Differences in male & female language

Written by elizabeth miller
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Differences in male & female language
Men and women may talk about different things, but current research shows their styles of speech are remarkably similar. (men and women image by PaulPaladin from Fotolia.com)

In the past few decades, research has abounded in the differences in use of language by men and women. While this research proceeded, however, cultural differences in the behaviour of men and women have diminished, as women increasingly work in the same fields as men and are now publicly able to enjoy the same hobbies and sports. Men and women now work together more often, so that language patterns are converging. Men are increasingly treating women as equals and, while in the past women tended to be viewed as more hesitant in their speaking style, now men seem to think that women are the better speakers.

The Way Things Were: Conversational Style

In 1976, Lynette Hirschman presented a much-cited speech presenting an experiment analysing conversational behaviour in men and women. Her research team noticed that females used more first person pronouns while men used more third person pronouns. Females were more likely to say "mm hmm." Females speaking together tended to be more fluent in their speech patterns than men together or men and women together. This study sprouted a multitude of studies in gender differences in language. It was finally published in 1994.

The Way Things Were: Conversational Content

In 1979, Dr. Adelaide Haas of the State University of New York in New Paltz observed general differences between male and female linguistic style and content. She analysed data that demonstrated that men used more directive language and used more nonstandard English than women. Women tended to be more polite, supportive and expressive in their language than men. Men talked more about sports, business and money; women talked more about home and family. Men referred more frequently to quantitative aspects of life such as time, space and action, while women referred more to qualitative aspects of life such as feelings and interpretations.

Changing Culture and Its Effect on Language

In 2001, Irene van Baalen published a thesis concluding that men and women have come much closer in their uses of language in the past few decades. She studied the use of hedging -- meaningless words such as "I think" and "probably" -- in a radio program. In the past, a "dominance theory" of gender language differences had been supported by the greater use of hedging by women, supposedly showing that women were less sure of what they were saying than men. She found that there was no statistically significant difference in the use of hedging words by men or women. When she typed up statements made on the radio show and asked people if they thought they were made by men or women, most groups had no significant difference in perception. However, women and girls were more likely to attribute hedging to women, while men and boys attributed more hedging to men. She hypothesised that men have become more modern in their thinking, treating women as their equals, while women still hold more traditional views. She supported a "difference theory" which holds that the content of language -- what people talk about - may be different between men or women, but that one is not superior to the other.

The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same

Men and women still tend to talk about different things when segregated. Men speaking together tend to talk more about sports, cars, business and money. Women speaking together talk more about home and family. However, when men and women are together, they try to find common ground, discussing such subjects as sports, family, hobbies and politics. Men also tend to use more polite language when in the company of women, avoiding curse words and coarse language. Gender language differences decrease with the age of the speakers, showing that with each generation the differences are decreasing.

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