Gender

Gender stereotypes strongly influence our judgments of individuals. While most of the stereotypes seem rather silly, and we fully support your right to reject and/or subvert them, you should understand the social consequences of those decisions. A man who is perceived as “not masculine enough” may as a result also be perceived as gay, weak, insecure or afraid, not taken seriously or respected. A woman who is perceived as “not feminine enough” may as a result also be perceived as lesbian, rude, unfriendly, aggressive, pushy and/or “bitchy.” It is also possible, of course, for a man to be deemed “too macho” or a woman “too girly,” in which case neither one is taken very seriously. Please note that we are not talking about biological sex here, but about the culture-specific and dynamic ways that we perform gender, turning up or down the dial as needed.

While the bulk of this module assumes traditional gender identity and heterosexuality for simplicity’s sake, remember that the exact same social signals are recycled (played with and played against) to signal other (“non-traditional”) gender and sexual identities.

Gender is not a simple, binary distinction (a light switch to turn on or off); it’s a continuum that can be strategically manipulated (a dial to turn up or down). Many women find it advantageous to speak in a somewhat more masculine way at school and in the workplace, to be taken seriously and to compete with men in public situations (or, when they feel threatened, in order to appear tougher), but may “turn up” the femininity when trying to connect on a more social level. Men are highly stigmatized in our society if they sound too feminine, so they tend to shift less than women do, but there are certainly times when they, too, might “turn down the manly man act” to better connect with others and turn it up again to compete. In heterosexual romantic situations, each sex tends to emphasize traditional gender stereotypes to express interest in the other.


You might be surprised how important the linguistic expression of gender is. A woman with very traditional physical self-presentation (with long hair, nail polish, makeup, jewelry dress, and high heels) may still be considered masculine if she does not “speak like a lady.” A muscular, bearded man dressed like a lumberjack may still be considered feminine if he speaks “effeminately.” (Online testimonies of transgender individuals often report that their speech “gives them away,” preventing them from being fully accepted.)

Many linguists assume that gender differences arise due to power differences in our patriarchal society, while others feel these are simply learned behaviors – that girls and boys are socialized differently and essentially have different cultures. We are not going to engage in theoretical debates here – we’re only interested in what the stereotypes are and how we exploit these to send social signals.

Gender Stereotypes Reflected in Communicative Styles

You’ve heard all the stereotypes before:

  • men are more rational, women more emotional;
  • men are strong and certain, women weak and indecisive;
  • men are competitive and aggressive, women are cooperative, supportive, and loving;
  • men are direct, women indirect;
  • men are rude, women polite;
  • men don’t talk about emotions and relationships (they’re terse and uncommunicative), women can’t stop talking about these (being excessively chatty and gossipy)….

There is no question that the stereotypes are insulting to both sexes and generally harmful to our society. But that doesn’t stop us from using them to our own advantage. We not only recognize these stereotypes, we manipulate them, to trigger judgments of greater or less masculinity or femininity, to try to achieve different goals in different situations.

Conversational Contexts

Obviously, gender portrayals are going to be extremely sensitive to context, and while we can’t imagine all the possible situations in which you might be communicating and interacting with others, there are two contextual dimensions that pervade the research: (1) Are you speaking in public or private? And (2) are you speaking only to your same sex or are there members of the opposite sex present? (Not that these are entirely separate issues, as the vast majority of public contexts are mixed-sex.)

Regardless of context, you need to pay attention when people manipulate their gender portrayal, as it is certain to convey important social information. Whether the person turns the gender dial up (appearing increasingly stereotypical in their gender presentation) or down (going against the stereotype), you should wonder why they are (perhaps unconsciously) making that choice at that moment. Either sex might want to appear more masculine to express strength and confidence and to be taken seriously, or more feminine to demonstrate warmth and sensitivity. Note that even going against stereotype still reinforces the stereotype, just as appealing to it does, because it sends the message “I’m not like all those other {manly jerks}/{ditzy females}.” As linguist Robin Lakoff said back in the 1970s, we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t….


