Women at the Table Part 2: Talk is Cheap
Welcome to Part 2 of 'Women at the Table', a series of posts specifically about the differences in communication styles between men and women, and how you can change up your game a bit to make sure the women at your table are connected, engaged, and part of the game.
In Part 1, I set the stage for what we'd be talking about, laid down some disclaimers, and gave some tips on easing new players into your game. Before we get into Part 2, I want to reiterate some of those disclaimers, just to make sure everyone understands where I'm coming from.
None of this advice is gender-specific. What makes this a 'women in gaming' post, is that the personality traits and behaviors informing my advice happen much more often in women than they do in men.
For example, the advice I gave in Part 1 is perfectly applicable to anyone who's new to gaming. What makes it worthy for a post focusing on women is the fact that women aren't often introduced to tabletop games when they're children. Chances are, when inviting a woman into a game, she's newer to the hobby than anyone else at the table, and, thus, doesn't have all of the tribal knowledge that you do. This isn't, of course, always the case, which is another part of the disclaimers. We're not all the same.
More disclaimers and a general overview of this series can be found in Part 1: In the beginning. In this part, we're going to explore how changing the way you communicate and paying more attention to how the players are communicating can make for a more cohesive environment all around.
It's important to note here that neither side is 'right' in this discussion. Men are just as much victims of the world they were socialized in as women are. The difference is that the world often adjusts to and favors common male communication styles, while it treats common female communication styles as inferior and weak. The reality is that both sides could stand to move closer to the other. Men could stand to treat fewer things as outright competitions, and women could stand to be more assertive, but neither is wholly wrong.
Many men who use aggressive communication don't even realize what they're doing. That's just how they talk... and if they've been in a predominantly male atmosphere most of their life, chances are no one's ever had a problem with that. To many women, this type of communication comes off as overbearing, controlling, disruptive, rude, and annoying. They often won't tell you that, though. Mom always said if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. Instead, they'll just stop showing up.
Understanding Communication Styles
Depending on who you talk to, there are anywhere from 3-5 communication styles, and probably more. I'm going to focus on the four I've seen the most often at the gaming table: Aggressive, Passive Aggressive, Passive, and Assertive. As a GM looking to engage everyone at the table, you want to get them from wherever they are to Assertive. This is the most open, friendly, respectful, and relaxed style in the bunch. It's the place people often get to when they're completely comfortable and completely at home with the people they're gaming with.
Getting everyone at the table there includes making some smart decisions on how you want to organize play and paying attention to the table's dynamics during play with a mind for the various styles of communication and where they come from. Note that no one ever exhibits just one of these styles all the time. The composition of the group, emotional state of the communicator, their comfort level with the other people at the table, and a whole lot of other factors go into how someone might communicate at your table right here and now.
That's why, before we start talking about the strategies, I want you to be able to recognize various types of communication and understand what factors got them there. Then, you'll have another tool to add to your GM toolbox: the ability to recognize the root of why people at your table communicate the way that they communicate. This means that you'll be able to come up to solutions to the problems that go far and beyond the advice I'm about to give you.
What is it? Aggressive communicators are all about getting something for themselves at the expense of others. They seldom care about what other people think, and will rush to get their idea out first and loudest before unilaterally deciding that idea is what the rest of the group wants and will follow.
Where does it come from? Aggressive communicators feel powerless in some other aspect of their life. Seeking some kind of control to give their wounded self-esteem a boost, they're quick to do anything possible to gain control.
What happens to the others in the group? Passive communicators will be easily bowled over by aggressive communicators, and they'll feel like their sense of worthlessness has been justified as a result. Passive aggressive communicators will double down on their behavior, becoming sullen, attempting to sabotage the plan, and annoying others. Assertive communicators will get frustrated and often call out the behavior. If nothing changes, they'll seek another group.
Spotting Aggressive Communication:
- Listens poorly to anyone at the table, interrupts frequently, talks over other people.
- When a group decision has to be made, they take over the conversation and often make decisions without hearing or asking for what the rest of the group has to say.
- Acts as if they are the only ones in the group who know the rules and, thus, can make decisions for the entire group.
- They seem to be very eager to 'catch' someone in a mistake, and are quick to correct both the GM and the players, often by quoting the rulebook.
- They easily get frustrated, and when things don't go their way, they can be explosive and unpredictable (throwing dice, yelling, storming away from the table, etc...).
- They have a tendency to talk down to and/or mock others who don't have the same level of knowledge / experience, or who's ideas they just don't like.
- Mocks those with less knowledge in an effort to control them.
- Doesn't take responsibility for their actions or own their failures, frequently looks for other people to blame, particularly those that are the most passive.
