Does language shape views or do views shape language?

Twice in the past few days, I've encountered language that suggests to me that the speaker does not place the same value on same-sex relationships as opposite-sex relationships. In both instances, I did not get the impression whatsoever that the person speaking actually consciously held this view, but rather that it was something the speaker had absorbed societally. I wonder though where exactly the speakers absorbed this and what the best way is to try to shift this.

First, an individual who I do not know well, but with whom I've had very frank and warm interactions, asked me if "your friend" would be able to make an event and stated that she would like to meet her. I know I've used the word "partner" with her. I've possibly used the word "girlfriend," and I've definitely made reference to us having shopped for our house together and so forth.

Then, I was talking to a coworker, who is not someone I'm necessarily close to, but someone with whom I definitely feel friendly and with whom it's typical that we discuss our weekends and so forth. I mentioned to her that Molly and I were going to be driving a truck of stuff from the midwest to Boston in January, and she said something like, "Wow, driving across those cold states in January -- you're a really good friend!"

The way I read it, the first person's comment seemed more like she just happened to come up with a word that wouldn't be the one preferred by me, or by most anyone in referring to one's significant other. It still struck me as a bit odd though, given that I'm sure she has a lot of friends in same-sex partnerships and/or unmarried partnerships, given the type of work she does and the types of organizations to which she belongs. I do think it's entirely possible that she's valuing of people as people and of legal equality, yet still holds some sort of view that we aren't a full-fledged relationship.

The second person's comment seemed to me to also be intended harmlessly, but had somewhat of an implication that she's learned from somewhere that same-sex couples aren't expected to be as dedicated to one another. She's always asked about Molly when we chat, and she's also someone who's very involved in diverse and progressive circles. Yet something struck me as strange that she stated that I was "a good friend" because I was helping my partner drive a truck of stuff in the middle of the winter. Would she think it would be unremarkable for me to just decide I'd rather not do it? For what it's worth, I also know her husband and they seem to have a really good relationship. I wouldn't think either of them would even consider it an option not to help each other out with a similar task. So has she somehow absorbed the idea that I'm "being a good friend" rather than doing what most reasonable people would consider is pretty much an expectation? Or is it more that she's absorbed the type of language disparity that the other person has, and she's in fact just intending to provide me with the feedback that I'm being appropriately faithful?


7 comments:

katunia said...

well it goes both ways: language shapes views end the other way around... i definately have made the experience that many poeple are not accoustomed (how do i spell THAT?...) to think (the mere posibility of) same-sex-couples. they are not used to forming phrases involving women-couples or men-couples - its worse in german where you mark sex on every noun... sometimes i realize that someone is irritated by the sight of my girlfriend and me but i can tell that they aren't thinking the obvious instead they find other explanations like us being best friends. its hard work to change meaning and language.

Molly said...

I don't know; most of the people I've talked to seem to think we're both just batshit crazy for deciding January was a good time to haul stuff.

eeka said...

Of course we're insane! But it's not like it's your personal insane idea and I'm a random friend who's being nice and offering to help!

eeka said...

Kati, you're giving me ideas. I'm going to start neuterizing all the words when I speak German. All of them, like furniture and foods and things. Ooh, this could be fun. Almost as much fun as speaking English without verbs, which I once did for a whole weekend.

Yeah, people create their own reality in terms of what's comfortable. I mean, we do this to a certain extent as part of the cognitive process anyway. It's like when we try to talk about the role of a person in a non-Western society, and we can only equate it to Western ideas, because we don't quite have a way to describe people who are third-sex or hold various shaman roles. People do the same when their experiences don't include same-sex couples. I've had several friends tell me that they know older same-sex couples who've lived together for 40 years and are truly believed to be roommates by most of their neighbors and families ("If These Walls Could Talk 2" has one such couple in the first chapter). It sounds obvious to me, like how could you NOT know they're a couple, but then, I grew up in an environment where it seems my mom always just figured Bert and Ernie were gay guys and discussed them as such. There really ARE people who don't have any experience of gay people aside from flamboyant performers. They don't have a concept of a regular old queer couple down the street, so they don't realize the regular old queer couple down the street IS one, and so forth...

Molly said...

Mmhmm...I've done a bit of a social experiment here by trying to find out what people think our relationship is if I don't introduce you specifically as "my girlfriend" (and even the word "girlfriend" can have completely platonic connotations). I'm not quite sure I've learned anything yet.

Jodie said...

I don't know; some people also just for some reason or other use the term: "your friend" to define a lot of relationships. My mother refers to my brother's girlfriend as "his friend" and they've been together for quite some time, and she's fully aware that they are romantically involved (well, until very recently, anyway. Now I've told her to call them "friends with benefits"). She also generally refers to her own boyfriend as "her friend." I don't generally hear her refering to anyone's fiancee or boyfriend or partner, etc. But that's just who she is.

And yes, you're both insane for driving halfway across the country in January. There are many couples who wouldn't do that. Then again, that's probably why we have such a high divorce rate in this country.

Molly said...

We're OPTIMISTS!