February 18th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; gender and language, part 5; "multitasking"

We've almost reached the end of the set of questions that were raised (in your comments) about gender and language; there's just one left. And then there's a meta-question. Because I have a written record, I'm aware that the original topic for this whole discussion was hostile language online -- cover term, cyberbullying. And the meta-question is how all the material that we've covered in discussing gender and language fits into that original topic. I'm not sure I can lead us back that way; we'll see. For the moment, the question is allegedly about multitasking -- specifically, whether multitasking is (at least for American English speakers) more a "female" ability than a "male" one.

I say allegedly, because I've gone back and looked at the posts where this came up, and I think the question is really about something else. Multitasking, as I understand it, is the ability to do several things simultaneously. There was some suggestion, in comments, that women are good at this because they can fix dinner while helping the kids with their homework while giving the baby a bottle while talking to their mother on the phone... et cetera. But that's not multitasking. What happens is that you're putting together the salad for dinner when the baby cries, and you stop putting the salad together and go fix the baby's bottle and give it to the baby. After which, you go back to the salad you were assembling, and then your mother calls and won't be put off, so you do talk to your mother while you're still working on the salad -- but then there's a despairing wail from the kitchen table where your seven-year-old is struggling with fractions. So you get rid of your mother -- somehow -- and try to convince the child that you can help with the fractions homework while you continue to fix the salad, but it quickly becomes obvious that that won't work. So you put the salad aside one more time and go sit down with your child and help him with the homework for a few minutes. After which you go back to the salad....

That is, there's almost no multitasking going on here. What really happens is that the woman does a little bit on one task (the salad), sets it aside for something else, goes back to it, sets it aside again, goes back to it.... and when in the fulness of time that one task finally gets finished, takes up a second task -- maybe a casserole -- and shepherds it through a similar history of incessant starts and stops.

Edward T. Hall, way back when -- in his 1983 book The Dance Of Life: The Other Dimension of Time -- proposed that there are two different ways that cultures structure time: Do one thing at a time, from start to finish, which is called "monochronic" time; do a number of things at once, which is called "polychronic" time. The two systems, he said, are "logically and empirically quite distinct." In America, he said, the cultural assumption is that work that really matters will always be handled monochronically, while informal work -- work that's "not really" work -- will be handled polychronically. You will probably not be surprised to know that on page 52 he then tells us that "at the pre-conscious level," in America, monochronic time is male time and polychronic time is female time.

This may be changing dramatically today. One of the things that you have brought home to me most forcefully as I've kept this journal, one tiny increment at a time, is the vast gulf that exists between the world I live in and the world my children live in, with an even vaster gulf between my world and the world my grandchildren live in. (I don't think that sort of distance existed between me and my own grandmother.) It may be that on the two coasts, in the chic households of young professional couples and academic couples, things are totally different. But I assure you that in rural America, in the majority of small towns in America, in the households of working class and lower middle class America, it's still exactly as it used to be. Children are sternly hushed because "Daddy is working!" and are absolutely not allowed to interrupt Daddy, who expects to be allowed to begin a single task of his choice and to be allowed to work on that task until it is finished. Mother, on the other hand, even if she has had to take a fulltime job in addition to the housework and childcare, is assumed always to be interruptible. It's taken for granted that while she's frying the porkchops for dinner you are free to go tell her you can't find your socks and demand help -- even Daddy feels free to do that.

I don't believe this has anything to do with gender other than in the indirect sense of being linked to the gender divide between "real work" -- work that has a paycheck associated with it, and Social Security and Workmen's Compensation and the like associated with it -- and other work. There are cultures where time is organized polychronically for males; the messes that occur when American males try to get jobs done by hiring male workers from those cultures are famous in anthropology.
ozarque figure

Writing science fiction poetry; recommended links...

Writer/critic Greg Beatty has a series of articles at Strange Horizons analyzing the Rhysling Award-winning poems in depth. This is a trial series, agreed to for only three months; it will only run longer if Strange Horizons sees solid indication that people are reading the articles. The URLs are http://www.strangehorizons.com/2006/20060213/1beatty-rhys0-a.shtml and http://www.strangehorizons.com/2006/20060213/beatty-rhys1-a.shtml . Recommended.