What is it? Passive communicators keep their feelings and opinions to themselves, don't often stand up for their own rights, and don't ask for what they need. When they're put down, yelled at, or treated poorly, they don't react. Instead, they unknowingly let those emotions build until eventually they have an explosive outburst disproportionate to what they're reacting to.
Where does it come from? Passive communicators have low self-esteem, don't believe their opinions are valuable, and don't believe they are worth the effort it would take to stand up for their own rights.
What happens to others in the group? Aggressive communicators will stomp all over passive communicators and in the end manipulate them. Passive-aggressive communicators might ignore passive communicators entirely, or use them as a scapegoat when their called out for their behavior. Assertive communicators will become frustrated with the lack of participation by the passive communicator, and often encourage them to be more assertive, but will eventually give up if their efforts bear no fruit.
Spotting Passive Communication:
- Doesn't seem to have any opinions or ideas about anything. They don't participate in group conversations very often, and when they do they let more aggressive personalities make all the decisions.
- Apologize frequently, and seem to have an overall attitude that they don't belong there, and they're not worthy to spend time with the others. They may even make self-deprecating comments about themselves.
- Seldom make eye contact, speaks quietly, and sits in their seat in a way that makes them as small as possible.
- When they do have opinions, they're easily swayed by pretty much anyone else, and they never argue for their own ideas.
- No matter how often they play a game, how well they know the rules, or how unimportant knowing all the rules is, they believe they don't know enough about the game, and certainly know less than every other player at the table.
- Makes vague statements, and doesn't commit. You may have to ask them several times if that's what they really want to do to avoid getting soft answers like 'I guess'.
What is it? On the surface, passive-aggressive communicators often look like they're assertive communicators, but with something a little 'off'. Passive-aggressive communicators do their level best to make everything nice and sweet on the surface, but just below the surface they're teeming with anger. That comes out in subtle, but still destructive ways.
Where does it come from? This type of communication comes from a feeling of powerlessness. Lacking a direct way to face the things that make them feel hurt and resentful, they instead choose to take back some of that power in subtle-yet-effective ways.
What happens to others in the group? Aggressive communicators may find a better victim in passive-aggressive communicators than passive communicators because they give more of a fight, even if it's relatively subtle. Passive communicators may make good targets for the passive-aggressive communicator to blame for their annoying behavior. Assertive communicators will lose patience quickly with passive-aggressive communicators, and get frustrated at their unwillingness to face problems head on.
Spotting Passive-Aggressive Communication:
- When the rest of the group makes a decision that they don't agree with, they'll subtly sabotage, disrupt, and annoy everyone at the table until that phase of the game has passed, or the group switches to their idea.
- Often takes on the roll of the martyr, making a big deal out of any situation where they have to adapt to the situations around them, whether that's in-character or out-of-character.
- Makes backhanded compliments, gossip, patronize, and complain a lot.
- Appears cooperative, but purposefully does things to annoy and disrupt both in and out of game.
- When they don't get their way, they grow sullen, mutter to themselves, and get sarcastic.
What is it? Assertive communicators are relaxed, calm, and confident. They advocate for themselves, respect the rights of others, participate fully, encourage and compliment others, and are generally just pleasant to be around.
Where does it come from? Assertive communicators have a strong sense of self, and are very confident. You might find that introverts who join your group as passive communicators get to the point where they're assertive communicators after they've gotten comfortable with your group. We are assertive communicators when we don't feel anxious, threatened, worried, or less-than.
What happens to others in the group? Assertive communicators set a great example at the table. I've seen them very effectively draw passive communicators into conversations, calm aggressive communicators, and derail passive-aggressive sabotages. Without intending to, they have a habit of making the insecure feel comfortable, get the shy to come out of their shells, and encourage everyone to have more fun with less self-consciousness.
Spotting Assertive Communication:
- Speaks in a calm, clear tone, is honest and to the point, makes good eye contact and connects with others, listens well, and doesn't interrupt.
- Values everyone's opinion at the table equally, and will often go out of their way to make sure that even the people who are being quiet have a voice. Consensus is important to assertive communicators.
- Frequently compliment other people's ideas, and encourage further participation.
- Take responsibility for their own actions, and focus more on what they're doing than what other people are doing.
- Gives credit where credit is due, and doesn't take credit or get petulant when other people have better ideas.
- Takes reasonable risks, and doesn't get angry or sullen when they fail at something, they just try another tack or try over again.
- When issues come up, they maturely handle them through open conversation.
- Doesn't allow others to abuse or manipulate them, stands up for their rights, and respects the rights of others.
