Language and gender

Not to be confused with Grammatical gender.
"Gender and language" redirects here. For the journal, see Gender and Language.

Research into the many possible relationships, intersections and tensions between language and gender is diverse. It crosses disciplinary boundaries, and, as a bare minimum, could be said to encompass work notionally housed within applied linguistics, linguistic anthropology, conversation analysis, cultural studies, feminist media studies, feminist psychology, gender studies, interactional sociolinguistics, linguistics, mediated stylistics, sociolinguistics and media studies. In methodological terms, there is no single approach that could be said to 'hold the field'. Discursive, poststructural, ethnomethodological, ethnographic, phenomenological, positivist and experimental approaches can all be seen in action during the study of language and gender, producing and reproducing what Susan Speer has described as 'different, and often competing, theoretical and political assumptions about the way discourse, ideology and gender identity should be conceived and understood'.[1] As a result, research in this area can perhaps most usefully divided into three main areas of study: first, there is a broad and sustained interest in the varieties of speech associated with a particular gender; second, there is a related interested in the social norms and conventions that (re)produce gendered language use[2] (a variety of speech (or sociolect) associated with a particular gender is sometimes called a genderlect); and third, there are studies that focus on the contextually specific and locally situated ways in which gender is constructed and operationalized.[3] The study of gender and language in sociolinguistics and gender studies is often said to have begun with Robin Lakoff's 1975 book, Language and Woman's Place, as well as some earlier studies by Lakoff.[4] The study of language and gender has developed greatly since the 1970s. Prominent scholars include Deborah Tannen, Penelope Eckert, Janet Holmes, Mary Bucholtz, Kira Hall, Deborah Cameron, and others. The 1995 edited volume Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self[5] is often referred to as a central text on language and gender.[6]

Studies of language and gender

In 1975 Robin Lakoff identified a "women's register", which she argued served to maintain women's (inferior) role in society.[7] Lakoff argued that women tend to use linguistic forms that reflect and reinforce a subordinate role. These include tag questions, question intonation, and "weak" directives, among others (see also Speech practices associated with gender, below).[8]

Studies such as Lakoff's have been labeled the "deficit approach", since they posit that one gender is deficient in terms of the other. Descriptions of women's speech as deficient can actually be dated as far back as Otto Jespersen's "The Woman", a chapter in his 1922 book Language: Its Nature and Development.[9] Jespersen's idea that women's speech is deficient relative to a male norm went largely unchallenged until Lakoff's work appeared fifty years later.[8] Nevertheless, despite the political incorrectness of the chapter's language from a modern perspective, Jespersen's contributions remain relevant. These include the prospect of language change based on social and gendered opportunity, lexical and phonological differences, and the idea of genderlects and gender roles influence language.

Not long after the publication of Language and Woman's Place, other scholars began to produce studies that both challenged Lakoff's arguments and expanded the field of language and gender studies.[4][8] One refinement of the deficit argument is the so-called "dominance approach", which posits that gender differences in language reflect power differences in society.[10]

Jennifer Coates outlines the historical range of approaches to gendered speech in her book Women, Men and Language.[11] She contrasts the four approaches known as the deficit, dominance, difference, and dynamic approaches.

"Deficit" is an approach attributed to Jespersen that defines adult male language as the standard, and women's language as deficient.[9] This approach created a dichotomy between women's language and men's language. This triggered criticism to the approach in that highlighting issues in women's language by using men's as a benchmark. As such, women's language was considered to have something inherently 'wrong' with it.

Dominance is an approach whereby the female sex is seen as the subordinate group whose difference in style of speech results from male supremacy and also possibly an effect of patriarchy. This results in a primarily male-centered language. Scholars such as Dale Spender[12] and Don Zimmerman and Candace West[13] subscribe to this view.

Difference is an approach of equality, differentiating men and women as belonging to different 'sub-cultures' as they have been socialised to do so since childhood. This then results in the varying communicative styles of men and women. Deborah Tannen is a major advocate of this position.[14] Tannen compares gender differences in language to cultural differences. Comparing conversational goals, she argues that men tend to use a "report style", aiming to communicate factual information, whereas women more often use a "rapport style", which is more concerned with building and maintaining relationships.[14]

The "dynamic" or "social constructionist" approach is, as Coates describes, the most current approach to language and gender. Instead of speech falling into a natural gendered category, the dynamic nature and multiple factors of an interaction help a socially appropriate gendered construct. As such, West and Zimmerman[15] describe these constructs as "doing gender" instead of the speech itself necessarily being classified in a particular category. This is to say that these social constructs, while affiliated with particular genders, can be utilized by speakers as they see fit.

