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Why do Men and Women Speak Differently?

Updated on August 24, 2012

Traditional Views of Male and Female Speech

Early sociolinguistic gender studies tended to portray women's speech as being inferior to men's speech. In 1922, Otto Jepersen suggested that men spoke the standard norm while women's speech was a deviation from this norm:

"The men have a great many expressions peculiar to them which the women understand but never pronounce themselves. On the other hand women have words and phrases which the men would never use or they would be laughed to scorn" (Jepersen, O. Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin, 1922)

At this time it is important to note that men were not only the dominant figures in society but also in the field of linguistics. Jepersen argued that features of speech where due to a 'natural phenomenon' and failed to consider that speech could also be susceptible to social pressures.

In 1975 Robin Lakoff tried to explain the differences between male and female speech as being the result of a 'socialising process' whereby from a young age society teaches us our different roles which subsequently, is reflected in language usage. Despite the fact that Lakoff tried to move away from the male dominated studies of Jepersen her research nevertheless portrays women's speech as being intrinsically weak.

It is only until relatively recently that female sociolinguistics such as Jennifer Coates, Deborah Tannen and Deborah Coates have sought to redress the balance. They suggest that differences between male and female speech do exist and explain these differences in terms of different goals and ideals of communication. Although their research highlights that differences do indeed exist it discredits the view that female speech is in some way inferior.

Deborah Tannen's Cross Cultural Theory of Male and Female Conversational Norms

In her fascinating book You Just Don't Understand, Deborah Tannen looks at the different conversational techniques of men and women and puts forward a hypothesis to explain why these differences exist and occur.

Tannen works with the theory that language reflects a speaker's goals and suggests that differences between the way men and women interact in conversation is a result of their different preoccupations and goals. She argues that men have a hierarchical view of the world and are mainly concerned with achieving status and independence. Women on the other hand, she argues, view the world as a network of connections and their main concern is with intimacy and acceptance. That is not to say that either of these aims are exclusively male or female, but rather they have a different level of importance for each sex. These differences in turn lead to different approach to conversational interaction; men use conversation to maintain and negotiate status while women use it to gain and maintain intimacy. According to Tannen these goals are subconscious but have a powerful influence over the way men and women choose to speak.

Tannen explains how language can be used to send meta-messages that frame one speaker as higher than the other. Meta-messages are perceived underlying meanings that give information about the position of the speakers involved. For men the meta-messages frame one speaker as being of a superior status and for women the messages they send are with regards to acceptance and intimacy. Tannen believes that these conflicting goals of men and women can be seen as underlying all conversational techniques. In this article I shall discuss Tannen's claims about:

  1. Humour
  2. Encouragement and Agreement
  3. Contesting for the Floor
  4. Responses to Authority
  5. Disagreement
  6. Interruption and Overlap
  7. Rejecting Agreement

1. Humour

Tannen argues that women are less likely to tell jokes than men. When women do tell jokes it is normally to a small audience of other women with whom they feel close. The meta-messages involved in laughing at jokes frame the joke teller as the giver of pleasure and therefore as being of a higher status than the audience. If a man tells a joke a woman will feel honour bound to laugh- even if she doesn't find it amusing. This is because for a woman laughing at jokes sends the meta-message of intimacy and equality. The joke teller has given something and in laughing the woman can show her appreciation. Most men, on the contrary, will avoid laughing at other people's jokes, especially women's since they feel that in doing so they are placing themselves in an inferior position in the interaction.

2. Encouragement and Agreement

Women place much emphasis on listening and like to be reassured that they have the attention of others and that what they are saying is understood. Because of this desire they use many non-verbal signs and words. These are known as back channelling noises and offer the other speaker encouragement. Men also use back channelling noises but they only do so to signal that they agree with the other speaker. They will not use them simply to encourage. A woman often uses these signals even when she disagrees with what is being said to show that she hears and understands what is being said.

