Mantlepiece Tales

Looking back it, that cherry stone game wasn’t much, but it pleased my grandmother.  

Her hands in old age were swollen but she was quick enough to find the brown velvet bag in the cupboard by the fireplace.  We would sit facing one another, she in her rocking chair and I on a low stool, holding onto my bare knees, waiting. The rules were simple. She would burrow into the bag of cherry stones and bring out a closed fist. ‘How many now then?’ she would say.  I, seeing no way of winning by using skill would guess seven or three, or perhaps none, because an empty fist was her little joke.  

Shifting her onto tales from the mantlepiece was a relief. I was allowed to point to an object on the shelf and she would hand it down. There was the scaly brown seed she said had floated all the way from the tropics, a dried sea horse in an old spectacles case. Then there was the spiral of ear bone she let me poke a finger through while she described the whale it had come from. The last thing was the lucifer match box.

‘Ah, the expedition tale?’  She would say. ‘Yes…’ I said, the first time, and held up my hand for the small metal box.  It opened with a click when I pressed a metal dimple at the front. I inhaled the ancient aroma.  ‘Yes… please.’ I said, my voice hollow as I spoke into the tin.  ‘Well,’ she began, looking upwards. ‘Your Great Great Grandmother was only nineteen, but she was allowed to go off on the ship because your Great Great Great Grandfather was the Captain…’   She would then go on to tell me about the shipwreck on the Arctic ice shelf. ‘A few drowned,’ she told me eyes down, ‘but most were saved.’ They found shelter in an ice cavern that looked like the inside of a whale.  Everything they salvaged was wet, so they were in danger of freezing.  They pooled their belongings and huddled together their hoods up.  One man had a tin that contained five lucifer matches. He crouched down and began to strike them against damp sandpaper. The first match broke and fell on the ice, the next fizzled out, the third burned, but died as did the fourth.  As the man held up the fifth, Granny’s granny stepped towards them and cried, ‘Wait wait wait!  Let us wait’, The Grandmother who was twice times great, took it from him and protected that last match with the little warmth left in her body. The next day it lit the fire, warming the castaways until they were rescued. 

It was only much later that I realised the greats that grandma used were titles, not adjectives. I had thought Grandmother in her generous story telling way, was making it clear they weren’t your average ancestors.

 Looking back now I am a grandmother, those objects along the mantlepiece, were little more than flotsam, and grandmother’s stories suspiciously inaccurate, but somehow, they did contain greatness.

Grandma likes Saffron Cake

When I approach family history writing, like many people I am phased by the enormity of the task, and the question of what will treasured after I am gone.  Developing the strategy of thinking about a little moment has been useful. It usually leads to something else, which fleshes out the tiny memory and sets it in time.  Let’s begin by looking at a rare birthday where I was able to sit in the sun among the crocuses I have been digging and moving for thirty years.

They say saffron crocus stamens were traded for tin by the Phoenicians three thousand years ago in Cornwall. I can’t comment, except to say that a hard fought for underground metal, which when combined with copper, makes the very valuable material, bronze, as a barter for crocus stamens to make your bread a different colour, seems a strange deal to have made. 

Mind you, I liked saffron cake. My mother not being a Cornishwoman didn’t make it, but a rich yellow saffron loaf was ordered once a week from Pearce’s the bakers at Kelly Bray. It was called ‘Best Cake’ as it had more currents than the other saffron cake they made. A slice was eaten spread with butter after bread and jam at tea-time when we got home from school at half past four. Dad had a soft spot for ‘Pearce’s. When his family gave up their business, the Jaspers bakery, the young Master Pearce who I knew as an old man bought the Jasper baking tins. Dad had a memory and a liking for objects and perhaps he enjoyed the connection.

My mile walk home from school in the sixties passed by Skitter House not far from Kelly Bray, on the site of an old Cornish mine. It was half-way up the steep skittery hill before the flat road home. One day, inside that house I watched saffron cake being made. I remember a slate flagged floor and the woman wearing one of those wraparound aprons, sitting, working on her lap. She held a large china bowl between her knees. This was pre fitted kitchens. On the table next to her, was an enamel bowl of warm yellow water (I know what you are thinking, and no it wasn’t). She poured it into her bowl of flour. I stayed and watched while she explained about kneading and how she had soaked the saffron in the water over night. Two things strike me now, one, how did I come to wander into the kitchen of a stranger? … and two, children have long memories, so grandmas, remember, anything you do and say now, may be written about in sixty or more years’ time. 

