A Linguistic Field Study at Lafayette College:

A Complete Discussion

Return to Thoughts on Gender Styles in Communication

     After researching and studying the current theories about the possibility of gendered linguistic behavior, I conducted a field study to see how much of the theory discussed above translates into actual linguistic behavior. I taped three conversations among my peers: all-female, all-male, and mixed-sex groups. For single sex conversations I invited separate groups of men and women to discuss a specific topic. Seven women (not including me) and five men were available to participate. So as not to influence the all-male conversation in any way, I asked one of the men involved to conduct the business for me so that I would not have to attend. I wrote a statement of introduction and provided "helper questions" for my assistant, and I wrote a statement of explanation to be read at the conclusion of the thirty-minute discussion. For the all-female discussion group I wrote a separate introduction as I would be present for their discussion. I would be able to offer "helper questions" if necessary and explain my research at the conclusion of the thirty-minute discussion. Both single-sex groups discussed the social life at Lafayette College. I was present for the mixed-sex group discussion, and I conducted it the same as I had the all-female group discussion. After these two discussions I debriefed my participants and asked and answered questions about the taping process and my research. The new topic for the mixed-sex group was the meal plan system at Lafayette College.

     For consistency in comparisons I analyzed twelve transcribed pages of the single-sex and mixed-sex group discussions, approximately 8 minutes of discussion. In each of the conversations I looked for use of slang terms, filler words, and profanity. Filler words can be defined as words of phrases unnecessary for the meaning of the sentence, such as "um," "like," and "you know." Further examples of filler words, slang terms and profanity can be found on the Transcription Statistics pages. I also calculated the frequency with which each person participated in the conversation, the average lengths of time each participant held the floor, and the number of pauses or gaps in each conversation. Pamela Fishman stated that a normal conversational pause is usually one second or less and seldom more than three (Fishman, P.16). While I did not time the actual length of pauses, I used one method consistently for calculating them. At the beginning of a pause I would begin to make dots horizontally across the page, ceasing when conversation began again. When a conversational pause lasted for five dots or more, I counted it as significant.

The transcription pages are particularly difficult to reproduce for this format. If you are interested in reviewing these pages, please contact Susan Githens.

     The overall filter I used for analyzing the transcribed tapes included all of the current research I mentioned above. I listened for things like Lakoff's proposed structures of women's speech, Zimmerman and West's interruption expectations, and Tannen's cooperative overlap. I will first describe the results of the women's taped conversation and compare it to the men's, and then I will turn to the mixed-sex discussion for results and conclusions.

     From the statistics of the women's taped conversation alone I discovered that filler words are highly common. In the span of twelve pages of transcription one woman used 75 fillers words. With an average of 17.7 words per turn in 46 turns, that equals almost five filler words per turn -- 30% of her conversation! Examples of the most common filler words are listed with the Transcription Statistics. Use of profanity among the women was limited, concentrated in one woman's speech; only 7 of the total 2,048 words were "swear words." I discovered the same types of profanity, however, in both single-sex groups. Slang usage was common for all of the women. Most of the words or phrases were unique collegiate terms, such as shortened fraternity names, "hook-up" and various terms for the state of inebriation.

     Conversational pauses among the women were few. At first the female speakers allowed each other silent pauses between their comments, but once the speakers were comfortable with each other and the topic, the pauses allowed decreased to zero. Someone was always waiting to jump into the conversation either at the end of a participant's statement or when she paused to follow her train of thought. I inserted helper questions into the conversation only twice because of conversational pauses. Often when the discussion would pause briefly, another speaker would introduce a new topic or elaborate on a previous one. Tannen's theory of Cooperative Overlap appropriately describes what took place in the women's discussion. All but two of the speakers frequently encouraged the others with head nods and inserted comments like "yeah," "mm hmm," or "I know." There was only one situation where an overlap was not wholly successful. Following a brief conversational pause, two speakers startled one another by beginning to fill the silence simultaneously. The example of which I speak involves speakers "A" and "B" in the women's transcription. I call this overlap unsuccessful only because throughout the rest of the discussion, overlaps like this one had little startling effect. Two women would be speaking at once and one would voluntarily drop out, either to re-introduce her idea later or to contribute to the current conversation.

     In all cases of Cooperative Overlap, the women's results supported Tannen's statement that the inserted comments or simultaneous discussion was generally on the same subject. The women did not attempt to introduce a completely unrelated topic into the conversation until conversational pauses indicated it would be acceptable to do so. Throughout the discussion, however, there was often an undercurrent of talk (mostly inaudible on the tape but observable when present) about the topic on the floor or a related subject. Perhaps one of the results or side effects of Cooperative Overlap is the high degree of speaker engagement in the conversation. There were a number or times when a second speaker would finish the first's sentence for her. Sometimes the sentence completion was not entirely correct but a related idea. An example of a successful second-person completion can be found with speaker "B."

