The following is based on research conducted in 2000 and a follow up study in 2010.
Robin Lakoff wrote her first article on “women’s language” in 1973, and published her book on the same topic two years later. Women of that era had begun to make in roads in the business and professional world. The progress women made at that time challenged long understood meanings of “female” and “feminine.” Change does not occur instantly; old views about the role of women persisted.
In her 1975 book Language and the Woman’s Place Lakoff wrote, “‘Women’s language’ shows up in all levels of the grammar of English” (p. 8) and “[Women’s language] submerges a woman’s personal identity by denying her the means of expressing herself strongly, on the one hand, and encouraging expressions that suggest triviality in the subject matter and uncertainty about it (p. 7). This language-style prevents those who use it (whether female or male) from achieving any level of self-actualization. Further, the users of this speech-style find themselves prevented from garnering positions of power.
In The Power of Talk; Who Gets Heard and Why, Professor Deborah Tannen tells about the CEO of a major corporation who said he sometimes makes snap decisions by observing if the person who makes a proposal seems confident. Tannen observes that though “he thinks he knows what a confident person sounds like . . . his judgment may be dead right for some people may be dead wrong for others” (p 138).
Employers often perceive female employees as “lacking confidence,” a judgment that can “be inferred only from the way people present themselves, and much of the presentation is in the form of talk” (Tannen, 1995, p 138).
Lakoff made her assertions more than 35 years ago. The ideas that once defined women’s place in society seem quaint today. Some even seem offensive. The popular media of that era relied on those old female.
This experiment’s goal was to see if differential attributions would arise from the use of a female or male language style. The study on which this experiment was modeled demonstrated that “people [did] make differential attributions about speakers, depending on their use of certain language forms” (Rasmussen & Moely, 1986, p. 160.)
Lakoff identified women’s language by a number of identifying markers These markers include, but are not limited to, the following: (1) “Women make far more precise [color] discriminations than men do” (p. 8). (2) “‘Stronger’ expletives are reserved for men and the ‘weaker’ ones for women” (p. 10). (3) “Women’s speech sounds more polite than men’s. .. . The more particles in a sentence that reinforce the notion that it is a request, rather than an order, the politer the result” (p. 17-18). (4) Women use “empty” adjectives such as cute, charming, precious . . . (p. 53). (5) Women use “hedges.” These are words which “convey the sense that the speaker is uncertain about what he (or she) is saying, or cannot vouch for the accuracy of the statement” (p. 53). (6) Women use “intensifiers.” These are an “attempt to hedge on one’s strong feelings, as though to say : I feel strongly about this-but dare not make it clear how strong (p. 55).
“Only a small minority of the approximately three thousand languages have grammatical forms which correspond to gender” (Adler, 1978, p. 1) English’s only gender-specific forms exist among singular pronouns. While English has few syntactic gender distinctions, studies have shown that men and women do use language differently.
Edelsky’s 1976 study supports Lakoff’s observations about the differences in the ways men and women use adjectives and polite forms. The same study, however, failed to support Lakoff’s observations about the use of the intensifier “so.”
Bailey and Timm’s 1976 study supported Lakoff’s observations about differences in men and women’s use of expletives. With a third of a century since that study, there is indication that among younger individuals, there is less distinction in the use of expletives. This is anecdotal, and no study was located to support this observation.
Fillmer and Haswell’s 1977 study failed to support Lakoff’s observations regarding the use of color words by men and women.
Many theories exist about why particular differences in the speech styles of men and women developed. Carrie Chapman Catt said, “The world taught women nothing skillful and then said her work was valueless. It permitted her no opinions and said she did not know how to think. It forbade her to speak in public, and said the sex had no orators.” (as cited in Kramarae, 1981.)
In the United States, books directing women on how and where to speak-or to keep silent-have existed for more than 200 years (Kramarae, 1981, p. xiii). Courtesy books from the Middle Ages provide gender-specific advice on how to talk (Bornstein, 1978). Among the descriptions of what a “proper women’s” speech should be are gentle, friendly, emotional, polite.
