February 6th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; gender and language; part 1

The question is: Does American English (AE) have a "male conversational style" and a "female conversational style"?

I don't think so. Since the early 1970s I've spent most of my working hours observing, studying -- and writing/speaking/teaching/consulting about -- the language behavior of human beings. (For the most part, human beings who are native speakers of American English.) And my rough summary description of that language environment goes like this....

AE has a set of language behavior items that signal dominance, and a set of language behavior items that signal subordination (the state of being dominated). For AE speakers of all genders, the following principle holds: The more subordinate they perceive themselves to be in a language interaction, the more items from the subordinate set they add to their speech. The more dominant they perceive themselves to be, the more items they add from the dominant set. (Obviously this will mean that "dominant" and "subordinate" are not a binary either/or pair of terms; rather, there is a continuum from the most subordinate to the most dominant.) The patterns of language behavior that result from this practice are intricate, but they can all be analyzed and described.

People who aren't able to do this efficiently are forever finding themselves involved in misunderstandings and communication breakdowns and "social" difficulties. For example, people who for one reason or another don't realize in a particular language interaction that they're significantly outranked may continue to use only items from the dominant set; as a result, things won't go well.

Because of the way the society using American English is structured, most of the power is in the hands of male adults; therefore, for purely statistical reasons, we see men using more of the items from the dominant set and using them more often. (Let's call the dominant-language-behavior items "D-items," for convenience, and the subordinate ones "S-items.")

In more than thirty years of working with this material, I have seen only one language behavior item that is used by only one gender. With that one exception, which I'll get to in a minute, both genders use all the D-items and all the S-items, in intricate patterns that reflect their perception of their rank and status and power in the language interaction they're involved in.

I've seen a woman whose typical language behavior is so deferential and self-effacing that she almost disappears into the woodwork sit down to teach a Bible Study course and instantly switch to dominant AE and maintain it without a hitch throughout the entire hour. I've seen any number of men whose typical language behavior is way up the dominant AE continuum switch instantly to the subordinate end when talking to a surgeon. The single exception, over the course of three decades, is one item that I've seen only in women -- the one called "batting the eyelashes" -- and I suspect that if I looked long enough I could find biological males who do that in certain circumstances.

It's easy to say that this is only a terminological quibble. Easy to say, "Oh, I see. The language behavior that you call 'dominant' is what Tannen (and others) call 'male,' and your 'subordinate' is their 'female.' It's just a different label for the same thing." But I don't think that's accurate. I don't believe that male AE speakers are either born or socialized into using a particular "male conversational style," or that female ones are born or socialized into using a female one. My understanding of the situation is that all genders learn the entire inventory of linguistic items that signal subordination and dominance, and then adjust their own AE language behavior to reflect the multitude of differing power configurations in the language interactions they participate in throughout their lives. The more skillfully they make those adjustments, the better they are at navigating the language environment, with all the advantages that provides.

I've had a few clients and students who had failed to learn the entire inventory of D-items and S-items because part of that inventory was missing from their language environment during the years when they were acquiring American English as their native language -- just as they might have failed to acquire any other feature of the language that wasn't present. For example, I had a client who was raised on an isolated New England farm in the 1920s by two maiden aunts, who missed long stretches of school due to illness and bad weather, who was rarely allowed to play with other children, and who went straight into the military the moment he was old enough to do so. His command of the inventory of D-items and S-items was very uneven and distorted, and that caused him endless trouble. But the average person, I believe, learns them all, regardless of gender.

Finally, I think that AE is right now in the process of working out the set of dominance/subordination signals for electronic communication, many aspects of which appear to be a speech/writing hybrid. Like any other language development process in a state of rapid flux, it isn't pretty -- but it will, in time, get sorted out. What effect the results will have on the corresponding system in offline communication, I have no idea.