Are Women Polite, and Do Men Get Things Done?


"I don't think it is possible to talk about gender roles anymore, since they have basically vanished", said a professor of Literature to me once. This is definitely quite a daring statement, and could obviously be questioned, but the task would be enormous. In the linguistic field, the question of gender-based speech variations has been heavily debated, disagreeing mainly whether they are of biological or social origin. Different models have been presented to explain the phenomenon that is a genderlects. How do these linguistic differences present themselves and why do they occur? By using and discussing different models for explaining their existence and construction, such as Tannen’s and Spender’s, this brief essay aims to describe and give examples of style which could have originated from gender-belonging. The need to create gender-neutral grammar features, such as Spivak's pronouns, will also be looked into, together with a brief analysis on the constructiveness of this field of research, since it has been argued that such research does not bring anything to the table, but only further strengthens already existing social stereotypes.



The language we use is, apart from being highly individual, also many times marked by our sex. Famous titles such as John Gray's Men are from Mars and women from Venus helps to cement ideas about how separate we are even further. Research has been made on the subject and it has been admitted that men and women actually do use language in different ways. In conversations where both sexes participate, men and women normally assume different roles, and use different manoeuvres to keep the conversation going. In a conversation between a man and a woman, the man would commonly be expected to be the main talker and the woman the listener. "It seems women are more ready to let other speakers into the conversation or to allow another speaker to dominate the discussion", as Put Learning First puts it in their chapter on women's language.

Differences are not limited only to style, but also appear in grammar. The way we talk is constantly with us, but differences are most easily spotted in conversation. Peter Trudgill points out that gender differences are not limited to appear in style, but are in many languages also spotted in grammar. Though that is not the main interest of this essay, a small space will be dedicated to that area. Many times, making this differentiation is so natural to us that we do not even perceive doing it; for example, the English pronouns "he" versus "she". The extent to which different languages separate males and females vary, though: in English, there is no sex differentiation in plural pronouns, for example (only "we", "you" and "they". On the other hand, in Spanish, both the first and second forms in plural have separate forms for men and women, "nosotros/as" and "vosotros/as", respectively. When the group is mixed, the male form is used. Spanish also separates adjectives into male and female groups. When in English, someone is just "tired", in Spanish a man is "cansado" while a woman is "cansada". The reasons for this sort of construction could be understood, at least in some cases: it might be important to signal who did something. However, in some languages there are even lexical and/or phonetical differences; that men and women have different words and/or sounds for the same object, as mentioned by Trudgill using the American Indian language Gros Ventre as an example: "palatalized dental stops in men's speech correspond to palatalized velar stops in the speech of women - men: /djatsa/; women: /kjatsa/ 'bread'" (Trudgill, 2000:64).

Intents to “de-sexualize” English have been made, of which one good example is the so-called Spivak’s pronoun. There are actually two sets of pronouns named Spivak; I will present the original set. Instead of using “he/she/they” as a subject, Spivak uses a sole “e”, and replaces the objects “him/her/them” with “em”. Consecutively, “his/her/their”, “his/hers/theirs” and “himself/herself/themselves” are replaced with “eir”, “eirs” and “eirself”, respectively. According to Wikipedia’s article on Spivak, the pronouns are commonly used in online role-playing games with multiple users, even though the use is said to be declining. Even though the idea of gender-neutral pronouns is highly interesting, it is doubtful that it could break through to mass-use, since that would imply the change of a deep-rooted grammar system.

Those types of linguistic features become interesting in the intersection where logical grammar differences meet variations created on social grounds (taboos, for example). From there comparisons can be made to genderlects and conversational styles, which is the reason for including this section which is not generally part of the definition.





Examples of gender-based features in speech

The main distinguishing mark between male and female speech is definitely how the first is generally active and the latter passive. Women tend to use much more so-called backchannels, a feature that is described by Stenstrom, cited on Put Learning First the following way: "Backchannels are not speaker turns in the normal sense but rather they acknowledge what the current speaker says and generally encourage her/him to go on". In other words, backchannels are all those "mhm": s and "yeah": s used to support what the other person is saying, and to signal that we follow what they are talking about.

