Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sticks and Stones and Words Can All Be Hurtful

A few weeks ago, I caught an extremely interesting NPR report about how langauge affects the way we think. It just so happens that I went to high school with Lera Boroditsky, whose research is profiled in the report, but that was only part of the reason I stopped to listen to it.

Dr. Boroditsky's experiment was to examine languages with gendered nouns: for example, German and Spanish. "Bridge" in German is "die brucke," a female noun, and in Spanish is "el puente," a male noun. When native German speakers were asked for adjective to describe a bridge, the responses included "fragile," "elegant", and "beautiful." Native Spanish speakers responded with "strong," "dangerous," and "long." I encourage you to go read or listen to the whole article, but Boroditsky's research basically shows how the language we use strongly affects the way we think about things. It also shows just how deeply embedded our conceptions of gender are.

So, if you think that teachers and nurses, for example, are mostly women, then you might think of them are being caring and nurturing. And if you think of scientists and engineers as mostly men, then you might think of them as ambitious and bold and daring. On the other hand, why can't teachers and nurses be strong and protecting and being leaders, and why can't scientists and engineers be creative and meticulous and elegant? The answer is, of course, that they can be all these things, just like a bridge can be fragile and strong and elegant and dangerous, all at once. Moreover, ambition and creativity and boldness and meticulousness are all positive qualities for scientists. The trouble is that our thinking about the professions I've mentioned is colored by our assumptions about gender roles. But just because women might approach their research a little differently from how a man might doesn't mean her science isn't any good. On the contrary, it opens whole new avenues of thinking that might have otherwise been overlooked. Also, ambition and daring are not the sole dominion of men, just as creativity and elegance are not the sole dominion of women.

I should also confess that although I'm aware that language is powerful, I'm not immune to falling into traps. The other day, I gave a practice talk and made a comment along the lines of "Man has always been interested in exploring the universe." A friend of mine, who happens to be male, chided me, suggesting I say "humans" rather than "Man." He's right of course. I knew as soon as the sentence escaped my lips that I had misspoken, and I should have gone back and corrected myself rather than going on. Keeping your language politically correct can be difficult and awkward, but given the importance of language to how we think about things, being PC seems worth the effort.