Characteristics of Conversational Techniques

Are They Truly Gender-related?

Anthro 119: Language and Culture
Dr. D. Brenneis
Copyright © 1999 B. Collie Collier


The transcripts mentioned in this paper are not on-line for privacy reasons. However, it is my hope the paper will be worth reading nonetheless.



Is language gender-specific? Stone's model of language strongly suggests this is so. Many of the class readings would appear to support, with greater or lesser emphasis, Stone's conclusions. However, in those readings mention is made of several other studies that urge caution in assuming Stone's hypothesis is correct. Indeed, some of the class readings, while appearing superficially to agree with Stone, seem quite tentative in reaching that conclusion. They note gender differences in speech, but point out this could be more directly related to class hierarchies, age differences, and/or perceived power inequalities amongst the conversational participants. They urge caution in broadly applying the gender-specific sociolinguistic approach, seeking to avoid an oppositional, binary view of gendered language use. Instead they are apparently searching for a more continuum-based approach to linguistic sex differences, one where a wide spectrum of variables may be influencing results and speech patterns.

In order to contest or support Stone's hypothesis, we must understand the characteristics of each gender's speech as described by the authors we have read. Once we understand these apparently gender-related conversational themes, we can apply them to our empirical evidence and determine whether our own research disputes or agrees with Stone's hypothesis. At that point other factors, such as the various influences and interactions of each conversation's component elements, may also be taken into consideration in an effort to explain the findings our empirical data gives us, and the conclusions we draw from it.

From the readings done for class several broad assertions can be made concerning the interaction and characteristics of language and one's biological sex. The primary hypothesis within these readings, based on several common themes seen in the course of each study's examination of the speech of each gender, seems to indeed be that language is highly gender-specific. However, some of the theoretical evidence with which we are working is based on cross-gender conversations; these conversations may have exacerbated or diminished apparent characteristics of one or the other gender's speech. Keeping this in mind, what follows is a quick synopsis of each gender's characteristic 'mannerisms' of speech, as based on our class readings.

Gender-related Conversational Techniques

Women are on the whole believed to be more conversationally cooperative and "interactional (Maltz & Borker 1996:91)." They ask more questions and work harder to facilitate the conversational flow; they are "more actively engaged in insuring interaction (Fisherman 1978:404)." They give positive minimal responses throughout the conversation, such as nods; they use inclusive terms such as 'you' and 'we' more frequently. When interrupted or aggressively disputed they do not ordinarily continue speaking or fight back conversationally, but rather use silence as a form of protest. Conversationally they are more conservative and more polite (Deuchar 1988, cited by Eckert 1996:120). Bringing up problems invokes mutual commiseration, sharing of experiences, and reassurance, rather than being seen as a request for solutions and advice. Topics are changed by directly tying the new speaker's words to the previous speaker's subject matter, rather than simply starting a new conversational theme. Women apparently orient themselves to each other when they speak, and work at keeping each other engaged and participating in the conversation (Maltz & Borker 1996:91).

Men, on the other hand, are considered more conversationally aggressive. Their conversations are characterized as being both non-speculative, highly directed, and competitive: "a contest in language (Maltz & Borker 1996:91)." They value most strongly three conversational features: "storytelling, arguing, and verbal posturing (Maltz & Borker 1996:91)." They interrupt more; they challenge and dispute each other frequently with more statements of fact, opinions, suggestions, or directives. Questions are seen as requests for information rather than part of conversational maintenance. Men also apparently 'battle' for control of conversational topics' development and introduction, and avoid speech patterns thought of as feminine (Kroch, cited by Eckert 1996:122). When they disagree with the speaker they will ignore commentary, give a "delayed minimal response (Zimmerman & West 197:118)," or respond unenthusiastically.

Interpretations of Apparent Sex-related Linguistic Differences

These comments appear to demonstrate that most of our readings' authors assume language is indeed tied to gender differences, although the causes of those gender differences are still under constant, current debate. Some of the possible variables mentioned are sociolinguistic subcultures, age differences, perceived power inequalities, gender-specific maintenance of linguistic norms, and class hierarchies. Also, some studies indicate a strong need for caution before lumping all differences under the heading of "gender categories." However, the works of Eckert and Maltz & Borker in the United States, and Keenan (Ochs) in Malagasy seem to indicate strong linguistic separation between the genders is both the norm, and is frequently maintained by the genders themselves -- or at least that this was the case at the time of the study. Is this still the case? Let us look at our available empirical information.

