Discursive Markers of Submission, continued

Mary Aquin and Mirabilis got into a terrific discussion of a suggestion I made in my post the other day about Healy’s article on authority in the church, and I thought it deserved its own thread. So go read those comments first, then come back here.

What’s interesting to me about “affected humility,” as Mirabilis put it (a perfect phrase, thanks), is that it can be used in very different ways, and its interpretation thoroughly depends on the context as well as on the speakers.

I’ve seen it used as a form of witty playfulness between friends who are debating largely for the fun of it. (In the particular instance I’m thinking of, it was between male friends, and there may also have been a bit of displaying going on directed at the women present, who were perfectly willing to be amused and admiring.)

I most often think of it as a form of signalling by the speaker that “I know my place,” and this is what I was thinking of when I wrote: women deferring to men, laity deferring to clergy.

Mirabilis’ point that historically, it was to avoid giving the appearance of the sin of pride — and perhaps it was actually/also a practice to “avoid the near occasion of sin”? — is fascinating.

As Mirabilis also pointed out, the use of these language markers sometimes adorned proclamations that were far from humble in their actual character, which touches on the point Mary Aquin was making too: false humility is just another form of pride, disguised to be more socially acceptable. But again, it’s hard to tell from the words alone whether someone is being truly humble, falsely humble and therefore proud, or fawningly humble (“toad-eating,” as the Regency novels put it) in an attempt to curry favor.

I’ve come across a couple of articles lately that are relevant to this discussion:
Men and Women use Uptalk Differently. “Uptalk” is the practice of ending a statement with a rising intonation, and this interesting study analyzed the circumstances in which Jeopardy contestants used uptalk in their answers, based on gender, confidence (determined by whether it was the right answer), and success (determined by how far ahead or behind the contestant was in scoring). The interaction of gender with the other two variables is very interesting — do click through and read the article — and undermines the relevance of the point I’d made earlier in response to Mary Aquin that both women and men would be using the same discursive markers of submission, if the church were to revive such a practice: because even when both women and men use the same speech patterns, they are perceived differently. (Which I should have known from a bunch of other studies on women interviewing, applying, teaching, exercising authority, etc.)

Academic assholes and the circle of niceness discusses both the author’s personal experiences in academia, and Robert Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule, to examine the systemic biases (which I contend are a form of structural sin) for “nasty cleverness” and against gentler, collaborative communication styles. Sutton drew on the work of Teresa Amabile, whose experimental study of responses to generated book reviews found that

…negative or unkind people were seen as less likeable but more intelligent, competent and expert than those who expressed the same messages in gentler ways

It’s not immediately clear to me how these results transfer to ecclesial and theological culture. I would expect that theological culture should be a hybrid of academic culture, which prizes intelligence and expertise, and Christian culture, which prizes Christian values such as love and mercy (although also in gendered form).

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