February 7th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; gender and language; part 1 -- leftovers....

Thank you for all your excellent comments. I'm working on posts that address some of your questions, but there are a few miscellaneous leftover items I'd like to post first.

1. I don't seem to be able to get this one point across, and I'm not sure what the problem is. I'm going to try again, and perhaps you can help me figure out why it's not clear.

I don't disagree with those of you who are saying that you do observe men and women talking differently. That's not a matter of controversy. I'm saying -- not very effectively, so far -- that those differences are not due to gender. Suppose we're talking about just that one item of bodyparl that we all appear to agree is for sure an S-item: batting the eyelashes. I am saying that when you observe someone batting his or her eyelashes, it's not happening because that person is a man or a woman, it's happening because that person has chosen -- for whatever reason -- to signal some degree of subordination.

Because men in American English society are more often in positions of higher rank and power, we are more likely -- in purely statistical terms -- to see men using D-items and women using S-items. This gives the impression that the language behavior patterns are "male" or "female," but I believe that impression is an illusion.

[We're seeing an interesting -- and schizophrenic -- demonstration of all this in the tv series "Commander in Chief" at the moment, by the way. With the female president consistently and skillfully using D-items when she talks, and all the plots revolving around a central theme of "Notice carefully what a mess it would be if you had a woman as President, because she would constantly be distracted from her role as Commander in Chief by her obligation to deal with the personal needs of her husband and her children."]


2. The portrait of women that Tannen presented in You Just Don't Understand bothered me; it still bothers me. It may be that she no longer supports that portrait; I don't know. But just to tie off that loose end, I'd like to try to make it clear why it bothers me, and why it's not likely that I would see a one-to-one match between my S-items/D-items of language behavior and Tannen's male/female ones. The simplest way I know to accomplish that is to show you a short sampler of quotes from You Just Don't Understand.


1. On p. 82 -- [In the context of a discussion of men who read the newspaper while at the table with women] "If many women are incredulous that many men do not exchange personal information with their friends, this man is incredulous that many women do not bother to read the morning paper. ... In his words, reading the newspaper in the morning is as important to him as putting on makeup in the morning is to many women he knows."

2. On p. 93 -- "In a sense, most women feel they are 'backstage' when there are no men around. When men are present women are 'onstage,' insofar as they feel they must watch their behavior more."

3. On p. 94 -- "It is not surprising that women are most comfortable talking when they feel safe and close, among friends and equals, whereas men feel comfortable talking when there is a need to establish and maintain their status in a group."

4. On p. 98 -- "Because telling secrets is an essential part of friendship for most women, they may find themselves in trouble when they have no secrets to tell."

5. On p. 108 -- "Girls and women feel it is crucial that they be liked by their peers, a form of involvement that focuses on symmetrical connections. Boys and men feel it is crucial that they be respected by their peers, a form of involvement that focuses on asymmetrical status. Being disliked is a more devastating punishment for girls and women, because of their need for affiliation."

6. On pp. 110-111 -- "If women are afraid of being left out by not knowing what is going on with this person or that, men are afraid of being left out by not knowing what is going on in the world."

7. On page 129 -- The game women play is 'Do you like me?' whereas the men play 'Do you respect me?' "

8. On page 138 -- "Factual information is of less interest to women because it is of less use to them."

It's hard enough for women in the AE culture to establish and maintain a perception of themselves as being just as rational and competent and worthy of respect in this world as men are. To my mind, statements like the ones in these quotes -- especially when they come from a woman who is a successful and respected scholar in linguistics, widely considered to be an expert on communication, and a bestselling author -- make it even harder. To my mind, they support the stereotype of women as shallow and frivolous and over-emotional and immature .... as airheads. I especially resent the claim that men are concerned with being respected, while women are concerned with being "liked."

There. Tidier.
ozarque figure

Note -- stereotypical perceptions of women's speech

I've been trying -- without success -- to find an online article reporting a research study on stereotypical perceptions of women's speech that I know has been done many times, in various versions. I've seen it done with my own eyes. A typical example would go like this:

Two reasonably homogeneous groups of 50 subjects are given the written text of a brief speech and told to evaluate it on a number of measures such as logic, coherence, persuasiveness, eloquence, rationality, and so on, on a scale from 1 to 10. One group is told that the text is a speech written and presented by a man; the other is told that it was written and presented by a woman. Results: Consistently, the speech is given higher marks by the group that has been told that the writer/speaker was male.

Examples of that type ought to be easy to find, but I haven't found any. Perhaps because they've been done so often that they no longer get any attention. (And perhaps because I'm not looking in the right places, of course; not being eligible for access to most of the scholary journals online doesn't help.)

At any rate, in the course of the hunting I came across an article called "Sexism in the Classroom: The Role of Gender Stereotypes in the Evaluation of Female Faculty," at http://www.apa.udel.edu/apa/publications/newsletters/v99n1/feminism/articles-superson.asp . It starts with Anita M. Superson's account of some insulting language and nonverbal behavior she's encountered from her male students; it goes on to discuss some research studies on student evaluations of female faculty. It's a bit long; it's a bit depressing; it sheds some light on the problem.