With the general growth of gender research across multiple disciplines, it is not surprising that issues surrounding women’s language and communication have become a popular area of study. Research in this area has been traced back to a 1664 report that cited differences in speech forms of “Carib” women and men (Jesperson 1922). This research was the beginning of a fruitful area of study looking at language use, speech styles, and communication strategies associated with women.
Early research on women’s language and communication focused on linguistic aspects of language, mainly concentrating on sounds (e.g., phonetics) and syntax. The more systematic interest and dichotomy of sex-role- and gender-related aspects of language and communication came much later. With the influence of the feminist movement in some parts of the world, a serious interest in women’s language and communication research materialized. Thus, in these countries research concerning women’s language and communication became apparent from the 1970s.
Early Research On Women’s Communication And Language
One of the first books to look at women’s language and communication was Robin Lakoff’s (1975) Language and woman’s place, in which the author investigated the structure of women’s speech. This pioneering work was later revised and expanded with the 2004 publication of Language and woman’s place: Text and commentaries. These books outline what has often been deemed the foundational work of describing feminine speech style, illustrating the significant relationship between language and gender. Lakoff identified a number of characteristics in women’s speech patterns (hedges, super-polite speech, tag questions, speaking with intonation emphasis, empty adjectives, hypercorrect grammar and pronunciation, lack of sense of humor, direct quotations, special lexicon, rising intonation in declarative statements). Although criticized for labeling women’s language as varying from the norm, Lakoff ‘s research has had great heuristic value in current communication, linguistic, and gender studies.
From the work of Lakoff many lines of research emerged in regards to women’s language and communication. In particular, three influential perspectives underpin the research on women’s language and communication: first, research that emanates from a sex-role perspective; second, that which utilizes feminist frameworks; and, finally, an approach which employs gender as culture viewpoint. These perspectives help shape what is known about women’s language and communication styles and patterns.
In short, researchers from a sex-role perspective believe there are innate similarities and differences between women’s and men’s language and communication. For feminist researchers, women’s language and communication are analyzed in relation to issues of power (or lack thereof). Researchers from the gender-as-culture perspective argue that similarities and/or differences found between women’s and men’s language are a creation of performing gender. A further summary of the three perspectives as they relate to women’s language and communication follows.
Sex-Role, Feminist, And Gender-As-Culture Research Agendas
In the early 1960s and 1970s, many scholars considered biological sex as a dominant indicator of language and communication use. Researchers from this perspective contend that notable differences are apparent between women’s and men’s brains, especially surrounding issues of language and communication. For example, it has been found that women are better able to process information simultaneously in both of the brain’s frontal lobes, resulting in higher scores associated with language comprehension and vocabulary.
It has also been noted that women’s brains are smaller than men’s brains and that women have more gray matter than men do. This may help explain why women perform better on verbal tasks than men. In addition, other studies show that women’s language and communication differ from men’s due to how the brain is stimulated when listening and interpreting communication. It has been found that during passive listening, a woman stimulates both sides of her brain. This is different than a man, who activates neurons on only one side of his brain. Similarly, when asked to interpret certain aspects of communication (whole sentences), women use both sides of their brains while men use one side. In short, this perspective assumes natural differences exist between women and men that result in the two sexes often communicating differently.
In the 1970s and 1980s, research about women’s language and communication saw an increased number of publications from feminist and gender-as-culture perspectives. These scholars consider women to be at a disadvantage to men due to power imbalances. Mainstream feminist researchers point to studies that have found language and communication differences between men and women as an indication of men’s power over women. For example, various studies report different talking time given to women, different types of interactional interruptions, and different uses of silence in current communication practices. Further, these researchers argue that women’s language and communication perpetuate the subordinate role of women. As a result, many feminists have pushed for the creation of a new woman’s language which does not reflect a male-dominated worldview (e.g., chairman of the board). This new language would emphasize community, affect, and equality in order to neutralize the patriarchy that dominates current language and communication practices.
