Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Does Obama's speaking style make him our first woman president?

That's what Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker thinks. In this piece published last week (you'll need to sign up to see it), she suggests that the U.S. president "may be suffering a rhetorical-testosterone deficit when it comes to dealing with crises."  She goes on to say: 
We've come a long way gender-wise. Not so long ago, women would be censured for speaking or writing in public. But cultural expectations are stickier and sludgier than oil....Women, inarguably, still are punished for failing to adhere to gender norms by acting "too masculine" or "not feminine enough"....Could it be that Obama is suffering from the inverse?
Parker cites women's studies professor Karlyn Kohrs Campbell for the insight that "men are safe assuming female styles as long as they meet rhetorical norms for effective advocacy -- clarity and cogency of argument, appropriate and compelling evidence, and preempting opposing positions."  But there's one component on which all this turns: Credibility.

Campbell's one-time co-author, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, got at this point in Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking.  She looked at reasons why Geraldine Ferraro fared so poorly in the vice-presidential debates against George H.W. Bush, during a campaign in which Ronald Reagan employed "effeminate" speaking techniques to advantage, while Ferraro took a more traditionally masculine tone. She writes: 
Ferraro's style manifests the double bind in which television traps a female politician. The style traditionally considered credible is no longer suitable to television. But only a person whose credibility is firm can risk adopting a style traditionally considered weak. So a male candidate whose credibility is in part a function of presumptions made about those of his sex is more likely to succeed in the "womanly" style than is an equally competent but stereotypically disadvantaged female candidate.
Many of us have been putting Presidents Obama, Clinton and Reagan in that group of top speakers who emply what are considered traditional female approaches to speaking -- "rapport-talk" or speech that builds relationships, rather than just "report-talk," as linguist Deborah Tannen calls it.  It's ironic that much of the beginning of Parker's column is full of apologies and self-deprecating humor about having the gall to call the president feminine in any way.  If you want a thoughtful read on men, women, leadership and how both use the "effeminate" speaking style--as well as a great short history of how women have been silenced throughout history--get your hands on chapter four of Jamieson's book.  It's thought-provoking, and has prompted me to encourage women to take back their own speaking style while working to build the credibility they need to do so effectively. 

What do you  think about this article?  I'm indebted to reader Dana Vickers Shelley, who brought this to my attention.

(White House photo)

Related posts: Who talks more: Men or women?

4 myths to stop about women and public speaking