Generally, women use more standard forms than men, and their use of grammar is better. Women also tend to stay away from cursing as that could make them come across as promiscuous or "low" (Trudgill 2000:73).

According to Robin Lakoff's Language and Woman's Place, published in 1975, distinguishers for female speech can be for example:

- the use of modal constructions (ought to etc.)

- making apologies more frequently

- the use of hedges (sort of, kind of, it seems like etc.)

- speaking in italics: the use of intonal emphasis

- hypercorrect grammar and pronunciation

- the use of direct quotations (men often choose to paraphrase instead)

- the use of indirect speech

- tag questions (for example "you are going to do that, aren't you?")

It must be remembered, though, that Lakoff's investigations were carried out in 1975 and cannot be verified today, but can of course still be useful as a comparison to more recent research.

The type of social networks used by both sexes also affects how we talk. Girls are more likely to socialize in a small, intimate network (maybe one or two close friends) while boys gather in bigger groups. This obviously has an effect on our rhetoric. Girls tend to seek connections in the conversation and link it together, dwelling on the same topic for a longer time. Boys have shorter, more I-focused conversations, and often have hierarchically arranged groups in a more obvious way.


Different explanation models

Some linguists, most prominently Deborah Tannen, argue that men and women in fact have completely different genderlects. "If women speak and understand a language of attachment and intimacy, while men speak and understand a language of status and independence, that means that conversations between men and women is a species of transcultural communication, subject to a crash of styles" (Tannen, 1991:18). This means that it might actually be necessary to study the repertoire of the other part to make a relationship work. This runs very close to arguments used by the biologist branch of feminism, which argues that men and women are genetically different, and consequently, that women have a so-called "pink gene". Men are supposedly better at decision-making, mechanical things, etc., while women are softer, more caring, better with children, for example. As seen above, one of Tannen’s main arguments is that women in general seek intimacy in their relations, while men look for independence (hence "clingy women"). Men and women have difficulties understanding each other because they have completely different purposes with their respective communications. The two sexes' different ways of communicating have by Tannen been coined report talk versus rapport talk, used by men and women, respectively. Distinguishing marks are for example:

Report talk:

- conversation is competitive

- public speech

- communication is made to gain status

- information is exchanged

- orders are given

- looking for conflict

- advice is given

Rapport talk:

- conversation seeks consent

- private speech

- communication is made to establish contact

- feelings are exchanged

- looking for consensus

- looking for personal understanding

- proposals are given

- ask questions

These are characteristics that are reinforced in an early stage of life, by the social networks we move in as children. As mentioned earlier, boys tend to play in bigger groups with a clear hierarchy: "The groups have a leader, who tells the others what to do and how to do it, and are usually opposed to do what other kids suggest. Status is maintained by giving orders and seeing them complied to. Boys also gain status by being the centre of attention, telling stories and jokes or by scorning those told by others. The games have winners and losers and systems that are generally much-disputed" (Tannen, 1991:18).

In opposition to this, girls play in small groups or in couples. "The centre of the social life is the best friend. In the group, the key is intimacy. The girls differ by the degree of relation that exists between them. In their games, everybody has their turn, and there are seldom such things as winners or losers. /.../ Girls do not presume to be better than anybody or think that one is better than the other, and do not give orders" (Tannen, 1991:18). With these sorts of variations already present in childhood days, it is not hard to follow Tannen's arguments about how miscommunication can cause severe problems in adult life.

One thing supposedly very important to men is the "public face". It is because of this that men seldom want to ask for road directions, for example, or ask for anything at all, since it impairs their vision of being self-sufficient. Women, on the other hand, prefer to use a question-phrase to make a potential disagreement softer or to establish a connection with the other part.

One final difference according to this model of explanation is how the sexes approach conflict. Since the male view of life is much more concentrated on competition, men welcome conflict as a way or possibility of rising on the scale, and are less probable to control themselves. Since they are so highly concerned with their independence, men are quick to open a conflict if they feel that they are told what to do. To women, on the other hand, conflict is a potential threat to a personal connection and must therefore be avoided, which is why they are more likely to back down from an argument.

