The Manologue

All of us have met that guy who can’t stop talking. Growing up, annual award giving/cultural programs organized by our school was often marred by the long-winded speeches given by some VIP chief guest or the other. University? Same story.

Long-winded speeches followed me everywhere in India, and did not entirely leave me even when I left the country. Even now, when I should have no reason to sit through a speech that could have ended fifteen minutes ago, I find myself doing so. Why? Because once a year, we go to a concert given by a University symphony orchestra, and the director of the University feels “obliged” to welcome guests with his twenty minute monologue. Or “manologue”, a delightful term coined by Julia Baird of New York Times. You can find her interesting article here.

This article raised some hackles as is obvious from the comments section. Why? Because, she says that men are more inclined to give these monologues. Because they feel entitled to do so, or that they love the sound of their own voice, or that they do it because they can. The case of the captive audience that can’t run away, as it were.

She spoke about men who are fond of explaining things at length to an audience that knows the stuff already. A behavior which is apparently called “mansplaining”. A condition in which the man assumes that the audience is rather ignorant compared to him, or even dim-witted and therefore, needs lengthy explanations. An underlying feature is that this often shows up when the audience consists of, or is dominated by women. A situation in which the average IQ of the audience is assumed to plummet to abyssmal levels.

The commentors on the article went crazy trying to accuse her of unfairness, bias or just simple blindness. Many tried to point out that a lot of women are guilty of talking endlessly. But I think they are missing the point. And Julia Baird does raise this point quite strikingly in her article. The point is that women are often/usually/chronically discouraged from talking at length. There might be some women who are immune or blind to social cues that attempt to tell them that they should shut up, just as some men are. But in general, women are more sensitive to social cues, and therefore more likely to shut up if they find that the eyes of the audience are glazing over.

That is an example of a situation where the audience is rather polite I would say. Ever seen a large group of people quietly sitting around a table listening to a woman holding forth? You can see that they are utterly bored, but no one is saying anything? Not likely, unless the woman is in a position of real power. Which is rare enough in this world that we live in.

In most other situations, women find themselves interrupted or talked over by men and even women who are also present at these gatherings. Even when the woman in question is saying something valuable, like at an official meeting, at a brain-storming session, or even in your living room at a holiday gathering. It has happened to me, like it has happened to a lot of women I know.

Julia Baird talks about how women are directly or subtly discouraged from talking. And how this affects the way they behave even when they assume positions of power. In fact, according to a study she quotes, powerful women are more likely to be quieter, because they think that they might be thought to “talk too much”, “too aggressively” and so on…

Like I mentioned before, the tendency to talk too much is not the sole dominion of men. I know women who do that, just as I know men who would rather donate a pint of blood than talk for five minutes on any topic. But such women talk much less when there are men around. Julia Baird also quotes studies that show this phenomenon.

And, I have noticed something about those reticent men. When such a man pauses to think before formulating the next sentence, people -men and women alike, are more likely to wait respectfully for him to continue. A woman would get interrupted in half that time.

Commenters on the article also accused Julia Baird of complaining without offering solutions. But the point is that the solution is not easy. How do you teach a man to be more socially sensitive, when his whole life he has been taught to believe that he is the cat’s whiskers and the world revolves around him? That a woman in his presence is either there to take care of him or to listen to him ¬†or to give him the respect that is his birthright? It is a long and rough road to gender equality when boys and girls are being brought up in subtly different ways that add up in the long run.

We have to teach our boys to be more sensitive to social cues, just as we have to teach our girls to be less so. Not an easy task.