Women have, until recently, been a subordinate group in society. The “muted group theory” proposes that members of subordinate groups lack the freedom and ability to express themselves because the dominant group created “the words and norms for their use” to express their own life experiences. Because society treated women as a subordinate class, it follows that women’s experiences and perceptions differ from those of men. (Ardener, 1973)
Whatever the reason for the emergence of gender specific styles of speech, it is clear they do exist. A larger and more important question than if these differences exist is what difference do these gender-based variations make? Deborah Tannen wrote, “Communication isn’t as simple as saying what you mean. How you say what you mean is crucial and differs from one person to the next, because using language is a learned social behavior”.
In a comparative study of the responses to powerful (male) language and powerless (female) language styles in courtroom settings, researchers found that jurists counted experts who used a powerless speech style as less credible than those who used a powerful speech style (Johnson & Vinson, 1990, p 325).
In the study on which this project was modeled, researchers concluded that (1) speakers of women’s language were seen as more feminine, less masculine, less instrumental, and more socially positive; and that (2) women who spoke in men’s language tended to be seen as uppity; and finally that (3) men who spoke in women’s language were seen as relatively homosexual. (Rasmussen & Moely, 1986, p. 154)
In much of the sex role literature, the writers describe men’s language as more “instrumental” and women’s language more “social.” The previous study on which this experiment was based identified seven identifiers as social (affectionate, sypathetic, sensitive, polite, gentle, good, and uppity) , and six as instrumental (self-confident, assertive, independent, powerful, influential, and competent). Researchers did not identify the last three adjectives (masculine, feminine and homosexual) as either instrumental or social. (Rasmussen & Moely, 1986, p. 154).
The role of women in society has changed in the last 35 years. More women work outside the home than ever before, and the jobs they do vary more. The ideas that defined a “women’s place” in 1973 seem quaint today. This project’s goal is to test the assertion that people assign speakers differential attributions depending upon their use of certain language forms.
Procedures Using each of the previously listed of Lakoff’s markers for women’s speech, I created sentences in female, male and (where possible) neutral styles of speech. (Sentences combined Markers 3 and 4.) I used the sentences as quotes by either a male or female speaker. The speakers were identified only as “she” or “he.” I created five types of sentence, each with 4-6 variations. Persons collecting data gave subjects a packet, which included one of each sentence type, randomized for speech-style and speaker’s sex. Subjects rated the speakers on the following list of traits: affectionate, assertive, competent, feminine, gentle, good, homosexual, independent, masculine, polite, powerful, self-confident, sensitive, sympathetic and uppity. The ratings were on a scale of one (not characteristic of speaker) to five (very characteristic of speaker). An average of the scores determines the general rating for each sentence type and speaker.
Materials Stimuli were short sentences followed by a list of 23 alphabetically arranged adjectives. There was one sentence for each of the test categories: adjectives, colors, modifiers, requests and statements. Each sentence had two or three variations depending upon whether a neutral form could be identified. Sentences had either male or female speakers. For example, the following sentence is an example of a male speaker using women’s language: He said, “That’s a cute house.”
Subjects in the initial 2000 study consisted of 47 females and 55 males. Subjects ranged in age from 18 to 89 years with an average age of 33 years. To acquire a variety of subjects, data collection took place at San Diego State University, a Jewish adult activity center in Anaheim, a sales office, a computer company, a retail mall in Orange, California and at the University of Toronto. Subjects are all adult native-speakers of English. Data collection occurred on a convenience basis.
Subjects in the 2010 study consisted of 38 females and 35 males. Subjects ranged in age from 16 to 78 years with an average age of 35 years. To acquire a variety of subjects, data collection took place at a business office in Costa Mesa, California, a retail mill in Orange, California, a street fair in Los Angeles, California and at the University of California Irvine.
Data collectors approached subjects previous to class meetings or in dormitories at university locations, at lunch gatherings at activity center, and approached individually at shopping centers, or in various work environments. Collection of data ran with individual subjects being polled, or in groups of 2-6. One female and three males collected data in 2000. One female and one male collected data in 2010. Persons collecting data passed out packets, read instructions to subjects, and encouraged subjects to ask questions if anything was unclear. Time to fill out the forms took
approximately five to ten minutes.
Interpretation of Data
Results of data was averaged for each sentence and speaker type. Possible scores range from one to five. A difference of 0.5 or greater was considered substantive.