David M. Schneider put it best, I think, in his book "American Kinship: a Cultural Account":

Just what is data? ... the distinction between fact and analysis cannot be made sharply; that they are so interwoven they cannot be separated. Hence the presentation of what purports to be pure data is always a selection; that selection is always guided by implicit or explicit presuppositions, and those presuppositions form a more or less coherent theory. A set of facts or body of data is simply some empirical statement made within the framework of a conceptual scheme or theory, however inexplicit this remains. ... But since data and analysis are inextricably intertwined, it is a direct corollary that statements by informants, quotations of what the natives actually said, observations about what they actually do can constitute nothing more than examples, or illustrations, and can in no sense be regarded as proving anything.

I don't ordinarily feel that (very) freely interpreted, half-remembered anecdotes or comments made in passing in a classroom by students can truly be dignified with the classification 'data,' nor do I ordinarily believe that anecdotes function adequately as 'proof' of a statement. As a humorous example, I may say I've met Santa Claus, but this does not make Santa's existence a 'fact,' or my statement a 'proof' or 'truth.' This is why no 'data' was included in my previous paper -- I felt there was no real data to report. However, (she wrote diplomatically) I am not one to deny polite professorial request. Thus, in the case of this paper I have attempted to statistically analyze the transcripts. Nevertheless, I wish the reader to keep firmly in mind the arbitrary nature of the production of that data, and the probable effects of my selection and analysis upon the transcripts. Indeed, my assumptions initially led me to incorrectly assess the impact of certain types of linguistic characteristics.

To explain: from the Brenneis class and personal research we had collected transcripts for ten single gender conversations. Of those ten conversations, four were between males and six between females. Did these conversations maintain the assertion that language is gender-specific? Did Stone's hypothesis hold true for the empirical data we had to hand? In order to determine the answer to these questions, I broke down each conversation, applying 15 templates of 'characteristic' gender-specific speech as defined by the class readings. Using those templates I attempted to determine if each conversation followed the "norms" for gender-specific speech in general, and Stone's hypothesis in particular. The number of occurrences of the criterion were examined in each conversation, and some statistical analysis was applied.

I had initially suspected I would discover that speech patterns were not strictly gender related, but would show some small amount of overlap. However, I discovered the inescapable numerical conclusion that all of the conversations displayed a striking numerical preponderance of male linguistic techniques, with the sole exception of Transcript #9 (see Appendix B [not included on the web for privacy reasons]). This was startlingly not what I had expected. However, I mentally shrugged and started to write up how 'male' linguistic characteristics had become the overwhelming norm in the single-gender conversations of many people today. I was also pondering what could possibly have occasioned such a remarkable change in linguistic speech patterns in what was, as far as I could tell from the readings, a surprisingly short amount of time.

It was as I was examining the criterion I'd applied that it hit me -- of course I would reach the numerical conclusion I had. It was a foregone conclusion, because I'd committed two statistical errors: 1) I had more 'male' criterion than female, and 2) I had not taken into account that some of the criterion would occur only rarely. Thus I was statistically giving equal weight to numerically rarely occurring 'female' linguistic patterns and numerically more common 'male' speech habits. Unsurprisingly the commonly occurring speech styles would thus be far more numerous than the rarer ones. A new approach had to be taken. I re-weighed the data in a more subjective (but also hopefully more accurate) manner, and tried again. This time my initial suspicions were supported by the data: linguistic techniques of speech are not strictly gender-related. I am proceeding with this paper while operating under the assumption that my second try is a more correct interpretation of the available data. However, as I stated previously, there is a strong possibility that I have once again missed some statistical anomaly which is skewing my data... and I ask my reader to keep that foremost in mind while reading this paper.