Instead of claiming biology and genetics as origins, some choose to see social reasons as the source of genderlects. To generalize, there are two main roads to take; that of proclaiming a biological difference, which is associated with Tannen, and that of claiming differences to be a product of being subjected to a dominating part, the dominance theory. According to the latter, differences appear because of social reasons, not biological. A well-known study made in 1980 by William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins suggested that what had been categorised as "woman's speech" should rather be called "powerless speech". O'Barr and Atkins studied court room witnesses and how they used the features appointed by Lakoff as features of female speech, and came to the resolution that this sort of defensive language does not originate from sex, but from social position. As summarized by Susan Githens: "They used three men and three women to prove their point. The first man and woman both spoke with a high frequency of 'women's language' components. The woman was a 68-year old housewife, and the man drove an ambulance. In comparison with woman and man #3 - a doctor and a policeman, respectively, /.../they show that the first pair of witnesses experience less power in their jobs and lives". Consequently, the conclusion drawn by O'Barr and Atkins, as mentioned already, is that the speech patterns that had been categorised by Lakoff as female traits, are not characteristic of all women, nor limited only to women (Githens). Some women, with good educations and jobs, displayed little usage of "women's language" which gave Lakoff's theories a little rattling.

The O'Barr and Atkins' theory is supported by the dominance theory, mainly connected to Dale Spender and Zimmerman/West, which rests on the same foundation, but has a greater scope. This theory is based on the fact that our society is patriarchal, dominated by men and based on "male" values. According to Spender, the use of different types of language styles is a social structure that keeps men in power, and agrees that it is a difficult problem to solve: "The crux of our difficulties lies in being able to identify and transform the rules which govern our behaviour and which bring patriarchal order into existence. Yet the tools we have for doing this are part of that patriarchal order" (quoted from Andrew Moore’s Universal Teacher page). In "Man-made language", published in 1980, she establishes the connection between language and social structure, stating her belief that language does not act on its own, nor is a fixed feature predestined by genetics, but something constructed: "We do construct only two sexes; we do insist upon a whole range of gender determined behaviours. And we do all this for a purpose. By arranging the objects and events of the world according to these rules we set up the rationale, and the vindication, for male supremacy" (Spender, 1980:3). For those who support this theory, the existence of genderlects is therefore a part of a greater picture, not something inevitable that is with us from birth.



The woman is passive, the listener, while the man talks and gives orders. That is the main moral to be drawn from my research. The existence of gender-based speech variations surely seems a little absurd, and difficult to admit at first thought, but the fact is that the familiarity of these variations stands for itself. Although, their origins (and existence) could, and should, be debated. Tannen’s biology-based theory is probably the most popular because of its simplicity, and its way of isolating the issue: relationship troubles can easily be resolved by learning that the other person communicates in a different way, for example by studying the “Rapport Talk vs. Report Talk” model.

The other main group of explanation models, those who see genderlects as a feature sprung from social origins, are more difficult to digest and less populist, which makes it harder for them to penetrate society than for those campaigning for biology origins. They are, though, way more interesting. By distinguishing genderlects as a feature connected to a way wider spectrum, they open up a bigger space for investigations and analysis. The Dominance theory, for example, considers gender-based style variations as a product a patriarchal society. Also, it is very important to acknowledge O’Barr and Atkins’ results on power-related speech, which opened a new breech in the field showing that “female speech” is actually not confined only to females (as men with low professional positions also exhibited usage of “women’s speech”), thus giving a good argument for the social explanation.

 My opinion is that the separatist (biology) model seems to prefer “male style”, and directs itself to women, more or less advising them to learn “male language” to become accepted, and thus, agrees to a social system where traditionally “female” features are less worth. Instead of making it easy for oneself by hammering down supposed differences as biological features (and thus closing the window to all analyses), it is far more interesting, but also frustrating, to make the connections of the socially-based model, and look at the investigations as an instrument for social and/or political sciences, as a part of a whole.





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