Scholars including Tannen and others argue that differences are pervasive across media, including face-to-face conversation,[16][17] written essays of primary school children,[18] email,[19] and even toilet graffiti.[20]

Deborah Cameron, among other scholars, argues that there are problems with both the dominance and the difference approach. Cameron notes that throughout the history of scholarship on language and gender male-associated forms have been seen as the unmarked norm from which the female deviates.[21] For example, the norm 'manager' becomes the marked form 'manageress' when referring to a female counterpart. On the other hand, Cameron argues that what the difference approach labels as different ways of using or understanding language are actually displays of differential power. Cameron suggests, "It is comforting to be told that nobody needs to 'feel awful': that there are no real conflicts, only misunderstandings. ... But the research evidence does not support the claims made by Tannen and others about the nature, the causes, and the prevalence of male-female miscommunication."[22] She argues that social differences between men's and women's roles are not clearly reflected in language use. One additional example is a study she has done on call center operators in the UK, where these operators are trained to be scripted in what they say and to perform the necessary 'emotional labor'(smiling, expressive intonation, showing rapport/empathy and giving minimal responses) for their customer-callers. This emotional labor is commonly associated with the feminine domain, and the call center service workers are also typically females. However, the male workers in this call center do not orient to the covertly gendered meanings when they are tasked to perform this emotional labor. While this does not mean that the 'woman's language' is revalued, nor does this necessarily call for a feminist celebration, Cameron highlights that it is possible that with time, more men may work in this service industry, and this may lead to a subsequent "de-gendering" of this linguistic style.[23]

Communication styles are always a product of context, and as such, gender differences tend to be most pronounced in single-gender groups. One explanation for this, is that people accommodate their language towards the style of the person they are interacting with. Thus, in a mixed-gender group, gender differences tend to be less pronounced. A similarly important observation is that this accommodation is usually towards the language style, not the gender of the person. That is, a polite and empathic male will tend to be accommodated to on the basis of their being polite and empathic, rather than their being male.[24]

However, Ochs argues that gender can be indexed directly and indirectly.[25] Direct indexicality is the primary relationship between linguistics resources (such as lexicon, morphology, syntax, phonology, dialect and language) and gender. For example, the pronouns "he" and "she" directly indexes "male" and "female". However, there can be a secondary relationship between linguistic resources and gender where the linguistic resources can index certain acts, activities or stances which then indirectly index gender. In other words, these linguistic resources help constitute gender. Examples include the Japanese particles "wa" and "ze". The former directly index delicate intensity, which then indirectly indexes the female "voice" while the latter directly indexes coarse intensity, which then indirectly indexes the male "voice".

Women are generally believed to speak a better "language" than men do. This is a constant misconception, but scholars believe that no gender speaks a better language, but that each gender instead speaks its own unique language.[26] This notion has sparked further research into the study of the differences between the way men and women communicate.

Speech practices associated with gender

Not all members of a particular sex may follow the specific gender roles that are prescribed by society.[27] The patterns in gender and communication that follow are only the norms for each gender, and not every member of the corresponding sex may fit into those patterns.

Minimal responses

One of the ways in which the communicative behaviors of men and women differ is in their use of minimal responses, i.e., paralinguistic features such as 'mm' and 'yeah', which is behaviour associated with collaborative language use.[28] Men generally use them less frequently than women, and when they do, it is usually to show agreement, as Don Zimmerman and Candace West's study of turn-taking in conversation indicates.[29]

While the above can be true in some contexts and situations, studies that dichotomize the communicative behavior of men and women may run the risk of over-generalization. For example, "minimal responses appearing "throughout streams of talk", such as "mm" or "yeah", may only function to display active listening and interest and are not always signs of "support work", as Fishman claims. They can—as more detailed analysis of minimal responses show—signal understanding, demonstrate agreement, indicate scepticism or a critical attitude, demand clarification or show surprise.[30] In other words, both male and female participants in a conversation can employ these minimal responses for interactive functions, rather than gender-specific functions.