     Distribution of turns varied somewhat with one very high percentage and two low. The high percentage speaker in this case was not necessarily a conversation leader, but she would definitely be considered high involvement by Tannen. The low percentage speakers, based on my observations, were often responsible for the undercurrent of talk, which could explain their seeming lack of participation. As for length of turns, I discovered a pattern across all three tapes that I analyzed. The less frequent speakers often had the highest average number of words per turn. In other words, while certain speakers did not speak as frequently as others, they held the floor longer when they did speak. We see examples of this pattern in speakers "B2" and "D2" in their single-sex groups and in "D2" in the mixed-sex discussion.

     Certain phrases that both the men and the women used in the discussions I analyzed are often seen as cushion words to soften the effect of a statement. Lakoff calls them hedges; Carol Gilligan refers to them as "conversational mantra" (Van Gelder, p. 77). The phrases to which I am referring include "I mean," "I think," "I guess" and "I don't know." I found that "because" was often used to begin a sentence, perhaps as a way to relate the new statement to a previous topic. While the men used filler words like "I mean" and "you know" more than "I don't know," the effect on the conversations was the same. These statements left the floor open for participants to elaborate on the topic just discussed, and for the women's discussion had the effect of allowing topics to blend into one another.

     In an article in Ms. Magazine Carol Gilligan comments on the use of "I don't know" by young girls:

 seventh grade, the girls have started to use the phrase "I don't know" as a sort of           conversational mantra ("I thought it was like -- I don't know -- a little unfair") or later, even           to preface their opinions with remarks like "This may sound mediocre, but..." (Van Gelder,           p.77).

     In addition to the use of "I don't know," I discovered that some of the women did indeed preface their statements so as to excuse their comment if it was not appropriate or worthwhile. I can think of a particular example from my personal life that supports Gilligan's claim. While around the breakfast table one morning, both of my female roommates in successive comments prefaced their statements by saying, "I know this will sound really stupid, but...." Ironically, one of the same roommates pointed out a few days later that in class I had been prefacing all of my comments towards the male professor with "This may have nothing to do with what we're talking about, but...." I am a secure individual, but I think I have been so socialized to soften the effect of an otherwise declarative statement that I continue to do so even when I am sure my point is valid.

     Finally, in the women's discussion I noticed 15 occasions when the speaker would raise the pitch of her voice at the end of a statement. This technique is commonly used at the end of a question, but some linguists theorize that a woman either seeking approval or opening the floor for additional conversants will raise the pitch of her voice at the end of an otherwise declarative statement. For comparison, I discovered 10 instances of this technique in the single-sex male discussion and 7 cases in the mixed-sex conversation, divided evenly betwen the men and women. From my study changing the pitch of one's voice for conversational effect does not appear to be a technique of women's language style alone.

     Following the single-sex female discussion I had the opportunity to ask my participants a few questions. They responded enthusiastically, inquiring about my conclusions thus far. I pointed out that they often overlapped one another in conversation. I explained that some linguists might consider this interruption and asked what they thought They agreed that they never intend to interrupt a speaker to be rude or to change the subject. Speakers "B" and "M2" both stated that sometimes they just have a point that seems so relevant to the subject on the floor that they want to express it before it slips from their memory or the topic of discussion changes.

     I also asked the women if they thought they would change their style of speaking when in mixed-sex discussion groups. The general consensus seemed to be that their styles would change; they would need to become more defensive, as they expected less accord and more disagreement. Finally, they told me that they believed there would be less personal information shared in a mixed-sex discussion on a topic like social life.

     The men's single-sex discussion results are quite similar to the women's. The use of filler words was again high, encompassiong 242 of the 1,511 total. In the male discussion group, however, the speakers used 41 more filler words with two fewer participants. I think for both sexes, though, filler words, when fit into the rhythm of the sentence, give the speaker personal time to develop his/her thoughts and hold the floor while doing so. Silence in a conversation, as exhibited in the women's discussion, welcomes in additional speakers. The particular filler words used by my participants were the same for both sexes. I believe that these words and phrases are prevalent especially among my peer group; certain filler phrases like "and stuff" and "or something" are uniquely youthful expressions. Use of filler words may not decrease when these students become working adults, but I believe that their particular choice of words will be adjusted appropriately for their individual situations.

     As I mentioned above, the profanity used in both single-sex groups was similar. As in the female group, the use of profanity was concentrated in one individual, but more of the men overall used "swear words" than the women. Of the 1,511 total words, 12 were "swear words" used by three of the five men. Slang usage was less common statistically for the men than for the women, but much of the difference can be attributed to one female speaker who alone used 29 slang terms. This particular woman also swore quite frequently and maintained high involvement in the conversation. Since this woman is a close friend of mine, I can say that for her the whole world is a stage. A tape-recorded conversation for her would, in a way, provide an opportunity to perform. Apparently, she felt that using slang and profanity was the most effective way to get attention and entertain her fellow conversants.

