“You don’t talk.” A rolling of the eyes. “Like, you don’t talk.” A biting of the tongue. “I don’t even know what is going on in your head.” These are a few utterances that women often articulate when miscommunication occurs between they and a male counterpart. Instances like these have been going on for centuries, with the common theme always being that men and women do not communicate in the same ways. This much is obvious, but what are some of the ramifications of these glaring dialectical differences?
The differences in dialectical patterns between men and women are commonly viewed with negative connotations. In western societies, men are stereotypically less willing to divulge their emotional state. They are also typically more unabashed in their approach to conversations, exhibiting aesthetics of dominance and urgency.
Even as third wave and arguably post-feminism becomes more prominent in the United States and around the world, women still are typecast as the less aggressive gender, and this extends to their dialectical patterns. Women tend to communicate in more implicit ways, relying on the listener to understand their message without having fully received all of the necessary contents.
These oversimplifications of each gender are merely overarching stereotypes. Western media and gender bias in many facets of life contribute to these tropes pervading throughout generations. For as prevalent as these dialectical patterns seemingly are, there are equally as many exceptions to these very same patterns. The purpose of this essay is not to cast blame or gender bias; rather, the objective in this essay is to showcase how each gender is unique in their own way, why we communicate the way we do, and how these differences should be embraced instead of poorly highlighted.
In Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling’s book, American English: Dialects and Variation, they explore the dialectical differences between the genders in a troubling yet objective manner. For example: “Because women in American society are often considered to be less direct and more polite than men, we tend to describe women’s speech in these terms” (Wolfram & Schilling, 2006). Right away, Wolfram & Schilling are plaintively describing obvious examples of male/female speech patters, but they are doing it in manner that can be construed as too polite. The issue with writing like this is it does not take a stance on the subject being discussed. With most writing, the intent is not to be resoundingly objective. This leads to a tendency to be too politically correct, which makes for jagged reading and a lack of fulfillment. The author’s attempt to remain neutral in discussing gender dialects becomes futile, in that a subject as controversial as this cannot be easily explained without some form of bias seeping into the text. Perhaps ironically, the text reads less as objective and more of a balance between stereotypical gender speech patterns, in the sense that one author is male and the other is female, creating a tone throughout the book that is emblematic of literary androgyny.
More developments arise when in the very next sentence the authors shift perspectives and note “in different societies (for example, the Malagasy of Madagascar) women are considered by nature to be more direct speakers” (Wolfram & Schilling, 2006). The contrast is not impactful enough because the opposites are too extreme. The authors are reaching for a parallel that will never connect. By comparing American women’s dialect to that of women from Madagascar, a plethora of factors are not accounted for. Most glaring is the reality that these two cultures are vastly different, and because of this, their respective speech patterns and the role each gender plays in each society will be vastly different.
This divide between cultures and genders is worthy of exploration. Arguably, oppressed Malagasy women are conditioned to be more direct because they live in a culture that is relatively devoid of gender equality. Direct dialectical approach is how Malagasy women get what they want from a system that otherwise would not acknowledge more courteous and polite requests. Yet westernized women do not live under the same pretenses. Western women are more easily able to own land, take on careers in prosperous industries, have a better chance to avoid unplanned pregnancies, and ultimately have more control over their future. Some of this can be attributed to the western lifestyle being more “progressive,” although caution must be used when defining progressive. A western lifestyle simply has more modern commodities that make life easier, such as having access to cleaner water, healthier food options, and readily available health care.
All told, western women are not forced to be as verbally direct as their third-world country contemporaries because survival is not in the balance. Women from developing countries like Madagascar are more likely to be put in precarious positions that threaten their existence through no fault of their own. Dialect essentially becomes less drastic as basic human needs are more easily met.
“Women talk too much.” “I feel like I can never get a word in.” “My girlfriend always wants me to listen to her problems.” For as many complaints as women might have, men share equally as many frustrations in regards to communication with the opposite sex. There seems to be a pervading belief that women tend to dominate conversations, but this is not inherently true. Cheris Kramer found that “everybody loves to hear praise, and boys in particular. Any male is happy to be the source of information” (The New Seventeen Book of Etiquette and Young Living. Found in: Kramer, 1973). While Kramer’s work was initially published in 1973, the content is still applicable today. Most notable is that men like to be lavished with praise just as much as women, and that a conversation geared towards that of a male is just as likely as a conversation centered on a female.