What style do women use?
Just like men, women fall all over the spectrum, and their style will often change with the circumstances, their surroundings, and their comfort level. That said, I often see a pattern emerge in gaming, which I believe is due to the high levels of introversion amongst gamers altogether, combined with high levels of low self-esteem in women.
At the first session, she's quiet. She'll often only ask questions when she's prompted, and she'll try to figure everything out on her own because she doesn't want to look stupid or like she doesn't know the game front to back already. If she's not overly discouraged, she'll cautiously play through the next several sessions and gradually journey from passive to assertive as she gets more comfortable in the group.
If, on the other hand, she's greeted with an overly-aggressive or overly-passive-aggressive male at the table, she's likely to come to a few sessions, then never return in a flurry of excuses without telling you why. This is because we're being polite (or at least the version of polite we were taught as girls):
- By and large, we've been raised to be 'good' girls. When little girls get compliments, it's often about how good and nice they are, how they behave so well and never cause trouble. That turns us into women who think pointing out the truth is rude and inappropriate, so we avoid that unpleasantness in whatever way possible.
- When we don't, we're often attacked for being difficult or too assertive, or worse... we're called out as being the reason everyone has to change. "Okay, guys, now that we've got a girl at the table..." is absolute kryptonite to keeping a woman around.
- Men acting aggressive are just 'boys being boys'. Boys, on the other hand, were by and large raised to be aggressive little hellions who are rough and tumble. They're expected to be that way, so most people don't even bat an eyelash when an overly-aggressive man starts bellowing about something or another. If a woman were to come in and change things, she'd be upsetting the natural order.
- It doesn't help that this is often reinforced when dudes make excuses for their rude, aggressive, and dickish friends. I've lost count of how many times I've heard 'He's a lovable dick', or 'Yeah, that's just the way dude is... don't take it personally'.
Chances are, we're being polite and not telling you the reason we're leaving is because there are people in the group who are rude, boorish, jerky dudes. We're just judging you silently as we walk away, and telling our friends to stay away from your group if they want to avoid that neckbeard asshat who won't shut up and tells everyone else how to play their characters.
I've only occasionally seen women come to a group who are either aggressive or passive-aggressive. To me, it's a bit heartbreaking to see this because they're almost always a reason they've become that way. They've had so many bad experiences gaming, they walk into every gaming situation with a chip on their shoulder and the feeling that they need to prove themselves by being just as loud and aggressive as the men they play with.
Everyone Needs to Be Assertive
Even when men see other aggressive males at the table making life difficult, they don't often do anything about it or see a reason to do anything about it. Based on the excuses I hear for the behavior, I think this stems from men growing up with more aggressive communicators than women. When a guy tells me they don't take it personally, I believe them most of the time because they don't and it shows. They go about their day like nothing at all happened, bouncing back from the encounter with much more aplomb.
I can't tell you how often this conversation has happened:
Myself and a male colleague experience an awful meeting where someone is being aggressive or passive-aggressive to the point of it being downright offensive. Two hours later, I'm still fuming about the encounter, while he's already dismissed it and moved on.
Me: I can't believe that guy thinks he can get away with cutting our deadline in half!
Him: Huh? Oh, you're still thinking about that meeting? Why?
Me: You're not? How is that even possible?
This doesn't happen all the time, naturally. There is a point where it actually does turn personal, but by and large the threshold men have before it gets personal is much larger than the thresholds women have. This is one of those areas where women could gain a lot by being more like men. It's one of the reasons getting women into competitive sports at a young age is so very important. Learning to shake off attacks, failures, and things that don't go as expected is much smoother when you're young and learning it on a soccer field than when you're an adult in a professional environment.
I really think that's why a lot of damaging communication goes unchecked in some gaming groups. That's where the 'he's a lovable dick' comments start to come from. They don't necessarily see it as a problem because they've had much more exposure to these communication styles, so they seem like a normal personality trait. Either that, or they're adverse to confrontation and would just rather ignore the problem than call attention to it.
Thus, it's super important that you don't go into this thinking the only reason you need to change things up is because a woman is joining the table. True, she's going to be much less tolerant of 'lovable dicks' than everyone else, but you shouldn't be trying to get everyone at the table into assertive land just because she's there. You should be trying to get everyone there because it's better for everyone at the table.
Assertive communicators are comfortable in their surroundings and are great team players. When everyone's assertive, it's a sure sign that you as the GM are doing a great job making sure the whole group is having fun. When someone at the table isn't assertive, it's a sign that there's something wrong. Maybe it's something as simple as the group still getting used to each other's company, or maybe it's because Bob throws his dice across the room while screaming in rage whenever he doesn't get a hit.
