i love english language

Pamela Fishman’s Theory

Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on September 27, 2009

Pamela Fishman (1980)

Pamela Fishman’s Theory, Experiment and Results

Pamela Fishman conducted an experiment and involved listening to fifty-two hours of pre-recorded conversations between young American couples. Five out of the six subjects were attending graduate school; all subjects were either feminists or sympathetic to the women’s movement, were white, between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. Fishman listened to recordings and concentrated on two characteristics common in women’s dialect, including tag questions for example ”you know?”

Fishman begins by examining the use of tag questions being asked and states that women frequently use tag questions ‘isn’t it?’ or ‘couldn’t we?’ following a thought or suggestion. For females questions are an effective method of beginning and maintaining conversations with males. Fishman argues that women use questions to gain conversational power rather than from lack of conversational awareness. She claims that questioning is required for females when speaking with males; men often do not respond to a declarative statement or will only respond minimally.

Fishman also analyzes the frequent use of the phrase ”you know” used by women. ”You know” is an attention-getting device to discover if the conversational partner is listening. When ”you know” is combined with a pause, she realized that the woman is inviting the listener to respond. When little or no response is heard from the male the pause is internalized by the speaker and she will continue the conversation. With her study she found that women in her study used four times as many yes/no and tag questions as the men. But she was adamant that this was not because women were more uncertain and tentative as Lakoff suggested but because women are the ones generally trying to keep the conversation going. Fishman therefore concludes again that women’s style of communicating is not from lack of social training, but to the inferior social position of women.

My Theory, Experiment and Results

I believe that women hedge and use more tag questions than men for a variety of reasons.  I believe that men sometimes let women dominate the conversation because they think that their input to a conversation will either bore the woman or not relevant to the conversation. Therefore this leaves it to the woman to keep the conversation going.  I also believe that as the man’s input to a conversation is minimal, the woman feels the need to reassure herself that the man is listening and not just speaking to herself. As if the woman does not hedge and ask tag questions the man may not have any input to the conversation at all in which the woman would feel she is talking to herself.

To test my theory and Pamela Fishman’s theory I recorded part of a conversation between a woman and a man. To try and make it a fair test I did not make them aware that I was recording them until after.  The findings of my experiment were very similar to that of Pamela Fishman.

I found that during the conversation the woman said “dya get me?” twice in which the male replied “uh hu” and the second time no answer (so I assume he nodded). This shows that women do use tag questions to make sure that the male is listening and following the conversation. The reply of the male shows that they lack involvement in a conversation and therefore have very little input and I noticed throughout the conversation the male did not promote a topic shift; it was purely the woman that changed the subject of the conversation. 

Throughout the recorded 3minutes of part of the conversation statistically I counted that the man had said approx 11 utterances such as “yeah” “um” . I also noticed that and each one was only after the woman had asked a tag question. This shows that there is very little support in the conversation and proves that there is a lack of turn taking.

After I had recorded the conversation I told the couple what I was doing and I got some helpful feedback. The male said that he often just agrees with woman as he doesn’t want to ask questions and appear “dumb”. He said he remains to just answer with basic utterances such as “yeah” even if he has lost what the conversation is about. I also asked the woman why she asked so many tag questions such as “y’know” and “dya know what am sayin’ ” because she wants to be assertive that the male is listening. She doesn’t mind dominating the conversation but just likes to know that she is being listened to.

Overall I found that my results were similar to Pamela Fishman and that women use tag questions to keep the conversation going and just to get some kind of response is rewarding. I don’t believe that women ask tag questions because they feel an ease of uncertainty and unassertiveness.  However Fishman assumes, then, that men would feel intimidated when speaking to a superior and unconsciously begin to use a woman’s conversational tone. Whereas I believe that men do not adopt the women’s conversational tone I believe that they find it just easier to agree and have a small input than to make a point and carry it through.

One of the weaknesses of my results was that I only experimented on one couple. This means my results could be biased and so I would need to carry out my recordings on several couples of different age groups to check my result wasn’t an anomaly. I have also based my research of Pamela Fishman on a secondary source:- internet therefore the information may not be accurate. I only recorded 3minuites, in contrast to Pamela’s 52 hour, of part of a conversation and so this limits the data that I found and again could lead to very biased results.

 R Webb


14 Responses

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  1. nikky said, on November 13, 2009 at 6:41 am

    Gee, for someone who ‘love english language’, you are really, really bad with it.

  2. S said, on January 30, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    Nikky- next time you claim someone is ‘bad with’ english language try to remember the correct way of saying it. ‘You are really, really bad AT it.’ It hardly clarifies your point when you haven’t made it grammatically correct. Plus I disagree, I think this is an interesting post.

  3. Sally said, on October 4, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    This is so so soooo useful while I’m doing A2 revision and research! Thank you for being so helpful! 🙂

  4. Susan said, on November 16, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    This is great

  5. Susan said, on November 16, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    It is so useful

  6. mandy said, on March 16, 2011 at 10:07 am


  7. Gine said, on March 16, 2011 at 10:08 am

    I do too

  8. Gine said, on March 16, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Hi there. I also love english language.

  9. Cat said, on May 5, 2011 at 1:59 pm


  10. rice said, on July 7, 2011 at 11:12 am

    yeh so do i im doing english language at A2 and i hate it 🙂

    • katie said, on October 17, 2011 at 6:27 pm

      i am doing english language for a-levels too and i’m not sure if i like it or not

      • aggslanguage said, on November 9, 2011 at 9:26 pm

        if you’re in my class you do

      • Katie said, on November 10, 2011 at 9:26 pm

        Could anyone give me advice on how to handle my english teacher she belittles me and makes me feel inferior to her what can I do without making the situation worse

      • aggslanguage said, on November 18, 2011 at 5:44 pm

        tell her how you feel

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