I have seen this tendency growing up, when many times it was clear that my mother needed verbal reinforcement from my father to feel needed and loved. One day, my father retorted in a surprising yet honest manner. “You know, I like to feel wanted and needed too. I just don’t express this as often as you do.” My mother, on this rare occasion hearing my father exhibit true emotion, was left speechless. It is very easy to take for granted one gender’s perceived needs, and dialect has much to do with this because as a westernized society, we have general expectations for how each gender expresses themselves. As seen in the case of my mother and father, when these expectations are inverted and we see one gender exemplify traits of the other, the reactions can be highly revelatory.
Perhaps the difference, as Kramer later notes, is that “girls are not supposed to talk as much as men. Perhaps a `talkative’ woman is one that does talk as much as a man” (Kramer, 1973). Kramer’s bias aside, it is clear that there are certain expectations applied to each gender, and that individualism is not accounted for in many cases. A man or woman talking too much is more about what is expected of each gender than by what is more appropriate. This passé way of thinking simply does not allow for growth and acceptance of each gender’s differences. Even as more research becomes available regarding these differences, the ability to understand has not changed drastically enough.
Wolfram & Schilling later pose that “men traditionally have been rated by their occupation- by what they do. Women, on the other hand, have often been rated to a greater extent by how they appear” (Wolfram & Schilling, 2006). This lends credence to the common belief that women are constantly under pressure to appear more than they are to “be.” Essentially, women are objectified in more ways than a man might be. This is evident in many ways, including our media, where most of our targeted audiences are males and their subjective gaze.
Many scholars have pointed out a not-so-subtle injustice, that being the way women are portrayed as sexual beings more so than their male counterparts. This partly explains why women are judged more by their appearance than by their actions. Reversing the binary, if men were comparably glamorized for their looks, the argument could be made that they too would suffer from judgment based on vanity. The key component to this issue is not whether men and women should be glamorized for their physical appearance, but rather there needs to be an equalitarian dynamic where neither gender is placed in an unequally vulnerable position. Ostensibly, the male gaze either needs to be catered to less so than the female gaze, or the female gaze has to be accommodated for to the same extent as the male gaze.
Since a woman’s image is inextricably tied to her reputation, it is no wonder why direct female statements like “I need this from you,” or “When is this going to get done?” now are seen less as assertion of control and more as a negative indictment of that woman’s personality. Even in our media and pop culture, the strong female lead is seen as dangerous and a threat to society, or moreover, to men. In the 2016 presidential election race, Hillary Clinton was more often judged on her appearance than her opponent, Donald Trump. Her political beliefs were arguably less important than what she wore or said in public appearances. As Neal Gabler points out, “the usual verdict is that the public doesn’t dislike what she has done or hopes to do so much as they dislike who she is” (Gabler, 2016). Once again, Clinton is unfairly judged more so by her appearance than by her actual actions. In the context of a political race, it can have damning effects. When seen from the lens of gender equality, it signifies perhaps just how far our country still has to go for true equality between genders. It is then no surprise that female dialect patterns receive so much scrutiny, especially in the media. If Hillary Clinton, a career politician, is endlessly chastised for reasons other than her political values, it sends the message to others that words spoken by a woman are not as significant as those that come from a man. Obviously, there are enough people that are able to take Clinton’s words at surface-level and make their own judgments about her, but this perpetual cycle of gender bashing by the media is still non-beneficial to the overall perception of women and their dialectical nature.
Since we are able to see that a major reason for the difference in dialects can be attributed to our pop culture, we can then begin to look beyond those parameters for further explanation. There is also the reality that men are typically more aggressive than their female counterparts, and this harkens all the way back to early human life, when men were required to be providers for their family. To survive, men had to hunt and kill animals, ward off potential threats using violence, and at times even kill other humans who attempted to infringe upon their safety.
Conversely, women were seen as the leader of the home, whose main purpose was to raise the children so that they could continue on this same way of life. Women did not hunt because they were not as physically capable as men. Throughout time, this could be a factor as to why women are geared to be less aggressive, because they simply did not have to be. This is not as much discriminatory as it is practical. Families and societies put their members in positions where they would be most likely successful. For men, this meant finding food to feed the family; for women, this entailed taking care of the home and being the matriarch of that home.