The gender-as-culture perspective takes a different approach to women’s language and communication. Scholars posit that men and women inhabit different linguistic cultures due to being socialized to enact gender in specific ways. In 1990, US linguistics researcher Deborah Tannen published You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation, attracting extensive attention in popular culture. One of Tannen’s central arguments in this book, and in later books, contends that women and men are socialized to use communication differently, thus forming unique cultures of communication. She further states that communication styles of men and women are best explained as “cross-cultural communication”, meaning that women’s communication promotes connection and intimacy while men’s communication promotes status and autonomy. In other words, women’s communication indicates a concern for solidarity, using language to build connections and intimacy. Men’s communication indicates a concern for power, using language to disseminate information.
Another approach to the gender-as-culture perspective is the gender-as-a-result-ofculture perspective. In Gendered lives (2005), US communication scholar Julia Wood argues that gender is socially learned through communication. She considers language and communication differences between women and men to be more about socialization than innate traits. By using the concepts of feminine and masculine speech, she explains how men and women are socialized to have characteristics of feminine speech styles and masculine speech styles. From this perspective, feminine speech is about creating interconnectedness and relationships. Feminine speech styles include more details in conversation, not because of their importance to the content of the message but because the details help with the relational level of the interaction. Feminine speech is also concerned with involving others in the conversation and promoting connections between people. Thus, feminine speech is related to socio-emotional aspects of interactions. In contrast, masculine speech is less about building connections and is more direct and instrumental. Masculine speech is concerned with independence, enhancing status, and autonomy. Scholars from this perspective claim women can be socialized to have characteristics of both feminine and masculine speech styles.
Assessing Women’s Communication And Language Research
As with many prolific areas of study, there is a discrepancy among research findings. A number of scholars assert that most differences found between women’s and men’s language are based on conventional perceptions of gender rather than any real evidence, in that, despite research findings indicating that women are more similar than different to men in their language and communication, women are perceived to be more talkative than men are. Women are believed to use more circuitous and elaborate language than men do. For example, in one study women were rated as speaking more than men in spite of the fact they read the same amount information. It is believed that the stereotype that women talk more is the cause for women being perceived differently than men. Similarly, a commonly held belief is that women self-disclose more than their male counterparts. In a review of 205 studies involving over 23,000 participants, researchers found mixed results (Dindia & Allen 1992). They found that women disclose more when in same-sex interactions but did not disclose more than men in cross-sex interactions. It is the predisposition to believe gender differences occur that some researchers believe perpetuates the notion that women’s and men’s language and communication are different.
Opposing this line of research, other scholars report that stereotypes of women’s language and communication are consistent with research findings. Researchers have found distinct language features in women’s and men’s language use. In a review of over 30 studies, Mulac et al. (2001) found men and women use language differently. They report 16 language characteristics found consistently in research that demonstrate men and women communicate differently.
Distinct research findings are apparent in each perspective, reinforcing the idea that the perspectives are often viewed as mutually exclusive. Current studies, however, tend to show intersections of similarities underlying the three perspectives. For example, many feminist scholars believe gender is socially learned, and many gender-as-culture scholars believe power may in fact be a factor in language and communication differences between men and women. Some scholars argue that the three perspectives build a stronger framework for understanding women’s language and communication when combined. In all three approaches, it is interesting to note that research highlights the notion that the structure and use of language and communication by women and men may result in different life experiences.
Beyond the three perspectives’ similarities and differences, there has been a rise in research concerning women’s language and communication in different contexts. For example, examinations of women’s language and communication regarding computer-mediated communication have been shown to mirror face-to-face communication, in that women appear to emphasize supportiveness, apologize more, hedge, and use more emoticons than men. Women’s language use online has also been shown to include more exclamation points and capitalization when writing emails than men’s. Another example of research concerning women’s language and communication in context is the increase in publications exploring women’s communicative influence in family relations. This line of inquiry has established the intense impact a mother’s language and communication have on her children, especially daughters.
International advances in women’s language and communication are also on the rise. An interest concerning women’s language and communication has been seen worldwide. To name a few, researchers from New Zealand have been studying women’s use of compliments and apologies, noting that women compliment and apologize more than men. In Japan, scholars have made comparisons between Japanese women’s language and women’s language from the United States, remarking upon the ways in which culture may influence the perception of the power or powerlessness of women’s language. Researchers in Morocco have reported on the linguistic practices of women and the influence of gender on women’s language and communication. Global interest in women’s language and communication is now gaining momentum. As a result, the insights to be gained from international studies and cross-cultural investigation are set to make important contributions to the knowledge base of information surrounding women’s language and communication worldwide.
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