Listening is an art. It’s not one I have mastered yet, although I try to be better every day. But it seems that, especially when it comes to women’s issues, men do not possess the ability to listen at all. They are quickly ready with explanations, solutions, suggestions or advice. None of which is welcome or appreciated.
Julie Lalonde expressed this really well in her tweet regarding Ellen Page on the Colbert Report:
A thing I love so much about Colbert is how often he lets his female guests just occupy quiet.
When Gaga talked about PTSD.
When Ellen Page is collecting her thoughts here.
He just sits with the quiet which men rarely do IRL let alone on network television which hates silence https://t.co/yUBkM86bql
— Julie S. Lalonde (@JulieSLalonde) February 1, 2019
And she is right. The beauty of this segment on the Colbert Report is that Ellen is allowed to speak. Colbert listens and waits, even in the silences when Ellen needs to gather her thoughts. Even when she is finished, he doesn’t speak, allows her time to compose herself and then just offers his hand for support. This is a rare quality for a man to have, and especially on TV. [On a side note, listen to what Ellen Page actually says in that segment: powerful and true.]
Men, and particularly white men, are used to being listened to. Male white voices have dominated society and culture for centuries. Art, government, the entertainment industry: they are all overwhelmingly white and male. Male experiences are represented in movies, books and TV shows. It’s only recently that female experiences receive some attention, and even then it’s grudgingly so.
This priority of male representation over female representation has taught our men that their voices are more important. You can see this in panels where male authors will speak over their female panel participants. Or just speak to any woman and she will have countless stories of men speaking over her, or for her. I have a boss at work who will consistently take my ideas (and those of my female coworkers) and then present them as his own. Or in meetings if I make a valid point, he will speak up immediately after me and repeat the point I have made. I am not the only one who experiences that at work.
Even as children, boys are allowed to be loud, talk a lot and be rowdy. Girls are taught to be quiet, think before they speak and listen a lot. Women who are outspoken are vilified in the media, or worse, ridiculed. Men, on the other hand, are listened to and taken seriously. Just look at how many talk show hosts are male. (Or look at how the committee discussing women’s reproduction rights in the US was exclusively made up of men.)
It is therefore no surprise then, that men feel the need to interject themselves into any conversation. Nowhere is this more visible than on Twitter, with every (controversial) conversation started by a woman attracts at least some comments from men who feel the need to argue or mansplain. We have all seen the example of a man trying to explain space to a female astronaut and the amount of times I have seen men mansplaining jokes to the women who made said jokes is outright depressing.
In a culture and society like this, it is therefore rare and wonderful to see someone like Stephen Colbert sit silently on his own talk show and let a woman talk about her experiences. I don’t know any men from my own life who would be able to do so. My own husband, whom I love dearly, would want to fill those silences with advice, counterpoints or even just a statement of agreement. But Colbert sits there and allows Ellen to say everything she needs to say. Even if that means waiting for her to gather her thoughts.
Needless to say we need to change society. I am a mother of two boys and I try very hard on a daily basis to counteract the bad influence of society. I try to teach them to be empathetic, to listen and not to speak about experiences they can’t possibly understand. I know I won’t change society, but if all mothers everywhere taught their boys to be better men, then maybe we have a chance to turn this society around. Maybe our future generation of men can be thoughtful, empathetic and able to listen to a woman speak without feeling the need to offer advice, or worse, make the experience about themselves.
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