Private, all-male talk

This is where the male stereotypes tend to be most evident, although the specifically linguistic stereotypes may be less evident, since men (supposedly) don’t talk much to each other in private, preferring to structure their interactions around activities, with speech occurring only incidentally. That is, males play or watch games, or work on a project together; they don’t just get together to “chat.” Homophobia might lead to avoiding any hint of effeminacy (especially in one-on-one male conversations), and a sense of competitiveness may lead to each man trying to out-male the others.

Private, all-female talk

Women speaking privately to friends do often privilege talking as an activity in and of itself, but the linguistic portrayal of gender can actually go either way: it may become ultra-feminine (e.g. supportive and intimate sharing of emotional troubles and sympathy), or it may offer women the opportunity to drop the girly act and enjoy being blunt, direct, crude, competitive, etc., speaking in a style they would not feel comfortable displaying in public. An all-girl rugby team is likely to take on a very masculine style in the locker room as they gear up for the aggression of the game!

Private mixed-sex talk

Private mixed-sex conversations may involve flirting, in which case gender-stereotypical behaviors will increase. When the participants are not flirting, however, friendly interactions cause both sexes to shift towards more gender-neutral behavior. If one person is surrounded by members of the opposite sex, these shifts are likely to be more dramatic. When hanging out with mostly male friends, a woman might shift considerably, to be “one of the guys.” Likewise, when surrounded by women, a man may shift to a noticeably less “manly” style. If a woman gets angry in private, she is more likely to express it (including shifting to a masculine style to show how serious she is about it) than she is in public. Likewise, a man feels more comfortable admitting to sadness, jealousy, and fear when speaking privately to women, and will often use a more feminine style to go with the more “feminine” emotions in that situation.

Public talk

Even if public conversations do not directly involve mixed-sex participants, they have at least the potential for overhearers of both sexes. These tend to privilege a masculine style of speech, so it is common for women to shift to somewhat more masculine norms, but not so much that they’ll be negatively judged as “unfeminine.” Both men and women are more likely to realize that they are putting on a gendered performance, deliberately controlling their behaviors: men pretending to be knowledgeable, confident, and strong, even when they don’t feel that way; women trying not to appear weak, emotional, or angry, even when they do feel that way! (It’s really pretty messed up when you think about it, and again, we respect your right to battle all the gender stereotypes and hypocrisies head on. Just be aware that there can be extremely negative social consequences if you do, and if it’s your goal to improve your social interactions, flouting gender stereotypes probably won’t help.)

Physical Self-Presentation vs. Linguistic Self-Presentation

Our society has gender-specific options for all dimensions of physical self-presentation (although there are some unisex and/or more androgynous options available, too). Sporting gender-specific clothing, accessories, makeup, hair styles, piercings, tattoos, etc. certainly sends a social message, deliberately claiming a particular gender identity – but these are superficial features that one can change at will or wear as a disguise. Most people will therefore interpret your paralinguistic and linguistic behaviors (body language, tone of voice, speech style, etc.) as “truer” representations of your gender.

In short, if you communicate in a feminine style, you can dress like a lumberjack and still be perceived as more feminine than someone with all the female trappings who does not sound “like a lady.” Conversely, if you communicate in a masculine style, it doesn’t matter how girly your clothes or hair look, you’re like to be perceived as more masculine.

Gendered Paralinguistic Features

Posture, Body Language, and Gesture

Books and websites on body language offer lots of gendered tips, but they mostly boil down to the idea that males should take up as much space as possible and not cross their arms, and women should do the opposite. Touching (oneself), head-tilting, “excessive” nodding and/or smiling all increase the perception of femininity. Not surprisingly, these behaviors directly parallel primate displays of dominance (power and confidence) versus submission (behavior that those with less power display to appease those with more power).

