Established Theories on Gender Styles in Communication

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

Lafayette College
May 1991

Robin Lakoff:
Robin Lakoff was one of the first women to publish theories on the existence of women's language. Her book Language and Woman's Place (1975) and her article entitled "Woman's Language" have served as the basis for much research on the subject. In her 1975 article she published 10 basic assumptions about what she felt constituted a special women's language. Much of what Lakoff proposed agreed with Jespersen's theories:

          1. Hedges: phrases like "sort of," "kind of," "It seems like," etc.
          2. (Super)polite forms: "Would you mind...," "I'd appreciate it if...," "...if you don't mind."
          3. Tag questions: "You're going to dinner, aren't you?"
          4. Speaking in italics: intonational emphasis equal to underlining words -- so, very, quite.
          5. Empty adjectives: divine, lovely, adorable, etc.
          6. Hypercorrect grammar and pronunciation: English class grammar and clear                     enunciation.
          7. Sense of humor lacking: women do not tell jokes well and often don't understand the                     punchline of jokes.
          8. Direct quotation: men paraphrase more often.
          9. Special lexicon: women use more words for things like colors, men for sports, etc.
        10. Question intonation in declarative statements: women make declarative statements                     questions by raising the pitch of their voice at the end of a statements, expressing                     uncertainty. For example, "What school do you attend?" "Lafayette College?"

Lakoff believed that women, in general, have a language style in which they make use of the above-mentioned speech patterns. She did not deny, however, that there are cases in which women do not use all or even some of these patterns. Her observations coincide with many of Jespersen's, and they have found much support in researchers and scholars today.

Return to Deborah Tannen's theories of gender styles in communication

Zimmerman and West:
A 1975 study by Don Zimmerman and Candace West at UC Santa Barbara analyzed conversations in a college community. They found that in same-sex conversations, interruptions were distributed fairly evenly among the speakers. In the cross-sex conversations, however, contrary to the belief that women talk and interrupt others more than men do while speaking -- men were responsible for 96% of the interruptions.

Zimmerman and West concluded from their study that "men deny equal status to women as conversational partners" (Spender, p. 44). By interrupting men can prevent females from talking and can gain the floor for their own discussion; "they engineer female silence" (Spender, p. 44). According to Dale Spender in her review of the Zimmerman and West study, any woman who tries to interrupt a man is seen as rude, domineering and bitchy. In addition to Spender's review, Eakins and Eakins conducted a study of "verbal turntaking" (Frank, p. 57) by faculty members in meetings that supports Zimmerman and West's conclusion. They discovered that men had more frequent turns, spoke for greater lengths of time with each, interrupted more and were interrupted less.

Brend, Lakoff and Spender:
Brend, Lakoff and Spender conducted studies between 1975 and 1980 on the use of pitch when speaking. Brend says that women make use of four contrastive levels of their voices, while men use only three, neglecting the highest. For a long time this higher pitch of a woman's voice was imitated only for mockery, since its association was with the female's "more excitable, emotional nature" (Butturff and Epstein, p. 51). Males who did produce high pitched utterances would be "venturing into that negative realm and violating the gender demarcation lines" (Spender, p. 39).
Dale Spender:
In 1980, Dale Spender made a breakthrough in the nature versus nurture debate about the pitch of the male voice when speaking. She analyzed previous theories and disputed them with questions such as why the voices of some congenitally deaf males, who never hear sex differences in speech, do not break at puberty. Her question suggests that females could possibly learn or choose to use a higher pitch, while boys in adolescence make an audible effort to enter "manhood" by lowering their voices, which results in the break.
The conclusion of an experiment at the University of New York/Stony Brook in 1974 stated that people, especially men, are more likely to swear when conversing in single-sex groups than when the conversation participants are of both sexes. Interestingly, men were found to weaken their obscenities when in the company of women, while women tended to strengthen theirs in the company of men.
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