Studies on language and gender have tried to examine people’s
real experiences of how men and women communicate, both in single-sex and
mixed-sex groups, in order to investigate the stereotypes we have: the trivia,
chatting, nagging woman and the strong, silent, long suffering-man.
Men and women communicate and listen in difference ways. In this
essay I will be discussing how men and women communicate through language. Do females
talk more than males? Do men and women follow different rules when they have a
conversation, are women misrepresented through language?
Contrary to the streotypes of the female as the “overtalkative”
sex who “gossips” and “talks a lot” (as reported by Kramer (1977) who surveyed
attitudes in the USA), many studies have been carried out in Britain and the
USA which show that, in a variety of contexts, it is men who talk more.
Many studies carried out in educational contexts have shown
that boys speak more than girls.
For example, Sadker and Sadker (1985) found that in over a
hundred classes in both arts and science subjects, boys have talked on average
3 times more than girls.
In You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation
(1991), Deborah Tannen argues that men are trained to become familiar with
talking in public situations, learning how to hold center stage through verbal
performance such as storytelling, joking and providing information.
Women, on the other hand,
are more comfortable with private speaking: for them, the language of
conversation is more about establishing connections and negotiating
Males therefore might think that females talk a lot more
because they hear them talking in situations where men would not such as on the
telephone or in social situations with friends.
Contemporary research on language and gender does not
suggest that male talk is “normal” while female talk is “deviant”, nor does it
suggest that there is anything intrinsically powerful or powerless about male
and female talk. What it does show is that men and women adopt different
conversation styles because they are trained to understand and use spoken
discourse differently as part of being socialized for different roles in
This approach sees male and female groups as different
cultures which, when brought together in mixed-sex situations, can clash and
cause misunderstandings because the participants are applying different rules.
Tannen suggests that many male-female conversations result
in difficulty because men think they are simply exchanging information, while
women think they are negotiating.
For example a couple are driving home:
Sue: Would you like to stop for a drink?
They do not stop, but when they get home they have an
argument: Sue says John never takes her feelings into consideration, while John
says he never knows what Sue really wants because she doesn’t tell him –
instead, she expects him to guess.
Tannen suggests that while John thought he was just being
asked for information about his needs, sue thought her question would open a
conversational sequence through which they would reach a negotiated decision
about whether to stop or not.
Topic raising, interrupting
Studies have shown that women do more work in conversation
than men to raise topics and to take others to take them up; also that women
maintain others contributions by using reinforcers (back-channels like “yeah,
mm.., aha…”) more than men do.
At the same time, men appear to interrupt women more than
the other way around.
Tannen suggests that because women are trained to look for
connections in their interactions, they make effort to get others to talk and
to equalize speakers’ turns, even downplaying their own subject knowledge in
In contrast because men are trained to look for power in
their interactions, they compete to control topics – interrupting if necessary –
and they work to hold their turn against others’ interruptions, even when their
own subject knowledge is poor.
When these different discourse rules are applies together,
women’s contributions are likely to be heard less than men’s because men will
be trying to take the floor and women will be encouraging them to do it.
Tannen argues that neither side is deliberately dominating
or giving way – each is simply what it has been trained to do within its own
Reporting and Rapporting:
According to Tannen, one of the major complaints women have
about men as speakers is that they don’t give enough information when they are
telling incidents – they leave out all the exciting parts of any story, giving
just the basic information.
In contrast, men complain that women give too much
information when they tell stories – they go on and on when they could really
sum up the content of their discourse in one sentence.
Tannen’s explanation is that men and women think they are
doing different things when they communicate information:
Men concentrate on the information content alone (the
message) because they see the telling of incidents as reporting, while women
pay more attention to the metamessage – telling experiences is a way to relate
to the listener (rapporting).
Research has shown that men and women also respond
differently in conversations when a problem is presented. Because men are
trained to be active and find solutions to problems, they adopt a problem
solution approach when someone expresses personal difficulties.
In contrast, women are encouraged to think of themselves as
listeners. While listening is certainly not a passive activity, it does not necessarily
involve making suggestions about how to change situations or take action. While
talking about problems, women often take turns in comparing difficulties and in
finding similarities between their respective situations.
Example: Male Perspective:
A man expresses a problem to his partner. He expects problem
solution, but receives, to his intense annoyance, problem sharing:
Peter: I’m really tired. I didn’t sleep well last night.
Allison: I didn’t sleep well either.
Peter: why are you always trying to belittle me?
Allison: I’m not! I’m just trying to tell you I understand
how you feel!