Transcript Synopses

Orally, the first transcript seemed to be quite aggressively spoken and delivered, and there was an almost competitive feel in the verbal jockeying for the conversational floor. Furthermore, loud burping (which is usually considered rude) interrupted the conversational flow twice, and one of the speakers was openly disparaging of the speech topics of the other two on various occasions. If we define the general conversational norm of women as maintaining politeness and conservative speech patterns, then I would have to categorize this conversation as an interruptive, norm-breaking, male conversation.

However, I cannot regard the conversation in Transcript #2 as being at all 'inclusive.' The speech patterns shown were aggressive and almost competitive in their open disparagement of the person who was the conversation's topic. Profanity was used repeatedly for emphasis, and the general mood was more one of exasperation than anything that could be termed supportive or inclusive. I would categorize this conversation as showing more generally male linguistic characteristics.

The third transcript was interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, in the in-class discussions there was general male consensus that the conversation participants were much easier on Dayan, as far as teasing, than most males would have been. Secondly, while the conversation was aggressive and competitive sounding, it seemed to be so more due to excitement at the environment rather than any innate or visible desire to be interpersonally competitive. Also, one speaker (Dayan) mentioned listening to his mom's advice (a seemingly conservative action), but then seemed compelled to justify that statement. Interestingly enough, the speaker that challenged Dayan's mother's advice did so on the basis of recommendations offered to him by his own mother -- and apparently felt no need to justify following his mother's guidance. There was also some use of profanity, although this seemed less designed to shock than a normal part of speech. This conversation demonstrates to me, by its apparent lack of strongly expressed conservatism or aggressiveness and its generally polite demeanor, a lack of decisively gendered linguistic speech patterns.

The fourth conversation was an aggressive one. Jeff seemed to struggle to keep the conversation going in the face of his compatriots' almost complete disinterest in his topic choice. The discussion certainly did not appear to be polite or conservative, although it could not necessarily be categorized as competitive -- Jeff made no effort whatsoever to keep his topic under discussion. Overall, this conversation's linguistic standards would indicate more male speech patterns. Transcript #5 was also somewhat aggressive; yet it was not so much a competition as a slow act of attrition by Bald Dude. Perhaps it could be read as a spoken 'silent protest,' a form of passive aggression. Bald Dude interrupts, postures, disputes, and challenges Dude throughout the entire conversation, in spite of Dude's repeated efforts to communicate, and ultimately cuts off Dude by forcing a topic change. This conversation can be said to demonstrate mostly male conversational tactics.

The conversation in Transcript #6 overall was slow, polite, and cooperative, as each speaker usually gave the others time to collect and then verbalize their thoughts. This would indicate to me overall female linguistic patterns. Transcript #7 was also cooperative, almost excessively so; each person spoke in turn in an almost perfect rotation. On the other hand, the use of profanity would indicate a certain amount of norm-breaking -- unless that type of speech was the norm for the speakers. The cooperative nature of the conversation would indicate more female linguistic attributes. There did appear to be some aggressiveness at the unnamed 'other' -- typically a more male technique. However, since the aggressiveness also seemed internally cooperative, I would say female speech patterns predominated.

Transcript #8 displayed all the characteristics associated with more female speech; it was cooperative, polite, and supportive. However, Transcript #9 shows some competitive leanings, as 4 is apparently slightly aggressively unhappy with Amy's actions. This was explained by the in-class discussion, where it was revealed that 4 had some empathy (due to previous experience) with Adam's situation. However, 4's initial aggression seems to smooth out over the course of the discussion, due to the somewhat reassuring speech of 1 and 2, and 4's speech becomes more cooperative with the group's general attitudes by the end of the transcript. There is no apparent use of norm-breaking language. Thus overall it appears there is a predominance of female linguistic techniques, in spite of the topic being (according to in-class discussion) a normal subject for either gender. Finally, the conversation in Transcript #10 was somewhat aggressive and competitive sounding, but this seemed directed mainly towards trying to cooperate on creating a discussion. Indeed, the discussion remained polite throughout. What ensued was, to me, not definitively demonstrative of either male or female linguistic techniques, although some of the individual utterances were clearly made by females.

