Anthropology: The Myth of Miscommunication Between the Genders

From the patriarchal society of the 70s to the progressive movements we’re experiencing today, gender inequality has always been a prominent component of humanity. One area of interest, in particular for linguists, is the cause of supposed miscommunication between the sexes. ‘Women talk more than men’. ‘Men talk facts, women talk feelings’. Just an example of common misconceptions that many of us believe. You may even blame these allegations for miscommunications in your relationships. In this post, we will explore the reasoning behind these claims, why they’ve gained so much popularity, and whether they are true at all.

The Deficit Model

Robin Lakoff's book 'Language and Woman's Place'.
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In this version of gender differences, women’s language is seen as inferior to men’s, as it reflects an intellectual inferiority. Otto Jespersen popularized this approach in 1922. He published the very first piece in modern linguistics concerning “women’s language”. His ideas are based on the assumption that male language is the standard. In his book, he devotes an entire chapter entitled, “The Woman,” to describing differences in women’s compared to men’s speech. The key ideas he proposed included:

  • Women talk more than men.
  • Women have a smaller vocabulary than men – the words they use are the ” indispensable small change of a language”.
  • They know this small vocabulary so well, women can speak more fluently and without hesitation.
  • Women use half-finished sentences because they don’t think before they speak.
  • Women frequently connect sentences with ‘and’ because they are more emotional than ‘grammatical’.

Reading these ideas from almost a century later, this would seem extremely absurd and even infuriating. It will probably be the most sexist thing you’ll read all day. Therefore, unsurprisingly, there are obvious limitations to Jespersen’s ideas. Firstly, he conducted none of his research – instead basing all of his ideas on literature and works of fiction. Secondly, and probably worst of all, he quoted others who hadn’t done any research either.

However, the damage was done by the time these ideas were published in his work ‘Language, it’s Nature, Development, and Origin’. Jespersen’s theory remained largely unchallenged for almost 50 years. Women’s inferiority affects their language. This became the ‘norm’ within linguistics and, consequently, society.

Revision of the Deficit Model

Eventually, linguist Robin Lakoff revisited the deficit model in the 1970s. However, if you were hoping for a dramatic turn-around about miscommunication between genders, you will be disappointed. Unfortunately, Lakoff’s ideas aligned with Jespersen’s, in thinking that language use was dependent on the intellect and power of gender. She arrived at this conclusion due to the already enforced gender inequality within society. In her book ‘Language and Woman’s Place’, Lakoff put forward her understanding of what she termed “women’s language”: a variety of language used by women. Her work explained how women’s language varied concerning their subordinate role in society.

Lakoff proposed specific linguistic features of women’s speech that she believed characterized the way women speak. They revealed the impact of this subordinate role on language, many of which became commonplace when studying language and gender:

  • Hedges: Phrases like “sort of”, “kind of”, “it seems like”
  • Empty adjectives: “divine”, “adorable”, “gorgeous”
  • Super-polite forms: “Would you mind…” “…if it’s not too much to ask” “Is it okay if…?”
  • Apologize more: “I’m sorry, but I think that…”

These are just a few of Lakoff’s observations which, similarly to Jespersen’s, were largely intuitive and anecdotal. This allowed later studies to give evidence both in support and against this theory, which we will now look into. Overall, however, Lakoff’s main argument in defense of her ideas is that women are brought up to occupy a less powerful position in society, reflected in their hesitant and indirect language. This shows how gender inequality already embedded within our society influenced sociolinguistic studies.

The Dominance Model

Scales representing gender imbalance/inequality.
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Popularized in the 1970s-80s, the dominance model followed the deficit model linking language use to the inferiority of females. It held the key claim that language differences between genders were the result of a power imbalance. Rather than describing women as inferior, this theory suggests men’s language demonstrates more power because they’re more dominant in society. Meanwhile, women’s language reflects how accustomed they are to holding less power. It is not simply that men are dominant in conversation, but that men can be dominant because that’s socially accepted.

One key supporter of the dominance theory is Dale Spender, who wrote a book entitled ‘Man-Made Language’ in 1980. She argued that language biased against women makes up our whole social world. Spender believed men were more active in public life than women, so they could get their opinions heard easily. As we use language to express our views, Spender argues that commonplace words are more likely to express male experiences. Some examples she writes about are how the term ‘man’ refers to both men and the entirety of our species. How God is always depicted as male, and intercourse is described as ‘penetrative’ when penetration is something only men do. Spender’s approach to miscommunication between genders aims to prove how male domination in society leads to male domination in conversation.

