He says, she says He says, she says He says, she says: Views split on gender differences in speech

There will never be peace in the battle of the sexes until both sides speak the same language ... or do they already?

By Nancy Wick | Illustration by Sara Swan | December 1, 1993

Fran knew George was a quiet man when she married him, but she hadn't expected this. As the evening drew to a close and their son was off to bed, she looked forward to talking to her husband. But over time, she came to realize that when the grand moment arrived, she was the one talking, and he wasn't. "I don't have anything to say," he groused when she prodded him. "I went to work as usual. Nothing in particular happened."

“Something had to happen,” she protested. “You didn’t stare into space all day.”

“But it’s ordinary stuff. There’s really nothing to talk about.”

It took Fran a long time to understand that George wasn’t just being obtuse. In his view of conversation, there really wasn’t anything to talk about. To him, talk is informational. One talks if one has something interesting to tell the other person. To her, talk is interactional. One talks in order to make connection, to show interest in what is happening in the other’s world.

In this respect, Fran and George (not their real names) may be classic examples of their respective genders. He feels he is sharing with her if they are doing something together, such as playing a board game. She feels they’re sharing only if they’re talking about their thoughts and feelings. It’s just one of the differences Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen articulates in her best seller, You Just Don’t Understand.

Though Tannen’s book is among the most popular, it is far from the only work to claim that men and women have different conversational styles. Over the past 18 years, research on the links, if any, between gender and language has raised hackles on both sides of the gender line.

Take Bob and Peggy Monroe, for example. A Seattle couple in their 50s married for more than 30 years, they belong to a book group that had agreed to read You Just Don’t Understand. Bob, a physician, started reading first. “His reaction was very negative,” Peggy remembers. “He said, ‘This is ridiculous. This is not based on any kind of scientific theory.’ I began reading it with these comments in mind and thought I wouldn’t like it.”

But Peggy, a musician and teacher, had a different opinion: “It was like a gate opening to a whole new viewpoint and to me it made absolute sense. All her concepts seemed right on the money. It really was a revelation.”

Peggy and Bob in some ways mirror the debate in academia. On one side are researchers who believe that men and women use language differently; on the other are those who call such claims overgeneralization, or who would explain the differences cited as the result of something other than gender.

Do men and women have different conversational styles? The opening salvo in the battle was fired by Robin Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who in 1975 published a book called Language and Woman’s Place. Unlike You Just Don’t Understand, it was intended for a scholarly—not a popular—audience, and its appearance caused a great a stir among scholars in a wide variety of fields.

Contacted by phone, Lakoff explained the book’s thesis this way: “Gender matters, and the reason that it matters is that women are looked at by society—by this society, certainly—as subordinate to men and that subordination in its various forms is reflected in language. And furthermore, women are brought up to talk in a way that reinforces that subordination and in some sense justifies it.”

In the book, Lakoff claimed that certain linguistic features are more typical of women’s speech, and that these features are looked upon as evidence of inferiority. For example, women use intensifiers such as “very” or “really” more often, as if they had to convince the listener of the importance of what they have to say. Women more commonly use hedges to qualify their words—expressions like “sort of” or “kind of.” Women are more likely to use tag questions, such as “That’s a good point, isn’t it?” as a way of seeking assurance while making a statement.

Women are, from childhood, taught to talk this way, Lakoff says, then called weak or indecisive as a result. Not only that, but a woman who adopts a more “masculine,” forthright style receives professional punishment even if she wins personal rewards. She may get ahead, but she will also be called “pushy” or “bitchy.”

While Lakoff’s book was brushed aside by many as anecdotal, others set out to test her claims. The results were mostly inconclusive, but the book had opened up a discussion that couldn’t easily be closed.

Sandra Silberstein, a linguist and associate professor in the UW’s English department, says the specific features Lakoff named aren’t used only by women. “It’s powerless language,” she says. “It works to the disadvantage of the speaker. But because women have been relatively powerless, they have tended to speak this way. Some of us,” she added with a laugh, “check our language to see if we’re ‘talking like a girl.’”

Silberstein’s own work takes a more general view of the differences between men’s and women’s speech. While doing a study of the courtship stories in multi-generational families, she “couldn’t help noticing” that there were differences in the way men and women told the story. One difference was that the women “spent time telling me what kind of people they were. The men didn’t talk about that at all.” For example, here is one of Silberstein’s informants talking about her relationship with the man who became her husband:

“I had just moved to the San Francisco Bay area, and ah, had a new job, was very excited about being in a new place and establishing new contacts and new friends and quite frankly we were both very independent people, and neither of us had any desire to try and solidify the relationship.”

The woman here assures Silberstein that she is independent, something her husband can assume will be taken for granted about himself. So, although her speech does not contain specific “hedges” or “question tags,” seeking reassurance from the listener is still present. The men who talked to Silberstein, on the other hand, talked not about their personalities, but about orchestrating the relationship. Half the men’s stories involve some competition or conquest, whereas none was mentioned by the women. Here is one example:

“I went to put my arm around her, she jumped out the side of the car … and then I met her (again) at this party and the chemistry took hold and I pursued it from that point on. I was determined I was going to marry this girl.”