The perception of the subjects about the speakers showed up most clearly in this test. No matter what the sentence type, subjects rated female speakers as less assertive and less competent than their male counterparts. When speakers used a male or neutral speech style, subjects rated female speakers as less independent than male speakers. Subjects rated female speakers as less self-confident than their male counterparts when the speaker used female or male speech styles, but as more self-confident when a neutral speech style was used. Subjects rated the female speakers more powerful than the male speakers when a female or neutral speech style was used. There was no difference in perceptions of power if the speakers used a male speech style. Subjects rated male speakers as more likely to be homosexual if they used a female than a male or neutral speech style.
This test showed some confounding in 2000 because of the use of an active word in the sentence selected. The base sentence was, “I painted the room (blue/blue-green/turquoise).” Some subjects indicated that painting the room a particular color indicated that the speaker “has confidence about his/her decorating skills.” For 2010 testing, a more descriptive sentence was selected. (The shirt is blue/blue-green/turquoise.)
Even with the difficulties presented in the original study, there was a difference in perceptions of feminine and masculine based on color vocabulary. . Subjects rated female speakers more feminine when they used more precise colors, and male speakers more masculine when they used less precise colors. With the adjustment in 2010 to the test sentence, the difference became more pronounced.
This test showed some confounding in 2000 because of the particular adjective modified. A number of subjects, especially younger subjects, saw a double entendre in the base sentence, “It’s (so) huge.” For 2010 testing, an adjective with less sexual connotation was selected. (That’s (so) funny.)
The modifier “so” in the intervening years is interpreted by older subjects as used by adolescents, both male and female. Younger subjects did indicate that speakers using “so” were more feminine in their speech patterns.
Subjects rated female speakers as less assertive, less competent, less influential and less self-confident than their male counterparts when both used a female register to make a request. When the female speaker used a male or neutral register, however, subjects rated her as more assertive, more influential and more self-confident than her male counterpart. Subjects considered a female speaker equally competent to her male counterpart when she used neutral speech styles, and more competent when she used male speech styles.
Subjects perceived the female speech style as less assertive, less competent, less independent, and less self-confident than the male speech style. It is worth noting that while female speakers rated lower than their male counterparts in all these areas, the difference did not appear to be significant. In this one test, the speech style and not the speaker seemed to make the greatest difference.
All forms gave some indication that different perceptions occurred as a result of variation in speech style and speaker. Adjectives, hedges, polite forms and colors appear to convey differential meanings about speakers of male and female language. In keeping with Lakoff’s observations, subjects rated expletives and stronger adjectives as more masculine; they rated weaker and empty adjectives as more feminine. Stronger adjectives produced higher ratings for speakers on assertiveness, independence, influentiality, powerfulness, and self-confidence than did weaker adjectives. However, where it concerns the perception of competency, a neutral adjective, rather than an expletive seems to give the advantage. Also, women have an advantage over men in this test if they employ neutral or male speech styles when it comes to matters of perceptions of confidence and competency. Also in keeping with Lakoff’s observations, subjects perceived the use of more precise colors as more highly feminine, and less precise colors as more masculine. In the request test, subjects rated speakers more highly when males used a female speech style and females used a male speech style. This held true for traits of affectionateness, assertiveness, competency, influentiality, politeness and self-confidence. Finally, in terms of statements, the speech style rather than the speaker appears to be judged in this classification and a “stronger” male speech style appears to be beneficial to perceptions about assertiveness, competence,
independence, influentiality, and power.While people perceive woman as having more positive social traits, the lesser perceptions of instrumental traits can have a deleterious effect on a woman’s professional life. When managers perceive a woman as less competent, confident, or influential, they may also perceive that woman as less promotable. One item which was not tested, but which may be of interest for future researchers, involved the perception of speakers as homosexual. Casual observation indicated that men who were known to be homosexual rated all speakers as more characteristically homosexual than did those men who were known to be heterosexual. Another area of possible future study might involve if age makes a difference in perceptions. Has being raised since the women’s movement made a difference in how people perceive women’s language?
In summary, this experiment demonstrated that people have different perceptions about the attributes of speakers depending upon their use of certain language forms. Differences do not appear to be significantly less than those in the original experiment in 1986. In the 37 years since Lakoff’s original article and in the 24 years since the study that formed the model for this experiment, women progressed professionally. They hold more types of jobs and at higher levels in the professional world. Still, comments about “glass ceilings” abound. Perhaps a part of the reason for the “glass ceiling” lies with the language choices of the women and the perceptions of those who could help them break through it.
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