I remember the saffron buns which were made and eaten locally too. 

Late in his life, when I was searching for conversation with Dad on a birthday lunch out, I asked him what his birthdays were like as a boy. Did’n ave em’ he said. ‘Nah didn av em’. And that was the end of that. What did happen around the time of his birthday, he later explained, was the ‘Church Anniversary’ trip down to Looe, a fishing village and beach resort on the south coast of Cornwall. Before coach travel, and after horse and cart, in the nineteen twenties a motorised char-a-banc (a bank of chairs) was hired, and they were given saffron buns to eat on the way. The buns would have travelled well on the twelve-mile journey, and one can imagine them having been made the day before by the worthy ladies of the church and handed out from a basket as a filling sweet treat.  

I was given this recipe in the picture by another elderly Cornish family friend. I have kept it as you see, but I still haven’t made it myself. I see on the internet that the loaves were baked on sycamore leaves in some parts of the country, which makes me want to try that. I like the amounts on the recipe. None of your measly one pond or fancy butter, it begins with four pounds of flour.

Do you have a carbohydrate-based bread, biscuit, or cake that defines where you come from and is part of your family history? Do let me know.


We are all familiar with shortbread… it is eaten all over the world. It’s a simple good-natured foodstuff.

Made from butter, sugar and flour it doesn’t even mind how it is mixed. The butter and flour can be delicately rubbed together with fingers before the sugar is added, it can be rudely food processed or the butter and sugar can be beaten together and the flour added to the creamed mixture. All those methods will make a solid lump to knead, press and mould into a baking pan before baking in a medium oven for about 12 minutes. They should be cooked but not at all brown.

So far so easy but what about it’s mystery name?  We know a biscuit is baked, flat, crisp and usually sweet not short or bread-like. What is short about shortbread and why is it nothing like bread? It makes no sense.

 ‘Ah ha’ we might say to each other, ‘Isn’t it in language that we find out things about our history? Yes, because language has a long memory. Maybe if we travel back in time together we could work out why short bread came to be given such a strange name.

 Lets go.  Swoooooosh.

It is around seven hundred years ago. We are in a kitchen by a hearth. There are two children watching their mother baking.  It is smoky and there isn’t a table. She has been making bread in a clay bowl balanced on her knees. You can smell baking. She has some of the mix left over and seeing her children’s hungry little faces she rolls it in some crushed hazlenuts some caraway seeds and adds some honey. When the loaves come out she puts it in the oven and it’s left until the embers die down. We wait an hour… (time travel is hard work sometimes). When it is taken out of the oven  we can see it has become a crisp rusk like snack… Dunked into milk her children love it.

This is how the first biscuits came to be and they became known as Biscuit bread, from the French word bis-quite meaning twice baked or the latin bis coctus meaning twice cooked. (You may be more familiar with the term Cookie from the German word Kuchen meaning cake…. Can you hear the cooking word there again?)

Various versions of this cookie/biscuit/snack were eaten all around England and Scotland.

If we move on a few generations we can see the biscuit part of the name travelling across the world to America with the early settlers. Well it didn’t exactly travel with them but in their memories of home, in their hearts and in their recipe books. It stayed there in the southern states as a scone type of bread to be eaten with gravy or stew. Biscuit also went off to adventure with the British Navy where it was baked into hard tack and fed to the ships crew as ships biscuit. Back in Scotland butter was being added to the biscuit bread recipe. Butter in baking is called ‘shortening’ because it makes bread and pastry crumbly, less able to stretch. This twice-baked sweet bread with butter became known as short biscuit bread.  That was a bit of a mouthfull, so it was shortened to short bread.

This version is the one we know today, one part sugar, two parts butter and three parts flour. It was making itself very much at home in Scotland by the 16th century. We know Mary Queen of Scots was fond of it in the fifteen hundreds. At that time it was baked into triangle shapes called petticoat tails referring to the shape of the patterns used to make the hooped under skirts of the ladies at the court of Queen Mary. 