Body language is also closely related to the expression of emotion – and we do have rather strict social standards for how much emotion and which types of emotion adults of both sexes are encouraged to display in public. Because women are seen as more emotional (excitable), some people have the stereotype that women talk more “with the hands,” but the gendered dimensions of extensive gesturing may only apply to Americans of Anglo descent. Several ethnic groups are known for extensive gesturing from both sexes, so for example, a man of Jewish, Italian, or Greek heritage who gestures a lot does not appear unmasculine.

Gaze and Eye Contact

Gaze is used as a primary mechanism for showing interest and turn-taking (as discussed in those sections as well as in story-telling). Any extended eye contact (beyond the brief contact required for those discourse functions) is associated with challenge (both sexual and not), so someone who makes more eye contact than expected is seen as flirting (if other flirting behaviors are observed), as demanding the floor (as opposed to making a polite request to speak via brief eye contact), or simply as hostile and angry in general. Because our stereotype is that men are (should be?) more aggressive than women, a woman who makes more eye contact than expected may be especially harshly judged.

On the other hand, someone who refuses to let the speaker catch their eye comes across as fearful (not rising to the challenge). Because men are expected to be strong, a man who displays this kind of “nervous” behavior may be especially harshly judged.

Typically, in all-female conversations, listeners maintain a steadier gaze on the speaker’s face and speakers make more eye contact than men do in all-male conversations. Again, homophobia might lead heterosexual men to avoid behaviors that could be interpreted as flirting with other men, and since extended eye contact can also signal non-sexual challenge or aggression, they may think it’s friendlier to not maintain a gaze which might appear to seek extended contact.

If you want to work on your gaze and eye contact to avoid sending unintended messages, exercises for this can be found in the turn-taking section.

Pitch, Stress, and Intonation

Men on average speak with a lower pitch than women on average – but most men and women speak in a pitch range that is neither noticeably male or female. Some men and women will adjust their fundamental (baseline) frequency upward or downward when manipulating their gender portrayal for brief times, but this is hard to maintain if you want to make more lasting alterations to your communication style and isn’t really necessary. Pitch is more of a biological feature (associated with physical sex) than a social signal.

But we do expect different vocal qualities from men and women, mostly associated with the stereotype that women are more emotional than men. A feminine style expresses emotion by using more dramatic rises and falls in intonation, while a more masculine style would be more monotone. Feminine style also uses contrastive stress (and accompanying vowel elongations) to show excitement or surprise about the message being expressed. So a flat, unexcited “I haven’t seen you for a long time. How’ve you been?” will strike people as masculine, whereas an animated “I haven’t see you for SOO LOONG! How’ve you BEEEN?” will strike people as more feminine.

“Uptalk,” the use of rising question-like intonation with declarative sentences is sometimes stereotypically associated with women (and with young women in particular), though there isn’t any good reason to believe that young women do this more than young men. It does, however, fit into the stereotype that women are more cooperative in their approach to conversations: by implying a question, they encourage a response from the person spoken to. So saying “he’s great” with falling intonation expresses certainty about the proposition, not allowing for argument (and would be therefore considered more masculine), while a more feminine speaker might say “He’s great?,” inviting the listener to agree or disagree (like adding the tag question “don’t you think?”).

Volume (loudness) and Rate of Speech

Of course some people simply speak more loudly and/or more quickly than others. We get used to people’s individual styles. Yet these can still be gendered features in that we pay attention to variation: how often do people vary their volume and rate of speech, and how great are those variations?

Because women are supposed to be more emotional than men, we might expect them to speak particularly loudly when excited and happy, but particularly softly when sad. Since grown men are judged negatively when they display these emotions so overtly, we would anticipate smaller variations in their volume. On the other hand, as part of the “aggressive/competitive” stereotype, a man might become increasingly loud while arguing, while a woman would be judged more harshly for displaying this masculine behavior.

Similarly, feminine style would feature more variation in the rate of speech, as emotions vary: women tend to talk more quickly when excited, more slowly when sad. A more masculine speaker would have a more constant rate of speech, except in displays of anger.

