Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Maleness and volume

Ever played the acting game "Zip, Zap, Zop?" You stand in a circle: one person "throws" a syllable to another person, who in turn passes the next syllable on to another, and so on. The goal is speed and attentiveness; optimally, you'll pick up on your cue even before your prompter has finished pointing at you.

Yesterday I attended a dissertation-work-in-progress discussion group that felt surprisingly like that game, if the cues depended on sheer volume instead of on arm movements. The attendees included several very excitable men (and one woman) with the capacity to project the hell out of their comments, and to jump into the conversational fray when (frequently) provoked. Eagerness, rather than scholarly one-upmanship, was the tone for the most part: I know most of these folks, and they'll rehash the highlights of Bill Murray's acting career in the same way, leaping from point to point like squirrels chasing each other around trees--rather than, say, locusts devouring stalk after stalk of grain.

Catching up, hopping in, and finding just the right place to insert myself into the discussion? A big rush. Especially because that conversational style is, in my experience, predominantly or even exclusively male: joining in means I don't "throw like a girl." And it's fun to radically change my usual speech patterns, which can be full of pauses to search for the right turns of phrase (after one oral exam, my committee wondered if I couldn't break out the thoughtful comments without those pauses for... thinking). Last night it just wasn't happening, for a few reasons--
  • Physical positioning: I was one of the few people on the floor. The excited speakers were all in chairs. I don't have a soft voice, but it's not attention-grabbing enough to compensate for the physical disadvantage.
  • Playing the crowd: Many people in the room were quite familiar with each others' cues--they could see the handoff moments coming.
  • Expertise: I didn't have strong opinions about the subject matter of the paper.
  • Politeness: Speaking assertively while making constructive comments in a respectful way is just hard.
I was sitting near the evening's presenter, so sometimes I would turn to her and wag my eyebrows suggestively, as if to say "I, too, am finding it hard to order my thoughts." Hopefully the gesture was more Thoughtful-and-Sympathetic than Groucho- or Harpo-esque.

I'll attend these workshops monthly, but I might draw up some talking points before the next one.

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