Men and women differ in their use of questions in conversations. For men, a question is usually a genuine request for information whereas with women it can often be a rhetorical means of engaging the other's conversational contribution or of acquiring attention from others conversationally involved, techniques associated with a collaborative approach to language use.[31] Therefore, women use questions more frequently.[16][32] However, a study carried out by Alice Freed and Alice Greenwood in 1996 showed that there was no significant difference in the use of questions between genders.[33] In writing, however, both genders use rhetorical questions as literary devices. For example, Mark Twain used them in "A War Prayer" to provoke the reader to question his actions and beliefs. Tag questions are frequently used to verify or confirm information, though in women's language they may also be used to avoid making strong statements.[7]


As the work of Victoria DeFrancisco shows, female linguistic behaviour characteristically encompasses a desire to take turns in conversation with others, which is opposed to men's tendency towards centering on their own point or remaining silent when presented with such implicit offers of conversational turn-taking as are provided by hedges such as "y' know" and "isn't it".[34] This desire for turn-taking gives rise to complex forms of interaction in relation to the more regimented form of turn-taking commonly exhibited by men.[35]

Changing the topic of conversation

According to Bruce Dorval in his study of same-sex friend interaction, males tend to change subject more frequently than females.[36] This difference may well be at the root of the conception that women chatter and talk too much. Goodwin observes that girls and women link their utterances to previous speakers and develop each other's topics, rather than introducing new topics.[37]

However, a study of young American couples and their interactions reveal that while women raise twice as many topics as men, it is the men's topics that are usually taken up and subsequently elaborated in the conversation.[30]


Female tendencies toward self-disclosure, i.e., sharing their problems and experiences with others, often to offer sympathy,[38] contrasts with male tendencies to non-self disclosure and professing advice or offering a solution when confronted with another's problems.[14]

Self-disclosure is not simply providing information to another person. Instead, scholars define self-disclosure as sharing information with others that they would not normally know or discover. Self-disclosure involves risk and vulnerability on the part of the person sharing the information.[39] When it comes to genderlect, self-disclosure is important because genderlect is defined as the differences in male and female communication. Men and women have completely different views of self-disclosure. Developing a close relationship with another person requires a certain level of intimacy, or self-disclosure. It typically is much easier to get to know a woman than it is to get to know a man. It has been proven that women get to know someone on a more personal level and they are more likely to desire to share their feelings.

It has also been said that people share more via technology. The phenomenon is known as Computer Mediated Communication, also known as CMC. This form of communication typically involves text only messages that tend to lose their nonverbal cues. Men and women are both more likely to self-disclose on the computer than they would be face to face. People are more confident when using Computer Mediated Communication because communication is faceless, which makes it easier to divulge information.

Research has been conducted to examine whether self-disclosure in adult friendship differs according to gender and marital status. Sixty-seven women and fifty-three men were asked about intimate and non-intimate self-disclosure to closest same-sex friends. Disclosure to spouse among married respondents was also assessed. The intimate disclosure of married men to friends was lower than that of unmarried men, married women and unmarried women; the intimate disclosure of these last three groups was similar. Married people's non-intimate disclosure to friends was lower than that of unmarried people, regardless of gender. Married people's intimate disclosure to their spouses was high regardless of gender; in comparison, married men's intimate disclosure to their friends was low, while married women's disclosure to their friends was moderate or even as high as disclosure to their spouses. The results suggest that sex roles are not the only determinant of gender differences in disclosure to friends. Marital status appears to have an important influence on disclosure in friendship for men but not for women. It was concluded that research on gender differences in self-disclosure and friendship has neglected an important variable, that of marital status."[40] This research goes to show that when a man is married he is less likely to have intimate self-disclosure. This could be because a man may feel he is betraying his wife's confidence by disclosing information that might be considered private. However, the research also showed that the married women didn't change much in either situation, because women tend to self disclose more than men.

