It began with the simple matter of their microphones.
As Christine Blasey Ford sat down to begin her testimony on Thursday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley asked her to speak louder.
“Can you pull the microphone just a little bit closer to you?” he asked.
There was no need for him to do the same for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who began his testimony at a high-volume near-yell.
The contrast between the two witnesses at Thursday’s historic Senate hearing only deepened from there, as they played out the stereotypical contrasts between the ways that men and women often communicate, especially in public settings.
Even after leaning closer to the microphone, the California psychology professor was quiet and reserved as she told the committee that as a teenager, Kavanaugh held her down, put his hand over her mouth and attempted to remove her clothing during a house party in suburban Maryland.
“Does that work for you?” she said, when asked whether taking a break from the high-stakes hearing was acceptable. “I would like to be more helpful,” she said later, wishing her memory over precise dates was more in tact.
When his turn came later in the day, the federal judge was a marked contrast: loud and brusque, refusing to answer some questions and turning others back on the Democratic senators probing him. When Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — whose father was an alcoholic — asked if he had ever blacked out after drinking, he shot back: “Have you?”
After a break in which he would have consulted with advisers, Kavanaugh apologized to Klobuchar for the response. But whether coached or not, it was a measured decision to do so, unlike Ford’s almost instinctive apologies, even when she had done nothing wrong.
Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University who has written several books on gender dynamics, said that women’s apologies are “often ritual.”
“Women do say ‘I’m sorry’ far more often than men do. But it often isn’t an apology. It’s taking the other person’s feelings and experience into account,” Tannen said.
The gender differences were on display in other ways as well, such as when the two spoke of their impressive academic pedigrees.
Noting that she had already had her CV highlighted by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Ford did not mention her two master’s degrees, doctorate or teaching affiliations with Stanford University and Palo Alto University.
“I won’t detail my educational background since it has already been summarized,” she said.
By contrast, Kavanaugh boasted of his achievements.
“I was at the top of my class academically, busted my butt in school. Captain of the varsity basketball team,” he said. “Got in Yale College. When I got into Yale College, got into Yale Law School. Worked my tail off.”
Tannen said that was not a coincidence.
Women, as a general rule, try to take up less space than their male counterparts. This includes being less boastful about their accomplishments to avoid being disliked.
“Crossing your legs, keeping your elbows in, keeping your voice down,” Tannen said, “it’s all to make yourself smaller.”
And there are societal penalties, especially in politics, for not conforming to traditional gender roles. Had Ford presented her testimony as forcefully as Kavanaugh did his, she would have been perceived less favorably, Tannen said.
“If you tried to superimpose his deportment on her, it would have been totally unacceptable. No way she could have expressed that kind of anger, interrupting the questioners, challenging them, insulting them,” she said. “A woman who is angry is a Valkyrie.”
Meanwhile, a man who is angry is seen as “standing up for something he believes in,” Tannen said.
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