“Oh, Emily Dickinson.”
“We’re both fans?”
“Yes, she’s quite a good poet. I mean, for uh, a …”
“A girl?”
“For an American.”
Giles and Buffy in Buffy – The Vampire Slayer

One important issue when it comes to learning is the attributions we make about the success or failure of our actions.

For example, if you attribute your failures/negative experiences to stable, internal and uncontrollable factors (e.g., you were never good at math and there is nothing you can do about it), you will not feel capable of changing anything, nor see the point in trying.

If, in contrast, you attribute failures/negative experiences to unstable, external, and controllable factors (e.g., you underestimated the time it took to learn the new math exercises and did not have the time to use the right learning strategies), then there is nothing that holds you back from, e.g., starting earlier, in the future. You can reasonably expect an better outcome as you can improve your behavior.

I was reminded of this issue when I read a posting by a female blogger about how publishing her writing makes her nervous, more so than public speaking. The reason she states is that her writing can be taken out of context or used as basis for aggressive comments. Given the nature of her blog, she continues to thank courageous female writers who inspired her to write. Reading her posting I got the distinct impression that she sees this — mostly — as a women’s issue.

I try to avoid any gender or feminism-related topics, but I can’t help but wonder: Why is a general issue reduced to the issue of one sub-group of society (in this case: women)? Whether it is speaking in public or public writing, almost all people feel this anxiety. After all, you are standing in front of a lot of people, or you put out your thoughts for others to read and criticize. Why should it make a difference whether you are a man or a woman?

I mean, thanks for the high esteem, but being a man does not make you immune. Personally, I love giving presentations — the energy of standing in front of the audience, and the emotional high after it is done and went (reasonably) well. But prior to giving a presentation — sure, I’m anxious. But I wouldn’t even begin to attribute this to being a male. And sure, I am anxious about how my writing is received. I mean, you pour your heart and your best thoughts on paper (or the screen) — criticism, esp. harsh and unjustified criticism, really hurts. But why would I try to attribute this anxiety to my gender?

Sure, there are gender differences, although they are usually not as clear cut as imagined. But I think that attributing ones problems and fears to one’s gender is really problematic. After all, you can’t usually change your gender (nor would most people want to — even FTMs and MTFs correct their physical appearance to match their real gender, being born in the wrong body, in this sense, they don’t change it). So, if one’s gender isn’t a stable, internal and uncontrollable factor, then I don’t know what is.

Instead of attributing difficulties to ones gender, I think it is more helpful to see the anxiety as a general issue: Many people fear public ridicule — whether that fear is warranted or now. And detaching it from something you cannot change gives you ways to deal with it. If the reaction is negative, find a better audience, or have some friends sit in the audience. Train your presentation, improve your writing. Take courses, understand what you are talking about. Become better. If you think that gender is a problem, publish it anonymously and let the writing stand on its own. Compare the reactions and see whether your gender really has an influence.

And have the right expectations about the public — von Ebner-Eschenbach once said:

The person who goes public cannot expect leniency or demand it.*
[Wer in die Öffentlichkeit tritt, hat keine Nachsicht zu erwarten und keine zu fordern.]
[*Sorry, this is the best translation I came up with on the fly.]

true, very true. But you aren’t defenseless, after all, take this gem of a quotation for reacting to hateful and destructive comments:

I love free speech. I also love ignore, mute, and block.

Yes, speaking out for what you believe in is scary, and the reactions can be hard, but that’s part of what gives it its value.

Have fun.

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