Emilie Littlehales says it’s time to reevaluate what it means to “nag” and the impact it can have on gender and relationship dynamics.
Curious about the origins of the verb to nag, I decided to look it up. The definitions I found in the dictionaries I consulted (Merriam-Webster, the OED, and dictionary.com) showed a consensus about the verb’s meaning and where it originated: To nag is to constantly annoy or pester someone about the same thing; it came into use in the 19th century; and it’s mostly likely derived from the Norwegian and Swedish term nagga, which means to gnaw or irritate. I have to admit, I was surprised to find that the definitions were universally gender neutral (although the same can’t be said for the examples given).
It would be hard to make a compelling argument that either sex has the monopoly on being annoying. At one point or another, every one of us has either annoyed or been annoyed by someone else, be it a person we know intimately or someone we’ve never even met. Yet a simple Google search for “nagging” would have us all believe that this sort of behavior is a uniquely female problem. To provide just a few examples of search results: WebMD’s women’s channel offers a guide on how to stop nagging, Oprah.com has a more direct “Stop Nagging!” imperative, and AskMen.com unequivocally identifies women as the culprits of nagging with a helpful article entitled, “How to Handle Your Woman’s Nagging” (to be filed under: Don’t Even Get Me Started).
The number of jokes and anecdotes that feature a long-suffering husband and a nagging wife present further evidence of the fact that it’s commonly regarded as a defining characteristic of any woman in an intimate relationship. And I know that in my daily life, I talk frequently with my girlfriends about how to ask my partner to do something without nagging, and often worry about where exactly the line between checking in about something and becoming a nag about is drawn. Do men ever discuss the same concerns or contemplate the boundaries between just-enough and overkill? Or, because they’re so rarely the butt of the nagging joke, do they not think twice about instances in which they have to pester their partners?
Like so many things, nagging has gone from being a natural aspect of human behavior to a flaw that women should be vigilant of, either trying to fix their annoying tendencies or eliminate them altogether. It’s become a code word, used to indicate that a woman is controlling, neurotic, hyper-sensitive, domineering, and unpleasant. And the way it’s portrayed in popular culture isn’t just harmful to women, it also suggests that men merit this treatment because of their laissez-faire or neglectful attitudes toward everything from household chores to child-rearing.
Ultimately, no one is served by the image of the couple as made up of a shrew and an overgrown (and always long-suffering) man-child, yet somehow it persists. And to even greater detriment, it shapes the way we feel about our behavior, and our perceptions of ourselves and the way we function in society as well as our personal relationships. Nagging and its impact on both sexes is, essentially, a construct that has grown out of our outdated and outmoded understanding of gender roles.
Portraying women as nags displaces blame and responsibility, and obscures the fact that the underlying cause of the nagging could be entirely valid and in need of addressing. For whatever reason, it has become easier for us to accept that women nag and men rightfully ignore them because the battle of the sexes will wage on forever than consider the fact that this dynamic could be indicative of a fundamental breakdown in communication. It’s more convenient to shrug it all off and chalk it up to the differences between men and women.
The problem is that nagging arises out of a need to address a problem. Obviously the nature and validity of the problem is going to vary according to each individual case, and in some cases, the nagging will be unnecessary. But in many others, it will be the symptom of an inability to communicate in a relationship. As an example: My partner has been unemployed and looking for a job since May of this year. Although he’s applied for many, many, many jobs, he’s gotten little response, and talks very little about it. As someone on the outside of what he’s going through, but still very closely involved in the outcome, it’s difficult for me to deal with this lack of information and equally difficult to ask about it.
My queries are sometimes ignored, and other times met with a dismissive response—I know that in asking about how things are going, or if he’s tried looking through this channel instead of that channel, I’m rubbing salt in a wound. I understand that my questions could be interpreted as a lack of faith in my partner’s ability to get or find a job that’s appropriate for him, or even a challenge to the role he’s supposed to be playing as the male head-of-household of our small family. But I also have a need for information that I can’t obtain on my own. If he chooses to dismiss my questions as nagging, then he fails to see the genuine concern from which they originate. If I also consider what I’m doing to be nagging, then I fail to put myself in a position where I might be able to help him, or understand the status of a situation that affects us both. We both then shut down, and communication comes to a screeching halt.
However, if neither one of us was conditioned to have such an averse reaction to my questioning, we would undoubtedly come out ahead. A measured response instead of a dismissive one would not only help me to feel more informed, it would also stop me from asking further, increasingly-persistent questions and falling into the vicious cycle that nagging inevitably becomes as the person being nagged grows less and less patient with the approach and becomes intentionally evasive in order to be just as annoying.
Although seemingly small, the idea of nagging has a widespread impact on gender dynamics; reevaluating the way that we view nagging or what it means to be a nag stands to have a similarly widespread impact. It’s essential that we start to see nagging not as an unpleasant behavior endemic to one sex, or even just an obnoxious tendency that can tell us if a woman is going to be a headache and serve as the punchline for sexist jokes.
Instead, we need to take a thoughtful look at the underlying issues that the nagging is meant to address. By overcoming our tendency and desire to dismiss this seemingly gendered, insignificant behavior, we face the possibility of opening up a dialog and moving toward greater understanding.
Emilie Littlehales lives in New York City and works in academic publishing. She’s contributed to LUNA’s Chix Journal and Jezebel, and writes regularly for the RUNiverse and her personal blog, I Came to Run. She is interested in questions of body image, physical and mental health, gender roles, and sexuality, and especially the various ways in which they are shaped and affected by society’s expectations.