Speech practices associated with gender
Not all members of a particular sex may follow the specific gender roles that are prescribed by society. The patterns in gender and communication that follow are only the norms for each gender, and not every member of the corresponding sex may fit into those patterns.
Listening and attentiveness
In a conversation, meaning does not reside in the words spoken, but it filled in by the person listening. Each person decides if they think others are speaking in the spirit of differing status or symmetrical connection. The likelihood that individuals will tend to interpret someone else’s words as one or the other depends more on the hearer’s own focus, concerns, and habits than on the spirit in which the words were intended.
It appears that women attach more weight than men to the importance of listening in conversation, with its connotations of power to the listener as confidant of the speaker. This attachment of import by women to listening is inferred by women’s normally lower rate of interruption — i.e., disrupting the flow of conversation with a topic unrelated to the previous one — and by their largely increased use of minimal responses in relation to men. Men, however, interrupt far more frequently with non-related topics, especially in the mixed sex setting and, far from rendering a female speaker’s responses minimal, are apt to greet her conversational spotlights with silence, as the work of Victoria DeFrancisco demonstrates.
When men talk, women listen and agree. However men tend to misinterpret this agreement, which was intended in a spirit of connection, as a reflection of status and power. A man might conclude that a woman is indecisive or insecure as a result of her listening and attempts of acknowledgment. When in all actuality, a woman’s reasons for behaving this way have nothing to do with her attitudes toward her knowledge, but are a result of her attitudes toward her relationships. The act of giving information frames the speaker with a higher status, while the act of listening frames the listener as lower. However, when women listen to men, they are not necessarily thinking in terms of status, but in terms of connection and support.
Dominance versus subjection
This, in turn, suggests a dichotomy between a male desire for conversational dominance – noted by Helena Leet-Pellegrini with reference to male experts speaking more verbosely than their female counterparts – and a female aspiration to group conversational participation. One corollary of this is, according to Jennifer Coates, that males are afforded more attention in the context of the classroom and that this can lead to their gaining more attention in scientific and technical subjects, which in turn can lead to their achieving better success in those areas, ultimately leading to their having more power in a technocratic society.
Conversation is not the only area where power is an important aspect of the male/female dynamic. Power is reflected in every aspect of communication from what the actual topic of the communication, to the ways in which it is communicated. Women are typically less concerned with power more concerned with forming and maintaining relationships, whereas men are more concerned with their status. Girls and women feel it is crucial that they be liked by their peers, a form of involvement that focuses on symmetrical connection. Boys and men feel it is crucial that they be respected by their peers, as form of involvement that focuses on asymmetrical status. These differences in priorities are reflected in the ways in which men and women communicate. A woman’s communication will tend to be more focused on building and maintaining relationships. Men on the other hand, will place a higher priority on power, their communication styles will reflect their desire to maintain their status in the relationship.
According to Tannen’s research, men tend to tell stories as another way to maintain their status. Primarily, men tell jokes, or stories that focus on themselves. Women on the other hand, are less concerned with their own power, and therefore their stories revolve not around themselves, but around others. By putting themselves on the same level as those around them, women attempt to downplay their part in their own stories, which strengthens their connections to those around them.
- Tannen, Deborah (1990). You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York: Harper Collins.
- Tannen, Deborah (1996). Gender and Discourse. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
- Zimmerman, Don and West, Candace. (1975) “Sex roles, interruptions and silences in conversation.” In Thorne, Barrie and Henly, Nancy (eds) Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance pp. 105-29. Rowley, Massachusetts: Newbury.
- DeFrancisco, Victoria (1991). “The sound of silence: how men silence women in marital relationships.” Discourse and Society 2 (4):413-24.
- Fishman, Pamela. (1980). “Interactional shitwork.” Heresies 2: 99-101.
- Leet-Pellegrini, Helena M. (1980) “Conversational dominance as a function of gender and expertise.” In Giles, Howard, Robinson, W. Peters, and Smith, Philip M (eds) Language: Social Psychological Perspectives. pp. 97-104. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
- Coates, Jennifer (1993). Women, Men and language. London: Longman.
- Tannen, Deborah (2002). I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking in Families. New York: Ballantine.