The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The incredible double standard of rudeness

(Netflix via <a href="">Tumblr</a> )
Placeholder while article actions load

There's a delicious scene in the first episode of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Tina Fey’s comedy about a woman rescued from an apocalypse cult. Freshly liberated from their underground prison, Kimmy and the other hostages go on the “Today” show, where Matt Lauer asks them how they fell into captivity.

One of the women, Cyndee, says she was abducted while working at a restaurant. “Yes, I had waited on Reverend Richard a bunch of times at a York Steakhouse I worked at, and one night he invited me out to his car to see some baby rabbits, and I didn’t want to be rude so … here we are,” she says.

“I’m always amazed at what women will do because they’re afraid of being rude,” Lauer replies.

This is a joke that satirizes the double standard that allows men to be rude and assertive, but not women. Cyndee, who followed a strange man into his car out of a sense of social obligation, became a victim of this imperative for women to always be polite.

A new opinion poll from AP-NORC illustrates the gender gap in civility. Women and men report vastly different opinions about rudeness, according to a breakdown of the data provided to The Washington Post.

Men are about twice as likely as women to say it’s acceptable to make fun of someone’s race or gender. About 27 percent of men condoned private jokes or comments about a person’s race, compared to only 16 percent of women. About 27 percent of men condoned private jokes or comments about a person’s gender or sexuality, compared to only 13 percent of women. And 13 percent of men said such jokes were also acceptable in public, compared to 7 percent of women.

Men are also more liberal in their attitudes about swearing. About 27 percent say that it is okay for people to use swear words in public, compared to 19 percent of women. And 29 percent of men condone the use of the f-word in conversations, compared to 21 percent of women.

The gender disparity sharpens when it comes to people’s own behavior. Men are twice as likely to say they drop the f-bomb at least once a day. About 31 percent of men report a daily f-word habit, compared to 16 percent of women.

These differences in attitudes reflect how society treats men and women differently when they behave rudely.

A 2015 experiment showed that when men spoke in angry tones, they came across as more credible and more persuasive. But when women spoke forcefully, they were less likely to change people's minds. Subjects perceived the angry women as emotional and untrustworthy.

“This might explain why Bernie Sanders is able to freely express his passion and conviction, while Hilary Clinton clearly regulates her emotions more carefully,” one of the researchers said in a news release.

Linguists have long documented different speech patterns between men and women. Women tend to use more polite or formal expressions. They are more likely to soften commands by saying "please" or even "won't you please." Writing in the 1970s, Robin Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, observed that in situations where men might curse, women would instead utter phrases like "oh dear," or "goodness" or "oh fudge."

Lakoff argued that problem starts in childhood. "If a little girl 'talks rough' like a boy, she will normally be ostracized, scolded, or made fun of," she wrote in a 1973 article. Young women learn to "talk like a lady" — to be polite and deferential. In essence, Lakoff writes, girls are taught to hobble their own speech:

So a girl is damned if she does, damned if she doesn't. If she refuses to talk like a lady, she is ridiculed and subjected to criticism as unfeminine; if she does learn, she is ridiculed as unable to think clearly, unable to take part in a serious discussion: in some sense, as less than fully human.

This was a problem in the 70s, and it continues to be a problem today. "When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope," Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive."

In 2014, leaked e-mails showed that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were paid much less than their male co-stars in the film “American Hustle.” Lawrence wrote about the experience last year in an essay for Lenny Letter. She didn't negotiate hard enough, she admitted. She wondered if that was because women are conditioned not to "offend" or "scare" men.

Jennifer Lawrence is the latest celebrity to take on Hollywood's gender pay gap. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: © Phil McCarten / Reuters/The Washington Post)

"I didn't want to seem 'difficult' or 'spoiled,' " she wrote. "At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn't worry about being 'difficult' or 'spoiled.'"

Speaking out, of course, does has consequences. When women try to advocate for themselves, it often backfires, as recent studies have shown.

The abduction joke in “Kimmy Schmidt” is clever because it operates on both these levels. It lampoons the norms that impose silence and deference on women. But it also makes fun of people who think that gender equality could be achieved if only women were more assertive. Lauer's overly knowing quip ("I’m always amazed at what women will do because they’re afraid of being rude") caricatures this "lean-in" brand of thinking.

Women are more polite than men in part because women face harsher consequences for being rude. Women are less likely to say the f-word in part because it's more dangerous for them to say the f-word. It's rational for women to steer clear of controversial jokes.

In her essay, Lawrence acknowledged the trade-off that women face between being liked and being heard. Her decision: "I'm over trying to find the 'adorable' way to state my opinion and still be likable!"

"F*** that."