The Buffalo News
Sunday, February 8, 1998, Pages F1&2
by Louise Continelli, News Staff Reporter

Review of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival



Arguing well appears to be the last frontier in the equalization of the sexes. Increasing attention is being focused on the way men and women communicate with each other.

In the "he said/she said" battle, some communication experts feel women are at a disadvantage -- sometimes simply because of the tone of their voice.

"I've often watched women at gatherings become flustered or defensive and hostile when they try to argue with men who are not more intelligent than they are, but who are more skilled or aggressive in presenting ideas. Often what is lacking is nothing more than a familiarity with the rules of arguing," says Wendy McElroy, an Ontario writer who has penned documentaries narrated by George C. Scott, Harry Reasoner and Walter Cronkite.

"Yet there is no sorcery or gender bias involved in arguing well," says Ms. McElroy, a finalist for the prestigious H.L. Mencken writing award last year...

Some of the problems have to do with voice.

"Women tend to speak softly and with more emotional intonation than men," notes Ms. McElroy in her book, "The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival," about to be published by Amherst's Prometheus Books. "Both tendencies can strip your voice of power and authority. Moreover, a soft high voice can easily be drowned out by any man who speaks in a normal manner."

She joins other social observers like feminist Naomi Wolf, who admitted in an interview that she was "tired of no one in public debate willing to grapple with what female consent looks like, and it seemed so clear to me that 'yes' means 'yes' and 'no' means 'no.' And that if girls and women have a problem expressing what they want, that's something we need to help them through."

There's nothing wrong with a good argument, says Ms. McElroy.

"An argument does not involve shouting, violence, accusations or emotional outbursts," she says. "Whenever such unreasoning behavior rears its head, argumentation has broken down and has been replaced by a verbal brawl."

Arguing well, Ms. McElroy proposes, "means respecting reason and evidence."

"Being good at arguing doesn't mean never having to concede a point, or never losing the exchange. Quite the opposite. A skilled arguer will always admit when she is wrong, and will listen closely to opposing viewpoints, not merely to detect their flaws but to honestly evaluate them."...

In her book, Ms. McElroy proposes a new etiquette.

First of all, no one "has an unconditional claim on your time or on your attention," she notes.

"When you are trapped in an unpleasant or boring conversation, you are well within your rights to state, 'I don't care to talk about this (or to you) further.' Make the statement without hostility, as a matter of fact, then simply walk away."

And we all have "the right to disagree," she adds.

Too many women, however, will "ask themselves: 'Why bother? Why cause trouble?'" Ms. McElroy concedes. "In some cases -- such as the family gathering -- you may reasonably decide that speaking out is not worth the price you might pay for doing so. But showing discretion is different than allowing silence in the face of offensive opinions to become a habit. Such silence is destructive to the most important aspect of your intellectual life: your own self-esteem.

"Breaking the silence and saying, 'I disagree,' is important. If it weren't, most people would not feel such resistance to making this statement."

People have a right to their own opinion," Ms. McElroy points out. "You don't need a diploma, permission from your spouse, a dispensation from the church... Simply by being a human being, you have a right to reach your own conclusions and publicly state them." Along with her new etiquette rules, Ms. McElroy advises women on how to have a commanding voice. To get rid of that pesky squeak, read a magazine aloud into a tape recorder "and then listen critically to how your voice sounds. This is how it sounds to other people."

Try dropping your voice by half an octave, bumping up the volume and cultivating "a matter-of-fact tone."

"As you practice your vocal range in daily conversation, keep a weekly appointment with your tape recorder in order to monitor how your voice is changing. If you need encouragement, compare the old tapes with the new ones."

Dump the assumption that is you're assertive, you'll be called the b-word. "Men do not seem to worry about being assertive in arguments," Ms. McElroy says.

Counter this fear with the mantra, "I can be assertive without being hostile. I can be aggressive in a classy manner."

What constitutes that classy manner?

"Never purposely embarrass anyone," Ms. McElroy urges. "The joy you feel at humiliating an adversary reflects poorly upon you and will win you no points from onlookers, who can recognize an act of gratuitous cruelty when they see one." ...

Eliminate an ostentatious display of knowledge, or arguing merely to display your own cleverness -- "as offensive to most people as an ostentatious display of wealth, which usually causes resentment rather than admiration," Ms. McElroy emphasizes.

If your opponent makes a good point, don't be afraid to acknowledge it, she says: "This level of courtesy within an argument is so rare that you will acquire a reputation for fairness based on such remarks alone."

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