Men tend to communicate differently with other men than they do with other women, while women tend to communicate the same with both men and women. "Male and female American students who differed in masculinity and in femininity self-disclosed to a same-sex stranger in contexts that made either social/expressive motives or instrumental motives salient. The results were consistent with the primary assertion that measures of sex role identity are better predictors of contextual variations in self-disclosure than is sex per se. Sex consistently failed to predict subjects' willingness to self-disclose, both within and across contexts, whereas femininity promoted self-disclosure in the context that was clearly social and expressive in character. Although masculinity failed to exert the expected facilitative impact on self-disclosure within the instrumental context, it nonetheless influenced the results; androgynous subjects, who scored high in both masculinity and femininity, were more self-revealing across contexts than was any other group."[41] This research shows that people have the ability to still self disclose very clearly regardless of masculine or feminine communication traits. Displaying strictly feminine or masculine traits will not be to one's advantage in communication, because it is important to be able to recognize and utilize these traits to be an effective communicator.

From a social skills perspective, gender, tunic, and cultural differences in relationships may stem, in part, from differences in communication. The influence of biological sex on communication values has received scholarly attention. In general, women value affectively oriented communication skills more than men, and men value instrumentally oriented communication skills more than women, although the effect size for these differences are generally small.[42]

Self-disclosure is also very important when it comes to a close dating relationship between men and women. Successful communication in relationships is one of the greatest difficulties most couples are forced to overcome. Men in relationships with women may practice self-disclosure more often than their female partner. Self-disclosure is considered to be a key factor in facilitating intimacy. For example, American heterosexual couples were studied using various measures twice a year. By using the average scores of both partners, they found that self-disclosure was higher in those couples who remained together at the second administration of the surveys than in those who broke up between two administrations. Similarly, researchers asked heterosexual couples who had just begun dating to complete a self-disclosure measure and to answer the same questionnaire four months later. They found that couples who were still dating four months later reported greater self-disclosure at the initial contact than did those who later broke up. This test shows self-disclosure can be beneficial to facilitating a positive relationship. Self-disclosure is a process which typically begins rapidly, but then plateaus as the couple gains more information. The initial self-disclosure is extremely important when first meeting someone. The first interactions between a potential couple could be deciding factors in the success or failure of the relationship.

Self-disclosure is difficult because not all women and men communicate the same.

Verbal aggression

Aggression can be defined by its three intersecting counterparts: indirect, relational and social. Indirect aggression occurs when the victim is attacked through covert and concealed attempts to cause social suffering. Examples are gossiping, exclusion or ignoring of the victim. Relational aggression, while similar to indirect, is more resolute in its attentions. It can be a threat to terminate a friendship or spreading false rumors. The third type of aggression, social aggression, "is directed toward damaging another's self-esteem, social status, or both, and may take direct forms such as verbal rejection, negative facial expressions or body movements, or more indirect forms such as slanderous rumors or social exclusion."[43] This third type has become more common in adolescent, both male and female, behavior.[44]

Dr. M.K. Underwood, leading researcher in child clinical psychology and developmental psychology, began using the term social aggression in several of her experiments.[45] In one study, Underwood followed 250 third-graders and their families in order to understand how anger is communicated in relationships, especially in face-to-face and behind-the-back situations. It was found that technology and electronic communication has become a key factor in social aggression. This discovery has been termed cyber-bullying. In another experiment, social aggression was used to see if verbal and nonverbal behaviors contributed to a person's social value.[43] It was found that those who communicated nonverbal signals were seen as angry and annoyed by their peers. In a third study, the experimenters determined that while socially aggressive students were vastly disliked, they were alleged to be the popular kids and had the highest marked social status. Most research has been based on teacher assessments, case studies and surveys.

For years, all research on aggression focused primarily on males because it was believed females were non-confrontational. Recently however, people have realized that while "boys tend to be more overtly and physically aggressive, girls are more indirectly, socially, and relationally aggressive."[44] In a study done measuring cartoon character's aggressive acts on television, these statistics were found:[46]

Physical and social aggression emerge at different points in life. Physical aggression occurs in a person's second year and continues till preschool. Toddlers use this aggression to obtain something they want that is otherwise denied or another has. In preschool, children become more socially aggressive and this progresses through adolescence and adulthood. Social aggression is not used to acquire materialistic things but to accomplish social goals.[47]

Starting in first grade, research has shown that young females are more disliked when they are socially aggressive than when young males are physically aggressive. However, until the fourth grade there is an overall negative correlation between aggression and popularity.[48] By the end of fifth grade, aggressive children, both male and female, are more popular than their non-aggressive counterparts. This popularity does not insinuate likeability.