Women’s Language or Powerless Language?

However, using the dominance model to analyze language imbalances doesn’t only have to apply to gender differences. O’Barr and Atkins’ courtroom study in 1980 proved this. In an article entitled ‘Women’s Language or Powerless Language?’ they applied the language features originally identified by Lakoff as ‘Women’s Language’ to various witnesses in court. It was discovered that these features were not necessarily the result of being a woman, but of being powerless. For example, a female housewife and a male ambulance driver both spoke with an equally high frequency of ‘Women’s Language’ components. This was in comparison with the low frequency of a female doctor and male policeman who had more power. This proved that people use more hedges, tag questions, etc. in any position of low power, not just within gender inequality.

O’Barr and Atkins could conclude that these language features were “neither characteristic of all women nor limited only to women”. However, it seems appropriate to wonder why the connection between power and women’s language was made in the first place. These language features were attributed to an imbalance of power between genders. But in reality, it comes down to an imbalance of power overall. This would indicate that the inequality between the sexes is the most significant inequality of power within society, potentially proving the key point of the dominance model.

The Difference Model

Stereotypes of what men and women think about.
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A more modern popular approach to explain the miscommunication between genders is the different model. This claims that the reason men and women miscommunicate is due to clashing components of both nature and nurture. Gender dialect’s most popular theory is the difference model (within the public eye at least). It will quite possibly be the one you feel most drawn to believing. There is seemingly much more evidence to support it. Also, it agrees with what is generally conceived to be true in our society; that contradictions in biology and upbringing prevent the sexes from behaving very much alike.

Conversational Contrasts

The key advocate for the different models to explain miscommunication between genders is Deborah Tannen. Her work during the 1980s and 1990s emphasized what she believed to be the separate characteristics of conversation for men and women. These have been reinforced since childhood. She built up a list of opposites to describe the different language use of genders (listed below). According to Tannen, these contrasts demonstrate the different purposes men and women have in conversation, which leads to miscommunication.

Women (cooperative)         Men (competitive)

  • Sympathy.                          Problem-solving.
  • Rapport.                             Report.
  • Listening.                           Lecturing.
  • Private.                               Public.
  • Connection.                       Status.
  • Supportive.                        Oppositional.
  • Intimacy.                            Independence.

It is important to note that Tannen’s focus here is less about the specific conversational features. It’s instead more about the purpose of conversation (cooperation vs competition) and how this impacts the way a conversation flows. 

Tannen’s ideas of opposites became popular in explaining gender roles in conversation. It seems to reinforce what people believe is innate about speech differences between genders. Stereotypically, women use conversation for intimacy. In her work, Tannen describes how girls are socialized as children to believe that “talk is the glue that holds relationships together”. Therefore, as adults, women will use conversations to build a network of connection and support. Conversation is for a sense of community, and the woman is an individual in a network of connections.

On the other hand, stereotypes suggest that boys are brought up to maintain relationships through their activities, rather than conversation. Therefore, Tannen believes talk between men is mainly for information. They supposedly negotiate for the upper hand and avoid others’ perceived attempts to put them down. For adult males, conversation becomes a contest. A man is an individual in a hierarchal social order in which he must compete for status.

Gender subcultures for children

Other linguists have also argued that differences in the socialization of young children causes miscommunication between genders. For example, in 1998 Marjorie Harness Goodwin produced a study of African-American children playing in the street. She aimed to prove that different gender subcultures for children affected how they conversed. She found that boys played in more hierarchal groups, with those higher up ordering clear directives such as ‘give me that. Meanwhile, girls played in cooperative groups and made more indirect suggestions like ‘let’s do it this way. Boys’ arguments involved challenges to the group hierarchy and were sorted out straight away through direct competition and verbal confrontation. Meanwhile, girls who organized their friendships through inclusion and exclusion tended to discuss issues when those directly involved weren’t present.

It seems that the gender cultures children experience growing up sew the seeds for a non-confrontational, collaborative speech style for women. They have an interest in topics concerning people’s motives and feelings. Whilst men have a more directly competitive style, with a focus on the physical world. Therefore, it appears that stereotypes reinforced during upbringing may be the reason for miscommunication between genders. 

