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VOICES
A Selection of Multicultural Readings

Kathleen S. Verderber
Northern Kentuclcy University

xr
_ Wadsworth Publishing Company

[email protected] ” An Intemational Thomsor,”publirh^ing to-puny

B e l m o n t ‘ A l b a n y ‘ B o n n . B o s t o n . C i n c i n n a t i . D e t r o i t . L o n d o n . M a d r i d . M e l b o u m e

M e x i c o c i t y . N e w Y o r k . P a r i s . s a n F r a n c i s c o . s i n g a p o r e . T o k y o . T o r o n t o . w a s h i n g t o n

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S E L E C T I O N T H R E E

In American society, the games that boys have traditionally played and the games
that girls have traditionally played have had different goals, rules, and roles. As a
result the interaction that is necessary to be successful in each of these distinct
speech communities is different. According toJulia T. wood, professor of
Communicarion ar University of North carolina chapel Hill, from childhood men
and women are conditioned to have differing communication styles, to talk differ-
ently In this selection from her book GenderedLiyes: Communication, Gende4 and
culture, the origins, behaviors, and motives for each style are discussed. Through
understanding both masculine and feminine styles, we should be better equipped
to interpret the verbal communication behaviors of both men and women.

G en dere d lnter action: M as culine and
Feminine Styles of Verbal Communication

Julia T. Wood

I anguage not only expresses cultural views of
I-gender but also constitutes individuals’ gen-
der identities. The communication practices we
use define us as masculine or feminine, in large
measure, we create our own gender through talk.
Because language constitutes masculinity and
femininity, we should find generalizable differ-
ences in how women and men communicate. Re-
search bears out this expectation by documenting
rather systematic differences in the ways men and
women typically use language. You probably
don’t need a textbook to tell you this, since your
own interactions may have given you ample evi-
dence of differences in how women and men talk.

What may not be clear from your own experi-
ences, however, is exactly what those differences

From Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and. Cul-
ture,by lulia T. Wood (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Inc.,
1994) 137-148. Reprinted by permission of Wadsworth
Publishing Company.

1 8

are and what they imply. If you are like mosr peo-
ple, you’ve sometimes felt uncomfortable or mis-
understood or mystified in communication with
members of the other sex, but you’ve not been
able to put your finger on whar was causing the
difficulty. In the pages that follow, we’ll try ro gain
greater insight into masculine and feminine styles
of speech and some of the confusion that results
from differences between them. We want to un-
derstand how each style evolves, what it involves,
and how to interpret verbal communication in
ways that honor the morives of those using it.

Gendered Speech Comrnunities
Writing in the I940s, Suzanne Langer introduced
the idea of “discourse communities.” Like George
Herbert Mead, she asserted that culture. or col-
lective life, is possible only to the extent that a
group of people share a symbol sysrem and the
meanings encapsulated in it. This theme recurred

in Langer’s philosophical writings over the
course of her life (1953, 1979). Her germinal in-
sights into discourse communiries prefigured
later interest in the ways in which language cre-
ates individual identity and sustains cultural life.
Since the early 1970s, scholars have studied
speech communities, or cultures. William Labov
(1972, p. I2l) extended Langer’s ideas by defin-
ing a speech community as existing when a group
of people share a set of norms regarding commu-
nicative practices. By this he meant that a com-
munication culture exists when people share un-
derstandings about goals of communication,
strategies for enacting those goals, and ways of
interpreting communication.

It’s obvious we have entered a different com-
munication culture when we travel to non-Eng-
lish-speaking countries, because the language dif-
fers from our own. Distinct speech communities
are less apparent when they use the same lan-
guage that we do, but use it in different ways and
to achieve different goals. The communication
culture of African-Americans who have not
adopted the dominant pattern of North American
speech, for instance, relies on English yet departs
in interesting and patterned ways from the com-
munication of middle- class white North Ameri-
cans. The fact that diverse groups of people de-
velop distinctive communication patterns
reminds us again of the constant interaction of
communication and culture. As we have already
seen, the standpoint we occupy in society influ-
ences what we know and how we act. We now see
that this basic tenet of standpoint theory also im-
plies that communication styles evolve out of dif-
ferent standpoints.