Tone of Voice

Along with the stereotype that women are more emotional, supportive and loving, we tend to think of a warm, affectionate tone of voice as feminine. Because men are expected to be strong, their voices are supposed to remain unwavering and confident; therefore hesitant, quivery voices are seen as unmasculine. (Note that it is not necessarily “feminine” to be nervous – women don’t feel pressure to appear nervous – but it is still somehow “unmasculine.”) Similarly, an annoyed or angry tone is an option available for men but is considered “unfeminine” for women.

Because sarcasm can be used aggressively, it is sometimes associated more with masculinity. A woman’s use of sarcasm is expected to be sparing and gentle, of the “affectionate teasing” variety, while we associate sarcastic mocking with masculinity. The sarcastic tone of voice, then, which we associate with more aggressive forms of sarcasm, is often considered more masculine.

Some women adopt a breathy tone when attempting to sound more feminine (so we actually hear their breathing more as they speak). This is especially likely to be interpreted as a sign of flirting, however (since breathing rate accelerates as people become sexually excited), and so you might want to avoid it when you are not trying to send flirty signals.

Gendered Words


“Flowery” Vocabulary

Women are largely believed to have a more “flowery” vocabulary than men, particularly when it comes to color terms and gushing positive descriptions such as fantastic, gorgeous, magnificent, marvelous, fabulous, lovely, exquisite, or superb (as opposed to the more masculine simplicity of good or great.) Where women use cute and adorable to describe all sorts of inanimate objects, most men will only use these to refer to girls, babies, and pets. Most women do, in fact, wield a much greater color vocabulary than most men in the United States: instead of distinguishing mauve, lavender, lilac, violet, and magenta, men tend to stick with the basic color term purple, modifying it when required to distinguish light purple from dark purple or reddish purple. Heterosexual men avoid the “feminine” words unless they’re being sarcastic or trying to sound gay; they will not use this vocabulary to try to look more sensitive or caring.

Personal Pronouns & Private Verbs

The feminine stereotype is heavily interpersonal – connected, caring, focused on the relationship between speakers – while the masculine is more informational (focused on information). As a result, we expect women to use more 1st and 2nd person pronouns (talking about you, me, and us). Because we also have a stereotype that women like to gossip, we would also expect them to use a lot of 3rd person pronouns to talk about him, her, and them. Likewise, while men would be expected to use mostly “public” verbs (things can be externally verified: saying, running, playing, etc.), women would be more likely to use “private” verbs, describing inner states and feelings (think, know, feel, wonder, etc.).

Hedges, Tag Questions, and Intensifiers

Both men and women use hedges for politeness reasons – to mitigate the unfriendliness or unwelcomeness of a message. Because hedges (kind of, sort of, I guess, I think, maybe, etc.) can also indicate uncertainty (about the social situation and/or about the actual message being expressed), it is expected that women (stereotypically more insecure and fearful) will use more of these, and that men will avoid using too many of them for fear of appearing weak. Robin Lakoff, in the 1970s, suggested that women may be socialized to hedge as an apology for making an assertion (since making any confident assertion may be seen as unfeminine)! Tag questions such as don’t you think? right? isn’t it? (etc.) are also associated with a more feminine style – both because they seem to function as hedges, and because they encourage others to join in (as opposed to a more competitive, argumentative and hence masculine style).

If you are seen as “too masculine,” as overly aggressive, unfriendly or challenging, adding hedges to your speech is a relatively quick, easy place to start. On the other hand, we don’t recommend that someone with social communication challenges decrease their use of hedges, even if they are seen as “not masculine enough,” as using too few of these can increase friction in your social interactions. More examples of hedging (and more discussion of the social uses of this linguistic feature) can be found in the polite=indirect section.

Surprisingly, intensifiers work the same way as hedges: both sexes use them, but an abundance is considered feminine. The “logic” here is that someone who is confident about an assertion does not need to add intensifying adverbs. An abundance of intensifiers might seem to indicate that the speaker would not expect to be taken seriously otherwise (and is thus weak). Note that intensifiers may actually co-occur with hedges in the same sentence, are typically said with contrastive stress and express emotion (both independent characteristics of feminine style), so an excited “That guy is just SOOO fast!” seems much more “feminine” than a matter-of-fact “That guy is fast.”

slang, taboo language, euphemism & dysphemism

Because one needs to be strong to go against the rules of “polite society,” abundant use of slang, taboo language, and/or dysphemism (deliberately harsher phrasings) is considered masculine, while avoiding these and using more euphemisms is considered feminine. (For definitions, examples, and more discussion of these, see the words section.)

