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From Lakoff to Today – The Gender Factor in Spoken Interaction

Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on August 12, 2009

Robin Lakoff’s Predictions:


Robin Lakoff, in 1975, published an influential account of women’s language. This was the book Language and Woman’s Place. In a related article, Woman’s Language, she published a set of basic assumptions about what marks out the language of women. Among these are claims that women:


1.      Hedge: using phrases like “sort of”, “kind of”, “it seems like”,and so on.


2.      Use (super)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.      Speak in italics: intonational emphasis equal to underlining words – so, very, quite.


5.      Use empty adjectives: divine, lovely, adorable, and so on


6.      Use hypercorrect grammar and pronunciation: English prestige grammar and clear enunciation.


7.      Use direct quotation: men paraphrase more often.


8.      Have a special lexicon: women use more words for things like colours, men for sports.


9.      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?”


10.  Use “wh-” imperatives: (such as, “Why don’t you open the door?”)


11.  Speak less frequently


12.  Overuse qualifiers: (for example, “I Think that…”)  


13.  Apologise more: (for instance, “I’m sorry, but I think that…”)  


14.  Use modal constructions: (such as can, would, should, ought – “Should we turn up the heat?”)  


15.  Avoid coarse language or expletives


16.  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)


17.  Use more intensifiers: especially so and very (for instance, “I am so glad you came!”)


18.  Lack a sense of humour: women do not tell jokes well and often don’t understand the punch line of jokes.










William O’Barr and Bowman Atkins


A 1980 study by William O’Barr and Bowman Atkins looked at courtroom cases and witnesses’ speech. Their findings challenge Lakoff’s view of women’s language. In researching what they describe as “powerless language”, they show that language differences are based on situation-specific authority or power and not gender. Of course, there may be social contexts where women are (for other reasons) more or less the same as those who lack power. But this is a far more limited claim than that made by Dale Spender, who identifies power with a male patriarchal order – the theory of dominance.


“In an article entitled “‘Women’s Language’ or ‘Powerless Language’?” William O’Barr and Bowman Atkins described the results of their 1980 courtroom study. They studied “language variation in a specific institutional context — the American trial courtroom — and sex-related differences” were the topic of this particular article (McConnell-Ginet, Borker, Furman, p. 93). During the process of witness examination they analyzed how-to books by successful trial lawyers and law professors who had included special sections on how to handle female witnesses. O’Barr and Atkins studied courtroom cases for 30 months, observing a broad spectrum of witnesses. They examined the witnesses for the ten basic speech differences between men and women that Robin Lakoff proposed. O’Barr and Atkins discovered that the differences that Lakoff and others supported are not necessarily the result of being a woman, but of being powerless. 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 to woman and man #3 — a doctor and a policeman, respectively, who both testified as expert witnesses — they show that the first pair of witnesses experience less power in their jobs and lives. O’Barr and Atkins found that pair #2 fell between pairs 1 and 3 in frequency of hedges and tag questions, etcetera, in their speech.

“O’Barr and Atkins concluded from their study that the quoted speech patterns were “neither characteristic of all women nor limited only to women” (McConnell-Ginet, et al., p. 102). The women who used the lowest frequency of women’s language traits had an unusually high status (according to the researchers). They were well-educated professionals with middle class backgrounds. A corresponding pattern was noted among the men who spoke with a low frequency of women’s language traits. O’Barr and Atkins tried to emphasize that a powerful position “may derive from either social standing in the larger society and/or status accorded by the court” (McConnell-Ginet, et al., p. 103). In accordance with this theory I think that a certain degree of nervousness could have caused those witnesses with fewer social skills to express uncertainty in their statements.”














Dominance and Difference


Studies of language and gender often make use of two models or paradigms – that of dominance and that of difference. The first is associated with Dale Spender, Pamela Fishman, Don Zimmerman and Candace West, while the second is associated with Deborah Tannen.


