Women talk more than men: the perpetuation of linguistic myths on gender differences and so-called “women’s language”Posted: February 27, 2013
Women talk more than men. Women talk about feelings, men about things. Women intimacy, men seek independence. And women never swear.
Or that’s what author of You Just Don’t Understand, Deborah Tannen, would have us believe. Yes, these are the language myths ingrained into our culture, endorsed by linguists such as Tannen. And studies which back these myths make it into the media, and the studies that don’t support these myths…? Pop them into the recycling bin. Must be anomalies, says the popular media.
Men and women speak differently. We’ve all seen instances of this in our day-to-day lives. We scour our brains for examples when men and women we know have used language in different ways. We think of Mary from the office who just can’t be shut up. We think of a father or an uncle who sits in his sagging armchair and barely utter a single sentence in the course of an entire evening. We hear these myths and we shape our reality to fit them. We forget bossy Dave who always interrupts, or stand-offish Samantha who says the bare minimum. Anomalies again, right?
The simple fact of it is that the media doesn’t want to hear about the millions of ways in which men and women’s language are similar. A study which says there is no real difference between the language use of men and women just isn’t interesting. The media wants sensational headlines like: “Women speak three times more words a day than men.” Cited by hundred of scientific journals and the press, The Female Brain (2006, Louann Brizendine) came out with the claim that women speak 20,000 words a day, as compared to the 7,000 of a man.
However linguists, such as Mark Liberman of Language Log and professor of linguistics at Pennsylvania University, found this claim to be outlandish. When he checked her sources, he found that these figures came not from a linguistic study, but from a self-help book. Nevertheless, the claims by The Female Brain went down as fact by the popular media.
When a linguistic study was actually conducted into the average daily word count of men and women, rather than the guesswork of Louann Brizendine, the results were, unsurprisingly, very different. James Pennebaker, of the University of Texas, conducted the EAR study. This study concluded that men and women, on average, use roughly the same amount of words per day, with no significant difference. But this never made the national press, but Brizendine’s sensational (and false) claims did. What a shock.
As Mark Liberman said on the subject on the Language Log: “My current best guess is that a marriage counsellor invented this particular meme about 15 years ago, as a sort of parable for couples with certain communication problems, and others have picked it up and spread it, while modulating the numbers to suit their tastes.”
In 1975, linguist Robin Lakoff came up with several claims in regards to “women’s language.” Lakoff claimed that women tended to, amongst other things, you know, kind of, hedge a bit, sort of. Well, that’s what it, err, seems like. Women also use simply magnificent empty adjectives, like lovely and adorable. How divine! And again, women tend to avoid course language, like the “f” word… and shit like that. Oh, I’m sorry, did I just swear? I’m so sorry. Oh, look, I’m apologising a lot, according to Lakoff, that’s because I’m a female. Sorry. Can’t be helped.
A language study in 1980 by O’Barr and Atkins challenged Lakoff’s lovely theory. They conducted a study in a courtroom to study language differences between the genders. What they found is that the people who most often used the language features defined by Lakoff, were not always necessarily women, but the speakers with the least power. Female barristers used far less features than males who were being charged with a crime, for example. And so what Lakoff initially called “women’s language,” O’Barr and Atkins redefined as “language of the powerless.” Their study showed that if women did use more of the language features talked about by Lakoff, it was not because they were women, but because of women’s position in society. If women are powerless in life, their language will reflect this. The same would be true for a powerless man. Your gender has little, if anything, to do with it.
As Deborah Cameron writes in her book, The Myth of Mars and Venus, the differences between men and women’s use of language is the cause of “nurture, not nature.” Any studies conducted into the language differences of men and women will be ultimately flawed, because the participants would have already been socialised into Western culture. Women will have learnt that they are supposed to talk more, to be more emotional and more compassionate. Men will have learnt that they are supposed to talk more pragmatically, be less emotionally-inclined and to be more concerned with facts and figures. This will have been drummed into the participants from the day they were born. As the line goes, “Sex is what you’re born with, gender is what you’re given.” It is impossible to know whether males or females would talk in an identical or near-identical way if it were not for the process of socialisation. As it stands, any studies conducted into language difference are dodgy at best.