If women are concerned with intimacy then it stands to reason that they will try to encourage others in the conversation with these noises and signals. For men, concerned mainly with hierarchy they have no need or desire to encourage the other speakers.

3. Contesting for the Floor

Tannen explains how in conversations men feel they have to contest for the floor. Women in contrast are much less likely to do this because in same sex female conversations everyone is given an equal opportunity to speak. Tannen also suggests that a woman who talks a lot and is more dominant in the group will invite quieter members of the group to speak. Men on the other hand are reluctant to invite others to speak and lose their turn. Instead they employ techniques to actively gain the floor and then keep it once they have it. They will often repeat words so they can contest for the floor whilst they are gathering their thoughts. They will also use this technique when someone interrupts them to show they are still speaking. Due to the male tendency to contest for the floor, in mixed sex conversations, it is usually the men who have more turns at speaking.

4. Flouting Authority

The different goals of men and women are reflected in their different responses to authority figures. Because of the male's preoccupation with status, men seek to undercut the authority figure by resisting orders. Women are also aware of the authority figures but because of their desire for connection and intimacy they tend to comply with demands.

5. Disagreement

According to Tannen, men and women have very different attitudes towards disagreement. For women, disagreement is a form of conflict and hence a threat to intimacy. As such it should be avoided at all costs. Men on the other hand see challenging and disagreement as a sign of respect. For many men it is the necessary means by which status is negotiated. Men are not threatened by disagreement because often their arguments are jokey and used merely to negotiate status. For women, arguments usually only occur when they have a serious complaint and so they feel offended by conflict within a conversation.Tannen suggests that men will often go as fas as to play devil's advocate just so they are able to contribute productively, as they see it, to the discussion.

6. Rejecting Agreement

When a woman agrees with a fellow speaker it is a sign of intimacy and acceptance. For men, however, if their point is agreed with it sends the meta-messages that they need help. For this reason they tend to reject agreement to demonstrate their independence and make it clear to the rest of the group that they do not require the offered help.

Interruption and Overlap

Tannen distinguishes between three types of interruption; supportive, unsupportive and justified. Supportive interruption, or overlap, is where the interruption supports the current speaker. Unsupportive interruption is where the interruption does not encourage, support or aid the current speaker in anyway. This form of interruption is a violation of the turn-taking rules of conversation. Justifies interruption is where the interruption is justified given the nature of the situation. This can include instances where the current speaker has previously interrupted the person or when a speaker is answering a question directed at them. Given the nature of same sex conversations where men have to contest for the floor and women are given equal opportunities to speak, men are more likely to use unsurpportive interruption where women are much more likely to use supportive interruption.


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    • Meg Moon profile image

      Meg Moon 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Absolutely I'm sure there are differences between the male and female body language as well as verbal language. Glad you found it interesting.

    • WVitanyi profile image

      WVitanyi 5 years ago from Edinboro, Pennsylvania

      Interesting stuff. I have noted that during meetings in business settings women almost always use significant hand gesturing to reinforce their verbal communication, while men seem to be more hands down. It would be interesting to analyze the hand gestures for common meaning. Just a thought.

    • Meg Moon profile image

      Meg Moon 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks for your comments lisa24. I tested her hypothesis as part of my studies and it was amazing how much the men did exactly what she said they would do- especially the older men.

    • lisa42 profile image

      lisa42 5 years ago from Sacramento

      Very interesting. I definitely agree with many of the conclusions she draws, particularly when it comes to contesting for the floor.

    • Meg Moon profile image

      Meg Moon 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Yeah I can definitely see that. I think it leads to all kinds of unfortunate misconceptions about women- that they aren't as funny as men, that they haven't got as much to say and so on.

    • annerivendell profile image

      annerivendell 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Interesting Hub. It has been said that an misunderstanding of the difference between the speech of men and women accounts for the "glass ceiling" that exists for women regarding promotion in some areas of employment. The avoidance of conflict, in the eyes of some men, shows the woman to be unsure of herself and lacking in self-confidence.