Studies of gen{er and communication (Camp-

b e l l , 1 9 7 3 ; C o a t e s , 1 9 8 6 ; C o a t e s & C a m e r o n ,
1989; Hall6r Langellier. 1988; Kramarae, I98I;
Lakoff, 1975;-tannen, 1990a, 1990b) have con-
vincingly shown that in many ways women and
men operate from dissimilar assumptions about
the goals and strategies of communication. F. L.

Johnson (1989), in fact, asserts that men and

Julia T. Wood t9

women live in rwo different worlds and that this
is evident in the disparate forms of communica-
tion they use. Given this, it seems appropriate to
consider masculine and feminine styles of com-
municating as embodying two distinct speech
communities. To understand these different com-
munities and the validity of each, we will first
consider how we are socialized into feminine and
masculine speech communities. After this, we will
explore divergencies in how women and men t1p-
ically communicate. Please note the importance
of the word typically and others that indicare we
are discussing generalizable differences, not ab-
solute ones. Some women are not socialized into
feminine speech, or they are and Iater reject it;
Iikewise, some men do not learn or choose not to
adopt a masculine style of communication. What
follows describes gendered speech communities
into which mosf women and men are socializeo.

The Lessons of Childplay

We’ve seen that socialization is a gendered process
in which boys and girls are encouraged to develop
masculine and feminine identities. Extending that
understanding, we now explore how socialization
creates gendered speech communities. One way to
gain insight into how boys and girls learn norms
of communication is to observe young children at
play. ln interactions with peers, boys and girls
learn how to talk and how to interpret what each
other says; they discover how to signal their inten-
tions with words and how to respond approprl-
ately to others’ communication; and they learn
codes to demonstrate involvement and interest
(Tannen, 1990a). In short, interacting with peers
teaches children rules o[ communication.

lnitial insight into the importance of children’s
play in shaping patterns of communication came
from a classic study by D. N. Maltz and R. Borker
(1982). As they watched young children engaged
in recreation, the researchers were struck by two
observations: Young children almost always play

20 Genclered lnteraction: Masculine qnd Feminine Styles of Verbal Communication

in sex-segregated groups, and girls and boys tend
to play different kinds of games. Malu and Borker
found that boys’games (football, baseball) and
girls’ games (school, house, jumprope) cultivate
distinct understandings of communication and
the rules by which it operares.

B o y s ‘ G a m e s

Boys’games usually involve fairly large groups-
nine individuals for each baseball team, for in-
stance. Most boys’ games are competitive, have
clear goals, and are organized by rules and roles
that specify who does what and how to play. Be-
cause these games are structured by goals, rules,
and roles, there is little need to discuss how to
play, although there may be talk about strategies
to reach goals. Maltz and Borker realized that in
boys’ games, an individual’s status depends on
standing out, being better, and often dominating
other players. From these games, boys learn how
to interact in their communities. Specifically,
boys’ games cultivate three communication rules:

l. Use communication to assert yourself and
your ideas; use talk to achieve something.

2. Use communication to attract and maintain
an audience.

3. Use communication to compete with others
for the “talk stage,” so that they don’t gain
more attention than you; learn to wrest the
focus from others and onto yourself.

These communication rules are consistent
with other aspects of masculine socialization that
we have already discussed. For instance, notice
the emphasis on individuality and competition.
AIso, we see that these rules accent achieve-
ment- doing something, accomplishing a goal.
Boys learn they must do things to be valued mem-
bers of the team It’s also the case that intensely
close, personal relationships are unlikely to be
formed in large groups. Finally, we see the under-

current of masculinity’s emphasis on being invul-
nerable and guarded: lf others are the competi-
tion from whom you must seize center stage, then
you cannot let them know too much about your-
self and your weaknesses.

