Things not to say

Since time immemorial, experts have taken it upon themselves to instruct women in the art of conversing with men. Here’s an example from Emily Post’s The Blue Book of Social Usage, one of the most popular etiquette manuals of the early 20th century:

Another helpful thing, if you are a woman talking to a man, is to ask advice. ‘We want to motor through the south. Do you know about the roads?’ Or, ‘I’m thinking of buying a radio. Which make do you think is best?’ In fact, it is sage to ask his opinion on almost anything.

In the 1920s, apparently, you broke the ice at parties by asking the nearest man to mansplain something. At home with your own husband, though, you could just sit back and listen. According to a mid-century ‘guide for brides’, ‘once or twice in an evening is quite sufficient for a wife to introduce a topic of her own’. (This is the kind of literature being parodied in Harry Enfield’s sketch ‘Women, Know Your Limits!’*)

When British Cosmopolitan celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1992, it poked fun at this ancient wisdom.

It used to be so simple. Men paid, drove and made the first move. Women dressed up, pretended they liked the restaurant, got the bubbles up their nose and said ‘Really…how interesting’ a lot. …Dinner was never spoilt by women saying, as you hit the foyer, ‘well damn me, but that was the worst bit of cinematography I’ve seen in a long time’. Women didn’t say that. Women said, ‘What did you think of the film?’

The theme of the piece was how much things had changed during the two decades of Cosmopolitan’s existence. Women in the 1990s were no longer expected to keep their opinions to themselves. But a new wave of advice was already gathering momentum. 1992 was the year when John Gray published Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus—a book about communication for heterosexual couples that would remain on the bestseller list for most of the next ten years.

Men are from Mars has been described as ‘new age psychobabble’. But underneath the new age veneer, the advice is surprisingly old-school. Here’s a top tip on how to ask your male partner to do things around the house without coming across as a nag:

You want him to make dinner, but you never ask. You sense he resists cooking. What to say: “Would you help me cut the potatoes?” or “Would you make dinner tonight?” If he says no, then graciously and simply say “OK”.

Ask politely, and be ‘gracious’ if he refuses. It’s not a million miles from the 1950s guide for brides.

But in today’s fast-paced, hi-tech world, people no longer have time to wade through pages of anecdotes and cod-psychology in search of nuggets of practical wisdom. And so a new advice-giving format has been invented, which condenses what you need to know into a series of short, numbered bullet points. I refer, of course, to the listicle—and specifically to a subgenre of listicles headed ‘things not to say to Xs’.

‘Things not to say’ lists are like etiquette manuals for the Buzzfeed generation. They’re all over the internet: if you put the sequence ‘things not to say to’ into Google you’ll find office humour versions (’7 things not to say to a graphic designer’), support group versions (‘5 things not to say to a person suffering from chronic pain’), identity politics versions (‘12 things not to say to lesbian and gay couples/trans people)—and, inevitably, dealing-with-the-opposite-sex versions.

The dating site offers a list of ‘Ten things women should never say to their men’. Item one is the expression ‘man up’: ‘this emasculating phrase is never ever appropriate’. At number six we have ‘are you really that stupid?’ ‘Be careful’, the text warns, ‘not to use language that emasculates and belittles your guy. Treat him with respect, even when you’re angry and disappointed’. Number seven is ‘I’ll do it myself’ (‘don’t dismiss offers of help from your man’), while number eight, on the face of it rather inconsistently, is ‘I can’t live without you’. The text explains: ‘use desperate language with caution, and stay clear of phrases that sound clingy… Let him take the lead when it comes to commitment and promises of a future together’.

We might wonder how many women actually do say these things to their boyfriends, but that’s not really the point. The list of ‘things not to say’ is only a device, a pretext for talking more generally about the way men and women are and the attitudes they should adopt towards one another. According to eHarmony, the correct attitude for a woman to adopt is deferential. She should ‘treat him with respect’ and ‘let him take the lead’. She should not make emotional demands by being too ‘clingy’, nor threaten his self-esteem by subjecting him to ‘emasculating’ criticism.

The word ‘emasculating’ makes clear that what’s being recommended here is not just ordinary good manners. ‘Are you really that stupid?’ is undoubtedly a rude and hurtful thing to say, but that would be no less true if a man said it to a woman, or if either of them said it to another person of their own sex. In those contexts, though, it would not be described as ‘emasculating’. What’s emasculating isn’t being told you’re stupid in and of itself, but being told that you’re stupid by a woman, a member of the sex that is supposed to look up to men rather than down on them. To big them up, not belittle them. Like Emily Post, eHarmony is saying that when women talk to men, their job is to make men feel important.

Ours being an age of equal opportunities, there are also lists of things for men not to say to women. They make an instructive contrast with eHarmony’s list. For instance, one item on a list of ‘the top ten things you should never say to a woman’ is ‘anything that hints at a future’.

She might say she loves Thai food, so you say, “Wow, so do I. We should go get Thai food sometime.” Stop, stop, stop, stop! While this sounds good in theory, you must remember that women not only want but need a man who is somewhat of a “challenge.” If partway through the first date you are talking about hanging out again and again and again, she knows that you are really into her, which means the game is over and she has won.

So much for ‘letting him take the lead when it comes to commitment and a future together’.

The view that men should strive to keep the upper hand is a recurring theme in this top ten. Readers are warned, for instance, that they should never say to a woman, ‘can I take you out on a date sometime?’ This is far too tentative: ‘women want to be with a man who is a leader and in control’. The right thing to do is presuppose her interest and say something ‘confident’ like ‘we should hang out. What’s your number?’

But the absolute top no-no is asking a woman ‘can I kiss you?’

Asking for a kiss goes against everything a woman is looking for in a man. You may as well just tell her right there that you are a boy. Her answer might be “yes” if she’s being polite, but her attraction meter on the inside will read a firm, “no!”

Consent isn’t sexy: requesting permission before engaging in intimate acts makes a man look like a wimp, which is the opposite of what women find attractive. It’s an argument straight from the PUA playbook.

I’m not suggesting that people (or at least, most people) live their lives and conduct their relationships according to lists of rules they find on websites. Historians and social scientists don’t study advice literature to find out about people’s actual behaviour. What it gives us is an insight into the beliefs, assumptions, social norms and social anxieties which preoccupied people (or which people were told they ought to be preoccupied with) in a given time and place. Studying it over time is one way of tracking changes in social norms. For instance, the proliferation of lists of ‘things not to say’ to various minority groups is an indicator of our current preoccupation with issues of ethnic and sexual/gender identity, which did not feature prominently in advice texts even 20 years ago, let alone 100.

But in the case of advice on how to talk to the opposite sex, what we learn from ‘things not to say’ lists is that our norms haven’t changed as much as we might think. Our technology would be unrecognizable to Emily Post; our ideas about men, women and language would not.

*Thanks to Melonie Fullick for reminding me of this comic gem.