Gender Differences in Everyday Conversations
Our social lives are characterised by frequent conversations during which we communicate and express ideas, opinions and feelings through a shared code.
Indeed, the way we use and interpret language reflects and determines our individual perception of language usage itself. In this respect, each of us perceives a different meaning associated with language, and this is usually one of the main causes for cultural divides within a society and misunderstandings between individuals.
Sociolinguistic studies cover a variety of linguistic phenomena, the most commonly discussed issues being dialects, politeness, bilingualism, code-switching and gender differences in language and understanding. The latter has given rise to many interesting arguments which will be reviewed thoroughly in this post.
Lilac or purple?
In her famous book entitled Language and Woman's Place, Robin Lakoff focuses on the difference in the use of vocabulary between genders.
She maintains that women use words in speech which best describe their feelings about something. Such words include fabulous, divine, adorable, tremendous, loveable, exquisite, etc. Lakoff goes on to say that certain adjectives are popularly uttered by women but rarely by men, such as cute, pretty, wicked, adorable and so on.
Another noteworthy difference that Lakoff comes up with is the use of colour vocabulary. Women might talk about buying a beige pair of trousers, or lilac sheets. Meanwhile, men's colour vocabulary is limited to main colours, and as such they rarely use exotic colours to describe items.
When was the last time you heard a man utter the words 'powder blue' and 'blanched almond?'
The myth of Mars and Venus
Deborah Tannen, a renowned linguistic professor, proposes the idea that men and women are trained, from an early age, to use language in a different manner. This idea has been rejected by other critics, most prominently Deborah Cameron who argues that the belief that men and women differ in the way they use language in everyday conversations is nothing but a myth. She refers to this as ‘the myth of Mars and Venus,’ and her book dealing with this dogmatic belief carries the same name.
Cameron points out that this false belief is a potential instigator of gender discrimination, especially at the workplace. She backs up her argument with a real life example, stating that a manager of a call centre was once asked by an interviewer why his staff was largely made up of women. The manager admitted that he believed that women are naturally better at chatting and interacting with clients than men are.
In The Myth of Mars and Venus, Cameron identifies several ideas related to this false belief that women and men speak a different language. One of these statements includes the widely held belief that women are “more verbally skilled than men” and as a result they talk more than men do. She also rejects the belief that men’s conversations are usually based on facts, whereas women tend to talk more about feelings, gossip and relationships.
Another popular claim which she vehemently disagrees with is that men's language-usage tends to be competitive, projecting their interest in acquiring and maintaining a dominant status, while women's use of language is cooperative, reflecting their inclination towards equality and agreement.
Taking a wider perspective
The difference in our manner of speech and the way we use language is an inevitable occurrence. This is not just valid in relation to gender, but also to the linguistic environment which we were brought up in.
Moreover, we all fit into different roles in society which determine our manner of speech. Our perception of language and the way we use it also depends on our daily interactions with interlocutors from different social backgrounds.
Different language usage constitutes different meanings. This is also another reason why sometimes men and women don’t understand each other, or what their male or female counterpart is implying by making a certain statement.
Recently, language and gender studies have extended to linguistic studies dealing with gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Thus, I believe that the differences in language usage keep evolving and expanding, and it is our unique way of using and interpreting language which defines our personality and our cultural background.