Girls’Games

Turning now to girls’ games, we find that quite
different patterns exist, and they lead to distinc-
tive understandings of communication. Girls tend
to play in pairs or in very small groups rather than
large ones. Also, games like house and school do
not have preset, clear-cut goals, rules, and roles.
There is no analogy for the touchdown in playing
house. Because girls’ games are not structured ex-
ternally, players have to talk among themselves to
decide what they’re doing and what roles they

have. Playing house, for insrance, typically begins
with a discussion about who is going to be the
daddy and who the mommy. This is typical of the
patterns girls use to generate rules and roles lor
their games. The lack of stipulated goals for the
games is also important, since it tends to cultivate
in girls an interest in the process of interaction
more than its products. For their games to work,
girls have to cooperate and work out problems by
talking: No external rules exist to settle disputes.
From these games, Maltz and Borker noted, girls
Iearn normative communication patterns of their
speech communities. Specifically, girls’ games
teach three basic rules for communication:

l. Use collaborative, cooperative talk to create
and maintain relationships. The process of.
communication, not its content, is the heart
of relationships.

2. Avoid criticizing, outdoing, or putting others
down; i[ criticism is necessary, make it gen-
tle: never exclude others.

3. Pay attention to others and to relationships;
interpret and respond to others’ leelings
sensitively.

These basic understandings of communication
echo and reinforce other aspects of feminine so-
cialization. Girls’ games stress cooperation, col-
laboration, and sensitivity to others’feelings. Also
notice the focus on process encouraged in girls’
games. Rather than interacting to achieve some
outcome, girls learn that communication itself is
the goal. Whereas boys Iearn they have to do
something to be valuable, the lesson for girls is to
be. Their worth depends on being good people,
which is defined by being cooperative, inclusive,
and sensitive. The lessons of child’s play are car-
ried forward. In fact, the basic rules of communi-
cation that adult women and men employ turn
out to be only refined and elaborated versions of
the very same ones evident in girls’ and boys’
childhood games.

lulia T. Wood, 21

Gendered Communication
Practices

ln her popular book, You Just Dotr’t lJnderstand:
Women and Men in Communication, linguist Debo-
rah Tannen (1990b, p. 42) declares that ‘commu-

nication between men and women can be like
cross cultural communication, prey to a clash of
conversational styles.” Her study of men’s and
women’s talk led her to identify distinctions be-
tween the speech communities typical of women
and men. Not surprisingly, Tannen traces gen-
dered communication patterns to differences in
boys’ and girls’ communication with parents and
peers. Like other scholars (Bate, 1988; Hall &
Langellier, 1988; Kramarae, l98l; Treichler &
Kramarae, 1983; Wood, I993a), Tannen believes
that women and men typically engage in dis-
tinctive styles of communication with different
purposes, rules, and understandings of how to
interpret talk. We will consider features of wom-
en’s and men’s speech identified by a number of
researchers. As we do, we will discover some of
the complications that arise when men and
women operate by different rules in conversations
with each other.

Women’s Speech

For most women, communication is a primary
way to establish and maintain relationships with
others. They engage in conversation to share
themselves and to learn about others. This is an
important point: For women, talk is the essence
of relationships. Consistent with this primary
goal, women’s speech tends to display identifiable
features that foster connections, support, close-
ness, and understanding.

Equality between people is generally important
in women’s communication (Aries, 1987). To
achieve symmetry, women often match experi-
ences to indicate “You’re not alone in how you

22 Gendered Interaction: Masculine and Feminine styles oJ verbal communication

feel.” Typical ways to communicate equality
would be saying, “l’ve done the same thing many
times,” “l’ve felt the same way,” or “something
Iike that happened to me too and 1 felt like you
do.” Growing out of the quest for equality is a par-
ticipatory mode of interaction in which commu-
nicators respond to and build on each other’s
ideas in the process of conversing (Hall 6l L-angel-
lier, 1988). Rather than a rigid you-tell-your-ideas-
then-l’ll-tell-mine sequence, women’s speech
more characteristically follows an interactive pat-
tern in which different voices weave together to
create conversatrons.