And sure, there are slight variations in the way that men and women use language, but these differences are a lot less wide than the popular media would have us believe. And when these differences occur, let’s not assume that it’s because men and women are biologically programmed to speak differently. The way in which we have been socialised and taught to use language plays a massive role, as well as the equality of the genders in the environment in which we live, as proven by O’Barr and Atkins.
When it comes down to it, despite my gender, I can swear as much as Dave from your local, and my dad can hedge like a bastard.
Sorry, Tannen, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board.
Here is a video I created for Harry Wells‘ campaign to become the Distance Learning Officer for the University of Leicester:
You can download a copy of his manifesto here.
These are some points to consider when looking at how your own union treats distance learning. The abolishment of the half-fees for year abroad students is crucial, particularly for working-class students. Learning is for everyone, not just the privileged few.
And here are some delightful photos of us in our campaign t-shirts:
In a recent seminar at my university, my class was discussing the Earl of Rochester’s poem, The Imperfect Enjoyment. We ended up focusing on Rochester’s attitude towards women, to which I jumped in and said that this poem displays misogynistic attitudes:
Through all the town a common fucking-post,
On whom each whore relieves her tingling cunt
As hogs do rub themselves on gates and grunt.
But one of my classmates then argued in response that Rochester wasn’t being misogynistic, merely he was talking about prostitutes. With a raised eyebrow, I retorted, “Aren’t prostitutes women, too?”
What is “intersectionality”? Intersectionality is the inclusion of minorities within movements. For example, in the feminist movement, including women of all sexualities, races, and women who are disabled and non-cis.
So often within the feminist movement, we see white, cis-gender, middle-class ladies of leisure at the head of the movement, who systematically exclude the most vulnerable minorities from the cause. Is it so radical to suggest that women of colour, transwomen and working-class women, non-hetero women, and disabled women are women too? That they need the protection of the feminist movement often even more so than the comfortable majority of white, wealthy women?
Whilst university ought to be a time for the development of political and social awareness, or so I thought, often people get so caught up in society politics that they fail to see the bigger picture. An example of this recently at my own university is the creation of the Zero Tolerance Charter – a policy whereby union events have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment for women and non-hetero people. However commendable this is in itself, the feminist society ruled against extending this policy against all forms of discrimination on the basis that it would be too hard to implement.
What baffles me about this is the fact that the feminist society would protect a woman against being called a slut, whore or made unwelcome advances on, but should a black woman be called a n****r, then the charter affords them no protection. This is excluding people of colour and disabled people from a charter that ought to have afforded them protection. I cannot fathom why the feminist society at my university fails to understand that it is not just white, cis, middle-class women that need protection. The only conclusion that I can come to is that white feminism is thriving alive and well in Leicester, ignorant of the needs of the minorities who most need their protection.
All of this can be seen in Caitlin Moran, the author of How to Be A Woman, hailed as a feminist classic. Yet so-called feminist Moran has no conception of feminism outside of white feminism. Moran dismissed claims that Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls fails to give voices to women of colour, commenting scornfully:
If a woman of color was allowed to make show as funny and honest and daring as Dunham’s — wandering around slightly overweight, naked, spreckled with acne, and talking about abortion, I’d be pitching a fucking massive feature on that to the Times, too. And I wouldn’t ask that writer why there were no white characters in it, just like I didn’t ask Dunham why there were no people of color in Girls. I think it’s as dumb as asking ABBA, ‘Why aren’t one of you black?’
Moran personifies white privilege, failing to see why the feminist movement exists for women of colour too, and why women of colour need voices in order to better their position in society. Here we have a privileged white feminist, who unfortunately holds a lot of power, but chooses not to use her platform to help all women, but only white women. Dunham’s show gives a voice to women, but only white women. The experiences of women of colour are completely neglected, their voices silenced, and Moran seriously can’t see an issue with this? She is insulting enough to compare the struggle of women of colour for recognition within the feminist community to ABBA? And this is our feminist icon? The mind boggles.
Feminism is for women. Women of colour are women. Non-hetero women are women. Disabled women are women. Transwomen are women. Working-class women are women. It’s unbelievably simple, but for white feminism, impossible to grasp.