Softeners

I posted something on Facebook a day or two ago, a piece about male-female roles in marriage, and specifically, how women often frame things as ‘can you help me by…’ when the thing in question is a common household chore.  “Can you help me and change the baby’s diaper, or do the laundry, etc.”  The piece was arguing that we need to get past thinking of certain domestic labor as being the woman’s realm, one she has responsibility for, and that everyone in the household should take responsibility.  It’s not that you shouldn’t be polite, but the word ‘help’ implies that this is her job, rather than a simple adult / household / parental job.  (A commenter noted that millennials often refer to this sort of thing as ‘adulting,’ which is interestingly non-gendered.  A sign of progress, perhaps.)

And of course, that should apply to chores that have been traditionally male too, like yard work, automotive maintenance, taking out trash, etc. and so on.  (Death to the ‘honey-do’ list!)

But I was actually thinking about that ‘soft’ language some more, and where else I see it.  Women use it with each other too, all the time, and if you don’t use it, another woman is likely to feel like you’re being rude and abrupt and that may have consequences, especially in the workplace.  “Joan, would you mind getting the lights?” as opposed to “Joan, get the lights.”  Women had better frame things as requests, maybe add a ‘please,’ if they don’t want to be penalized.  Men are expected to be polite too, but are less likely to be punished for abrupt speech.

And that translates interestingly to texting, and e-mails.  Where do we use periods, and where do we drop them?  What does it do to the conversation if you skip the smiley emoticon at the end?  How do different generations read these cues differently?

In Tamil, *everything* is softened.  My Tamil is terrible; I barely understand it, and I pretty much can’t speak.  But I know enough to know that if you’re asking someone to get you a glass of water, you had better soften it.  “Sweetheart, can you get me a little water, please?” is how I’d translate a common phrase.  And you’d better not skip ‘sweetheart,’ ‘little,’ or ‘please,’ or your family member is going to be wondering what they’ve done to upset you, and why you’re snapping at them.  It’s much softer than English in that regard, I think, though I’m no expert on the language / culture.

When I ask my kids to do something, I almost always frame it as a request, and include ‘please.’  “Kavya, could you get me some water, please?”  If it’s something she was supposed to do already, one of her chores, or especially if she’s gotten distracted and I’m now reminding her for the third time, some of that gets dropped.  “Kavya, hang up your backpack, please.”  “Kavi, backpack.”  “Backpack!”  My tone is pretty sharp by the third iteration, usually because I’m trying to cut through whatever is distracting her, whether it’s a show she’s watching, a daydream, or a conversation with her brother.

No real conclusions here.  But interesting thinking about code-switching, and what cultural assumptions are, and how cultural / generational / gender inflections affect our desire / need to soften our language.  And about power — who has the power in a relationship, and how they choose to wield it.

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