Also important in women’s speech is showing
support for others. To demonstrate support,
women often express understanding and sympa-
thy with a friend’s situation or feelings. “Oh, you
must feel terrible,” “I really hear what you are say-
ing,” or “I think you did the right thing” are com-
municative clues that we understand and support
how another feels. Related to these first two fea-
tures is women’s typical attention to the relation-
ship level of communication (Wood, I993a,
f 993b; Wood & Inman, 1993). You will recall
that the relationship level of talk focuses on feel-
ings and the relationship between communicators
rather than on the content of messages. In con-
versations between women, it is common to hear
a number of questions that probe for greater un-
derstanding of feelings and perceptions surround-
ing the subject oftalk (Beck, 1988, p. 104; Tannen,
1990b). “Tell me more about what happened,”
“How did you feel when it occurred?” “Do you
think it was deliberate?” “How does this fit into
the overall relationship?” are probes that help a
listener understand a speaker’s perspective. The
content of talk is dealt with, but usually not with-
out serious attention to the feelings involved.

A fourth feature of women’s speech style is
conversational “maintenance work” (Beck, I988;
Fishman. 1978). This involves efforts to sustain
conversation by inviting others to speak and by
prompting them to elaborate their experiences.

Women, for instance, ask a number of questions
that initiate topics for others: “How was your
day?” “Tell me about your meeting,” “Did any-
thing interesting happen on your trip?” “What do
you think of the candidates this year?” Commu-
nication of this sort opens the conversational door
to others and maintains interaction.

lnclusivity also surfaces in a fifth quality of
women’s talk, which is responsiveness (Beck,
1988; Tannen, 1990a, 1990b; Wood, 7993a).
Women usually respond in some fashion to what
others say. A woman might say “Tell me more” or
“That’s interesting”; perhaps she will nod and use
eye contact to signal she is engaged; perhaps she
will ask a question such as “Can you explain what
you mean?” Responsiveness reflects learned ten-
dencies to care about others and to make them
feel valued and included (Kemper, 1984; Lakoff,
I975). It affirms another person and encourages
elaboration by showing interest in what was said.

A sixth quality of women’s talk is personal, con-
crete style (Campbell, 1973; Hall & Langellier,
1988; Tannen, I990b). Typicalof women’s conver-
sation are details, personal disclosures, anecdotes,
and concrete reasoning. These features cultivate a
personal tone in women’s communication, and
they facilitate feelings of closeness by connecting
communicators’ lives. The detailed. concrete em-
phasis prevalent in women’s talk also clarilies is-
sues and feelings so that communicators are able
to understand and idendfy with each other. Thus,
the personal character of much of women’s inter-
action sustains interpersonal closeness.

A final feature of women’s speech is tentative-
ness. This may be expressed in a number of florms.
Sometimes women use verbal hedges such as “I
kind of feel you may be overreacting. ” In other
situations they qualify statements by saying “I’m
probably not the best judge of this, but . . .” An-
other way to keep talk provisional is to tag a ques-
tion onto a statement in a way that invites another
to respond: “That was a pretty good movie, wasn’t
it?” “We should get out this weekend, don’t you

think?” Tentative communication leaves open the
door for others to respond and express their opin-
10ns.

There has been controversy about tentative-
ness in women’s speech. R. Lakoff (1975), who
first noted that women use more hedges, quali-
fiers, and tag questions than men, claimed these
represent lack of confidence and uncertainty.
Calling women’s speech powerless, Lakoff argued
that it reflects women’s socialization into subordi-
nate roles and low self-esteem. Since Lakoffs
work, however, other scholars (Bate, 1988; Wood
6c Lenze, I99lb) have suggested different expla-
nations of women’s tentative style of speaking.
Dale Spender (1984a), in particular, points out
that lakoffs judgments of the inferiority of wom-
en’s speech were based on using male speech as

the standard, which does not recognize the dis-
tinctive validity of different speech communities.
Rather than reflecting powerlessness, the use of
hedges, qualifiers, and tag questions may express
women’s desires to keep conversation open and

to include others. lt is much easier to jump into a

conversation that has not been sealed with ab-

solute, firm statements. A tentative style of speak-
ing supports women’s general desire to create
equality and include others. It is important to re-

alize, however, that people outside of women’s

speech community may misinterpret women’s in-

tentions in using tentative communication.