Other Gendered Linguistic Features


Nonstandard Pronunciations and Grammar

Just as it is considered a sign of strength to use “bad” words in defiance of what we are taught in schools and what we are told by society generally, it is likewise more masculine to use not just more informal pronunciations, but nonstandard pronunciations and grammar (especially those associated with stigmatized dialects). Women, in general, are seen as “better” speakers, more “proper” in their speech, more likely to produce correct, complete sentences. Men are more likely to speak “telegraphically,” deleting non-essential words (where women, of course, are adding intensifiers and hedges). So it sounds more feminine to say “He always orders the same exact thing for breakfast: a plate of eggs done sunnyside-up and coffee with milk,” while a more masculine version would be “Always the same breakfast order: eggs sunnyside-up, coffee with milk.”

Differences in Turn-Taking and Active Listening

Because women are supposed to be more cooperative and supportive and less competitive than men, we expect to see differences in their turn-taking and active listening behaviors. “Too much” active listening (overdoing verbal minimal responses, social smiles and laughs, and/or nods) seems more feminine (supportive, cooperative), while men are more likely to compete to get and hold the floor longer in public situations (effectively shutting the less competitive women out of public discourse). Ironically, while women place greater social value on talking than men do in their personal relationships, it has been repeatedly shown that men do talk more in public. A feminine style encourages other speakers to join in the conversation (directly, by asking more questions, but also using features already mentioned: “uptalk” intonation, hedging, tag questions).

Politeness & Indirectness

The stereotype that women are more polite has several consequences for what we consider feminine and masculine styles. As discussed in power & solidarity, there are actually two kinds of linguistic politeness – those that show deference to the power and independence of others (like apologizing, thanking, hedging, being indirect) and those that appeal to common ground, creating a sense of connection and solidarity between speaker and hearer. Women are generally expected to pay more attention to both of these types of politeness, showing both more deference and indirectness, but also more friendliness and social connection.

Report Talk vs. Rapport Talk

As noted above, our society deems “gossip” a feminine (and negative) speech act, but this ignores much of what we have learned about how males and females communicate and why. Linguist Deborah Tannen has argued that women use language for social rapport (connection), and that a major feature of this is “troubles talk” (a much nicer term than “gossip”!) Women share their troubles and sympathize with their friends when they do the same; likewise, they share secrets (their own and other people’s) to show the closeness of a relationship. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to use informational language for report, not interpersonal language for rapport. When presented with a problem, they wish to brainstorm solutions. But men do use language for social rapport with other men – they just show it in different ways, by engaging in different kinds of speech acts and events. Because men are stereotypically competitive, it is considered more masculine to engage in arguments (both playful and serious), to boast, and to insult one another. They use language like a game of one-upmanship: if you boast, my boast will top yours; if you insult me, I’ll insult you worse, etc. (Think of “trashtalking” in competitive sports, for example.) This hyper-masculine display features hyperbolic (and often “bad”) language, and sticking to the truth is not at all required! These are extreme examples of positive (solidarity-based) politeness, cementing male friendships.

Recipes for More Masculine or More Feminine Speech Styles


A RECIPE?!

You certainly wouldn’t want to alter all the variables discussed in this section simultaneously — you don’t want to be a caricature of masculinity or femininity. Likewise, when you do adjust some variables, you want to turn the dial up or down slightly, not crank it all the way. Different men and women use different combinations of these variables to express their gender identity while still maintaining individual, personal styles.

