English communication in Graz, Austria
My favorite columnist, Jen Dziura, wrote an article back in 2011 about the power of embarrassment to motivate men to become good at certain things – like parking, throwing & catching, and, most significantly, making money. In other words, men push themselves to earn more and negotiate better because it would be humiliating for them to be caught in a lower-paying job or not providing for their families.
Don’t you often hear women say, “Oh, I’m terrible at math” with no embarrassment at all? Men rarely say this. I have also never heard a woman brag, “Oh, I’m terrible at reading!” Why? Because that would be embarrassing. Why do men score better on math tests, win most math awards, and obtain most math degrees in this country? For a conflated mess of reasons, I’m sure, but I think the phenomenon probably starts with the fact that it’s embarrassing for boys to be bad at math, so most of them work it out.
I was always good at math growing up, and hearing other girls complain about how hard it was was always a huge pet peeve of mine. At the same time, it was probably middle school when the boys in our class started trying to embarrass each other for any mistakes they made in math. (“You didn’t get #14? It was soooo easy!” As Jen points out, you would never hear such comments during an English class – or at least I didn’t.) This pushed me to make fewer mistakes on my homework, but also dissuaded me from taking chances if I wasn’t 100% sure of my answer. By the end of school I was just another girl choosing humanities over math, despite the fact that I actually loved it.
Foreign languages were never a big deal in my school in the U.S. – reciting Goethe was not exactly a skill that would take us very far in the future, and in fact in our case it was probably more embarrassing to try too hard at a language than to do poorly. But here in Europe, where English is vital to getting and succeeding in a job in most sectors, the pressure is much higher. I hear over and over again from students of all ages (though predominantly from women) how embarrassed they are because their English isn’t good enough.
Jen’s article makes me wonder – does embarrassment work differently for women and men? The fear of embarrassment seems to propel some men to work harder so as not to be humiliated when they have to speak, while this same fear discourages women from trying altogether (or they try and try but are so distracted by their lack of perfection that they don’t make it very far).
I really feel for my students, who have to master whatever it is that their profession demands, and THEN a foreign language on top of it. Certainly some may be more gifted at learning languages than others but maybe some are using embarrassment against themselves, instead of as a motivating tool. So your “assignment” for this week is to take note of when you feel embarrassed while speaking English, and thinking about how you can use this feeling to your advantage.
What do you think: Does the fear of embarrassment motivate or discourage you?