Men Speech

Masculine speech communities define the goals
of talk as exerting control, preserving indepen-
dence, and enhancing status. Conversation is an

arena for proving oneself and negotiating prestige.
This leads to two general tendencies in men’s

communication. First, men often use talk to es-

tablish and defend their personal status and their
ideas, by asserting themselves and/or by challeng-
ing others. Second, when they wish to comfort or

support another, they typically do so by respect-

JuliaT. Wood 23

ing the other’s independence and avoiding com-
munication they regard as condescending (Tan-
nen, I990b). These tendencies will be more clear
as we review specific features of masculine talk.

To establish their own status and value, men
often speak to exhibit knowledge, skill, or ability.
Equally typical is the tendency to avoid disclosing
personal information that might make a man ap-
pear weak or vulnerable (Derlega 6c Chaiken,
1976; Lewis & McCarthy, I988; Saurer 6t Eisler,
1990). For instance, ifsomeone expresses concern
about a relationship with a boyfriend, a man might
say “The way you should handle that is . . . ”
“Don’t let him get to you,” or “You orrght to iurt
tell him . . .” This illustrates the tendency to give
advice that Tannen reports is common in men’s
speech. On the relationship level of communica-
tion, giving advice does two things. First, it fo-
cuses on instrumental activity-what another
should do or be-and does not acknowledge feel-
ings. Second, it expresses superiority and main-
tains control. It says “I know what you should do”
or “l would know how to handle that.” The mes-
sage may be perceived as implying the speaker is

superior to the other person. Between men, ad-
vice giving seems understood as a give-and-take,
but it may be interpreted as unfeeling and conde-
scending by women whose rules for communicat-
ing differ.

A second prominent feature of men’s talk is in-

strumentality-the use of speech to accomplish
instrumental objectives. As we have seen, men are
socialized to do things, achieve goals (Bellinger &
Gleason, f 982). ln conversation, this is often ex-
pressed through problem-solving efforts that focus
on getting information, discovering facs, and sug-
gesting solutions. Again, between men this is usu-
ally a comfortable orientation, since both speakers
have typically been socialized to value instrumen-
tality. However, conversations between women
and men are often derailed by the lack of agree-
ment on what this informational, instrumental
focus means. To manv women it feels as if men

24 Gendered Interaction: Masculine and Feminine Styles of Verbal Communication

don’t care abour their feelings. When a man fo-
cuses on the content level of meaning afrcr a
woman has disclosed a problem, she may feel he
is disregarding her emotions and concerns. He, on
the other hand, may well be trying to support her
in the way that he has learned to show support-
suggesting ways to solve the problem.

A third feature of men’s communication is con-
versational dominance. Despite jokes about wom-
en’s talkativeness, research indicates that in most
contexts, men not only hold their own but domi-
nate the conversation. This tendency, although
not present in infancy, is evident in preschoolers
(Austin, Salehi, & Leffler, 1987). Compared with
girls and women, boys and men talk more fre-
quently (Eakins & Eakins, 1976; Thorne &
Henley, I975) and for longer periods of time
(Aries, I987, Eakins & Eakins, I976;Kramarae,
l98l;Thorne & Henley, 1975). Further, men en-
gage in other verbal behaviors that sustain con-
versational dominance. They may reroute conver-
sations by using what another said as a jump-off
point for their own topic, or they may interrupt.
While both sexes engage in interruptions, most
research suggests that men do it more frequently
(Beck, 1988′ Mulac, Wiemann, Widenmann, &
G i b s o n , 1 9 8 8 ; W e s t & Z i m m e r m a n , 1 9 8 3 ) . N o t
only do men seem to intenupt more than women,
but they do so for different reasons. L. P. Stewart
and her colleagues (1990, p. 5I) suggest that men
use interruptions to control conversation by chal-
lenging other speakers or wresting the talk stage
from them, while women interrupt to indicate in-
terest and to respond. This interpretation is
shared by a number of scholars who note that
women use interruptions to show support, en-
courage elaboration, and affirm others (Aleguire,
1978; Aries, 1987; Mulac et al., 1988).

