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To what extent is language used differently and similarly by males and females?
This paper assesses the claim that language is gendered, that is to say, that there is a significant difference between the way language is used by men and women. Discussion about gendered patterns of communication frequently appear in both the popular press and in psychology literature (Basow & Rubenfeld, 2003, pp. 183-187). This paper explores both the more anecdotal discussions of the subject in the popular press, and the more sophisticated discussions in academic works. During the course of this paper, it is argued that sex is not the determinate factor influencing the use of language. Instead, the use of language is much more dependent on individual differences and personalities, the social structure, and the context in which language is being used.
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However, before proceeding, it is worth exploring the term “gendered” and similar, associated terms. Gender is to some extent a performative and iterated social construct. Thus, gender is the characteristics attached to the male and female sex (Butler, 2002). This lacuna between sex and gender causes some problems when assessing whether language is gendered since much of the literature on the topic is not precise about whether what is being discussed is a difference between the two sexes (Men and Women) or a difference between the gender performances of the two genders (Male and Female). However, this paper does not have the space to discuss this complex area. Therefore, the focus of the paper is whether we can establish a claim that language is used differently by men and women. It will be concluded that such a claim cannot be proved or substantiated, and differences in language use are determined by the individual’s personality/idiosyncrasies, temporal-socio-cultural location, and the specific context/situation in which language is being used.
This paper assesses two distinct claims (“myths”) about the differences between how men and women use language. The first commonly held “myth” that shall be considered is the claim that women talk more than men. This is a commonly held “myth” within society, and one which is explored in much of the literature about language use in men and women (see: D Cameron, 2007; J Holmes, 2007, pp. 299-305; T Kornheiser, 2007, pp. 305-307). The second “myth” considered in this paper is the claim that men and women use language for different purposes/goals. Specifically, I shall examine Rossetti’s claim that: ‘the main distinction between the way boys and girls communicate is that girls generally use the language to negotiate closeness [… whereas] boys generally use language to negotiate their status in the group (competition-oriented)’ (Rossetti, 1998, pp. 1-6). I also consider Tannen’s similar and related claim that men use language to impart knowledge; whereas, women use language in a supportive role (Tannen, 2007, pp. 322-334). Specifically, Tannen argues that men play ‘a game of “Have I Won?” while … women … [play] a game of “Have I been sufficiently helpful?”‘ (Tannen, 2007, p. 326).
Korneiser provides an amusing anecdote involving his children to suggest that differences in their linguistic styles are based on differences of sex (Kornheiser, 2007, pp. 305-307). Although Kornheiser’s article is explicitly about how boys/men and girls/women respond to questions, the article implicitly demonstrates an anecdotal example of the “myth” that girls/women talk more, since Kornheiser’s daughter is depicted as far more verbose than her brother (Kornheiser, 2007, pp. 305-307). Kornheiser uses the anecdote of his more talkative daughter to suggest that this is typical of differences between how the sexes use language. More explicitly, Holmes begins her article by raising the “myth” that women talk more than men, opening with the question, ‘Do women talk more than men?’ (Holmes, 2007, p. 299). Cameron is explicit that this attitude is a widely-held belief, and argues that it is one of ‘”the myth[s] of Mars and Venus” is… [that] women talk more than men’ (Cameron, 2007).
Both Holmes and Cameron aim to show that it is a myth that women talk more than men, by reporting, in detail, a vast number of studies as evidence. They rely on quantitative data to support their argument. For instance, Holmes describes a study by James and Drakich which examined “the amount of talk” used by men and women in 63 studies; the resulting study showed that women only talked more than men in 2 of the 63 studies (Holmes, 2007, p. 300). Precisely what is meant by “amount of talk”, here, is slightly unclear – it is not explicitly stated whether the studies are discussing the total number of words used by the men and women, or whether “amount of talk” refers to the amount of time each speaker talks for. “Amount of talk” is a somewhat unclear term; however, Holmes is keen to demonstrate that detailed research has been conducted, and that this has debunked the myth that women talk more than men. In contrast, the “evidence” that women talk more than men is mostly based on anecdote and commonly accepted ideas about gender differences. Cameron uses an even more quantitative approach to back-up her argument by detailing Hyde’s “meta-analysis” statistical technique (Cameron, 2007). Cameron also shows that the author of The Female Brain (where it was claimed that women use 20,000 words a day, whilst men only use 7,000 words a day) had later accepted that the claim could not be substantiated and would be deleted from later editions (Cameron, 2007).
Tannen takes a different approach. Although Tannen does claim that there are differences between how men and women they use language, Tannen implicitly argues that it is a myth that women talk more than men, since her anecdotes suggest that women do not talk more than men. Tannen relies, primarily, on anecdotal evidence to illuminate her argument that women listen and men talk. Her point is that men have information they wish to impart; and, thus, they lecture. Men, she claims, do not listen but use language as a form of monologue to impart information, whereas women play the role of the supportive listening audience (Tannen, 2007, pp. 322-334). Tannen is not necessarily aiming to dispel the “myth” that women talk more, but this is implicit in her depiction of men as lecturers and women as the audience. In contrast to Holmes’ and Cameron’s presentation of their arguments, Tannen’s discussion primarily relies on qualitative data, in the sense that her article is based on personal anecdotes and her interactions with male and female colleagues.
Both the approaches taken by Holmes/Cameron and Tannen fail to tell the whole story about the “myth” that women talk more. Holmes and Cameron dismiss the claim by referring to quantitative data and “meta-analysis” which fails to illuminate individual differences and context, whereas Tannen relies on anecdote and qualitative data to imply that it is “myth” that women talk more. Whilst Tannen’s article provides specific incidents and explores the context, situation and status of participants, she does not provide statistical or quantitative data to demonstrate that men really do lecture and women really do play the part of a listening audience.