Jennifer Coates

Jennifer Coates built upon Deborah Tannen’s ideas of women’s talk being supportive whilst men’s is for status. In 1980, she looked at mixed-gender conversations and suggested women use more hedges (e.g. may/might/could) and tag questions (e.g. don’t you?/isn’t it?/shall we?) This is due to women’s language being more indirect, as this allows them to share their ideas without sounding harsh. 

Also, she states that women are more likely to initiate conversation, but men often take over and dominate the talk. She suggested that in mixed-sex conversations, men often reject topics brought up by women. But when a man introduces a topic, the women almost always engage and support it. She said that men would discuss “male topics” like politics, business, and sport.

Despite all this, Coates’ research overall doesn’t seem to demonstrate these features as being a sign of inferiority. She suggests instead they show intelligence and perhaps power. She identifies women’s use of hedging as a way to initiate a group discussion by mitigating individual opinions, rather than taking a hard line. Tag questions are to encourage the participation of others and to check if the speaker has support from the group.

Coates states that whilst features of women’s language are different from men’s, ‘powerless features’ is not an appropriate label. She claims these differences arise from gender subcultures. In all-female conversations, women’s linguistic features are functional in terms of the goals of all-female conversations. To claim these features are signs of weakness, just because less dominant members of society use them, only worsens the problem. It reinforces the idea that men’s language is the norm. Therefore, women and men communicate differently, but with no power imbalance involved.

Men are from Mars

Undoubtedly, the most well-known account of the different models to explain miscommunication between genders is John Gray’s ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from VenusPublished in 1992, this self-help book became a best-seller as it taught a mainstream audience how to communicate better with the opposite gender by acknowledging the differences between them.

Gray describes how men come from a planet of war, and learn to compete and gain status, whilst women are from the planet of love and learn to be emotional and dedicated to their relationships. Once upon a time, Martians and Venusians met, fell in love, and had happy relationships together because they respected and accepted their differences. Then they came to earth and amnesia set in: they forgot they were from completely different planets. Using this metaphor to illustrate the commonly occurring conflicts between men and women, Gray explains how these differences can come between the sexes and prohibit mutually fulfilling loving relationships.

Based on years of successful counseling of couples, he advises on how to counteract these differences in communication styles, emotional needs, and modes of behavior to promote a greater understanding between individual partners. Gray shows how men and women react differently in conversation and how male intimacy cycles (“get close”, “back off”), and female self-esteem fluctuations (“I’m okay”, “I’m not okay”) affect relationships. He encourages readers to accept the other gender’s particular way of expressing love and helps men and women learn how to fulfill each other’s emotional needs despite their unique ways of expressing them.

Different models in mainstream media

This book helped the different models to gain popularity within a mainstream audience, as it finally gave couples an excuse as to why miscommunications occur in their relationships. It offered an impersonal reason for which neither is to blame and gave clear guidance on how to solve the problem. Whilst this may have seemed agreeable to many, Gray’s ideas were all the while assisting to reinforce gender stereotypes within society and relationships. To create a clear cut between men and women, declaring they originate from completely different planets, from war and love, will not necessarily explain miscommunication, but may make the issue worse. This theory does not bring us closer as a species, but divides us into categories we may not necessarily identify with. Looking at it this way makes it seem less of a revolution for language and gender, and instead more of a regress. 

The Diversity Model

Deborah Cameron's book 'The Myth of Mars and Venus'.
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Considering all of the theorists so far agree that women use language indirectly, Deborah Cameron does nothing of the sort when she strikes back at John Gray with her book ‘The Myth of Mars and Venus. A clear dig at Gray’s theory that men and women miscommunicate because they’re from different planets, Cameron paves the way for a much more modern way of thinking about gender and language: the diversity model.

The myth of Mars and Venus

Cameron says that dominant societal expectations that have been forced upon us through upbringing and experience cause contrasts in the way each gender speaks. She gives the term ‘Verbal Hygiene’ to describe how men and women believe they are supposed to speak. In reality, this just demonstrates how we’re using language to impose order in society; by identifying women’s language as weak, it simply reinforces their position as powerless in a wider context. 

At the heart of her book, Cameron believes that miscommunication caused by language differences is a completely false idea. She outlines a series of allegations frequently used to support the supposed differences, and labels them as myths:

  • Communicating matters more to women.

  • Women have more verbal skills.

  • Women talk about feelings and people, whereas men talk about facts.