Make it a point to watch people's body language, listen to how they talk, and watch how they react to one another. Is there a player who generally falls passive as soon as another player starts to talk? Is it because of how they're being talked to, or is it maybe some external factor? Does Bob get particularly angry at his dice after certain events make him feel powerless, or does he have general anger issues that you can't do anything about?
If you can help out by adjusting things, there's no reason you shouldn't. Bob's aggressive style may well be the result of things well beyond the gaming table, but there's always a chance that something happening in the game is exacerbating the problem. Aggressive communicators are often angry that they've lost some form of control, and feel being aggressive is the only way they can get that control back. Are you doing something that makes Bob feel like he's backed in a corner and has no choices?
- Aggressive communicators often feel as if they've lost control in some way, and they've run out of ways to try and get that control back. They're frustrated and acting that out by being kinda selfish. Does Bob act out most often after he feels like he's been backed in a corner? Watch for patterns, then see if you can't switch things up a bit to give Bob the feeling like he still has control.
- Passive communicators suffer from very low self-esteem. They don't think that they or their ideas are good enough to stand up for, so they'll bury perfectly great ideas rather than share them and run the risk of being proven right. Again, watch for patterns. Are their ideas always shot down? Does Bob always talk over them? Look for places where you can help make them feel more positive and comfortable.
- Passive aggressive communicators combine aspects of both the aggressive communicator and the passive communicator. They tend to feel powerless, and as though the only way they can get their ideas through is to do so through covert methods. Check out what happens just before passive aggressive communicators become passive aggressive. Did they maybe feel railroaded, or like they have no control over their character? Maybe they feel like the rest of the group doesn't listen to them or respect their views...
Knowing what you're seeing and determining why you're seeing it will help you come up with ideas on how to steer your group back into assertive land. Your players are unconsciously trying to tell you something through their communication style. It's up to you to pick up the queues and help them out.
Of course, it's not always about the game. Sometimes, people just have bad days and inadvertently take it out on their friends. Sometimes, people don't know any other way to communicate. You can't fix everything. Sometimes, it's just a good idea to kick the problem player out of the group or call it a night early.
Don't Make Excuses for the Dick
I frequently hear people make excuses for the dick in the pack. Things like, 'Oh, he's just like that. Once you get to know him, you'll ignore those parts', or 'He's a dick, but he's a lovable dick'. By saying this to anyone in the group, you're stating that you don't have a problem with people behaving inappropriately at your table, and you're not going to do anything about it.
Saying this to a woman who's new at your table and who feels particularly stepped on by the dick is telling her that in order to enjoy this game (and often by proxy any other games), you're just going to have to put up with the 'lovable dick'.
Don't do this. It's a cop-out. Take responsibility for the people you invite into your group and how they interact with the other people you invite into your group. If there's a conflict, then someone's going to have to go... and it should probably be the dick.
In this last bit, I'm going to hit up on harassment one more time, because there's something that bothers me a lot about stories I hear involving women who are harassed at the gaming table.
I've heard plenty of horror stories about women getting hit on, groped, yelled at, mocked, insulted, had decisions made for them, had the GM do weird things with NPCs to get the woman's attention, etc... etc... the list goes on and on. I never hear, however: "...and then we kicked that asshole out of the group and got on with the game."
Why? Whether you're playing in the game or GMing the game, you have a responsibility to do something about it. We all know what it looks like when someone is obviously uncomfortable with what's happening to them. A great many - too many - gamers fiddle with their dice, become interested in the book, look at their phone, avoid eye contact, and generally speaking don't get involved.
Don't be that person. It doesn't matter if it's something as egregious as groping, or something as subtle as never letting the woman at the table finish her sentences. If you see something that's wrong, do something about it. Stop the guy who's interrupted her for the 15th time from talking and ask her what she thinks. Tell the GM that his sub-plot involving an NPC constantly hitting on the only female player's character is boring the crap out of you (and inappropriate). Do something.
When you do nothing, you send a message to the person at the other end of that abuse that this is just the way things are, and you're all on your own to deal with it. You become complicit in whatever the abuser is doing, and you fulfill all the stereotypes that person has heard about hostile players and unfriendly GMs. By doing nothing, you actually drive away women who might otherwise find roleplaying to be fun and exciting.
Next Time, in Part 3...
So, we've set the stage for what we're talking about, and now we've talked about the different styles of communication and where women tend to land within those styles... and how to be a good GM who pays attention to these sorts of things and doesn't let bad things happen at their table.
In part 3, we'll talk about some solid techniques you can use to make everyone feel like they're part of the game.