As soon as I heard it, I knew exactly what was happening. There was the loud, low voice, with a thumping cadence. Behind it, a chorus of twittering, high-pitched giggles. Thump, thump, tweetle, tweetle, coo. A waitress standing at the head of the six-top table received the sounds, rocking back on her heels, her tray a shield in front of her chest.
“It vas really terrible. You call dat chocolate?” the old man droned on in accented English, gesturing to the Hershey Kiss on the check tray the waitress set down moments before. His complaint to the waitress was cushioned by the nervous laughs and surprised-sounding “Ohs! Oh my!” voiced by two young women seated with the old man. A middle aged woman in the group just looked at him with a tight smile on her face. A young man seated next to him did the same. The old man continued, “I’m not kidding! It had no taste! Dey laugh, I don’t know wvhy. I’m serious! I need my money back!” And again, they giggled, hands at their mouths, shaking their heads.
The waitress said something benign to dismiss the whole scenario and quickly retreated to the server station. The old man repeated his claim to his table mates, who laughed awkwardly again, and began to say their Thank Yous and Goodbyes. Coats were gathered, and the group left.
“Did you see what just happened over there?” I asked my husband, Rob. “Did you hear that?” I knew we were on a date, and I was trying to have a Good Time, but I can’t not hear things like this from other tables. I wish I could tune out other human beings in enclosed spaces, but I simply can’t. Living in a college town, when we dine out, we often encounter groups of undergraduates with a professor or guest lecturer which I suspect was the case here. It’s usually nice to see the interactions. Rob and I like to play “Guess Which Department” where, based on the level of social awkwardness, footwear choices and amount of alcohol flowing, we determine if we’re looking at Math or Fine Arts people, for example.
“That old guy - seemed professorial - was being a complete boor to the waitress.” I counted the empty pint glasses at his vacated seat, “He had like three heavy beers and then was bitching about the whole meal. Those young women just giggled uncomfortably. You didn’t hear that?”
“Nope. Missed it, sorry.” Rob said.
“Hmmm…I hate it that they have to act all deferential. The older woman seemed to know better, though, and the younger guy just sat there while Professor Old Dude went through his diatribe. We should tip the waitress extra.
“It was so tense and awkward with him moaning on and on to the waitress. They had no power or authority in that situation. He was obviously holding court, and their role was to patronize him,” I explained. “It was grotesque.”
It was standard, I thought. A male in a powerful role used his voice to bully a young, female waitress and other young females did exactly what they’ve been trained to do, and what almost comes naturally. They soothed the waitress by laughing, to show her that she needn’t take the old goat seriously, yet they allowed him to go on, take up air and fill the space. They had tread the fine line quite deftly, actually. Apparently, that line has existed for thousands of years.
In 1972, researcher Dr. Robin Lakoff published the first study comparing women’s speech patterns to men’s and concluded that they are different. A new field of study emerged from Lakoff’s first book, and now the findings are fairly commonly known. Among those findings are that women insert words and phrases in their speech to apologize for knowing something. Women ask more questions, usually rhetorical. They speak about themselves and their feelings, and relate those to present topics. They add self-deprecating humor. Men don’t do much of that. Men tend to speak directly and about their credentials or reputations rather than emotional experiences. And according to Ph.D. student Laura Hare, whose work was profiled in the CBC Radio programme Ideas, it has been this way since the Hebrew Bible came into existence about 3000 years ago.
According to Hare, women and men consistently show different speech patterns in the Hebrew Bible. My favorite example she gave comes from the Book of Samuel. David, at the time just a local tough guy, is complaining about Naval, a farmer who is late on paying David protection money. Abigail, Naval’s wife, overhears and throws herself at David begging him not to kill Naval and his people. Abigail addresses David as “My Lord,” apologizes profusely that her husband is a fool and pays David off. She speaks to him in deferential terms and refers to herself in 3rd person. This is where it gets dramatic, almost like a soap opera. When Abigail tells Naval what happened, he has a heart attack and dies; the next day, David’s servants come to Abigail and she becomes one of his wives and eventually the Queen of Israel when David ascends the throne. The luck! See, you just have to speak in a way that doesn’t upset men, and you’ll get to be Queen! (Well, one of them anyway).
Was she depicted as speaking so femme, so deferentially because the arc of her story ends with being a good queen, and the Bible’s authors needed to connect a queen with right feminine speech regardless of how she really spoke? Maybe she actually said to David, “Look, pal. My husband Naval may be an idiot, but he’ll crush your gang of thugs. So take this cash and shove off!” and tossed him her money and fruit, right in his face. I mean, she could have. Or did she actually speak the way the Bible says she did, and became a queen precisely because she spoke in the right way to the man in power? We’ll never know.
In contrast to Abigail is Jezebel, everyone’s favorite whore.