A review of this collection of transcripts reveals the following gender-linguistic results:

Transcript Characteristics Actuality
#1 Male Female
#2 Male Female
#3 Undefined, mostly male Male
#4 Male Male
#5 Male Male
#6 Female Male
#7 Undefined, mostly female Female
#8 Female Female
#9 Undefined Female
#10 Male Female

From this table we can see that there are three instances where the gender of the speakers clearly matches the linguistic characteristics displayed, and four instances where it does not. Furthermore, there are two instances where there appears to be a mix of types of speech which lean towards the 'correct' gender, and one where there is no discernible leaning towards either gender. Thus things break down fairly neatly: 5 conversations that somewhat match the norm of gender specific speech and 5 that don't. Under those circumstances, one would have to conclude that Stone's model is incorrect, and that characteristic linguistic patterns no longer simply follow the parameters of gender. Of course, the inevitable question then arises: if not gender, then what?

Hierarchies and Egalitarianism: Fear and Courtesy

I suspected, from the contents of the transcript that I recorded, that Stone's model might not hold up in all cases. However, it was not until later discussion with that transcript's speakers that a new potential model presented itself to me. To clarify, I recorded Transcript #6; a conversation with three men conducting a slow, cooperative, polite, non-aggressive discussion. Initially I had wondered if this was due to my influence, as I am (unfortunately?) more than willing to force politeness on any discussion of interest in which I am participating. Had I 'contaminated' the experiment by having previously forcibly taught 'female' linguistic characteristics to these male friends of mine? However, later conversations concerning the transcript conversation emphasized that all three of these men were more than willing to be courteous to fellow speakers (regardless of gender), as long as the courtesy was mutual. Furthermore, all of these speakers had known each other for a minimum of eight years. Any uncertainties about 'pecking order' or hierarchy were settled long ago. Thus we have three men who not only regard each other as roughly equal status friends, but also feel some desire to work at and maintain that friendship. Perhaps this was the beginnings of the basis for the linguistic model I was searching for.

To back up a little, from in-class lecture I knew there was at least one researcher who felt 'female' linguistic patterns were in actuality based on perceptions of hierarchy, e.g., more polite and non-aggressive conversational techniques were shown in a courtroom, when the speaker felt they were 'low man on the totem pole.' Also, most of the conversational transcripts were recorded amongst students. These were of necessity people that hadn't known each other for years, and in some cases it was obvious that pecking orders were still in the process of being worked out. Transcripts #4 and #5 were almost painful examples of this; in both cases someone was speaking, and the listener simply didn't give a damn what was being said and did not care at all if the speaker knew or was hurt by that knowledge. Furthermore, as women often viewed themselves as lower ranking than men, it was natural that Stone's model (derived from cross-gender conversations) reflected that close association with perceived hierarchy and gender. However, it would appear that as time has passed, fewer and fewer women have been taught the culture's apparently previous more of women's inherent lack of status in regards to men. This is graphically illustrated by the fact that most of the transcripts are of college age people; a lack of the usual social norm of 'male > female' would be most strongly and rapidly shown by the women of that age group. Thus there is, to me, some compelling evidence that points towards 'male' conversational techniques being more based on either establishment of hierarchy or simple rudeness than necessarily simply the speaker's gender. Oppositionally, there was also some evidence that indicated that what was usually considered 'female' speech patterns was more demonstrative of a desire for friendship, courtesy and cooperativeness in speech events.

In conclusion, the transcripts the Brenneis language class took do not support Stone's conversational model. Instead, they demonstrate more a tendency towards aggressive speech patterns being associated with either attempted social movement upward amongst equals within a speech event, or acknowledged precedence in the perceived hierarchy of the speech event's speakers. Conversely, more cooperative and polite linguistic patterns are characteristic of speech events where the speakers either perceive their status within the hierarchy as low, or where a group of equals feel no need to express verbal dominance in order to raise one's perceived social status.

Obviously, these classifications are somewhat binary. Further research would be necessary to discern the multitude of associated variables. However, I feel the above model forms an adequate starting point for such research, instead of (to exaggerate amusingly for effect) the previous faith in gender differences (as created by the patriarchy) being the basis of all social ills.

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