Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"Talking in Scandinavia" Part II - Sweden

Now that I was in Scandinavia, surely male-female relationships were different here? This was the region of gender equality. The Swedes and the Fins could finally teach me how to do this, they could help me with my failing relationship, if only I could take notes.

But then the strangest thing happened. Interview after interview each journalist asked me the same question I was asking myself – why was it that men and woman communicate so differently? And they didn’t ask me abstractly or objectively! They asked me with exasperation in their eyes and disappointment in their face. I could see they – like I – were desperate. They hoped that I might provide them with some clue to resolving this painful dilemma. One shy looking journalist in his thirties with glasses, began to give me some clues:

“I have to admit watching FLYING made me jealous!” He sighed heavily. “Why are women able to have such intimate conversations?” I could see he was a little embarrassed admitting this to a stranger. “I don’t know how you do it. I try to be intimate, but then I just run out of steam — after a while I just don’t have anything left to say! Whereas women can go on forever…”

It was such a relief to hear a man admitting what he couldn’t do, but also strange because despite my hopes that this was just a problem with my boyfriend, (yes I was still trying to deny gender!) I had to face the realization that this issue divided the world in two. Men and woman had different languages; the fight I was having with my boyfriend was so very typical. And even now, in the millennium, the cause of this gender division still wasn’t clear to any of us:

“But tell me,” he asked with a kind of desperation. “Why do you think it is so?”

I knew I was supposed to be an expert on gender issues because of FLYING — and certainly I had thought about it a lot — but I still felt lost in the proverbial woods.

“I think,” I began tentatively, “that there is or must be a biological component…. as well as a learned component…. You know that feelings just weren’t useful when you went into the woods to hunt animals to eat. Of course, the men must have been afraid –terrified — but to talk about it would only make it worse. So there grew up a culture of male pride. Probably the men who didn’t talk survived better, so then there was a genetic change….”

“Oh,” he said; his eyes excited. “You know here in Sweden bringing biology up around gender differences is just not politically correct. You can’t do it, people get angry at you….”

“I guess it make sense that if you want to talk about change, it is easy to use biology as an excuse.” I agreed and I saw him nod, “But honestly biology is just following our repetitive actions, so I am sure even biology could be changed if talking became a preferred trait for men over generations, don’t you think…?”

Just then, the SVT press agent, Brita, knocked on our door that it was time to stop. I was on a strict schedule and we had to say goodbye. It was sad because we both could have talked a long time. Before leaving the journalist said:

“If it wasn’t for my wife, I would be completely hopeless, but she has taught me a lot…”

As he left, I thought how lovely it was for a man to admit openly that a woman — his wife – could influence him like that. I think a lot of time men don’t allow themselves to change because they are afraid of seeming weak and giving their power away to women.

The day continued. There were five more interviews all by women – but amazingly all asked me the same golden question about male-female language. And I’m afraid for the most part none of us had much insight on the matter.

One woman who ran a feminist Internet site also asked. I decided to try my theory tentatively again with her, even though I had been told by the male journalist that it was politically incorrect. So I told her that I thought it was both biological and learned behavior:

“…Yet all culture turns into biology at some point, no?” I said. “If the genetic code is being created by us then even not talking can be both hard wired and supported by cultural practice…” But I really wasn’t sure. “What do you think?” I asked frustrated.

“I think it has something to do with being oppressed.” She said, “When there is no ability to act, you learn to talk. Not just women but all oppressed people….” She looked me straight in the eye: ‘I mean, if you have no agency in the world, you have nothing but talking…”

A light bulb went off in my head. When I was growing up the most communicative and open person I ever met was an Afro-American man named Cola who was the housekeeper for my family. We lived in the suburbs and because we had so many kids, my mother and him would split the driving. He used to drive us everywhere and when he drove we would talk, but he talked about everything openly – his feelings, his desires, his problems — and he talked to me as an equal. Cola was the son of southern sharecroppers and he had moved east to find work. He didn’t even have a high school education. There is no one more oppressed in America than the Afro-American male….

When you are oppressed, the only way you can let off steam is by talking. The women in my family did nothing but talk and express their feelings (to the degree that I often wanted them to hold some back but they definitely knew how to express). My father couldn’t express his emotions at all – except anger, which is the one male emotion. He went out in the world and ‘acted’. All his energy was consumed by action. No wonder he didn’t need to learn the language of feelings. That language of feelings had no place in the marketplace, where showing you’re feelings, tipping your hand so to speak, could actually make you loose your job…

… The interview went on, and of course there wasn’t enough time to say everything we wanted, since there were others waiting. Through the course of the day, there were so many things said and shared with my new Swedish friends. Because even thought this was a professional setting, FLYING had opened up the subject and provided a frame for us to talk in an honest way about who we really are as women and as men. So, after hours and hours of talking with the Swedish press I felt better, and though I hadn’t made huge inroads into the dilemma I was having with my boyfriend, I felt like I had some new thoughts to chew on. And that is all I need to feel better in the world. Sharing ideas and feelings. It is what feeds me – and that is oh so female.

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