How does gender influence language, and why should we care?

We hear all the time about how men and women use language differently, and women especially are constantly being told to talk or write more like men to be taken seriously. From the overuse of exclamation marks as noted in “The danger of overusing exclamation marks,” to women’s tendency to apologize too much discussed in “How Women Can Stop Apologizing And Take Their Power Back,” it seems that society has determined there are multiple ways to speak, and some of these ways are better than others. These differences in language use along gender lines have certainly made headlines in recent years with men attempting to focus more on emotional intelligence and women attempting to advance more in the workplace. But to what extent do men and women really differ in their language use? Is this variation purely a response to the distinct environments and types of correspondence in which we are put in, or is it rooted deeper than that?

Before getting into more of the results and evidence supporting and denying the effect of gender on language use, I want to clarify what I mean when talking about gender. Studies have shown that psychological gender is a better predictor of these effects than biological sex, so for that reason, I will be focusing on psychological gender rather than biological sex when referring to gender-preferential language(Janssen & Murachver, 2004).

It might be about gender

Women have typically been known to use language to express more socioemotional topics, while men use language to talk about their opinions or other more discussion- and fact-based topics (Janssen & Murachver, 2004). This conforms to stereotypical gender roles that men are less emotional and more factual, thus better in the workplace, and women are more emotional and empathetic, thus better caretakers. In their analysis of 14,000 text samples, Newman et al. (2008) investigated these effects and found that women were indeed more likely to use words related to social or psychological topics, while men tended to use language more directed at impersonal topics. One method they implemented to look at some differences in language usage was “function words,” including pronouns, articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs. These are more useful than using content words because they relate more to how people connect words and how they communicate using the same content words. Function words have in prior research been found to be linked to depression, social relationships, and life outlook (Newman et al., 2008).

In their study, Newman et al. found that women were “more likely than men to include pronouns and social words, a wide variety of other psychological process references, and verbs. Negations and references to the home were also features of the female profile” (Newman et al. 2008, 223). Women tended to use language to convey “thoughts, emotions, senses, other peoples, negations, and verbs in present and past tense” more compared to men. In contrast, men tended to use lengthier words, numbers, articles, prepositions, and swear words, and their topics were more focused on current concerns. They tended to use language to convey more about external events like sports and occupation (Newman et al., 2008). Because this study evaluated such a large sample size, and some of these text samples were void of having any sort of environmental effect on them (such as text samples that were simply streams of consciousness from participants), this is very solid evidence for the existence of a difference in language usage along gender lines.

Is this really about gender, or is it another factor?

Other studies have focused more on how speakers or writers communicate to a person of another gender or about a topic considered to be geared towards one gender or another. In one such study, Rob Thomson, Tamar Murachver, and James Green examined how men and women responded to gender-preferential language over email (2001). Each participant exchanged emails with two “netpals,” one of which used female-style language and one of which used male-style language. They found that participants changed their writing style and whether they used more female- or male-styled language based on the netpal they were communicating with, such that their language accommodated more to the style of the netpal. From these results, Thomson et al. argued that gender-preferential language is formed in conversation and that people tend to accommodate whoever they are talking to. In their experiment, because the netpal did not accommodate the participants at all, the participants had to do all of the adapting and thus used more of the gendered language that the netpal used. In everyday life, when two people of different genders are speaking, they each do some accommodating so the conversation runs more smoothly (Thomson et al., 2001).

Janssen and Murachver (2004) conducted a similar experiment investigating the effects of gender and topic on gender-preferential language usage. In this study, participants had to respond to three different prompts: one which involved more emotion (female-preferential), one neutral, and one which involved more opinion (male-preferential). While gender played a small role in the results, the authors found that the largest determiner in the gender-preferential language of the participants was the topic they were responding to rather than their own gender (Janssen & Murachver, 2004). Similarly, Nicholas A. Palomares (2009) also investigated how feminine or masculine topics affected the tentativeness of men and women’s language. While stereotypically, women tend to use more tentative language than men, this study found that this tentativeness was based purely on whether participants were in the intragroup or intergroup. Women’s responses were more tentative for masculine topics when talking to men, but for feminine topics, men’s responses were more tentative when talking to women (Palomares, 2009). When talking to members of the same gender, men and women were not more or less tentative, and the same is true of the gender-neutral topics.