In the seventh grade, social aggression seems to be at its peak. When eight-, eleven- and fifteen-year-olds were compared, there were high reports of social aggression but no apparent statistical differences between the age groups.[47]

Several studies have shown that social aggression and high academic performance are incompatible. In classrooms with a high achievement record, researchers were less likely to find social aggression. Vice versa can be found for classrooms with a low achievement record.[48]

In adolescence, social aggression boosts female's popularity by maintaining and controlling the social hierarchy. Furthermore, males are also ranked higher in popularity if they are physically aggressive. But, if males practice relational or social aggression then they are seen as unpopular among their peers.[43] When it comes to different forms social aggression, males are more prone to use direct measures and females indirect.

In addition to gender, the conditions in which a child grows up in also affects the likelihood of aggression.[47] Children raised in a divorced, never married or low-income family are more likely to show social aggression. This is speculated because of the higher rates of conflict and fighting already in the household. Parents who use an aversive style of parenting can also contribute to the social aggression in their children.[47] Researchers venture that "perhaps children who are treated harshly by parents have a higher baseline level of anger…and may lack the opportunities to practice more direct, assertive strategies for conflict resolution so may be prone to maligning others or lashing out when they are angry."[47]

Through the last couple decades, the media has increased its influence over America's youth. In a study done measuring the aggressive acts committed by cartoon characters on television, out of 8927 minutes of programming time 7856 aggressive acts took place. This is roughly .88 aggressive acts per minute.[46] Because television and cartoons are one of the main mediums for entertainment, these statistics can be troubling. If children relate to the characters, then they are more likely to commit similar acts of aggression. For teenagers, popular films and series such as Mean Girls (2004), Easy A (2010) and Gossip Girl (2007) have shown an exaggerated, damaging view of how society works. Already, latest studies have shown an increase of social aggression in girls. Other experiments, such as one done by Albert Bandura, the Bobo doll experiment, have shown similar results of society shaping your behavior because of the impact of a model.

The development of social aggression can be explained by the social identity theory and evolutionary perspective.[44]

The social identity theory categorizes people into two groups, in-groups and out-groups. You see yourself as part of the in-group and people who are dissimilar to you as part of the out-group. In middle and high school these groups are known as cliques and can have several names. In the popular 2004 teen drama Mean Girls, "varsity jocks", "desperate wannabes", "over-sexed band geeks", "girls who eat their feelings", "cool Asians" and "the Plastics" were several cliques from the movie.[44] Two common middle and high school cliques seen in everyday life are the popular crowd, in-group, and everyone else, out-group. The out-group has several other divisions but for the most part the in-group will categorize the out-groups all as one.

Around this time, it becomes important for a females social identity to be associated with the in-group. When a girl possess qualities that are valued in the in-group, then her social identity will increase. However, if her characteristics resemble those of the out-group, then she will be attack the out-group in order to keep her social standing within the in-group. This intergroup struggle, also known as social competition, mostly comes the in-group condemning the out-group, not the other way around.[44]

Moreover, social aggression can lead to intragroup competition. Inside the social groups there is also a hierarchal ranking, there are followers and there are leaders. When one's position in the group does not lead to positive self-identity, then the group members will feud with one another to increase status and power within the clique. Studies show that the closer a female is to her attacker, the less likely she is to forgive.[44]

Where the social identity theory explains direct social aggression, research done in the evolutionary perspective explains indirect social aggression. This aggression stemmed from "successful competition for scarce resources… and enables optimal growth and development."[44] Two tactics used are the coercive and prosocial strategies. The coercive strategies involve controlling and regulating all resources of the out-group through a monopoly. For this scheme, one must rely heavily on threats and aggression. The other strategy, prosocial, involves helping and sharing resources. This method shows complete dominance for the in-group, because in order for others to survive they must subordinate themselves to receive resources. Ability to control resources effectively results in higher-ranking in the in-group, popular crowd.