You might be surprised to learn that short bread was a rich persons food. Although Scotland grew oats for flour and there were dairy cows there most people couldn’t afford butter and sugar with fine flour all the time. It was saved for special occasions like weddings and New Year. When foods are used in celebrations they can start to work their way into the active part of the occasion. For instance in the Shetland Islands shortbread was broken over the heads of a newly married couple. If the shortbread broke into pieces it meant good luck.  In Scotland a bride might break a piece of shortbread when she crossed the threshold of her marital home for the first time.

Culture is built around food, celebrations, language and stories. When people take part in familiar rituals they feel an increased sense of identity and belonging. If we feel we belong somewhere, to someone then we know we are at the  a warm cultural hearth at the heart of something.

Believe it or not those two words: hearth and heart are linked. The Greek work for hearth is cardia which means heart. While you are digesting that let’s travel back to today to the Kalamazoo supermarket. How many different types of biscuits or cookies can you see? Dried fruit, chocolate, lemon and orange flavours and ginger iced or sandwiched with sugary cream. Hundreds. The shortbread is nothing special is it? It’s just three ingredients, sugar, butter and flour in the proportions of one two three.

Somehow though it has retained its significance.

The Walkers shortbread company is still exporting countless tons of it around the world. Perhaps for the 34 countries in the Scottish diaspora it is a reminder of home. Some of us still send it at Christmas time as a present. Tourists who visit Scotland still buy pretty tins of shortbread as a reminder of their time there. You could say it has moved from being a snack to becoming part of the Scottish culture and transforming into to becoming a commodity. With highland cows and a mountain on the front and a tartan ribbon it has all the romantic associations that say ‘Hey, I was in this strange place called Scotland’, and doesn’t that take the biscuit… or here in America you would say it takes the cake.

The Odyssey Years and an Active Old Age

David Brooks in his essay ‘The Odyssey Years’ describes the usual four familiar life stages: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. To this he says two have been added in the last generation. I suggest that both have resonances and relevance for us the grandmother. 

One is the active old age from which we are benefitting, because it gives us time, space, health, and energy to attend to our grandmother activities. We are able to see more of and be more actively involved with our grandchildren than ever before, even when they live faraway.  

The other stage he describes is the one he refers to as ‘The Odyssey Years’. In the decade between twenty and thirty where our generation, the so-called Baby Boomers married and began a family, the millennials are delaying because the reasons for doing so have largely been removed. Secure employment jobs aren’t for life. This impacts on mortgages buying houses and postponing moving away from home. The old recipes for success, like further education or working your way up through a company are no longer guaranteed. Courtship rules have been scrambled. Marriage provided women with income, a status and a sense of identity. Now with efficient birth control women are no longer pressured to get married. If they have well paid jobs, they no longer need a second income to raise a child either. One-parent families are not stigmatised, and active grandparents are often able to provide cheap childcare. For a decade or more after they enter adulthood young people are now able to travel and change jobs. They do still have traditional aspirations though. They report that they think of parenthood as a significant life choice, and one that will curtail their promotion at work or hamper their social and travelling lives. It is taken seriously, and until there is a right time, couples are postponing starting family. 

So although we the older generation have the time and energy, we may have to be patient.

Does this story of Raymond Briggs’ parents paint a nostalgic view for of a more familiar bygone world, making us feel wistful or would that be casting a rosy glow over that post war time that had its own challenges.


I’m looking at a brown envelope addressed to me from my mother in Cornwall.

I don’t know how many hundreds of times I have seen my address written in that hand. 

She has always kept up with her correspondence, dating back to strict Edwardian parents. 

For more than fifty years, she has sent me letters, from my first school trip to wherever I have journeyed. 

And I have written back. 

Those threads of care, as strong as linen, sewing me in, keeping me safe. 

This envelope’s been used before, of course it has.

 She likes reusing paper, thread, margarine containers.

 Retrieved from its place beside her carefully wound-up string and a bottle of liquid gum, the aged paper is as soft as skin from long storage in her bureau. 

No one uses manilla anymore; that government cheap alternative to bleached wood white.

It was made from the left-over hemp rope used on sailing ships, the beaten fibres showing through on the envelope’s surface.

The thing that isn’t the same, is the writing. 

The capital ‘M’ of Mary, is written too carefully, as if she is leaning on my name. There is a tilt to the written lines, a hesitancy that doesn’t compute with the woman who rode her motorbike from London to Cornwall to buy a farm in 1950. 

There’s no town name at all. 