Dominance theory


This is the theory that in mixed-sex conversations men are more likely to interrupt than women. It uses a fairly old study of a small sample of conversations, recorded by Don Zimmerman and Candace West at the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California in 1975. The subjects of the recording were white, middle class and under 35. Zimmerman and West produce in evidence 31 segments of conversation. They report that in 11 conversations between men and women, men used 46 interruptions, but women only two. As Geoffrey Beattie, of Sheffield University, points out (writing in New Scientist magazine in 1982): “The problem with this is that you might simply have one very voluble man in the study which has a disproportionate effect on the total.” From their small (possibly unrepresentative) sample Zimmerman and West conclude that, since men interrupt more often, then they are dominating or attempting to do so. But this need not follow, as Beattie goes on to show: “Why do interruptions necessarily reflect dominance? Can interruptions not arise from other sources? Do some interruptions not reflect interest and involvement?”


Dale Spender advocates a radical view of language as embodying structures that sustain male power. She refers to the work of Zimmerman and West, to the view of the male as norm and to her own idea of patriarchal order. She claims that it is especially difficult to challenge this power system, since the way that we think of the world is part of, and reinforces, this male power:


“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. While we can modify, we must none the less use the only language, the only classification scheme which is at our disposal. We must use it in a way that is acceptable and meaningful. But that very language and the conditions for its use in turn structure a patriarchal order.”


Geoffrey Beattie claims to have recorded some 10 hours of tutorial discussion and some 557 interruptions (compared with 55 recorded by Zimmerman and West). Beattie found that women and men interrupted with more or less equal frequency (men 34.1, women 33.8) – so men did interrupt more, but by a margin so slight as not to be statistically significant. Yet Beattie’s findings are not quoted so often as those of Zimmerman and West. Why is this? Because they do not fit what someone wanted to show? Or because Beattie’s work is in some other way less valuable?


Pamela Fishman argues in Interaction: the Work Women Do (1983) that conversation between the sexes sometimes fails, not because of anything inherent in the way women talk, but because of how men respond, or don’t respond. In Conversational Insecurity (1990) Fishman questions Robin Lakoff’s theories. Lakoff suggests that asking questions shows women’s insecurity and hesitancy in communication, whereas Fishman looks at questions as an attribute of interactions: Women ask questions because of the power of these, not because of their personality weaknesses. Fishman also claims that in mixed-sex language interactions, men speak on average for twice as long as women.


Christine Christie has shown gender differences in the pragmatics of public discourse – looking, for example, at how men and women manage politeness in the public context of UK parliamentary speaking. In Politeness and the Linguistic Construction of Gender in Parliament: An Analysis of Transgressions and Apology Behaviour, she applies pragmatic models, such as the politeness theory of Brown and Levinson and Grice’s conversational maxims, to transcripts of parliamentary proceedings, especially where speakers break the rules that govern how MPs may speak in the House of Commons.

Deborah Tannen and Difference



Professor Tannen has summarized her book You Just Don’t Understand in an article in which she represents male and female language use in a series of six contrasts. These are:


Status vs. support


Independence vs. intimacy


Advice vs. understanding


Information vs. feelings


Orders vs. proposals


Conflict vs. compromise


In each case, the male characteristic (that is, the one that is judged to be more typically male) comes first. What are these distinctions?



Status versus support


Men grow up in a world in which conversation is competitive – they seek to achieve the upper hand or to prevent others from dominating them. For women, however, talking is often a way to gain confirmation and support for their ideas. Men see the world as a place where people try to gain status and keep it. Women see the world as “a network of connections seeking support and consensus”.


Independence versus intimacy


Women often think in terms of closeness and support, and struggle to preserve intimacy. Men, concerned with status, tend to focus more on independence. These traits can lead women and men to starkly different views of the same situation. Professor Tannen gives the example of a woman who would check with her husband before inviting a guest to stay – because she likes telling friends that she has to check with him. The man, meanwhile, invites a friend without asking his wife first, because to tell the friend he must check amounts to a loss of status. (Often, of course, the relationship is such that an annoyed wife will rebuke him later).


Advice versus understanding


Deborah Tannen claims that, to many men a complaint is a challenge to find a solution:

“When my mother tells my father she doesn’t feel well, he invariably offers to take her to the doctor. Invariably, she is disappointed with his reaction. Like many men, he is focused on what he can do, whereas she wants sympathy.”


