Mary Jane in the Middlebury Classroom

By Hye-Jin Kim

If Hannah Sobel ’17.5’s linguistics study is valid, there won’t be any feminists left in the movement for marijuana legalization. Though Sobel doesn’t smoke, she enlisted her friends to record their conversations while under the influence of marijuana to study gender differences in speech patterns for her linguistics anthropology class, “Language, Culture and Society,” taught by Marybeth Nevins.

Sobel described it as a study that “looked at how women talk when they’re high and how men talk when they’re high, in both same-sex and mixed gender conversations.”

Her results could be perceived as somewhat troubling for feminists. She found that “being baked” firmly re-established existing gender roles and modes of accepted behavior in mixed-gender conversations. In one recorded conversation, which included four females and one male, the male spoke almost the entire time.

“Men generally tend to dominate mixed-gender conversations [when sober],” Sobel said. “They’ll keep talking quietly until they get what they want. They’ll talk until you look at what they’re doing if they’re trying to make you see something cool they can do.”

Topanga* ’17, who participated in the study, echoed the same observations. “When I listened to the recordings, I realized how little we [females of the group] got into conversations when it was mixed gender,” she said. “You just hear male voice after male voice after male voice and then once in a while, a little interjection of one of us laughing, or just being like, ‘Oh my god, you’re so silly!’”

When in the company of members of the opposite sex, women talk less than they do when surrounded by other women.

“Women just tend to laugh. Women just get really happy and quiet,” Topanga said. “In all-female conversations, women were louder and more boisterous with each other and quieter in mixed gender conversations.”

Burt* ’15, who claims to regularly smoke marijuana, said he did not notice himself dominating conversations while high. He has, however, been smoking since a young age.

“For me,” Burt said, “it feels like a lot of smoking weed, I just associate with guy time, and smoking itself is kind of a ‘men’s activity’ to me.”

So, what could be behind these behavioral changes? Are solely gender-biased social mores to blame?

Sobel hypothesizes that the discrepancy is rooted in biological differences among genders. “I think the biological portion of it is that marijuana tends to make you quiet,” she said.

But she also points to societal factors in the conversational tendencies, citing specifically the idea of women being “seen and not heard.”

Burt and Topanga cited initial paranoia and social anxiety in inexperienced smokers as the main trigger for male-dominated conversations while high, rather than conventional social norms.

“When I was first introduced to smoking, I would go into situations and become super super socially anxious,” Burt said. “I couldn’t even talk to some of my good friends. Now, when I get high, it’s like way the opposite.”

Topanga agreed with this analysis, arguing that this might be exaggerated in women.

“I’ve talked to people who, having that drug in their system, and knowing they are in an altered state of mind, makes them more aware of what they’re doing,” she said. “So, if they would be uncomfortable around guys anyways, that’s just going to amplify that, because you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I’m high, and these are cute guys.’ Like what do I say? What am I going to do? So you just don’t say anything.”

Another interesting finding of Sobel’s study was how differently marijuana affected mixed-gender dynamics in conversation compared to alcohol, another commonly abused substance, on campus.

Sobel found that women tend to become the dominators of conversation when alcohol is consumed by both genders.

But the “over-talking” was not described as Sobel as an expression of a gender-centered power struggle.

“It’s not a rude thing, this domination. They’ll just talk and keep talking,” she said.

Another feminist-fearful finding was that female derogatory terms were more common in conversations under marijuana influence among all-female groups than in sober conversations; taboo name-calling, like “you f***ing wh***”, used as terms of endearment, were more common in same-sex conversations involving marijuana than those involving alcohol, according to Sobel’s study.

Recognizing that her study is only preliminary, Sobel plans on “taking this a little further” and possibly turning it into an independent research project.

“The findings aren’t complete, yet,” she said. “But, I’m looking at frequency of smoking in the study as well. I’m also going to look into content, especially with stories.”

There is no push-back from the administration or from the linguistics department for her to halt her controversial research. Her linguistics professor, Assistant Professor of Sociology/Anthropology Marybeth Nevins, was not even initially fazed by her project proposal.

“She didn’t say anything negative about it, [even though] I know it’s kind of unorthodox…and illegal,” Sobel said. “But I used pseudonyms and it wasn’t me, but my ‘stoner friends,’ who I gave the recorders to. She approved it pretty much immediately.”

“The fact that her teacher was so willing to let her do is just an example of how much more prevalent, how much more accepted marijuana is,” Topanga said.