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Men and women typically use different discourse strategies in communication, and, in general, women’s linguistic behavior is disadvantageous compared to men’s. This paper will attempt to demonstrate this fact, through the many stereotypes observed in Western society, which influence our perceptions, and may lead to actual gender differences. Despite these assumptions, it has been proven through countless studies, beginning in the 1970’s, that men and women differ in their communicative competency, and their discourse strategies in terms of conversational interactions.
Some of the major differences include vocabulary, swearing, self-disclosure, intimacy issues, questions, nonverbal behavior, verbal fillers, and workplace attitudes.
The definition of gender is “the learned behaviors a culture associates with being male or female (Pearson, 1991:8).” Communication is “when two people interact, and, intentionally, or unintentionally, negotiate the meaning of any phenomenon (Pearson, 1991:9).”
Men and women are taught, through childhood caregivers, to excel in different areas, with social awards to keep these goals desirable.
Females are trained to demonstrate greater expressions of emotion, while males are taught to be solid and impassive. Male aggressiveness and competitiveness conflicts with the female desire to co-operate and avoid conflict (Credgeur, 1999:2).
Social rules are reflected through language, demonstrating unequal power relations based on gender. Linguist Jennifer Coates cites two reasons for gender linked differences in communication. The difference approach states that men and women belong to two distinct subcultures, and they learn to communicate in different ways. Breakdowns in communication occur because the participants are playing by different rules.
The second approach is the dominance approach. There is a gender hierarchy in our society with male domination and female subordination, reflected in language structure and use. The male world view is encoded in the English language (King, 1991:2).
The feminist perspective is that language is discriminatory towards women, as it has become one of the arenas in which social inequalities have been elucidated (King, 1991:73). In a study by Nilsen, 517 words were taken from the dictionary, discovering six times as many masculine words denoting prestige than feminine ones. Feminine words with negative connotations outnumbered males words by twenty percent (Smith, 1985:37).
There are many common stereotypes that tend to influence, and interfere with gender language research. Men’s speech is believed to be forceful, efficient, blunt, authoritative, serious, effective, and sparring. Male ownership slang and profane language is also a prevalent theory. Women’s language is stereotyped as weak, trivial, ineffectual, tentative, hesitant, hyperpolite, euphemistic, and marked by gossip (Spender, 1980:33).
Another common conception is that women use empty talk, or that they never say anything of importance, usually discussing trivial topics or events. Men’s speech is viewed as straight forward, usually focussing on important topics. These stereotypes appear to be stronger than the actual differences (Pearson, et al, 1991:107).
Current findings have demonsrated that men and women are more alike than what was previously thought to be the case. We perceive these exaggerated differences because of the information on gender differences is mainly based on introspection and personal observations. The society we live in concentrates more on gender differences than similarities, causing the actual differences in male and female comminications styles to be exaggerated (Pearson, et al, 1991:108).
Robin Lakoff, often considered to be the pioneer of gender related linguistic styles, has put forth some controversial views on the diiferent speech styles of men and women. She believes women are viewed as emotional, and unsuited to positions of societal responsibilites because they are more likely to use deferential language, and inquisitive intonation. She says women often speak in “italics” (Smith, 1985:69). According to Lakoff, “women’s speech keeps them inferior by denying them the means of strong self expression, and providing them expressions that suggest triviality and uncertainty” (Pearson, et al, 1991:106).
There are several observed funtional differences that may contribute to the stereotype of women as emotional speakers, and men as rational speakers. Evidence suggests that women converse to learn about others. Talk is the essence of relationships for women (Wood, 1999:123). Women are perceived as showing more empathy and support to gain trust, while men use empathy as an adaptation device.
Women’s speech is viewed as being more proper and polite, regardless of the topic at hand. Men use more assertive, deliberate patterns of speech, and claim authority over women in such topics as politics, business, and sports (Pearson, 1991:41).
In terms of discourse, men and women must learn when to speak and when to remain silent. There has been much research on turn taking and interruptions in mixed sex conversations. Numerous studies indicate that men have more talking time than women (Spender, 1980:41). Interruption is one of the methods that is used to gain the floor, and determine the topic of converation.