 She probably hasn’t got that down in the address book.

 It was too obvious for all her years of memory… unnecessary when I’ve lived in Aberdeen for more than thirty years. 

So here it is then, just my name, the house, and the postcode hanging too low down on the envelope. 

The address has taken on her stooped posture. 

The misshapen letters, the folds of her writing arm.

No wonder the stamp queen looks at me sideways. 

A Wispy Mist or Air from a Whoopee Cushion

One of my joys over the last few years has been wrangling my own story into a shape I prefer. Take for instance my memory of a teenage early morning drooping about on a dirty pony searching for a cow and calf on Bodmin moor in the mist. It can be made to sound all sorts of heroic, mystical, remarkable, bucolic, dangerous child abuse, or dull. Or even actual wrangling I suppose, although you with cow knowledge will know that when located in their hiding place under a gorse bush, a cow and calf are reluctant to move. The mama cow puts her head down and stamps threatening a mild-mannered pony. No, my job was to grumble back with coordinates and the parents would go and collect the cow and calf after milking and breakfast. I would then be at school in the valley, damp and slightly smelling of …. hill.

Where was I?

Yes, I was going to share my new collection of thoughts to add to the grandmother experience. They aren’t grandma rocket science but then as we know even rocket science isn’t rocket science. 

They are part of a wispy mist I see appearing and disappearing through my interviews. 

Wispy pockets of air or whoopee cushions. 

I have selected them as important because they are part of the complexity of being a grandmother. Another aspect to them is that they appear differently to close family members.

Here are the five things I need to find out more about: 

The community suspicion of older women Where does this come from? Is there a historic link? 

Even today we have seen the accusations of witchcraft aimed at Mary Beard and Hilary Clinton.

2 The mother-in-law issue…. What is it exactly, and why were there all those jokes when being a mother in law does not seem to be something to laugh at.

3 The notion of the mother/son romance. This is not the same as the mother daughter love. How does this emotional attachment affect our relationship with daughters in law?

4 The mental load, sometimes referred to as the cognitive, or woman’s load. This is applicable to the grandmother experience when looking at who remembers the grandchildren’s information and preferences. From my contributors I am told it is most often they, and not grandfathers who do all the remembering of birthdays choose gifts and send them. As men take on more childminding this may be change in the future. 

5 The lure of the handmade. The perceived love of the maker is embedded in the handmade item.  Are 

grandmother’s handmade gifts for grandchildren more valuable when they contain this symbolic love?  

Is she happy to offer a lot of time in such activities and would the item be part blessing for the new baby. 

Do some people value the handmade more than others and why?

Wise Words from Grandma

The wise old owl sat in an oak

The more she heard the less she spoke

The less she spoke the more she heard

Why can’t we be that wise old bird?

This week on our walk down the path through the trees I saw a patterned caramel coloured wing feather lying on the ground. It was underneath a regular dark holly tree owl roost I took it home and sent it to our young grandson Noah aged six. I began by saying the poet wrote it just for him. Well its true isn’t it… poets write for everyone of us or no-one.

We don’t have the white Barn owls as far north as here it’s too cold for them.   

We have the Tawny ones and at this time of year we hear the young ones calling across the fields to be fed.

I remember an older friend who was third-generation wise, before I had got to that point, said her method of coping with adult children’s families was, ‘Take every opportunity…… to say nothing’. I think she was agreeing with the wise old owl who sat in an oak listening, while keeping her beak zipped.

Had she known, my grandmother friend was describing ‘communicative competence’; the knowledge of the language, and the social situations in which to use it. The linguist and folklorist, Dell Hymes developed a theory of Noam Chomsky, who in 1965, pointed to a distinction between linguistic competence and the performance of it. Through ethnographic research Dell Hymes looked at how people relate to one another, and his work is called ‘Ethnography of Communication’.

It’s a wise old grandma owl who is competent in communication.


 Hymes, Dell “Introduction: Toward Ethnographies of Communication”.Journal Article: American Anthropologist. (1964).

Granny’s Cloak

This Australian moth is called the Grannies Cloak (Speiredonia Spectans).

From a purple patterned soft cloak shape, we can see a grandma stare.