Social aggression can be detrimental for both ends of the spectrum, the out-group and in-group members. Longitudinal studies prove that aggression can lead to victims feeling lonely and socially isolated. In addition, targets report feeling depressed and affected by other health risks such as headaches, sleepiness, abdominal pain and bedwetting.[46] The aggressors on the other hand, were suggested to "encounter future problems in social relationships or emotional difficulties during early childhood."[46] In academics, victims were reported to having below average test scores and low achievement.

Studies that measure cross-gender differences show that females find social aggression to be more hurtful than males do. The results of the hurt and pain felt by female victims can be seen in all ages.[44] Pre-school teachers have reported several cases of female students feeling depressed. In high school, the female victims begin to slowly isolate themselves. A year later, this seclusion has led to social phobia. Furthermore, in college, pressure and aggression from Greek life has lowered life satisfaction and increased antisocial behavior in several female students.

While social aggression has several downfalls, it has also led to a mature social competence of males and females. Being part of an in-group can increase a person's self-worth and contribute to his or her personal identity. In terms of the evolutionary perspective, being able to control definite and indefinite resources can increase a person's social competence.[44] Some research argues that reports of social aggression and bullying can teach students in school what is considered unacceptable behavior. In a 1998 survey, 60% of students found that bullying "makes kids tougher."[44] However, there is additional need for support on this claim.

Since 1992, there have been nine school intervention and prevention programs, which have met the rigorous criteria of efficacy, to avert social aggression.[49] The programs include Early Childhood Friendship Project (2009), You Can't Say You Can't Play (1992), I Can Problem Solve (2008), Walk Away, Ignore, Talk, Seek Help (2003), Making Choices: Social Problem Skills for Children (2005), Friend to Friend (2009), Second Step (2002), Social Aggression Prevention Program (2006), Sisters of Nia (2004).

When designing a prevention program, it is important to remember to keep the program age and gender appropriate.[49] For example, Early Childhood Friendship Project and You Can't Say You Can't Play have visual activities for the preschoolers and integrate puppet shows into the lesson plan. In addition, because males and females approach aggression differently there must be personalized plans to fit both genders.

However, intervention programs even with the best intentions can be harmful.[44] For one, the progress of the intervention can be short lived. Studies have measured the effectiveness of intervention programs three separate times during the course of one year and no improvements were shown. Secondly, because social aggression is said to increase social identity and belonging to a group, many students have tried to disrupt the programs. A third implication is that the interventions need to study how adverse behaviors develop. Otherwise the solution might not fit the problem. Lastly, the programs must be designed to fit the needs of girls and boys and not the ones of the researchers. If the intervention program is designed to give insight for research rather than reducing and bettering aggression, then it can be detrimental to society.

Although a few forms of behavior may be sex-specific, in general they reflect patterns of power and control between the sexes, which are found in all human groups, regardless of sex composition. These modes of behaviors are perhaps more appropriately labeled 'powerlects' instead of 'genderlects'.[50]

Listening and attentiveness

In a conversation, meaning does not reside in the words spoken, but it filled in by the person listening. Each person decides if they think others are speaking in the spirit of differing status or symmetrical connection. The likelihood that individuals will tend to interpret someone else's words as one or the other depends more on the hearer's own focus, concerns, and habits than on the spirit in which the words were intended.[14]

It appears that women attach more weight than men to the importance of listening in conversation, with its connotations of power to the listener as confidant of the speaker. This attachment of import by women to listening is inferred by women's normally lower rate of interruption i.e., disrupting the flow of conversation with a topic unrelated to the previous one[51] and by their largely increased use of minimal responses in relation to men.[29] Men, however, interrupt far more frequently with non-related topics, especially in the mixed sex setting and, far from rendering a female speaker's responses minimal, are apt to greet her conversational spotlights with silence, as the work of Victoria DeFrancisco demonstrates.[34]

When men talk, women listen and agree. However men tend to misinterpret this agreement, which was intended in a spirit of connection, as a reflection of status and power. A man might conclude that a woman is indecisive or insecure as a result of her listening and attempts of acknowledgment. When in all actuality, a woman's reasons for behaving this way have nothing to do with her attitudes toward her knowledge, but are a result of her attitudes toward her relationships. The act of giving information frames the speaker with a higher status, while the act of listening frames the listener as lower. However, when women listen to men, they are not necessarily thinking in terms of status, but in terms of connection and support.[14]