These differences seem to corroborate Tannen’s claim that men view talk as a competitive arena in which they must demonstrate their superiority, while women view it as an arena of intimacy, a means of getting close to the other person.

Pepper Schwartz

UW Sociology Professor Pepper Schwartz’s recollections of Yale, which was a mostly male institution when she went there, apparently are in the same vein: “Lunch was like a ball toss. Someone would throw out a comment, and you had to be on your toes ready to catch it and throw it back. Of course you had to have standing to catch the ‘ball,’ because if you didn’t, they wouldn’t listen to you when you threw it back. You had to be intense, quick and absolutely aggressive to be taken seriously. So I learned to do that.”

Yet, Schwartz would not characterize the “ball toss” as a necessarily masculine style of speaking. “One of the problems with this research,” she says, “is that it generally views gender as fixed-trait and fails to look for mediating variables, such as power or status.” For Schwartz, the ball toss was an activity of people accustomed to striving for success in a hierarchical world. That those people happened to be men simply reflected the culture at the time. Nor does she feel she was punished when she learned to play the men’s game. “Which would you rather be, powerless or bitchy?” she shrugs.

Schwartz’s own research for her book, American Couples, is cited in You Just Don’t Understand, but Schwartz believes it was misused. “When Tannen quotes me in her book, she keeps the male/female aspect of the research but drops off the power issue. The truth is that in 90 percent of the situations I studied, the influential variable was power, not gender.”

Yet, the differences cited by Tannen and others often resonate with ordinary people, as they did with Peggy Monroe. One that seems to find particular favor is the idea that women like to talk about problems just to commiserate, while men only want to talk about problems to find a solution. Joan DeClaire and Mark Malone, a Seattle couple in their 30s, laugh when read a description from You Just Don’t Understand in which a woman complained to her husband that a lump removal had ruined the shape of her breast, and then became angry and hurt when he suggested plastic surgery.

Mark nods. “What that husband said, that’s exactly what I would have said,” he exclaims. “She has this problem, and there are lots of problems that can’t be fixed. This is one that maybe you can do something about. One would suppose, if she’s bringing it up, she’s looking for a solution.”

Gender research has also succeeded in demolishing some stereotypes, notably the one that says women talk too much. Study after study has shown that in public situations such as meetings, where one person is talking to the group, men talk much more than women and, in fact, are guilty of interrupting and discounting others. Marsha Mayben, a Seattle consultant who gives workshops on gender and communication, reports that this is the most common complaint she hears among attendees. “The women say the men cut them off. They don’t feel acknowledged. They don’t feel they have an equal right to speak.”

None of these subjective experiences proves that gender is the deciding factor, however. In the situation of the man who wants to “fix” things, for example, does he want to do that because he’s a man, or because he’s accustomed to having the power to fix things? Do men who cut women off assume that the women have equal power to jump into the conversation whenever they want to? Malcolm Parks, UW associate professor of speech communication, thinks that gender differences in general—including those in communication style—are exaggerated in our culture.

“Tannen’s interpretations of the differences aren’t false,” Parks says, “but they’re exaggerated and incomplete. People are biased toward remembering situations that are problematic for them, so of course they remember differences that made communication difficult. Furthermore, studies have shown that in ongoing relationships, the conversational styles of the partners become more similar over time. Mutual influence overrides gender differences.”

Few who study gender and language claim that differences are inborn. Rather, they say, boys and girls are raised to speak in different ways, and—because males are traditionally valued more—their way of speaking is valued more also. In some cases, this holds true even when men speak in a traditionally “feminine” style.

For example, Maureen Phillips, a UW graduate student in English, did a study of intensifiers and hedges—two of the features Lakoff had identified—in the speech of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas during the latter’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Ironically, Thomas used more of both. In the portion of the testimony Phillips analyzed, she found hedges and intensifiers made up 2 percent of Thomas’ total words, compared to less than 1 percent of Hill’s. In terms of powerful versus powerless speech, “Hill established her credibility in her speaking; Thomas didn’t,” Phillips notes.

“Things are heard differently when men say them,” Silberstein says. “I have seen Deborah (Tannen) do a demonstration in which men and women read a scene from a play, then switch roles and read it again. Although the words are exactly the same, they are heard differently depending on whether a man or a woman is saying them. But these are not fixed categories; they are issues of power and culture.”

Do gender theorists, then, hurt women by emphasizing the differences as gender differences? Schwartz thinks so. “The thing that really makes me nuts about Tannen and her ilk,” she says, “is that she implies all of these differences are reality, when in fact they are constructed. All of this could change; it is changing.”

Lakoff, on the other hand, defends the work, saying misunderstanding is inevitable if any one variable—gender, power or culture—is used to explain what hap­pens: “I think Tannen’s stuff has been read by some people as saying, ‘Well you know, men and women are just two cultures and if everybody recognizes that they speak different languages everything will be just fine.’ I’m not sure she’s saying that. I think you have to put the overlay of more or less power on top of it and talk about why it is that women’s particular cultural way of doing things is much less valued. … I think it’s valuable just in and of itself to say the way women talk is a perfectly valid form of communication in its own right.”