Language and gender Part Deux: How men and women speak

Last week I looked at language and gender in relation to the importance of grammatical gender and the gradual disappearance of feminine endings in English. Today I want to examine how gender affects the way we speak.  I do not belong to the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus school. As I pointed out in a previous post, Men are from Africa, Women are from Africa. On the other hand I do not hold with the nonsense that gender is socially constructed. What we do need is humility. What may appear hardwired, might some years later to be more a product of society. Coming back to gender and language, it does appear that gender does make a difference. However, these differences are not universal. Two important paradigms for studying are those of dominance and of difference, I shall proceed to look at both of them below:

The linguist Robin Lakoff is one of the principal proponents of dominance theory which posits that differences in speech related to gender are a result of men’s socially superior position.  I found this useful reference source online. Here are some features of women’s language that Lakoff highlighted:

  1. Hedging: using phrases like “sort of”, “kind of”, “it seems like”,and so on.
  2. Use of polite forms: “Would you mind…”,“I’d appreciate it if…”, “…if you don’t mind”.
  3. Use tag questions: “You’re going to dinner, aren’t you?”
  4. Use empty adjectives: divine, lovely, adorable, and so on
  5. Use more standard grammar and pronunciation: English prestige grammar and clear enunciation.
  6. Use question intonation in declarative statements: women make declarative statements into questions by raising the pitch of their voice at the end of a statement, expressing uncertainty. For example, “What school do you attend? Eton College?”
  7. Use “wh-” imperatives: (such as, “Why don’t you open the door?”)
  8. Speak less frequently
  9. Overuse qualifiers: (for example, “I Think that…”)
  10. Apologise more: (for instance, “I’m sorry, but I think that…”)
  11. Use modal constructions: (such as can, would, should, ought – “Should we turn up the heat?”)
  12. Avoid swearing.
  13. Use indirect commands and requests: (for example, “My, isn’t it cold in here?” – really a request to turn the heat on or close a window)
  14. Use more intensifiers: especially so and very (for instance, “I am so glad you came!”)

In combination these features make women’s speech appear weaker and more uncertain. Indeed the features the identified by Lakoff were part of what it meant to learn to “speak like a woman” in our society. How accurate was Lakoff’s analysis of women’s and men’s speech? It was based more on introspection than carrying out surveys. It was written before all the consequences of the feminist revolution had been felt. We live in a very different world to the 1970s. actually I have just finished reading Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography and I can tell you it did not contain a lot of hedging! As women’s position in society changes, so will the way they employ language. I think you can also criticise her interpretation of linguistic features. There is nothing inherent in a linguistic feature that makes it good or bad, weak or strong; instead, how its use is perceived is based on our social preconceptions.

The second frame is that of misunderstanding, as popularised by Deborah Tannen in her book You Just Don’t Understand. She argues that men and women communicate in different ways. She has a series of six contrasts. In each case the male mode of communication is listed first:

  1. Status vs. support
  2. Independence vs. intimacy
  3. Advice vs. understanding
  4. Information vs. feelings
  5. Orders vs. proposals
  6. Conflict vs. compromise

You will notice that the terms on the right are more touchy-feely. Women use rapport talk to establish feelings, whereas men are engaging in report talk giving information and establishing the pecking order. Tannen’s critics have accused her of perpetuating stereotypes. I’m not sure. I’m also unsure of the implications. Will women have to sound more like men if they want to be more successful at work?  Women who talk like men are often judged harshly – they are considered unfeminine, rude or bitchy.

There have been other fascinating studies. Sociologists Don Zimmerman and Candace West showed that in ten same-sex conversations there were seven interruptions, but in eleven cross-sex ones there were 48 interruptions, of which men were responsible for 46. Linguist Paula Fishman claimed that men used statements rather than questions twice as often as women. And of 76 topics introduced into conversation, women were the initiators on 48 occasions compared to 28 by men. However, only 17 of the women’s initiatives were taken up, while all 28 of the men’s were.

What I do think it is always good to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Gender, though, is just one of the myriad influences on how we speak, but we also have social class, age and race. I don’t think we should overplay the significance of gender. We are not like those Carib islanders I mentioned last week, who supposedly spoke in entirely different languages based on their gender.

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