Except Jezebel was not a whore. She was described as an adulterer toward Yahweh, because she worshipped the Phoenician gods of her girlhood, Asher and Ball. This is spiritual adultery, and over time gets confused with spousal adultery and, I guess, sex work!
My Grandma Lillian told me once that the nuns at St. Elizabeth’s hospital called her a Jezebel when she wouldn’t breastfeed my mother. This was in 1952. So Lillian, a married lady who just gave birth to her second child was called a whore because she didn’t want to nurse? I’d like to give the nuns a little credit. Maybe they knew Jezebel wasn’t that type of whore. She was just the type to, oh, I don’t know, stand up for herself? Honestly, they were most likely just enjoying name-calling a woman a half-day out of labor. Lillian left the Catholic church after that. It seems that whatever a woman does to buck convention, the worst thing to call her is a whore, so that’s the go-to for people who want to keep the status quo. Such a slut, my grandma, using formula. Such a whore, that Jezebel, worshipping how she pleased.
Back to Jezebel. In a nutshell, she was sent non-consensually to a foreign land for an arranged marriage to the King, where she got into a murderous feud with the Prophet Elijah over her worship practices and later took on a kingly role when she couldn’t prod her husband to rule. She was literate. And, according to Ph.D. student Laura Hare, Jezebel talked like a man. Her speech in the Bible is masculine, “unnatural” for a woman. It’s like her entire existence is a blip in the Bible stories; she’s an anomaly that shouldn’t have existed. Jezebel is different and unique, and not in a good way.
Eventually, Jezebel is thrown out of a window to her death, her blood famously lapped up by dogs. But before being killed, the Bible’s authors make a big old deal that she put on makeup, for reasons unknown. Putting on her makeup could have been a show of control. It could have been her way of saying “Though I exist in a man’s world, I will leave it as a woman.” Maybe her makeup connoted sexuality, but Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, also featured on the CBC Radio programme Ideas, thinks it’s more likely that she wanted to die looking like the Queen she was. This detail about the application of makeup has been twisted to prove that she was an immodest whore, painting her face in an attempt to trick the men around her, to manipulate them with false, shallow beauty. Rabbi Ruttenberg believes this detail points to Jezebel’s deep attachment to her own regality, and that she would control how she was depicted, even in death. It saddens me that it’s common to think Jezebel is synonymous with whore after learning more about her story.
But what should I expect? Women simply can’t win when it comes to how to speak. Just ask Hillary Clinton. The acceptable and unacceptable ways of speaking also illuminates the fierce debate over how women should lead too. If you want to be a leader, talk like a man! But don't act too masculine. Then you’re just a bossy bitch.
I was very afraid of being labeled bossy when I was a child. I knew that I needed to be a good girl, and to me that meant being pretty, friendly, cooperative and demure. Bossy girls weren’t well-liked by any of my role models. But I had a big problem. I was bossy. Very bossy. I was smart, assertive, and unafraid to give directions or take charge of a situation. When my parents came home from the Kindergarten parent-teacher conference, I rushed to meet them at the door. I remember what sweater my mom was wearing (mauve and cream - it was the 80’s!) and she said, “Well, we heard from Mrs. Shepherd that Lucy is being a little bit bossy.” Devastation set in.
Eight years later, in 8th grade, I was still smart, assertive, and unafraid to give directions or take charge of a situation and I started winning leadership awards and leadership positions. Those characteristics when labeled “Bossy” are bad for a girl! But stamped with the word, “Leader,” why, you had a winner! I finally felt rewarded for being myself, a true leader. Then my mom put me right back in my place when she said, “Call her a leader, sure...but I think she’s still plain old bossy.” Which was it? I was getting praise for all of my “bad” bossy characteristics, quite the opposite from being pretty, friendly, cooperative and demure. If I was a good girl, I wasn’t a leader. And I knew I was a leader, so I supposed that meant I wasn’t a good girl. I was confused, and remain so, 25 years later.
Abigail asserted herself in the acceptable way to David, and was rewarded with the throne. Jezebel had the throne, but it was violently taken away when she showed her “unnaturally” assertive self. The young, female undergraduates out to dinner were navigating the same territory and most likely did the best they could. Had they not giggled to cover their discomfort with the old man’s speech, they would have offended him and he would have been put on the spot. Who knows how that could have played out in their classroom or department in the future? It would have been risky for them to stay silent in disapproval, like the older woman and the young man, who relied on their different social status or social capital. The young women giggled, and lost in that way too, denying the waitress a chance to save face, letting the old professor off the hook.
So help me Asher and Ball, if an old man ever dresses down a young woman in my presence in the future, let me be more Jezebel than Abigail. Let me not utter one giggle nor one smile. Let me lead in my bossiest tone and tell him, “Hey. CAN IT. Let her work, and you can just suck on your subpar chocolate, pal.” Please give me the strength to do just that.