Interruptions are violations of the turn taking rules of conversation. They occur when the listener begins to speak before the speaker has uttered his/her last word. Men are expected to, and do, interrupt more than women, although they rarely interrupt other males.
This shows that they often infringe on a woman’s right to finish her turn talking (Pearson, et al, 1991:146).
Men’s speech has been analyzed as being power exerting, status enhancing, and independence preservation. They generally tend to avoid disclosing negative information about themselves, for fear that they will be seen as weak and vulnerable. Although men generally have a greater intention to disclose, they rarely follow through. Men are most likely to disclose cognitive information (Pearson, et al, 1991:146).
Because women’s speech is seeen as more affiliative and information seeking, women are generally more likely to disclose information that is intimate or affective, and mostly to the same sex. Some women take these self disclosure tendencies into the workplace, causing male coworkers to consider them gossipy and emotional (Tymson, 1999:1).
Another discourse strategy that women are more likely to employ is the use of verbal fillers. These include words such as “like”, “right”, “well”, etc. (Pearson,et al, 1991:112). Verbal fillers are used when there are extended periods of silence, which make some people uncomfortable. They are used by men so that they will not lose their conversational turn (Wood, 1999:119).
Women also engage in hypercorrection, or reminding others of the correct form of language usage when they have made an error, more. An example would be a response that begins with “you mean…” (Pearson, et al, 1991:112).
Men and women make requests and ask questions differently as well. Men tend to make more use of direct requests, while women use qualifiers to add politeness. When a man would say “pass the salt”, a women would say “could you pass the salt please?” The latter would be referred to as a compound request (Mills, 1995:226).
Another discourse strategy that varies between the genders is the use of tag questions, which occur when a declarative statement is made, followed by a question related to that statement (Pearson, et al, 1991:115). Tag questions are generally used to denote uncertainty, or a lack of complete confidance in what the speaker is relaying. Zimmerman and West found that women use tag questions three times more in mixed sex conversations than in same sex ones (Wood, 1999:231). Tag questions are used to elicit information from another individual, or to strike up conversations. Women are most likely to use them in problem solving.
There are also differences in gender communication in terms of paralanguage, or vocal cues. Women generally have higher pitched voices, with softer volume, and greater inflection. These characteristics give the perception lower intelligence, immaturity, and flightiness. Men normally have lower voices, with harder volume and limited use of inflection; characteristics usually attributed as being mature, intelligent, sophisticated, and masculine (Wood, 1999:150). Women who utilize these esteemed characteristics are seen as being masculine as well.
In addition to differences in male and female discourse strategies, there are also interesting differences in their vocabularies. For example, women usually use more descriptive language in describing certain phenomenon, such as color. Women tend to have more expansive ranges of options to choose from (Pearson, et al, 1991:110). Some men are an exception to this rule, especially the ones that work with colors on a daily basis (i.e. interior designers).
In terms of sexual language, or intimate contexts, male and female speech patterns differ greatly. They do not discuss genitalia and sexual functions similarly. While both sexes are more hesitant to discuss female genitalia, females generally use more clinical and conservative language than males. They often use unclear, or vague words. Men are more likely to use power language in describing their own genitalia (i.e. “my weapon”) (Pearson, et al, 1991:110).
In terms of the act of sex, both males and females use more formal language in mixed company, or in the presence of family. With lovers, or friends, both sexes use more colloquial language. When asked the reasons why they were likely to initiate sexual relations, men generally responded with terms like “sexual release”, while women normally cited “love” as their main motivation (Schwartz, et al, 1998:54). While philologist Havelock Ellis states that speech developed mainly from sexuality, men and women can not truly relate to one another sexually at this time (Guindon, 1970:125).
While men and women use profane language at approximately the same rate, their behaviors are often viewed differently. Women are viewed as being more polite, so when they swear, it is seen as less harsh than when men, viewed as more aggressive, do the same thing. While male swearing drops off in mixed sex company, both men and women swear more frequently in the company of their own sex (Pearson, et al, 1991:111).