Is there such a thing as a metaphorical grandmother’s cloak I wonder? A cloak that a grandmother uses to keep her family safe from harm. We have heard about the menopause allowing effort to be diverted to the new generation because of the lack of children in later years. We know from our personal experiences she will step in as a regular care giver and sometimes be a rescuer when the middle generation is unable to cope.

Just how interested is she in protecting the progeny of her children? Will she move home, even across continents to be near them? According to my contributors, yes, she will. They will up-sticks and begin new lives to be near the growing family. 

A Study in Canada has shown how Grandmothers from China, (Arber and Timonen: 2012) even moved into a different culture. In some cases they chose to leave their elderly parents behind in China. They went to Canada to offer childcare for their academic offspring who had gone to Canada’s Universities. 

We seem more excited to experience being a grandparent than grandmothers in the fifties.

Sarah Ballard one of my contributors said of her upbringing in the fifties and sixties said, “There were so many of us grandchildren, my grandma used to called us all ‘chickabiddee’, to avoid having to remember names”.

 ‘It was like falling off a cliff.’ says journalist Lesley Stahl, about the love of seeing her grandchild for the first time in her book Becoming Grandma.

Grandmas seem to have an inbuilt feeling of wanting the best for the offspring of their offspring. Is it the same urge as they felt for their children, or are they bringing a different energy to that grandmother stare?

Grandparents says the statistics say (Stahl:2016) that since 2005, expenditure in America of grandparents buying big pieces of equipment like cribs and car seats has gone up by eight  times.

Can I stretch the moth metaphor and ask if you have ever felt helplessly drawn to the flame of family? There you are Grannys Cloak moth, fluttering outside a dark window of family, staring inside, wanting to get nearer the light of kinship and community? I know I have.


Arber Sarah, Timonen Virpi, Contemporary Grandparenting: Changing Family Relationships in Global Contexts (University of Chicago Press 2012)

Stahl Lesley Becoming Grandma: The joys and science of becoming a new grandma (2016)

Grandma’s got her Green Skirt on

Gendered Language:  A review of past and current thinking. (The Long Read)

Answering the questions:

  1. Why does grandma do so much of the family remembering?
  2. Why does grandma make such oblique requests?

By asking my contributors about their grandmothers as well as their mothers and themselves, the timescale of my research spans the whole of the twentieth century, to the beginning of twenty-first. Linguistic research began and developed over the same time. I am interested because the study of speech patterns, in particular the difference between men and women’s speech, comes up in my interviews. Grandma is different to Grandpa and the language we used with our children is one thing but is it the same as the language we use with our grandchildren or the partners of our children?

Our generation was taught how to express ourselves in the fifties and sixties and we retain those speech patterns. Our children and grandchildren have different ones. If I look at the subject of how we converse from a woman’s perspective. There are two angles. From the inside, there is the difference in how women speak compared to men, and from the outside, the words used to describe us. It is useful to grasp these differences, because they maintain hierarchies, sexism, and support a male/female division. (Lakoff:1975).

We learn our place in the world through our parenting, education, religion, media, and workplaces because as Simone de Beauvoir said in The Second Sex, ‘We are not born a woman, we become one’. We act out a performance being a woman. Of course it depends in what context our behaviour was formed. I remember in the seventies, here in the Anglosphere where we all live, (the countries that support a cultural heritage that comes from England).  it was still regarded as wild behaviour to say to a boy… ‘Would you like to go out for a drink?’ One had to wait to be asked, and we were told we risked emasculating a man if we said, ‘I’ll pay’.

‘Men talk and women listen.’ That’s pretty well how it was up to the time of

that accelerated push towards equality in the 1970s.

Last week I was I thrilled to see that the New York Member for the House of Representatives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stood up to the bullying tones of male dominance. ‘So many times I haven’t bothered to argue back,’ she said, ‘it was never worth it, but this time I decided to respond’.

There have been some good examples of women straight talking, and men listening on the media. I see there is a woman cricket commentator for the Test Match, and great female journalists and newsreaders, not reporting on children and baking, are being listened to. It’s a long time since Nancy Astor uttered this putdown when provoked:

 ‘Yes, we women do talk too much, and even then, we don’t tell you half of what we know’.

I think we are agreed though, there are still differences between us, and more understanding of the complications held within language would be helpful. Helpful to us as a partner, employer, employee, mother, daughter, and of course grandma.