     One significant difference that I discovered between the men's and the women's single-sex group discussions involved conversational pauses. The men never seemed totally comfortable with the idea of a "forced bullshit session," as one male participant called it. I was not present for the all-male discussion, so many of my impressions are based on what my assistant related to me. He said that, at least with his group of friends, it is difficult to talk when you are told to do so. The men would be more comfortable with a spontaneous discussion. The discomfort the men felt was apparent in the transcriptions. There were 19 pauses of five dots or more compared to only 6 conversational pauses among the women.

     There were two fewer men than women participating in the single-sex discussions, but from listening to the tape, I believe it was more discomfort than decreased participants that caused the conversational pauses. Speaker "P" is also a close friend of mine, so I know that he is a high involvement speaker, but I think he felt more obligated than usual to keep the conversation going. His high percentage of participation and relativly low average number of words per turn support that he was encouraging the other speakers. Other speakers occasionally filled the silences with laughter or delayed responses to the previous statements. During one of the silences, speaker "D" actually said, "Can somebody hit the pause, so we can think about more things to say?" The men were very uncomfortable with the idea of being taped. Unlike the women, they never engaged in the conversation enough to forget it was being recorded.

      Tannen claims that men use conversation for Contest. I found no support for her theories of competition in my single-sex male discussion. Despite the silences in the male conversation, there was plenty of Cooperative Overlap. On page 8 of the transcription we see an example of speakers "D" and "J" overlapping. As in the all-female discussion, "J" dropped out and waited for the first chance to re-enter the conversation. There was one instance of interruption in the men's discussion, involving speakers "J" and "K," but none of the speakers seemed to notice it. On page 8 in the transcription speaker "K" cuts speaker "J" off, but he is offering relevant information. Speaker "J" re-enters the conversation later, seemingly unaffected by the occurrence.

      The distribution of turns covered a narrower range for the men than for the women, but both sexes divided up the turns similarly. There was a dominant speaker (over 30% participation), a few low percentage speakers, and a variety of middle percentages. The range of distribution for average lengths of turns was also similarly distributed. The results from the mixed-sex group are startlingly different, however, and will be discussed later. As I mentioned above, though, there was an overall pattern of low percentage speakers taking longer turns when holding the floor.

      At the completion of the all-male discussion, my assistant briefed the participants by reading my prepared statement and began a short discussion on my topic. He told me that mostly the men were disappointed that my study was on linguistic styles and not the social life at Lafayette College.

      In general, in both single-sex groups discussions, the speakers cut themselves off, used filler words, or spoke rapidly to maintain their time on the floor. Both sexes, when in the company of their own sex, used the same techniques to maintain conversational air time. The following discussion will cover the results of the mixed-sex group discussion and address the issues mentioned above.

      The mixed-sex discussion involved twelve men and women (six of each sex not including me), including 9 of the participants from the single-sex groups. They were asked to discuss the meal plan program at Lafayette College. At first I thought the discussion was a near disaster; twelve college students at 10:00 p.m. seemed too many to maintain a reasonable conversation. Once I listened to the tape, however, I found plenty of useful information and decided that the informality of the situation may have been to my advantage. Because of the time and large number of participants, people seemed more relaxed and less aware of the tape recorder.

      Speakers of both sexes used far fewer filler words in the mixed-sex discussion than in their respective single-sex conversations. One male speaker dropped from 11 fillers words in his single-sex group discussion to only 8 in the mixed-sex group. The frequency and length of his turns also decreased by about half, as the number of speakers doubled. The drop in his use of filler words, however, is far more than half. A woman decreased the number of her filler words, from 75 to 15, while she experienced a drop in frequency and length of turns of only half her single-sex statistics. The total number of filler words for the men in the mixed-sex group discussion is 69, compared to 242 from their single-sex groups. The women's totals are 33 compared to 201!

     Obviously, something caused these drastic reductions in the use of filler words. As I have defined filler words as spoken delays for thought time, perhaps the decline indicates that there was little serious thought taking place during the discussion. My first impression that the conversation would be unfocused and chaotic certainly supports this theory. Still, perhaps the men and women were being more selective in the words they chose so as to seem intelligent or informed in the presence of members of the opposite sex. In the discussion that followed the taped conversation speaker "M2" stated that she is careful about her comments in front of men so as not to appear "wishy-washy." Then again, it could be that more speakers allowed for less time to pause while speaking.