Fourth, men tend to express themselves in
fairly absolute, assertive ways. Compared with
women, their language is typically more forceful,
direct, and authoritative (Beck, I988; Eakins 6r
Eakins, I978; Stewart et al., 1990; Tannen, I990a,
1990b). Tentative speech such as hedges and dis-

claimers is used less frequently by men than by
women. This is consistent with gender socializa-
tion in which men learn to use talk to assert them-
selves and to take and hold positions. However,
when another person does not share that under-
standing of communication, speech that is ab-
solute and directive may seem to close off conver-
sation and Ieave no room for others to speak.

Fifth, compared with women, men communi-
cate more abstractly. They frequently speak in
general terms that are removed from concrete ex-
periences and distanced from personal feelings
(Schaef, l98 l ; Treichler & Kramarae, 1983). The
abstract style typical of men’s speech reflects the
public and impersonal contexts in which they
often operate and the less personal emphasis in
their speech communities. Within public environ-
ments, norms for speaking call for theoretical,
conceptual, and general thought and communica-
tion. Yet, within more personal relationships, ab-
stract talk sometimes creates barriers to knowing
another intimately.

Finally, men’s speech tends not to be highly re-
sponsive, especially not on the relationship Ievel
of communication (Beck, 1988; Wood, 1993a).
Men, more than women, give what are called
“minimal response cues” (Parlee, I979), which
areverbalizations such as “yeah” or “umhmm.”
In interaction with women, who have learned to
demonstrate interest more vigorously, minimal
response cues generally inhibit conversation be-
cause they are perceived as indicating lack of in-
volvement (Fishman, 1978; Stewart et al., 1990).
Another way in which men’s conversation is gen-
erally less relationally responsive than women’s is
Iack of expressed sympathy and understanding
and lack of self-disclosures (Saurer 6t Eisler,
1990). Within the rules of men’s speech commu-
nities, sympathy is a sign of condescension, and
revealing personal problems is seen as making
one vulnerable. Yet women’s speech rules count
sympathy and disclosure as demonstrations of
equality and support. This creates potential for
misunderstanding between women and men.

Misinterpretations Between
Women and Men
In this final section, we explore what happens
when men and women talk, each operating out of
a distinctive speech community. In describing fea-
tures typical o[each gender’s talk, we already have
noted differences that provide fertile ground for
misunderstandings. We now consider several ex-
amples of recurrent misreadings between women
and men.

Showirrg Support

The scene is a private conversation between
Martha and George. She tells him she is worried
about her friend. George gives a minimum re-
sponse cue, saying only “Oh.” To Martha this
suggests he isn’t interested, since women make
and expect more of what D. Tannen (1986) calls
“listening noises” to signal interest. Yet, as Tan-
n e n ( I 9 8 6 , 1 9 9 0 b ) a n d A . B e c k ( 1 9 8 8 ) n o t e ,
George is probably thinking if she wants to tell
him something she will, since his rules of speech
emphasize using talk to assert oneself (Bellinger

& Gleason, f 982). Even without much encour-
agement, Martha continues by describing the ten-
sion in her friend’s marriage and her own con-
cern about how she can help. She says, “I feel so
bad for Barbara, and I want to help her, but I
don’t know what to do.” George then says, “It’s

their problem, not yours. Just butt out and let
them settle their own relationship.” At this,
Martha explodes: “Who asked for your advice?”
George is now completely frustrated and con-
fused. He thought Martha wanted advice, so he
gave it. She is hurt that George …

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