In addition, if you’ve been having trouble connecting with people socially, there are certain aspects of feminine style that you might want to maintain, even if you are trying to appear more masculine. So, somewhat reluctantly, we decided to boil down all the above discussions into terse, bulleted summaries, but please understand that these are very unusual recipes: any given ingredient is optional, and the amount of each is deliberately unspecified! (Sort of like some stews, which is not a bad metaphor for a gender performance.) Try out different combinations and see which tastes best!

A More Masculine Style

  • use dominant body language (not hunched, arms not crossed)
  • keep your voice relatively monotone and steady (not too excited, not scared, just calm certainty)
  • avoid contrastive stress (what Robin Lakoff calls “speaking in italics”)
  • avoid “feminine” (“flowery”) vocabulary; use short, simple words
  • avoid “hypercorrect” grammar (sentence fragments are fine!)
  • use appropriate slang or even taboo language in friendly conversations
  • be (relatively) direct; avoid euphemisms
  • talk about things in the world, not about people
  • do not shy away from eye contact (although you do not need to initiate it)

A More Feminine Style

  • use more submissive body language (arms crossed, body hunched, more nods, smiles, head tilts, touching your face or hair)
  • use increased active listening behaviors, including minimal responses
  • use wider intonational contours, including more contrastive stress
  • feel free to use “feminine” (“flowery”) vocabulary
  • increase your use of hedges and intensifiers
  • use “proper” grammar (but keep your word choices and pronunciations informal)
  • avoid slang or taboo language; feel free to use euphemisms
  • be indirect and very polite
  • talk about me and you, people, relationships and feelings
  • do not dominate the conversation: keep your turns short, and ask questions to keep others involved.

Exercises

Scholarly Sources

  • Bucholtz, Mary (Ed.)(2004). Language and Woman’s Place: Text and Commentaries. Oxford University Press. With original (1975) text of Language and Woman’s Place by Robin Tolmach Lakoff.
  • Cameron, Deborah. (1997) Performing gender identity: Young men’s talk and the construction of heterosexual masculinity. In Johnson, Sally & Ulrike Meinhof (Eds.), Language and masculinity. Blackwell, 47-64.
  • Coates, Jennifer & Pia Pichler (Eds.)(2011). Language and Gender: A Reader. 2nd Ed. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Eckert, Penelope & Sally McConnell-Ginet. (2013). Language and gender. 2nd Ed. Cambridge University Press.
  • Hall, Kira & Mary Bucholtz (Eds.)(1996). Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. Routledge.
  • Holmes, Janet & Miriam Meyerhoff (Eds.) (2003). The Handbook of Language and Gender. Blackwell.
  • Kiesling, Scott Fabius. (2012[1997]) Power and the language of men. In Monaghan, Leila, Jane E. Goodman & Jennifer Meta Robinson (Eds.) A Cultural Approach to Interpersonal Communication: Essential Readings. 2nd Ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 367-84.
  • Krolokke, Charlotte & Ann Scott Sorensen. (2006). Gender Communication Theories and Analyses: From Silence to Performance. Sage.
  • Livia, Anna & Kira Hall (Eds.)(1997). Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Oxford University Press.
  • Maltz, Daniel N. & Ruth A. Borker. (2012[1982]). A cultural approach to male-female communication. In Monaghan, Leila, Jane E. Goodman & Jennifer Meta Robinson (Eds.) A Cultural Approach to Interpersonal Communication: Essential Readings. 2nd Ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 168-85.

Recommended Reading

  • Eckert, Penelope & Sally McConnell-Ginet. (2013). Language and gender. 2nd Ed. Cambridge University Press.
  • Tannen, Deborah. (2007 [1990]). You Just Don’t Understand!: Women and Men in Conversation. William Morrow Paperbacks.
  • Tannen, Deborah. (2001 [1994]). Talking from 9 to 5: How Women’s and Men’s Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit, and What Gets Done at Work. William Morrow Paperbacks.

2 responses to “Gender”

  1. jmatsubara says:

    Hello! I’m exploring your website, and it looks great! One little comment: I have been told by members of the transgender community that the preferred term is ‘transgender individuals’, not ‘transgendered individuals’.

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