Both of these studies imply that there is much more at play in using gendered language than just the gender of the speaker; it’s dependent on the environment and other social factors, as well as the topic of conversation. But how much do all of these factors together contribute to gender-preferential language use, and how much does this language difference influence our everyday lives?

Why does this occur?

While we’ve discussed both evidence for the influence of gender on language and evidence against the influence of gender on language, it appears that there is definitely some sort of influence of gender on language, even if it is less important than other factors like topic or environment. If this is the case, why does it happen? One possible explanation for why these language differences occur is by socialization from the same-sex parent, or socialization from other children during language development. Why, then, do we still see these same language differences among children raised without a parent of the same sex? In this article by John Locke in The Wall Street Journal, he discusses some possible explanations for this. He claims that the basis on which men and women use language differently is based not on socialization from parents, but instead is more deeply rooted evolutionarily in men’s “dueling” competitions and women’s cooperation, or “duetting,” with other women. Because of this, men tend to be more aggressive when they speak, especially to one another, by trying to talk the loudest or have the deepest intonation, while women share their thoughts, feelings, and stories to form alliances with other women.

Does this all even matter?

It depends on who you ask. But, gender discrimination is real, and especially real in the workplace. In “The Power Of Talk” by Deborah Tannen in Harvard Business Review, she talks about how some managers don’t think that the women on their teams have enough self-confidence, despite their clear talent and good performance. However, this might not be true; linguistic style has a massive effect on how confident someone is perceived to be. In reality, the women may be just as confident as the men, but because of the linguistic style differences, they appear to many managers to be less so.

Looking back to the Palomares study in which the author determined that women don’t use more tentative language than men, they just use more tentative language than men when discussing traditionally masculine subjects with men, same as when men are discussing traditionally feminine topics with women (Palomares, 2009), we might ask if this why women may come across as less confident in the workplace, especially when presenting in front of a male coworker or boss. In spaces where more men are present, men will talk less tentatively with one another than women talk with men, which perpetuates this cycle. Another question we must ask ourselves is should we alter the way that we speak to accommodate the expectations of others? Some argue that both men and women should use more of the other gender’s language style. For instance, in this controversial take on women apologizing, Kristin Wong explains that women apologize more than men because they perceive wrongdoing more often and that maybe men should apologize more than they currently do. She finds a middle-ground that, unlike many other advice articles instructing women to speak more like men, asks men to also consider how they communicate.

In conclusion, we’ve only discussed the English language, and our discussion is limited given the current research mostly focuses on labeling gender into two categories, rather than a spectrum on which many people fall. This leaves us with many questions still unanswered- why does gender influence how we use language? Is this possible to change? Regardless, how we speak influences the roles we play in social situations, so by continuing this conversation and giving more attention to the role it may be playing in perpetuating gender roles, we can potentially start to understand more about where gender discrimination may come from and how to solve it.

Sources

Castrillon, C. (2019, July 15). How Women Can Stop Apologizing And Take Their Power Back. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2019/07/14/how-women-can-stop-apologizing-and-take-their-power-back/?sh=63a65a594ce6.

Janssen, A., & Murachver, T. (2004). The Relationship between Gender and Topic in Gender-Preferential Language Use. Written Communication, 21(4), 344–367. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741088304270028

Locke, J. L. (2011, October 19). Why Do Men and Women Talk Differently? The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/BL-SEB-67541.

Newman, M. L., Groom, C. J., Handelman, L. D., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2008). Gender Differences in Language Use: An Analysis of 14,000 Text Samples. Discourse Processes, 45(3), 211–236. https://doi.org/10.1080/01638530802073712

Palomares, N. A. (2009). Women Are Sort of More Tentative Than Men, Aren’t They? Communication Research, 36(4), 538–560. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650209333034

Tannen, D. (2019, October 15). The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/1995/09/the-power-of-talk-who-gets-heard-and-why.

Thomson, R., Murachver, T., & Green, J. (2001). Where Is the Gender in Gendered Language? Psychological Science, 12(2), 171–175. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00329

Torres, E. (2019, June 6). The danger of overusing exclamation marks. BBC Worklife. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190606-the-danger-of-overusing-exclamation-marks.

Wong, K. (2019, April 23). No, You Don’t Have to Stop Apologizing. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/smarter-living/no-you-dont-have-to-stop-apologizing.html.