Individual roles are gendered by social interaction, the media, and language. There are certain stereotypes society places on the way men and women communicate. Women are often believed to talk too much while men talk too little. Men are stereotyped to be more of a public speaker and leader, while women are stereotyped to talk more in private among their family and friends. For women, society views their use of communication as a way to express feelings and emotions. For men, society views their use of communication as a way to express power and negotiate status among other individuals.[52] There are also certain societal stereotypes about how men and women communicate within a heterosexual marriage or relationship. When a man and a women are communicating within their relationship, the traditional language roles are altered. The man becomes more passive and the woman becomes more active. A man's stereotypical silent communication style is often disappointing for women, while a woman's emotionally articulate communication style is often seen as aggravating for a man.[52] This creates the assumption that women and men have opposing communication styles, therefore creating society's cliche that men and women don't understand each other. This leads to many inter-relational quarrels because of one individual blaming the other for communicating inefficiently due to using the communication style that society has constructed according to their biological sex.[52]

Dominance versus subjection

This, in turn, suggests a dichotomy between a male desire for conversational dominance – noted by Helena Leet-Pellegrini with reference to male experts speaking more verbosely than their female counterparts – and a female aspiration to group conversational participation.[53] One corollary of this is, according to Jennifer Coates, that males are afforded more attention in the context of the classroom and that this can lead to their gaining more attention in scientific and technical subjects, which in turn can lead to their achieving better success in those areas, ultimately leading to their having more power in a technocratic society.[54]

Conversation is not the only area where power is an important aspect of the male/female dynamic. Power is reflected in every aspect of communication from what the actual topic of the communication, to the ways in which it is communicated. Women are typically less concerned with power more concerned with forming and maintaining relationships, whereas men are more concerned with their status. Girls and women feel it is crucial that they be liked by their peers, a form of involvement that focuses on symmetrical connection. Boys and men feel it is crucial that they be respected by their peers, as form of involvement that focuses on asymmetrical status.[55] These differences in priorities are reflected in the ways in which men and women communicate. A woman's communication will tend to be more focused on building and maintaining relationships. Men on the other hand, will place a higher priority on power, their communication styles will reflect their desire to maintain their status in the relationship.

According to Tannen's research, men tend to tell stories as another way to maintain their status. Primarily, men tell jokes, or stories that focus on themselves. Women on the other hand, are less concerned with their own power, and therefore their stories revolve not around themselves, but around others. By putting themselves on the same level as those around them, women attempt to downplay their part in their own stories, which strengthens their connections to those around them.


Lakoff identified three forms of politeness: formal, deference, and camaraderie. Women's language is characterized by formal and deference politeness, whereas men's language is exemplified by camaraderie.[7]

Politeness in speech is described in terms of positive and negative face.[56] Positive face refers to one's desire to be liked and admired, while negative face refers to one's wish to remain autonomous and not to suffer imposition. Both forms, according to Penelope Brown's study of the Tzeltal language, are used more frequently by women whether in mixed or single-sex pairs, suggesting for Brown a greater sensitivity in women than have men to face the needs of others.[57] In short, women are to all intents and purposes largely more polite than men. However, negative face politeness can be potentially viewed as weak language because of its associated hedges and tag questions, a view propounded by O'Barr and Atkins (1980) in their work on courtroom interaction.[10]

Gender-specific vocabulary

Some natural languages have intricate systems of gender-specific vocabulary.

See also


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  2. Tannen, Deborah (2006). "Language and culture". In Ralph W. Fasold and Jeff Connor-Linton. An Introduction to Language and Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-61235-7.
  3. Attenborough, Frederick (2014). "Words, contexts, politics". Gender and Language, special issue: Gender, language and the media. Equinox. 8 (2): 137–146. doi:10.1558/genl.v8i2.137. Pdf.
  4. 1 2 Bucholtz, Mary (2004) [1975], "Editor's introduction", in Lakoff, Robin (author); Bucholtz, Mary (editor), Language and woman's place: text and commentaries, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 3–14, ISBN 9780195167573.
  5. Hall, Kira and Mary Bucholtz (eds.). (1995). Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. New York: Routledge.
  6. Holmes, Janet and Miriam Meyerhoff (eds.). (2003). The Handbook of Language and Gender. Malden: Blackwell.
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