The first scholarly work about the differences between men and women’s speech was in 1922 when Otto Jespersen wrote a chapter about women’s language. His idea was that a woman’s language was deficient compared to men’s. Deficient, I say that again, in case you didn’t hear me.

In 1975, when we grandmothers were already grown up, we remember awkward sexist conversations in workplaces, or even within the family while we were raising children. At work we endured the old assumptions about us being there to take the notes or get the coffee. We smiled and as expected crossed our legs demurely as well as we could in our short skirts.  At home we managed husbands, who negotiated the two worlds of work and family. Robin Lakoff, a woman linguist observed us and wrote ‘Language and the Woman’s Place’. … (I only feel the need to define her as a woman linguist in this context, because she spells Robin with an i). She expanded the subject of the differences in gender speech.

‘Women,’ she said, ‘feel it is crucial to be liked by their peers’, and she described a woman’s register, where women used ‘weak’ directives: ‘Would you mind taking these to the photocopier, thank you SO much’. Men she says, use a report style to the point, Take these to the photocopier. She describes this style as ‘rapport style’, designed to build and maintain relationships, not just get the job done.  There are additional phrases women use, that are referred to as hedging, like ‘I’d like to suggest’ or ‘if you don’t mind me saying’ and tags on the ends of sentences like ‘isn’t it? Or couldn’t you?’ that soften the instructions.  At the time of the woman’s liberation movement, Lakoff was not only looking at the way women were expected to speak, but also the way in which women were spoken of, at the time.  Some ways are subtle such as women being referred to as Miss or Mrs when men were only referred to as Mr. which contains no marital marker. The Ms was invented at that time to get around that male dominance.

Even if we are mostly comfortable with the status quo, because we are used to it, differences matter, because language, as Lakoff observed, is linked to assumptions and social hierarchies. Take ‘sir’ for instance, is there a female equivalent? No because it dates from a time when all authority was male, so there was no need for an alternative.

Why should we worry?

These dividing words are subtle, and we become accustomed to them. However the words we choose maintain our social standards, as well as supporting power relations and gender oppression.  The other day, a retired friend, a skilled conversationalist, said she was still getting used to having her engineer husband at home all the time. She told me that marital difficulty around everyday conversations was getting more aggravating:

 ‘I have to constantly remind myself’, she said to me, ‘his remarks are literal, not critical’. ‘For instance when he says to me’, ‘I see you’ve got your green skirt on’. He is stating a fact, observing, that I am wearing green skirt. He might even be pleased he has thought of something to say about my fashion choice. Meanwhile I am reading other things into the remark. That is the skirt I don’t like, I imagine he is thinking, or, that’s not a nice skirt, why did you decide to wear that skirt today? Or even why a skirt today at all?

I feel uncomfortable, go back upstairs and change the skirt. I come down again, and he says, I see you’ve changed your skirt…’

A popular book ‘You Just Don’t Understand’, (Tannen: 1990) written by a Deborah Tannen a teacher, was so well received by women in the 90s, the author toured America with it. A precursor to ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’, women felt the book offered answers to the vexing question of miscommunication between the sexes. Its success showed there was a need for unravelling the baffling linguistic differences between men and women. Differences that didn’t seem to be logical or acceptable when there was so much equality in other areas.

More scholarly works, some from Dale Spender and Deborah Tannen followed.

We learned more about the subject of gendered speech patterns. Differences between men and women’s language use, and gendered performance continued to be observed and measured. Women listen they reported, because they have been encouraged to accommodate a partner in a conversation. It was shown that men dominate conversations in public even when they know less about the subject than the female they are talking to. They are typically less chatty at home in the domestic situation though. This was and continues to be frustrating for women especially I note, from my interviews, after retirement. Deborah Tannen (Tannen:1990) explained that outside the home, men are establishing status. They have no need to do that at home. 

Women want to discuss the potential for the day ahead, the family birthdays, the perceived worries about a family phone-call, the man wants to read or hear the news in peace. (I am generalising of course, but I think this will resonate with most of you).

It has been shown by the research of Bruce Dorval (Dorval:1990) that in a conversation, women interrupt less, and encourage the other person to continue. Small ‘mms and a-ha’s help that. Men’s subjects tend to be more abstract and less personal, and I think we know that from our long experience. Men also say ‘that reminds me’ or ‘by the way’ more often he reports, so as to change the subject. The woman more often adds comments, that allow the same subject to extend. If she disagrees, she might say little at that moment, because she more interested in creating a rapport with the speaker. She is learning about this person, is taking mental notes and will consider a counter argument later. Dale Spender (Spender:1985) says the woman is being subordinate at this point, the male is dominating.

