Feminine Speech Patterns and Japanese

A long time ago when I was first starting a career path, I would at times attend various workshops related to career development.  One of these workshops that I remember was for women teaching them to rid their speech of “feminine speech patterns.”  These speech patterns consisted of phrases such as “I think” and “I believe” and phrases such as “isn’t it,” which seek agreement from the listener.  Other patterns were frequent apologies and self-effacing language.  All of these speech patterns were to be avoided as they tended to keep women “in their place” and prevented them from “getting ahead” in the business world.

Business WomanLater when I embarked on a second career, I was taught that using words such as “I think” or “I believe” was improper “hedging.”  I can still hear voices of instructors saying, “No one cares what you think!”  According to the conventional wisdom of my career, it was important to sound confident, even (and maybe especially) when one was not!  Otherwise, one would not be taken seriously.  In writing, one was to avoid passive voice, except in very particular circumstances.  I also learned in other places, such as church settings, that it was important to be direct with one’s speech.  Indirect speech was said to be manipulative.

As I have discussed on this blog and on others, I am currently studying Japanese.  I have found it interesting that in Japanese, all of these “feminine” speech patterns that were drilled out of me in the West are all matters of ordinary politeness in Japanese.

In Japanese, it is frequent to end thoughts or sentences with qualifiers such as, to omoimasu (“I think”) or ne, (a sentence ending particle that seeks, or even assumes, agreement by the listener).  Not only does one frequently apologize in Japanese, but there are many different levels of apology.  The informal apologies, gomen or gomen nasai, are used all of the time, and it is polite to end a communication with a superior (or even with an equal in polite circumstances) with shitsurei shimasu, an apology meaning “I am committing an act of rudeness.”

Japanese-ClothingStyle-For-Women1In Japanese, self-effacing speech is considered the norm and to do otherwise is considered arrogant and rude.  One never uses an honorific to refer to oneself, one’s own household (to another outside her household), or one’s company or in-group, but always uses an honorific to refer to others, unless one on very intimate or friendly terms with the other.  There are different words in Japanese for “to give” based on the social position of the giver and the receiver.  Kureru is to “give down” to one socially below and ageru is to “give up” to one socially above.  When speaks of giving something to another, one uses ageru and when one is asking to be given something by another one uses kureru.  One only uses the word jouzu, meaning “skillful” or “good at” to refer to someone else.  To use jouzu for oneself sounds prideful and arrogant.

Passive voice is common in Japanese and is particularly used when one is being polite.  As a general rule, speech that is passive and indirect is considered more polite than active and direct speech.  For example, if one must refuse a request, it is common to do so with a simple chotto (“a little”) without completing the sentence.  This means the request is a little….(inconvenient, difficult, impossible, etc.).

It is interesting that the speech patterns that are considered “feminine” in English are part of everyday Japanese, and to omit them would be seen as rude or arrogant.  While Japanese does have speech patterns that are seen as more masculine or more feminine, I believe that the patterns I have mentioned are just a part of ordinary common courtesy in Japanese.

The Ladies’ Tea

This past weekend, I went to an Annual Ladies’ Tea at a larger church gathering.  The Tea itself was lovely.  There was beautiful china on the table with lovely teapots.  Ladies were dressed in beautiful and elegant dresses.

Arkadyan Ladies TeaWhat was interesting, and to me, a bit sad, were some reactions to the idea of a Ladies’ Tea.  There were women who seemed to think that such events should be long past.  There were also women, even at the tea, who chafed a bit at the entire concept behind this event, and I think, what such an event seemed to represent to them.  It was also sad that there were several teenage girls at the gathering who did not go to the Tea.  I think that this is symbolic of the direction our society has been headed in the last few decades, which is really just a culmination of millenia of a systemic patriarchal devaluation of the feminine principle.

In order to explain what seems to be a bit of an outlandish statement, we need to understand that the masculine principle and the feminine principle are metaphysical concepts that are separate from (but not completely unrelated to) biological gender.  In its highest form, the masculine principle is that of protection and courage, but on a more mundane level, it is related to outward action, competition, and conflict.  The feminine principle is related to nurturing, beauty, kindness, and gentleness, and is related to stillness, as opposed to action.  Stillness was not viewed as inferior – quite the reverse – to quote feminine Scripture “earth moves but heaven is still.”  Many millenia ago, even in the West, the feminine principle was seen as the higher principle, and the masculine principle was seen as the lower principle.

Estrenne Tea PartyWhen patriarchy took over the world around 600-500 B.C., both in the East and the West, the East and the West took different approaches.  In the East, the feminine principle was still considered the highest principle; however, the associations of masculine and feminine became reversed, at least in terms of the qualities of action and stillness.  The quality of stillness was assigned to the masculine gender, and the quality of action was assigned to the feminine gender.

In the West, however, the masculine principle itself became seen as the higher principle, and over time, the feminine principle became more and more devalued.  Nurturing, beauty, kindness and gentleness became associated with weakness, to be subordinated to the masculine principle of achievement, competition, and war.  Men were violently discouraged from manifesting feminine traits, and though women were still encouraged to manifest feminine traits, they were made subordinate to men, legally, socially, and often violently.

Despite this, until the past several decades, there have been vestiges of the ancient dance between the masculine and the feminine in the form of chivalry.  The true meaning of chivalry was an outward manifestation of the masculine principle giving honor to the feminine principle, which survived in form, even though the understanding of the meaning of the form had been lost.  Because the understanding of the meaning of the form was lost, people mistakenly believed that men engaged in chivalrous behavior because of the supposed weakness of women.   It is understandable that feminists chafed at chivalry with the long term mistaken social belief as to what it represented.

So, how do these deep philosophical concepts relate to a Ladies’ Tea?  I believe that these events represent a dying bastion of feminine space.  Femininity is not a restriction or a prison.  Femininity is a birthright.  Not all biological women need to accept or manifest this birthright; however, it is ours, should we choose to accept it.  The very form of such events is distinctly feminine and is not trivial.

China SetBeautiful clothing, china, teapots, and table settings are all symbolic of striving for beauty.  Beauty is an end to unto itself and is a trait of the Divine.  As children of the Divine, we can choose to adorn ourselves and our surroundings with beauty, even in a world that systematically devalues and tries to destroy beauty.  Good manners and pleasant conversation are symbolic of giving honor to each other and of engaging in harmonious social behavior.

As I am writing this, I can hear arguments and complaints about these events being far from harmonious.  Even at the tea, I heard stories of gossiping and subtle, and not so subtle, unkindness surrounding such events.  I have no doubt that women have used these events to compete with each other and to judge one another.  Yet, to avoid such events because of these things is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

Yes, women have traits of excessive competitiveness, just as men do.  Women can be mean to each other and gossip.  We are all imperfect human beings, and we all have faults.  Those faults are not intrinsic to the feminine principle, however.  In fact, the feminine principle, in its highest form, is the antidote to these faults.  Beauty, gentleness, and kindness in manner, dress, and decor, if truly embraced, can go a long way towards the healing of ourselves and our surrounding world.

I am so glad and honored that I was a part of one such feminine hold-out in this modern, hyper-masculine age, and I hope that I can find more such feminine hold-outs in the future.

Below are some related articles that may be of interest to readers:

Lolita — Mere Frills or a Light in the Darkness

Lolita Fashion and Philosophy for the Poor-but-Kawaii