If we then suppose dialect and biology are intertwined, male and female speech patterns become more explicable. Wolfram & Schilling state that “conversational differences learned in childhood carry over into adulthood, when women and men interact with one another on a frequent basis, and conversational misunderstandings result” (Wolfram & Schilling, 2006). Here, from the inception of early communications between genders, there is already a notable difference. Men approach conversations with a more aggressive tone because they react in terms of survival. Men typically don’t think as much about points B and C because point A is the only point that matters in the moment. Again, this can be linked all the way back to early human life, when the only thing a man was concerned about was finding means to survive; and point A was survival because in early human life points B and C don’t become prioritized until point A has been completed.
Analyzing from the perspective of the female in early human years, in the home they had more time to sit back and plan out points B and C. Point A was not the only factor that had to be addressed because survival was not in the balance. This led to more time to think about other facets of life and how they could potentially work out. In a way, this example suggests that women have evolved to be more methodical thinkers than men, which stereotypically is true.
The purpose of these early examples of human life is not to say that we still live in a world where survival is in the balance. In the westernized world, modern conveniences have enhanced human life and extended life expectancy. Yet, these early examples provide a basis for the way men and women communicate today. For years, the clichéd joke has always begun when a man asks his female partner, “Where would you like to go eat?” Following the lines of this cliché, the woman usually inundates the man with many potential places to go, but never arrives at a final decision without extensive examination. This is not to be construed as a criticism of women, but rather seen as an aesthetic that has been present in the female psyche since the beginning of human life. This also does not suggest that said woman has been sitting at home all day thinking about where to eat while the man goes out and tries to provide for her. Instead, it suggests that deliberating on a topic is merely a biological trait ingrained in the female subconscious.
Adelaide Haas, Department of Speech Communication at the State University of New York College at New Paltz, brings a different perspective to the conversation. She poses that “men may be more loquacious and directive… talk more about sports, money, and business, and more frequently refer to time, space, quantity, destructive action, perceptual attributes, physical movements and objects” (Haas, 1979). This ties in to the previous sentiments regarding male dominancy, specifically with male’s ability to be “loquacious and directive.” Topics such as sports, money, and business are not just hobbies of men. They reinforce the male power schema that is so common. Sports have traditionally been a male-oriented tradition in western societies. For many years women did not compete in sports. Then, until Title IX, women were not given the same opportunities as men were at the collegiate level. This is still seen today in professional sports, as male professional athletes earn significantly more money than female professional athletes. This inequality is also seen in money and business, two areas of society where women historically have not been major players. Even as the gap is lessened and more women start careers in finance and business, it is still predominantly a male industry.
Men also refer to time, space, and objects more often because these also reinforce the male dominancy. At this point, one has to wonder: is patriarchy a natural staple in human life? The obvious correlation between male dialect and dominancy seems to suggest that patriarchy, for all of its well-known and oppressive faults, has cemented itself firmly in the human psyche. Humans are conditioned to expect certain tiers of power, whether right or wrong.
Haas later goes on to posit that “women are often more supportive, polite, and expressive, talk more about home and family, and use more words implying feeling, evaluation, interpretation, and psychological state” (Haas, 1979). These qualities, all of which are extremely beneficial, can once again be traced back to early times, when women embraced the role of gatherer/caretaker. Descriptions like supportive and polite, plus sharing feelings and evaluations are all emblematic of a matriarch. It is no wonder that female dialect patterns shade more toward the less dominant. By nature, women approach a conversation as or more concerned with the recipient’s feelings than a man typically does. This, again, is because the natural instinct for women is to care for others, whereas a man is geared to have his best interests in mind; although, the argument can be made that men are equally as caring as women. The difference of expressing this care manifests itself in different forms, depending on the gender.
There is also a counter to the belief that gender is biological. Scholar and feminist Judith Butler notes, “gender is an`act’” (Butler, 1988). The idea is that gender becomes a role we are expected to play, and is not necessarily a true indicator of who we are. Perhaps men feel the need to utilize certain speech patterns in order to display not only their verbal fortitude, but also their masculinity. Conversely, women can feel compelled to remain submissive in order to fulfill their societally constructed role.