  • Men are competitive, but women are supportive.

  • These differences lead to miscommunication between the two genders.

Men and women are not as alien to each other as John Gray would have us believe, according to Deborah Cameron. She argues there is a lack of evidence to support popular conceptions of language differences between genders causing miscommunication. As long as gender remains a key element of our social identity, we will continue to magnify the significance of differences between male and female behavior, including language use. There are more similarities in the way the sexes use languages than there are differences. We simply notice the traits that fit with what we already believe; it’s a confirmation bias. Any differences in language features are to a frequency/degree, not clear-cut.

9 Ch 3: Gender similarities hypothesis ideas | hypothesis, gender,  similarity
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Janet Hyde’s statistics from her ‘gender similarities hypothesis. This shows how insignificant the differences between genders are.

Context is key!

Deborah Cameron is just one researcher who has successfully pointed out that none of these theories of division seriously addresses the ways in which men and women use language differently in different contexts or the considerable range of speaking styles identifiable within each gender group. Instead of simply matching up particular language features to men or women, Cameron believes we should shift towards examining how people ‘do’ or ‘perform’ their gender through language, depending on the context of a conversation.

A gender performance involves what is said as well as how it is said. For instance, Cameron’s discourse analysis of a conversation between a group of male college students in 1998 showed that their talk had both cooperative and competitive aspects, contrary to Deborah Tannen’s beliefs. They used features signaling solidarity which other researchers, such as Robin Lakoff, had associated with ‘women’s talk’. Cameron argues that in this particular private conversation context between male friends, gender is not expressed through speaking style so much as through the content of talk: the speaker’s references to sexual exploits with women and their derogatory comments about other males whom they describe as ‘gay’. She suggests that, through what they say, they define themselves against these other groups (women and gay men). They are performing the gender identity of ‘red-blooded heterosexual males’.

Identity and Performativity

In her book ‘Gender Troubles’ published in 1990, Judith Butler put forward the idea of ‘gender performativity. This aims to show how our gender and sex can be completely different. Sex is part of the biology we are born with, whilst gender is a culturally formed idea of who we are. So, our gender is essentially ‘man-made’ and a role society expects us to perform. We are placed into the subculture of our sex when we’re born. For example, the male sex has ‘blue’, according to stereotypes. They then become boys when they accept to perform this role. Equally, the female sex has ‘pink’. They become girls when they accept to perform this role.

Butler believes that, unlike sex, gender is a non-binary concept. But because of the society we live in, we want to put everyone in a box. In the 20th Century, gender and sex were pretty much considered the same thing as part of a consistent binary system: you were either a man or a woman, masculine or feminine. There was no in-between. Perhaps this explains the common perception that the speech of gay men is feminine; when a male acts any other way but masculine, the only other option is to put them in the feminine box.

In terms of what this means for miscommunication between genders, Butler’s theory implies that men and women have the same language capacity. Our language use constructs our gender, not the other way round. Our language is not a reflection of our sex, and therefore the idea of miscommunication is a myth. We can all be cooperative, assertive, or tentative. It’s only our society that tries to classify certain features into certain genders.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Represents a debate between men and women.
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The cause of miscommunication between genders has been an area of great interest to linguists. If men and women do speak differently, how does this affect our ability to talk cooperatively between sexes? In the past, some linguists have suggested we miscommunicate because of the power imbalance within society. Jesperson and Lakoff both claimed features of women’s language showed weakness, correlating with their inferiority within the social hierarchy. Men’s language is the norm, according to society. So, language features associated with women are automatically considered as inferior. 

The different model explains miscommunication as due to different conversational purposes, rather than an imbalance of power. In some instances, this is equally as harmful. John Gray’s idea of the sexes being alien to each other only reinforces gender stereotypes and makes people believe miscommunication is inevitable. To change, we must stop seeing men’s and women’s language with clear-cut differences.

The study of miscommunication between genders is still relevant today. Diversity model advocates encourage people to see gender language as a chosen performance, not a fixed way of talking. Society likes to categorize and be able to put people into boxes. Whether we realize it or not, we look for proof of what we are already inclined to believe and ignore evidence suggesting otherwise. But as researchers like Cameron and Butler gain more popularity, we’re beginning to see gender as something other than binary. And as we learn to identify people beyond just men and women, we’ll see their language features don’t always conform to the boxes society has built, alleviating the myth of miscommunication.

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