Whilst the evidence provided by Holmes, Cameron and Tannen seems to suggest that it is only “myth” that women talk more, this does not take into account individual personalities/differences, the socio-cultural context in which gender roles are played out or the specific situations and contexts that determine language usage. Interactions do not take place in a vacuum, but within a certain socio-cultural structure (that could still be argued is patriarchal). On this point, Macaulay makes the observation that ‘in Western industrialized societies men have more often been in positions of power over women rather than the reverse’ (Macaulay, 2007, p. 309). Macaulay makes this observation in order to show that, given such a socio-cultural structure, it is not surprising if women are sometimes found to use more deferential language (Macaulay, 2007). Within such a context, it is not surprising if men are pushed into the role of lecturer, and women into the role of listening audience. Therefore, it seems that (rather than women talking more than men) men may talk more than women if they occupy a “higher” status in society. Instead of thinking that the “amount of talk” is differentiated along gender lines, it may be more accurate to think that the “amount of talk” is differentiated along hierarchical lines.
The final section of this paper explores the second “myth” – the claim that men and women use language for different purposes/goals. Again, it shall be argued that to differentiate the way language is used along gender/sex lines is flawed and that a deeper understanding of the use of language requires consideration of individual peoples’ personalities, as well as the socio-cultural structure and the specific context/situation in which language is being used.
Rossetti argues that ‘language styles… reflect the different goals of the users’ (Rossetti, 1998). This is an innocuous claim, as it is reasonable to argue that language styles are dependent upon the goal(s) of the user. However, Rossetti argues that the different goals of the users can be differentiated along gender lines, that is to say men and women have different goals when they use language. Specifically, men use language to extend their ‘authority and respect in society; while women [use language]… to nurture existing relationships and develop new ones’ (Rossetti, 1998). Rossetti’s view of how men and women use language seems very similar to Tannen’s view (previously mentioned) where men use language to lecture, and women play the role of audience (Tannen, 2007, pp. 322-334). Basow & Rubenfeld provide a succinct summary of the supposed difference in the goals of men and women when they use language: ‘in general, women are expected to use language to enhance social connection, and men are expected to use language to enhance social dominance’ (Basow & Rubenfeld, 2003, p. 183). Thus, it seems that the two claims are linked. Men use language to enhance social dominance, and those who have social dominance are able to occupy more of the “amount of talk” time.
However, differentiation of language usage along sex binaries fails when we step away from quantitative analysis, and consider specific and unique contexts and situations. Generalizations based on quantitative analysis obscure individual differences between people by focusing on sex and analyzing sex as the determinate factor. Thus, Cameron succinctly argues that ‘focusing on the differences between men and women while ignoring differences within them is extremely misleading’ (Cameron, 2007). To argue that a specific goal is pursued when using language which is determined by the sex of the speaker does seem to ignore the differences within a sex, and between individuals. Thus, an argument that one’s purposes and goals when using language are determined by sex is a very blunt and unrealistic explanation for differences in language usage in a complex world in which there is a wide variety and difference within a sex, as well as between the sexes.
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A feminist analysis might suggest that it is not so much the case that men and women have different goals when they use language; rather, differences are due to perceived gender roles that become re-iterated and played out, for instance the role assigned to women which often sees them ‘provid[ing] a silent, decorative background in many social contexts’ (Holmes, 2007, p. 304). Thus, if ‘female loquacity is generally combined with disapproval of it’ (Cameron, 2007), a socio-cultural structure develops in which men have a dominant hierarchical place within it. From this position, it is plausible that society may develop a false belief that women talk more than men. A feminist analysis suggests that ‘people overestimate how much women talk because they think that, ideally, women would not talk at all’ (Cameron, 2007). Thus, given the overestimation of how much women talk, the belief comes to exist that women talk more than men.
However, this analysis reverts to the original argument that differences in language usage (whether it is the amount of words spoken, or the goal/purpose of language), cannot be differentiated along simple gender lines. It is necessary to take account of the individuals using language, and therefore the differences within a sex, as well as the socio-cultural structure in which language is used, as well as the specific situation/context of a particular utterance. Holmes argues that ‘many different factors including the social context in which the talk is taking place, the kind of talk involved and the relative social confidence of the speakers, which is affected by such things as their social roles… and their familiarity with the topic’ (Holmes, 2007, p. 304) are all involved in the way language is used. Thus, sex/gender is only one factor that influences how language is used, and it would be difficult to substantiate a claim that sex is the most important factor when considering how language is being used in a specific context.
Basow, S. & Rubenfeld, K. (2003) “‘Troubles Talk’: Effects of Gender and Gender-Typing”, Sex Roles, 48(3/4), 183-187.
Butler, J. (2002). Gender trouble. New York: Routledge.
Cameron, D. (2007, October 1). “What language barrier?”, The Guardian. Retrieved October 2, 2015.
Holmes, J. (2007) “Women Talk Too Much” in Exploring Language (11th edition) (ed. G. Goshgarian). New York: Pearson/Longman, 209-305.
Kornheiser, T. (2007) “No Detail is Too Small for Girls Answering a Simple Question” in Exploring Language (11th edition) (ed. Gary Goshgarian). New York: Pearson/Longman, 305-307.
Macaulay, R. (2007) “Sex Differences” in Exploring Language (11th edition) (ed. Gary Goshgarian). New York: Pearson/Longman, 305-322.
Rossetti, P. (1998). Gender differences in e-mail communication. The Internet TESL Journal, 4(7), 1-6.
Tannen, D. (2007) “‘I’ll Explain It to You’: Lecturing and Listening” in Exploring Language (11th edition) (ed. Gary Goshgarian). New York: Pearson/Longman, 332-334.
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