The major cause of vobaulary differences are in the content, style, and structure of male and female speech (Credgeur, 1999:4). Women show much more tentativeness in their speaking patterns. They also use more lexical traits, elaborated in such areas as fashion, cooking, etc. This means that they use intensifiers more than men, showing impreciseness (i.e.”so”,”such”). They also demonstrate more correct forms of pronunciation (Smith, 1985:148).
According to Robin Lakoff, women also use more hedges, or words that defer with the use of modal verbs (i.e. “could”, “should”, “may”). These words demonstate uncertainty, reinforcing the view of “women’s speech” as powerless (Smith, 1985:149).
Women use more correct forms of grammer as well, as they tend to be more standard than men. Men sometimes omit fianl consonant clusters that serve grammatical functions, (i.e. final /-z/ sound from verbs in contexts where it indicates third person singular; “She goes” becomes “She go”) (Smith, 1985:80).
Men and women also differ in nonverbal communication techniques. Women tend to smile more than men, even when they are not genuinely happy, as they are expected to do. Women are viewed, in our society, as passive and decorative, therefore if they are not smiling, something must be wrong. However, if a man smiles too much he is suspected and persecuted (Wood, 1999:140).
Gender is instituted through the stylization of the body. Males relay responsiveness through leaning forward, and adopting congruent positions with the speaker. They also use wide gestures and great use of proxemal, or personal, space cues to command attention, as well as voice inflection and volume to strengthen their ideas
Women tilt their heads more, condense their size to accomodate others, and are more likely to allow others into their personal space. They also exhibit more emotions through their eyes, such as love, fear, interest, etc. Men do not generally hold eye contact, unless to challenge other men, or signal that they are interested in that person intimately (Hall, et al, 1997:305).
There are also haptic, or touch differences between men and women. Touch can be used positively intimate contact), or negatively (when used unilaterally), in human communication. Women tend to touch, and be touched, more, although recent studies show this is changing (Pearson, et al, 1991:140).
Males and females communicate information in varying ways through posture and bearing as well. Head cues communicate information indicative of pleasantness or unpleasantness, while body cues express relaxation or tension. Men’s posture is related to proxemal space, while women show more sensitivity through their postures (Pearson, et al, 1991:140).
Men and women communicate differently in the workplace as well. Women tend to take male comments too seriously, dilute their own comments, apologize too much, and make extensive use of unnecessary details. Men interrupt too much, tend to make harsh comments, use chauvinistic names for women, and give too many direct orders (Tymson, 1999:2).
There are several explanations as to why men and women communicate differently. One of the most common answers is the notion that men dominate our culture. Women are in a stage of constant uncertainty and insecurity when dealing with men, even though they comprise 52% of the current population (Spender, 1980:36). The English language relegates women to an inferior status in society. This is seen as a consequence of their politeness and indirectness. Men seem to have more control over the direction of conversations. Women are more likely to seek male approval, and to take on characteristics common of men, when involved in mixed sex conversations (Pearson, et al, 1991:54).
Gender role standards of society may also explain gender differences in communication. Expected masculine and feminine behaviors can have an actual effect on gender differences. Men are viewed as instrumental, aggressive, and goal oriented, while women are seen as irrational, nurturing and expressive (Pearson, et al, 1991:132).
There are also possible biological expalnations for the observed differences. There are marked variations in vocal tract resonances, or formants, which effect pitch. There are also differences in speech rates and voice quality (Mills, 1995:197). New biological evidence suggests that nature, not nurture, may cause these differences. Women may be biologically more suited for performing tasks that involve understanding and language formation (Pearson, et al, 1991:47). It has also been proposed that men and women differ in brain hemispheres, causing men to be better at cognitive processes, and women to excel in verbal, spatial skills (Pearson, et al, 1991:47).
It has been demonstrated that, in our society, despite the aforementioned stereotypes, there are absolute differences between women’s and men’s languages. We learn linguistic behavior, and it becomes a part of our identity. Men interrupt more, and use more direct requests, while women self-disclose more, and use more compound requests.
Women are clearly at a disadvantage because of their language styles. According to Robin Lakoff, women are taught certain linguistic skills which work against them (Spender, 1980:40). The idea that one can change people’s attitudes toward women through language is naive, as they will only change when our society, itself, changes.
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