Information versus feelings


A young man makes a brief phone call. His mother overhears it as a series of grunts. Later she asks him about it – it emerges that he has arranged to go to a specific place, where he will play football with various people and he has to take the ball. A young woman makes a phone call – it lasts half an hour or more. The mother asks about it – it emerges that she has been talking “you know” “about stuff”. The conversation has been mostly grooming-talk and comment on feelings.


Historically, men’s concerns were seen as more important than those of women, but today this situation may be reversed so that the giving of information and brevity of speech are considered of less value than sharing of emotions and elaboration. From the viewpoint of the language student neither is better (or worse) in any absolute sense.


Orders versus proposals

Women often suggest that people do things in indirect ways – “let’s”, “why don’t we?” or “wouldn’t it be good, if we…?” Men may use, and prefer to hear, a direct imperative.

Conflict versus compromise


“In trying to prevent fights,” writes Professor Tannen “some women refuse to oppose the will of others openly. But sometimes it’s far more effective for a woman to assert herself, even at the risk of conflict. ”


This situation is easily observed in work-situations where a management decision seems unattractive – men will often resist it vocally, while women may appear to accede, but complain subsequently. Of course, this is a broad generalization – and for every one of Deborah Tannen’s oppositions, we will know of men and women who are exceptions to the norm.


Professor Tannen concludes, rather bathetically, and with a hint of an allusion to Neal (first man on the moon) Armstrong, that:


“Learning the other’s ways of talking is a leap across the communication gap between men and women, and a giant step towards genuine understanding.”



Task: Find any language data (for example, record a broadcast from a chat show or TV shopping channel) that show men or women in conversation – look at each of Deborah Tannen’s six contrasts, and see how far it illuminates what is happening. If the contrast seems not to apply or to be relevant, then consider why this might be – is the sample untypical, is Professor Tannen’s view mistaken, is something else happening? You can use her six contrasts to record your findings systematically. Make sure you do not try to force the evidence to fit the theory. You need to know if things are changing.



The male as norm


One of Deborah Tannen’s most influential ideas is that of the male as norm. Such terms as “men”, “man” and “mankind” may imply this. The term for the species or people in general is the same as that for one sex only.


But if, in fact, people believe that men’s and women’s speech styles are different (as Tannen does), it seems that it is usually the women who are told to change. Tannen says, “Denying real differences can only compound the confusion that is already widespread in this era of shifting and re-forming relationships between women and men.” Susan Githens comments on Professor Tannen’s views, as follows:


“If we believe that women and men have different styles and that the male is the standard, we are hurting both women and men. The women are treated based on the norms for men, and men with good intentions speak to women as they would other men and are perplexed when their words spark anger and resentment. Finally, apart from her objection to women having to do all the changing, Tannen states that women changing will not work either. As Dale Spender theorized, women who talk like men are judged differently — and harshly. A woman invading the man’s realm of speech is often considered unfeminine, rude or bitchy. ”



Report talk and rapport talk


Deborah Tannen’s distinction of information and feelings is also described as report talk (of men) and rapport talk (of women). The differences can be summarized in a table:

Women Men
Talk too muchSpeak in private contexts

Build relations


Speak symmetrically

Get more air timeSpeak in public

Negotiate status/avoid failure

Speak one at a time

Speak asymmetrically



Interruptions and overlapping


Tannen contrasts interruptions and overlapping. Interruption is not the same as merely making a sound while another is speaking. Such a sound can be supportive and affirming – which Tannen calls cooperative overlap, or it can be an attempt to take control of the conversation – an interruption or competitive overlap. This can be explained in terms of claiming and keeping turns – familiar enough ideas in analysing conversation.



High involvement and high considerateness


Professor Tannen describes two types of speaker as high-involvement and high-considerateness speakers. High-involvement speakers are concerned to show enthusiastic support (even if this means simultaneous speech) while high-considerateness speakers are, by definition, more concerned to be considerate of others. They choose not to impose on the conversation as a whole or on specific comments of another speaker.


