For my senior thesis in college I researched characteristics of gendered speech styles. Deborah Tannen's book You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation had just been published, and I was fascinated. After all, didn't I spend hours with my female friends analyzing the five-minute conversation I'd had with my latest crush ("He said, 'What are you doing this weekend?' Do you think he wants to go out with me? Maybe I should call him. Maybe he was just being nice. He also said he was having this great party at his fraternity. Do you think he was inviting me or just bragging?")? I divided my research into three parts:
established theories on gender styles in conversation;
an analysis of my own field study with college peers; and
analysis of four plays and a short story for gendered speech characteristics and their effect on the dialogue.
I discovered that studying the effects of gender styles on communication (a facet of sociolinguistics) is a relatively young discipline. The earliest discussion of gender styles in language was in 1922. Much later, in 1975, Robin Lakoff published Language and Woman's Place and became one of the first women to publish theories on the existence of women's language. This 1975 book spawned dozens of studies on the existence and characteristics of women's language. These researchers include Don Zimmerman and Candace West, Dale Spender, Pamela Fishman, William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins, and, of course, Deborah Tannen, a former student of Robin Lakoff. While many of these linguists refer to characteristics of male and female speech styles by different names, they all have identified similar tendencies: male interruption and conversation dominance, women's use of hedges and tag questions, use of voice pitch, use of obscenity and varying obscenity strength, frequency of turn, and length of turn. One particular study by William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins looked at courtroom cases and characteristics of witnesses' speech. They refuted Lakoff's suggestion of women's language and identified "powerless language," in which language differences are based on situation-specific authority or power and not gender.
In her book You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, Deborah Tannen takes a new look at an old research question. Instead of searching for clues to characteristics of a women's language she comments on the existence of male AND female styles of communication. She indicates that the "male as norm" viewpoint is what has led many people to believe in the existence of an "other" kind of language (for women), as opposed to two separate styles. Men's and women's styles are so different that she considers cross-gender communication cross-cultural. Men and women, she says, have been socialized to use language in different ways for different reasons. This theory has merit as it applies to cross-gender communication that is taking place online today, which I will discuss later. Tannen purports that men use language for Information and in Contest, while women communicate for Intimacy and to build Community. Miscommunication occurs when a metamessage -- or an individual's interpretation of how a communication was meant -- is "read" by the receiver through his/her communication filter and not through that of the sender. (The books of John Gray, Ph.D.have become very popular recently, as he, a la Tannen, explains each gender's different style of relationship communication and addresses this metamessage miscommunication by offering solutions.)
I have discovered that many of the theories of gendered styles of communication proposed by leading sociolinguists -- especially Tannen -- are turning up in research on computer mediated communication (CMC). Men and women are carrying over socialized speech characteristics into their online communication, despite what many proponents of CMC are saying to the contrary.
CMC and Gender Styles in Language