Wednesday, November 08, 2006


SPEAKer Pelosi

... needs to learn better public speaking skills.

I have previously wondered about why Pelosi is so reviled and considered so frightening. Some have chalked it up to straight-forward misogyny or even homophobia (after all, it's Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco). But listening to Pelosi speak last night and hearing more about how she really bombed on TDS and the Colbert Report, I realize something more is involved: Nancy Pelosi is simply not a good speaker.

Some of this is indeed a double standard, both against Dems. and against women: after all, people didn't feel so disturbed by Hastert, and he's no golden-mouthed orator. But some of it is the precise way Pelosi, as well as many others, speak. When Pelosi was speaking, her delivery was similar to that of "Loud Howard": she seems as if she is speaking by moving her lower jaw up and down vigorously while keeping a stiff-upper lip ... and has a delivery wherein collections of phrases always start at a middle tone, go higher and pitch and then often go very low at the end of the collection of phrases. There is no creative pausing or modulation of tone. The net effect is that Pelosi sounds like a robot who's enraged 'cause the price of lubrication has gone up -- it's no wonder people think Pelosi is angry.

This manner of speaking is not limitted to Nancy Pelosi. Pardon my sexism but it does seem to be more common amoung women. Of course, there are men that speak this way -- aside from Loud Howard (fictional) and Gilbert Gottfriend (not a politician), John Kerry (and we all know how well he did on a national stage), GHW Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger all have the same cadence as Pelosi. But it does seem that this cadence is more common among women (even the late Ann Richards, who was as witty, folksy and wonderful as all get-out was prone to fall into this cadence -- when she made her famous "born with a silver foot in his mouth" comment, it wasn't said in a folksy or well-modulated manner ... at was said with a predictable tonal progression from mid-range to high to low and with no rubato or any sign that the speaker was the great Ann Richards and not a robot) and people react harsher to it when women speak this way.

There are a number of things going on here: one is, of course, the sexist double standard of expecting more from women than from men. The other is that people expect women to be better speakers than men, because the stereotype is that women are better at talking than men, so when a woman sounds like Gilbert Gottfried, people think "she's a woman, she ought to sound better than that" whereas with men, they figure "boy's can't do any better, eh?" -- plus, people often are more comfortable with those who conform to their stereotypes -- there are many Protestant fundies, e.g., who are more comfortable with stereotypical "Papists" and Joe Lieberman types than they would be with everyday, not-100%-stereotypical Catholics and Jews -- and react badly to those who buck stereotyped expectations. Another thing is that, at a subconscious level, women speakers might be trying to sound less feminine and more masculine by removing stereotypically feminine voice modulations -- so you have an audience expecting a better modulated speech than they'd get from a man, but a speaker trying too hard to loose voice modulations to "sound like a man" figuring that the audience wants to hear a man, not a woman.

But there is also something more subtle in terms of socialization. There are certain things that, growing up as a boy, you learn, because if you don't learn them, you won't survive socially, due to a residual gender roles in our society (most pronounced, I must add, even if pointing this out is a very Nice Guy(R) sort of thing to do, in the hetero dating scene where it's not surprising that, since sexual differences are its raison d'etre, is a bastion of backwards gender roles). And since girls are by and large not forced to learn these skills, they simply don't learn them.

For example, one such skill is how to assert yourself. Boys have every last ounce of passive-aggressiveness beaten out of them starting at an early age: a male has to "be a man" and assert himself. Girls are not forced to develop assertiveness skills and many simply don't. Thus, "when a man makes his views clear it's called 'assertive' whereas when a woman does it it's 'bitchy'" is not necessarily a double standard but simply that all men are trained to be assertive, but women are not so trained, so many of them simply do come off as bitchy when they try to assert themselves, 'cause they are not as well-versed in how to make your point of view clear in a non-bitchy way. Frankly, some of us guys (e.g. me) are sufficiently passive-aggressive by nature that we come off as bitchy rather than assertive when we try to stand up for ourselves ... there is a real difference here. And it's likely not an underlying sex difference, but it has to do with how boys and girls are socialized (I suspect it's gonna be less of an issue in a few years, because a large part of assertiveness training is that boys generally have much more exposure to team sports -- I am about as much of a not-into-sports-nerd as one can be, and growing up the only girls who played more sports than me were the bona fide athletes -- and as girls are more and more expected to be just as sporty as boys, they will also gain the same training in assertiveness as guys) ... and primarily this socialization relates to dating: so (and my inner Nice Guy(R) is gonna come out here) parents -- raise your daughters to be as assertive about "asking people out", etc., as you do your boys: the personal is political and if you wanna ditch double standards about gender, ya gotta ditch those pesky gender roles where they are the most pronounced, the hetero-dating scene.

Anyway, I'm way OT ... but back to the subject, I wonder if another area where boys simply are held to higher expectations than girls is public speaking. If boys are always expected to develop public speaking skills and girls are not, is it any surprise that even among politically prominant people, the men tend to speak better than the women? Why there is a "big dawg" and no female equivalent?

Not too long ago there was a lot of good discussion in feminist left-blogostan about the perniciousness of stereotypes ... perhaps poorer speaking skills is one such example?

It doesn't matter though: even if it's purely a matter of misogyny, while we can and should work to eliminate sexist double standards, as my gf would say regarding the current situation "it is what it is" ... so Pelosi has got to learn to speak better is she wants to be an effective speaker of the house. Is it unfair that her speaking style causes people to think of her as an angry lefty moonbat loon while nobody thought much of anything about Hastert or his speaking style? Yes. But, to quote JFK, life is unfair. We have an obligation to pursue justice -- to try and make life fair. But we also have to live in the real world, where life is unfair and deal with it.

So congratulations Speaker Pelosi! Now, go get some speech coaching ...

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