A Theory of "Powerless Language"
An excerpt from "Men and Women in Conversation: An Analysis of Gender Styles in Language"

Lafayette College
May 1991

O'Barr and Atkins:
In an article entitled "'Women's Language' or 'Powerless Language'?" William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins described the results of their 1980 courtroom study. They studied "language variation in a specific institutional context -- the American trial courtroom -- and sex-related differences" were the topic of this particular article (McConnell-Ginet, Borker, Furman, p. 93). During the process of witness examination they analyzed how-to books by successful trial lawyers and law professors who had included special sections on how to handle female witnesses. O'Barr and Atkins studied courtroom cases for 30 months, observing a broad spectrum of witnesses. They examined the witnesses for the ten basic speech differences between men and women that Robin Lakoff proposed. O'Barr and Atkins discovered that the differences that Lakoff and others supported are not necessarily the result of being a woman, but of being powerless. They used three men and three women to prove their point. The first man and woman both spoke with a high frequency of "women's language" components. The woman was a 68-year old housewife, and the man drove an ambulance. In comparison to woman and man #3 -- a doctor and a policeman, respectively, who both testified as expert witnesses -- they show that the first pair of witnesses experience less power in their jobs and lives. O'Barr and Atkins found that pair #2 fell between pairs 1 and 3 in frequency of hedges and tag questions, etcetera, in their speech.

O'Barr and Atkins concluded from their study that the quoted speech patterns were "neither characteristic of all women nor limited only to women" (McConnell-Ginet, et al., p. 102). The women who used the lowest frequency of women's language traits had an unusually high status (according to the researchers). They were well-educated professionals with middle class backgrounds. A corresponding pattern was noted among the men who spoke with a low frequency of women's language traits. O'Barr and Atkins tried to emphasize that a powerful position "may derive from either social standing in the larger society and/or status accorded by the court" (McConnell-Ginet, et al., p. 103). In accordance with this theory I think that a certain degree of nervousness could have caused those witnesses with fewer social skills to express uncertainty in their statements.

Return to Thoughts on Gender Styles in Communciation