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War of Words
Elizabeth Mapstone

War of Words
Elizabeth Mapstone
Chatto & Windus
London 1998

Mapstone has written that rarest of things, the psychology self-help book that doesn’t compromise on academic integrity. Doubly gratifying when that book is about, as we would have said in the ’80’s, ‘interpersonal relations’.

War of Words looks at one manifestation of the battle of the sexes: how arguments are recalled and internalised depending on whether you are a man or a woman. and whether your opponent is a man or a woman. To use the word ‘opponent’ already assumes what Mapstone finds to be a generally masculine point of view, seeing argument as a matter of dominance. Because while women typically explain argument (in the workplace in particular) as a means of solving a particular problem, it seems that men are more likely to see it as an exercise in status warfare.

Hardly a new idea, you might say, but the conclusions she draws from her extensive diary and interview studies are troubling in this supposedly enlightened post-feminist era. Mapstone hypothesises that this is due to the assumptions instilled in people from childhood that were useful once, when the division of labour clearly set out that women’s role was to be supportive and to take care of relationships within the family group, and men’s role was to deal with the outside world and to decide when aggressive action against outsiders was appropriate. Now that these criteria for social interaction are no longer relevant to the way we live and work today, outmoded assumptions about gender roles prevent communication and lead to a great deal of resentment and anger in a variety of situations.

The problem is one of expectations. Traditionally, women were supposed to bring their own special women-skills to the workplace. As secretaries and receptionists, we are to carry out subordinate tasks and make everyone around feel good. All well and good. But this can no longer work when women are bosses, or leaders, or hold any of the stations that used to be reserved for men. Then, in adopting a different approach, a tone of decisive authority, apparently we still run the risk of being seen as domineering, aggressive and disagreeable, (whereas a man would be called tough, strong, decisive).

This is depressing staff; what is a girl to do if she doesn’t want to play the gender game and use the other woman-skill, her sexuality, to get what she wants? What if you just want to be forthright and direct, neither nurturing and sympathetic, nor outright offensive? You could wait for society to discard old fashioned expectations. (Presumably, the more men who read Mapstone’s book the quicker this will happen, but then judging that the media has reacted to her previous work with such distorting headlines as ‘Why women always lose the argument’, it’s clear that those who wield power don’t want to give it up).

The most optimistic advice Mapstone gives is not what she says, so much as what she is. People naturally need role models; people learn by copying, that’s how a culture is formed. You can say what you want to say only within a discourse that is already established. That’s why women executives lose out in the boardroom; they are in a position of relative powerlessness, and only provisionally tolerated. So when you have had your say, who do you look up to, whose eyes do you meet? In the world of the committee, that cornerstone of Western corporate and political power, they are usually male, and if you are young there is a double bind, since chances are your sexuality will be responded to before your ideas. Mapstone offers different eyes to look up to, as it were. If we can’t immediately change the unfair situations we find ourselves in, we can at least recognise what’s going on. And understanding makes you feel better, and means that you are more likely to be able to be in control next time.

Reviewed by Cath Walsh


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