extra tolerant when entering a debate with a man. Men are in it for the thrill of debate; their relationship with you or anyone else is in a different room entirely.


Dixie said...

I successfully debated competitively for years in high school and college which forced us to argue both sides of every topic regardless of our own thinking on the matter and as a scientist facts sway me more than relationship and opinions but despite all that I surely can relate to what you say about gender communication.

Quite honestly I thought your participation was most respectful and focused on facts, not opinion. However it seemed that one man's facts became another man or woman's insults.

Unfortunately, I don't have the stamina for Internet debate. I want to make my point and if it is accepted, great, if be it. But I don't think my approach is a good one. There are so many people who first even hear about Orthodoxy through the Internet. So many people who have valiantly fought for their denomination only to find themselves ultimately agreeing with those Orthodox who have persevered in discussion with them. I appreciated your willingness to enter back in and with kindness again explain your Orthodox position.

Note the "with kindness" comment...yep, a female communication thing. Fact should be accompanied by kindness! :)

Dixie said...

On second thought I guess the "injured shoulder" analogy wasn't quite "fact" but it was a great illustration!

Oh ya...and I never liked the Pope being the Antichrist position when I was LCMS either!

Benjamin Harju said...


I re-read the comments in that debate. I think I came in too strong. I can see why that might seem rude. However, I treated the debate in a very male fashion. I expected that by coming in blunt and in obvious opposition to the host's position I would get some very precise rebuttals. Surprisingly I did not.

I was also surprised that, even though I defined justification as communion with CHRIST (and therefore it is Christ's righteousness at work and cooperated with in the penitent), later on in the thread the other side thought I meant communion as membership in a church body (or maybe they thought I meant communion with the Church?).

Discussions like that are really hard, because we come in with our own concerns, prejudices, and touchy spots. And there's something about Internet text that makes everything seem harsher than it is intended to be!