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Genderlects in Social Media

Updated on April 9, 2017


The purpose of this study is to analyse and observe the linguistic features of men and women aged 16 to 20 via social media outlets. This study will also look at Robin Lakoff’s dominance theory that outlines the social submission of females through language (Lakoff 1972). It is hypothesised that Lakoff’s dominance theory will not be relevant in the context of social media and there will be minimal differences between the genderlects.

Literature Review

It is impossible to conduct any gender-linguistic based research without confronting Robin Lakoff’s dominance theory and the difference theory that has followed. Lakoff’s ‘Language and a woman’s place’ first published in 1972 was the foundation of this area of study (White, 2003) and although problematic due to “relying heavily on personal observation…and lack of empirical research” (White, 2003, p. 3) it formed the basis of further research. Lakoff’s list of distinguishing linguistic features, as White (2003, p. 4) and Nemati and Bayer (2007, p. 188) have referenced in their discussion, is as follows:

  1. Hedges
  2. Empty adjectives
  3. Super-polite forms
  4. Apologise more
  5. Speak less frequently
  6. Avoid course language or expletives
  7. Tag-questions
  8. Hyper-correct grammar and pronunciation
  9. Indirect requests
  10. Speak in italics

Lakoff (1972) stated that the above features are a powerless form of speech and therefore contribute to the oppression and submissiveness of women, not only in inter-gender conversation, but also in a male dominated society. Although Lakoff’s views are very debatable, White (2003) claims that the list of features has provided room for expansion and elaborated research. A result of this is Maltz and Borker (1982) suggesting that men and women view the function of conversation differently, therefore resulting in genders using conversation differently. This is called ‘the difference approach’ (Maltz and Borker 1982). White (2003) adds that “for men the focus is on sharing information, while women value the interaction process” (p. 5) and goes on to elaborate that during a larger portion of one’s language acquisition stage, a majority of conversations are held between the same gender and it is at this point where genderlects are learnt.
A more recent study also uses Lakoff’s theory as a foundation- conducted by Jakobsson in 2010 included the observation of hedges, tag-questions, minimal responses, and regular questions in various voice recordings of women in their 20s. She proposes that women speak of more personal and confronting topics, as opposed to men, and therefore use hedges more frequently, showing insecurity.
Similarly, Nemati and Bayer (2007) find that men use language as a means to show independence and status whereas women use it as a form of intimacy. Their research was taken from various English and Persian films of a social and/or family setting and the aspects that were looked at included intensifiers, hedges, and tag-questions. Their English results show a very large portion of utterances being spoken by the male characters; however, intensifiers and hedges were of a larger percentage in female speech and questions were of a much larger percentage of male speech. Problems with this research include the selection of English films. American Beauty and Taxi Driver both have dominant male leads and therefore questions will come from the main characters to show their control of the conversation.
A very different study conducted in 1979 by Brouwer, Gerrilson, and DeHaan involves a variety of ages and genders, throughout different times of the day, buying a train ticket. All of Lakoff’s features were observed. The results of this study are askew and inaccurate due to the simplicity of requesting a ticket. A majority of both genders asked for tickets in almost identical ways and the employees selling the tickets were not controlled variables.
A reoccurring issue of all studies above is that the only features observed were that of Lakoff’s. The context of which the data was collected was also problematic due to the participants knowing they were involved in an experiment, tasks too simplistic in nature, and films that focus on one gender as main characters. Each study also only involved language which is spoken in face to face conversation. Social media is currently a common form of communication and it is not yet clear what linguistic changes is a result of typing through a screen rather than speaking face to face. This study aims to find the difference in which males and females use language via social media. The features that will be observed include (2 of Lakoff’s) hyper correct grammar and avoidance of course language, and a more modern aspect: use of emojis.


37 participants aged 16 to 20 years old were asked (with permission) to send screenshots of past group conversations. Of the 37, 20 were female and 17 were male. All the male conversations were taken from Facebook in a group chats consisting of high school friends. 15 females had group chats on Facebook also consisted of high school friends whereas 5 was a group of church friends using Whatsapp. The group conversations were of only 1 gender. The screenshots were not specifically chosen from certain parts of the conversation, whatever was sent has been analysed. Instead of recording amount of utterances, the amount of messages has been counted and features used will be shown in percentages. The feature of hyper correct grammar will be studied as use of abbreviations. Avoidance of course language will be counted with 2 parts: direct profanity or crude terms and euphemisms (where a euphemism will be counted as word of less obscenity used in place of a curse word). Finally, the use of emojis will also include pictures and gifs sent.



Females used less abbreviations showing hyper correct grammar. It is noteworthy that the majority of abbreviations used by females were functioning as hedges, such as ‘lol’ and ‘omg’ where as the male abbreviations were used to save time typing a longer term, ‘gl’ for ‘good luck’. Females also used more euphemisms than they did direct profanity complying to Lakoff’s ‘avoid course language or expletives’. The overwhelmingly lopsided use of emojis reflects the way women view conversation as a form of intimacy with 77 emojis, 2 pictures, and 3 gifs total- mostly used to convey emotion- whereas the males recorded number was 7, all of the 7 were pictures functioning either as jokes or to show off a high score.

If this study (or a similar one) were to be repeated in the future it should include a much larger amount of participants and observe all of Lakoff’s features.


For the full report with attached appendix:


Brouwer, D., Gerrilsen, M., DeHaan, D. (1979). Speech differences between women and

men: on the wrong track? In language in society 8:1. pp. 33-50. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press

Jakobsson, S. (2010). A study of female language features in same-sex conversation. Sweden:

School of Education and Economy.

Lakoff, R. (1972). Language and a woman’s place. New York: Harper&Row

Maltz, D. N., Borker, R. A. (1982). A cultural approach to male-female miscommunication.

In Grumperz, J. J. (ed.). Language and social identity. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Nemati, A., Bayer, J. M. (2007). Gender differences in the use of linguistic forms in the

speech of men and women: a comparative study of Persian and English. Iran: Jahrom Azad University.

White, A. (2003). Women’s usage of specific linguistic functions in the context of casual

conversation: analysis and discussion. United Kingdom: University of Birmingham.


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