Tannen suggests that high-involvement speakers are ready to be overlapped because they will yield to an intrusion on the conversation if they feel like it and put off responding or ignore it completely if they do not wish to give way. In the British House of Commons, there is a formal procedure for this, whereby a speaker requests permission to take the turn (“Will you give way?”) and the speaker who has the floor will often do so (“I will give way”) – on the understanding that the intervention is temporary (a point of information or of order) and that when this contribution is made, the original speaker will have the floor again (that is, be allowed to stand and speak).












Jennifer Coates


Jennifer Coates looks at all-female conversation and builds on Deborah Tannen’s ideas. She returns to tag questions – to which Robin Lakoff drew attention in 1975. Her work looks in detail at some of the ideas that Lakoff originated and Tannen carried further. She gives useful comment on Deborah Jones’ 1990 study of women’s oral culture, which she (Jones) calls Gossip and categorizes in terms of House Talk, Scandal, Bitching and Chatting.


House Talk – its distinguishing function is the exchange of information and resources connected with the female role as an occupation.


Scandal – a considered judging of the behaviour of others, and women in particular. It is usually made in terms of the domestic morality, of which women have been appointed guardians.


Bitching – this is the overt expression of women’s anger at their restricted role and inferior status. They express this in private and to other women only. The women who bitch are not expecting change; they want only to make their complaints in an environment where their anger will be understood and expected.


Chatting – this is the most intimate form of gossip, a mutual self-disclosure, a transaction where women use to their own advantage the skills they have learned as part of their job of nurturing others.


(The use of these terms shows a new confidence – Deborah Jones is not fearful that her readers will think her disrespectful. She is also confident to use the lexicon of her research subjects – these are category labels the non-linguist can understand.) Coates sees women’s simultaneous talk as supportive and cooperative.


Coates says of tag questions, in Language and Gender: a reader (1998, Blackwells):


“…it is not just the presence of minimal responses at the end, but also their absence during the course of an anecdote or summary, which demonstrates the sensitivity of participants to the norms of interaction: speakers recognise different types of talk and use minimal responses appropriately.

Lexical items such as perhaps, I think, sort of, probably as well as certain prosodic and paralinguistic features, are used in English to express epistemic modality…women use them to mitigate the force of an utterance in order to respect addressees’ face needs.”













Deborah Cameron – Verbal Hygiene


Deborah Cameron says that wherever and whenever the matter has been investigated, men and women face normative expectations about the appropriate mode of speech for their gender. Women’s verbal conduct is important in many cultures; women have been instructed in the proper ways of talking just as they have been instructed in the proper ways of dressing, in the use of cosmetics, and in other “feminine” kinds of behaviour. This acceptance of a “proper” speech style, Cameron describes (in her 1995 book of the same name) as “verbal hygiene”.


Cameron does not condemn verbal hygiene, as misguided. She finds specific examples of verbal hygiene in the regulation of ‘”style” by editors, the teaching of English grammar in schools, politically correct language and the advice to women on how they can speak more effectively. In each case Deborah Cameron claims that verbal hygiene is a way to make sense of language, and that it also represents a symbolic attempt to impose order on the social world.


For an interesting and provocative comment on Cameron’s ideas, consider this from Kate Burridge, in Political Correctness: Euphemism with Attitude.


Not everyone shares my view of PC language. Deborah Cameron (in Verbal Hygiene 1995) prefers not to describe it as euphemism, arguing there is more to political correctness than just “sensitivity”. A term like “sex worker” is not simply a positive expression for tabooed “prostitute”, but deliberately highlights certain aspects of this group’s identity. PC language is itself a form of public action – by drawing attention to form, it forces us to sit up and take notice. Euphemisms are certainly motivated by the desire not to be offensive, but they are more than just “linguistic fig leaves”. They can be deliberately provocative too. Think of political allegories like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One of the reasons why such texts are so successful is that they exploit euphemisms to publicly expound taboo topics, while at the same time pretending to disguise that purpose. Like any tease, such disguise may itself be titillating.

 adapted from http://www.universalteacher.org.uk/


One Response

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  1. Atozinco said, on November 1, 2009 at 8:31 am

    This is a great blog article – thank you! Gender differences in language/communication (and just social mixed-gender intereactions in general) are very interesting to me.

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