In sociology we have been informed about the ‘female mental load’, where the wife/mother/grandmother holds current past and future family issues in her head. I am generalising again, but it is a familiar pattern that ‘she’ devises a complicated intertwined plan which she works away at. When help from ‘he’ is offered, as in: ‘Let me know if there is anything I can do’, it only adds to the load because most jobs have to be defined and described before they can be done. Then we are into the ‘It’s quicker to do it myself’ scenario adopted by many.  In 2012, Arlie Hochschild, in her book, The Managed Heart, describes what she calls, ‘emotional labour’. This is where the jobs of active listening, conflict resolution, and keeping people happy, are managed with a demeanour that is different to how she the person is feeling. Some professions require it, like airline stewards or nurses. Men can of course may adopt it, but in general, (again sorry), research tells us, woman use it consistently. Conversations where there is more listening and nurturing, is usually used by women. However now this rapport method is being used in call centres for a more efficient way of defraying complaints and sorting out problems, when there are no visual clues. Traditionally a female job, customer service employees are now often male. They are being taught to show empathy, keep the calls expressive in tone, but efficiently short.

Deborah Cameron tells us in her book The myth of Mars and Venus, ‘There’s no need to feel bad about the differences, it is just miscommunication’. Good to hear.

‘There are problems with dominance and difference’, she continues ‘but it is more useful to consider the two ways as differential power. For example a roundabout question beginning, with ‘I wonder if you had thought of doing so and so, can be as successful as a direct command. It’s still dominance, but by a longer route’. I think intuitively, we already knew that.

So, the current thinking is that no one needs to feel awful, there are no real conflicts, just differences that achieve the same goals. I have enjoyed looking at the dynamics and the evolving understanding of this convoluted linguistic behaviour because it casts more light on the experience of being a woman and especially grandma, because there are more delicate extensions of our family to negotiate. By the way, I shall have to tell my friend that the green skirt (see above) is lovely but might not be the best choice. I can’t say clearer than that, obviously, because I am a woman.

Please do send your own gendered language anecdotes to share.


Cameron, Deborah, The myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak differently (Oxford university Press 2008).

De Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949).

Hochchild Arlie, The managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (University of California Press 2012)

Dorval, Bruce, Conversational organization and its development, (Advances in Discourse Practices Volume XXXV111 (1990).

Norward New Jersey).

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Riddle: Why is Grandma Faraway like a Killer Whale?

Blog Post 11

Let’s talk about the Menopause. For most of us grandmas, it will be a dim and distant memory.  Our breeding phase is even longer ago, and some of us feel a little redundant now, especially when our families live independently far away.

But in the paper this week, there was a headline:

New Evidence that Grandmothers were Crucial for Human Evolution’

We are not surprised, we have always felt crucial, haven’t we?  It turns out that by having childless years, this luxury of post menopause built into our lifetime, we are able give our grandchildren extra care. Which animals have the menopause? It may surprise you to know, that it is only us, the killer whale, the short-finned pilot whale, the beluga, and the narwhal. No other mammals have this non breeding time, not the chimpanzee, nor the Orangutan who have to go on breeding until the end of their life, and then their younger offspring are in danger of dying too.

Grandmothers who live beyond their breeding time are able to shoulder part of the burden from the mother. By doing this, she is protecting her own genetic material. This help is called ‘The grandmother effect’ and benefits and protects the family. During my grandmother interviews I have heard stories of grandmothers trying very hard to satisfy family needs. Some have shown a very strong desire to be part of the grandchildren’s lives, even when separated if any more proof of ‘The grandmother effect’ were needed.

The picture below are the choices from one typical grandma in the ‘Grandma Squares game’. I ask each grandma contributor to select from positive and negative quotes about the experience of being a grandmother, this one is typical.


Stromberg, Joseph, New evidence that Grandmothers were Crucial for Human Evolution (Smithsonian Magazine October 23rd 2012)

Balcombe, Kenneth, Grandmother Killer Whales boost the Survival Rate of Calves Centre for Whale Research (Journal proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. BBC News Dec 2019).