February 17th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; gender and language, part 4; metaphors

The question is whether the Life Is Football metaphor that I've said is a typical perceptual filter for adult male speakers of American English is truly a characteristic of American English or only of some dialect(s) of AE. kirinqueen commented: "I haven't read the whole post, but I wanted to comment on the football metaphor concept. I think this is particular to a dialect or range of dialects. All the boys I know rely much more on the life-as-a-baseball-game metaphor."

The primary distinction -- the one that really matters -- is a higher metaphor: Life Is A Team Sport. Whether the sport a particular adult male AE speaker relies on is football or baseball or basketball or hockey or soccer is important to know when interacting with that individual, because it will allow you to make various accurate predictions about his language behavior. There will be differences, based on the sport chosen. And there will be differences from one man to another in how far into private life the metaphor is carried. For some men, it's only used to structure their public and business life; and then there are men that take it right on into the bedroom with them.

But in terms of gender and language, the difference is that most adult female AE speakers don't structure their perceptions and behavior around any team sport; rather, their metaphor is Life Is A Traditional Schoolroom (like the schoolrooms in "Little House on the Prairie"), where as long as you're good, and you work hard, and you never cheat, and you do what you're told, you will always get an A and be promoted. The terms and concepts and pragmatics rules of the schoolroom are totally unsuitable for getting out on the field and playing a team sport, whether it's football or baseball or any of the others. My women clients come to me baffled.... "I don't understand! I've worked at my company for so long, I've worked so hard, I've done everything they've ever asked me to do and more, I have just knocked myself out for them! And now they've promoted a man -- a man who is a total idiot, by the way -- right over my head! How could that happen?!" It happens because the men at her company are aware that she doesn't know how the game is played, if she even knows that there is a game.

This game/non-game distinction permeates every aspect of adult male/female communication. It's what lies behind the classic male/female dialogue:

She: "You lied!"
He: "I did not!"
She: "You did! What you said was completely false!"
He: "All right, sure. It was false. But it wasn't a lie! Not in that situation!"


A few years ago .... maybe ten years ago ... I was doing a workshop on cross-generational communication in an auditorium in Tulsa. There were several hundred people in the audience, and they were mostly families. Parents, their kids, grandparents. We had been talking about the problem of violence in the home, and the group was getting tense and a bit unruly, so I introduced a distraction. I said to them, "Suppose that you knew for sure -- absolutely for sure -- that we could eliminate all violence from American society tomorrow morning if we would just give up football? Would you be willing?"

There was a very long silence. And then the hands started going up. I called on one man, and what he said was typical of the rest: "No, I wouldn't be willing. I'm ashamed to have to say it, right here in front of my kids, but the answer is no."