      As far as profanity and slang usage are concerned, the men only slightly increased the number of "swear words," while "M2" continued to be the concentrated source of profanity among the women. The men used four more slang expressions than the women, but the difference is not statistically significant.

      Even more so than in the female conversation, there was a constant undercurrent of talk that was not always related to the topic on the floor. I think the large number of participants warranted a second "floor." The situation made me think of holiday dinners with my whole family. There were always so many people that two or three conversations took place across the same table. There was more joking and silliness than in the single-sex groups and less topic stability. With so many people and not everyone engaged in the conversation, new topics are bound to continuously arise throughout the room.

      Cooperative Overlap did take place among the speakers, in spite of the various topics of conversation being discussed. Unlike in the single-sex discussions, the speakers in the mixed-sex group would overlap for complete sentences on the same topic. Depending on who he/she was listening to, someone would always respond to one of the comments. Consider the example on page 3 of the mixed-sex transcription. You can see in this example that "J" responds to "D," and that "B" begins to respond to "D's" overlapped, "D3."

     There were only two cases of possible interruption during the mixed-sex discussion. One involves a woman, who apologized for "interrupting all over the place." Upon analyzing the rest of the transcription, it is obvious that "M2" did not interrupt the other speakers any more than anyone else had during the discussion. She perceived her overlap as interruption because while she was speaking, someone else began to comment, and it startled her. The second instance was indeed an interruption by a man, which at first seems to support Zimmerman and West's UC at Santa Barbara study of conversations in the college community. Zimmerman and West found that conversation overlaps and interruptions were distributed almost equally among same-sex groups, but practically all overlaps and interruptions in cross-sex groups were made by men. Perhaps if he had been sober, "D" would have interrupted "D2" (another male) anyway for the comic effect of what he said. I believe, however, that because speaker "D" had been drinking he was less engaged in the conversation and more prone to interrupt it from lack of attention.

     I found a significant gender difference in the mixed-sex conversation in the average length of male turns. In agreement with the Eakins, et al. Study of faculty members, the men took longer turns on average than the women. Men and women contributed to the conversation with equal frequency, but the average number of words per turn among the men was nearly twice that of the women -- 15.5 words compared to the 8.8 words. I was not surprised that the men and women shared floor time, but I had not expected men to hold the floor twice as long as the women with each turn . Perhaps the men spoke more rapidly or overlapped both the women and other men, resulting in longer turns. In the latter scenario the men were not necessarily holding the floor.

      The last significant finding from the mixed-sex conversational group concerns individual frequency and length of turn statistics. All twelve of the participants spoke less frequently during the mixed-sex discussion. I attribute this to the doubling of the participants. My conversational contribution remained consistent, however, across the two discussions. In some ways this lends validity to my field study, as my "educated" influences were consistently low for all of the discussion groups. In addition, the only speaker whose average number of words per turn increased was speaker "K." Perhaps holding the floor during the mixed-sex conversation required more words, and speaker "K" was interested in maintaining the floor to make his point.

     Following the taping of the mixed-sex group discussion the participants answered some of my questions concerning their behaior. Their answers, in addition to the research from the plays I analyzed, helped to further enlighten me on the existence of stereotyped perceptions of men and women and their language styles. I will present the more significant responses from the questions session. All but two of the people believed that women talk more; both dissenters were women. The men all agreed that women talk more in their classes, while one of the dissenters from above said she believed that men are more eager to share their opinions and make sure you understand them. One of the men stated that he believed this to be true of women.

      The new people in the group (those who had not participated in the single-sex conversations) and the participants who were not familiar with the specific crowd of friends who constituted a majority of the mixed-sex group said they would have felt more comfortable among people they knew better and would have spoken up more. One woman, in fact, never spoke a word and attributed it to her discomfort around the unfamiliar people.

There are a number of factors affecting my field study that prevent its generalizability.


In conclusion, the overall results of my field study and library research support the existence of a socialized college speech style, especially among Lafayette's homogeneous population of students. I discovered few significant differences between the speech styles of the men and women in my study; for the most part they all used similar techniques. The two differences that were significant include a decreased use of filler words by both men and women in the mixed-sex conversation, and longer average turn lengths among the men in the mixed-sex study. Only the latter of these differences is supported in the current research on gendered speaking styles.

The most significant differences between men and women that I uncovered deal not with actual language usage but with individual perceptions of men's and women's language styles. In my post-taping discussion with the mixed-sex group I found that the majority of their beliefs about gendered speaking styles are based on stereotypes and socialized role models. If these men and women carry their beliefs into personal relationships they may find they have trouble communicating intimately. Instead of relying on stereotypes of men's and women's language, men and women must discover for themselves their "partner's" personal style of communication. When each partner is comfortable with his/her own styles, the two can begin to communicate with each other for a more harmonious relationship, free of damaging stereotypes and oppressive gender roles.

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