Language and Gender – Do women & men talk differently?
Some may argue that there is a clear answer to this question, that different sexes indeed differ in their way of expressing themselves. Others may say that there is no specific difference between how men and women talk, that there is no pattern and that differences are purely random. But who is correct?
Actually, the first approach can be proven by (socio)linguistic research and facts. Also, the usage of ‘sex’ – which refers to the biological distinction between a man and a woman – is not the right term to use here. Rather, ‘gender’ – denoting socially constructed categories – is the right term to go by.
Thus, social scientists argue and prove that there are patterns of speech that differ between groups of different gender.
What is to be noted as well is the fact that, the topic of Language and Gender does not focus on the derogatory ways of using language to discriminate a social group, but rather on the actual usage of language by different gender groups.
Language and Gender
When it comes to language research and linguistics, it has been ignored for quite some time that there actually is a possibility of differentiation occurring between male and female speakers. This can be seen in many researches in which female speakers were excluded completely, the focus lying on male speakers only. The differences between age groups, educational groups, and ethnic groups has been tackled by sociolinguists early on, yet the interest in and the acknowledgement of women forming an own social group only arose with the development of women’s studies and the focus on women’s rights.
Once women were recognized as a social group, as compared to men, research soon provided striking evidence for the different use of language between genders. A very striking difference was the competitive vs. cooperative approach in conversations:
Men are said – and scientifically attested – to have a competitive approach when talking. They take their turn in a conversation to overturn an earlier speaker’s contribution, showing a more aggressive and assertive way of conversing. Women, on the other hand, rather try to add to and favor another speaker’s contribution in a more cooperative approach. They show a less assertive but more interpersonal behavior in a conversation.
Especially nowadays start to refuse the ‘male’ way of speaking. Historically, women have been seen to adapt to the way of speaking of their male colleagues or peers, which tends to occur less and less and less nowadays. And this is good! Not only do women start to accept that their way of speaking is different and embrace this fact, studies in doctor-patient interaction even showed the strong advantage of the ‘female’ way.
Candace West, a professor of sociology, ran several studies that concentrated on the different approaches of male and female doctors when interacting with their patients in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Those studies have shown that male doctors had a more authoritarian and demanding way of speaking to their patients, while female doctors utilized a more sensitive way of interaction. Thus, the willingness and cooperation of the patients (e.g. when they were asked to undress or follow certain rules of treatment) was shown to be higher when they dealt with a female doctor, proving the higher effectiveness of the ‘female’ way of communicating in this setting.
Sociologists as well as Sociolinguists agree that there are patterns and regular structures that are different in the speech of different genders. One example has already been given above, but there are more to follow. The reasons why these differences even exist, and the social consequences resulting will be topics of articles to come. Stay tuned!