A man or woman yelling to get their point across then can be seen not only as natural, but also societally conditioned. A man raises his voice for added emphasis and meaning. A woman raises her voice as a form of rebellion, a way of adopting the persona of a man so that her message is just as powerful. In this sense, it is easy to agree with Butler that gender is a performance. Neither gender truly feels comfortable speaking the way they do. They only enact these speech patterns so that the status remains quo. Once again, speech patterns become as much, if not more, of an indictment on society as they do in regards to natural gender aesthetics.
In the context of acts and role expectations, a more modern approach is then required. There was an interesting study completed where researchers compared the conversational tactics between men and women in an online setting. This is significant not only because of the need to examine gender roles, but also because of the never-ending expansion of technology and its role on lexical tendencies. The study aimed to examine if dialectical patterns that were present in face-to-face conversations were also apparent in online forums. In these settings, gender is still a factor, but there is no influence from a physical human presence.
By the end of their study, Elizabeth Barrett and Vic Lally confirmed that many similarities still existed, although there were some other intriguing findings:
“The transcript analysis of project events suggest that men and women behaved differently in the on-line learning environment in terms of the frequency, length and style of their contributions to group discussions. In particular, it was observed that men’s contributions to discussions were, typically, more numerous and longer than those of women, and that the contributions made by men tended to include greater levels of social exchange than those of women. Women however, appeared, typically, to be more interactive than men, i.e. their messages included implicit or explicit references to previous contributions” (Barrett & Lally, 1999).
These results are highly revelatory. In many ways, they are expected. Men continued to lead conversations, and their responses were met with more positive reactions than those of their female counterparts. This is representative of many face-to-face interactions, where men set the tone of the conversation, and women tend to follow the direction laid out or interject when appropriate.
Not predictable in these results are the way women were more “interactive,” suggesting they were better partners in these exchanges. Also, the description that women “included implicit or explicit references to previous contributions” insinuates that women are better listeners, and craftily use this skill to enhance their conversational experience.
This pervades gender and quasi-Marxist based implications. For centuries, women have commonly been viewed as the inferior gender in many aspects of life. If we take this supposition as a reality, then we have to assume women throughout points in history were embittered at this lack of gender inequality. This would affect dialect, in that women, as the inferior gender, would then seek ways to exercise power, albeit in more subtle ways. These implicit and explicit references seen in the online study can be construed, once again, as exercises of power. Instead of seeking dialectical equality by replicating the tactics of men, women behave in their own manner, which although at first glance may seem inferior because women’s actions are not as frontal as those of men, are still just as powerful.
How else can we try to explain these differences in speech patterns? It is as much a battle of gender identity as it is dialectical identity. Many people have tried to infuse their way of life on the dominant power, only for the dominators to reject change. As a result, the challengers to this Marxist-type of hierarchy find subtle, less focalized ways to maintain identity and exercise some form of liberty. The differences between male and female dialect patterns are, in many ways, no different.
In closing, many of the differences seen in the dialects between men and women can be seen in our authorial patterns, as evidenced by Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling. These patterns can also be traced back many years ago, to our earliest days as a human race, when dialectical tendencies first began to form. Scholar Judith Butler later makes apparent that each gender’s dialectical and personality differences should be viewed with a skeptical lens. Studies also show that women have adopted different ways of displaying conversational fortitude, and that they showcase this fortitude in less noticeable ways. Yet ultimately, all these variances between genders signify something more: that the human race is full of diversity at its most basic core; and that these contrasts are what make us as humans so uncompromisingly special.
– Barrett, E., & Lally, V. (1999). Gender differences in an on‐line learning environment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 15(1), 48-60.
– Butler, J. (1988). Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. Theatre journal, 40(4), 519-531.
– Gabler, N. (2016). How the Media Created a Negative Caricature of Hillary Clinton. Alternet.org. Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/media-created-negative-depiction-hillary-clinton
– Haas, A. (1979). Male and female spoken language differences: Stereotypes and evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 86(3), 616.
– Kramer, C. (1974). Women’s speech: Separate but unequal?. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 60(1), 14-24.
– Wolfram, W., & Schilling-Estes, N. (2006). American English : dialects and variation. Malden, MA : Blackwell Pub., 2006.