Regardless of gender, all human beings have a basic need for communication as a form of an expression. In the late twentieth century gender-related differences in communication were most studied in the United States. Researchers have recorded generalizable and relatively consistent distinctions between the conversational behaviors of the sexes.
In interpersonal communication women and men appear to have different primary goals. Women usually use communication to build relationships with others. They do this by expressing empathy, including and responding to others, sharing feelings and ideas, and giving verbal support. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to use communication to give information, establish and assert individual status, achieve results, and gain and keep the conversational stage.
Generally, women and men adopt distinct styles of interpersonal communication. The contrast noted is between women’s conversational emphasis on process and men’s emphasis on outcome. In practice, this is manifested in women’s attention to the dynamics of communication, while men adopt a more instrumental style that focuses on results of talk. Related to other differences in style, women tend to communicate interactively, while men are more likely to communicate using sequential monologues.
Furthermore, another characteristic of men’s conversational style are extended monologues in which speakers talk in sequence and each speaker holds the conversational floor for a longer period of unshared time. While on the other hand, a talk between women friends typically involves rapidly executed back-and-forth exchanges and the conversational floor is shared as each speaker talks for only short periods before the other speaks.
Another gender-related difference in style is about how the content of talk is narrated. Generally, men follow a linear style of presentation in which events are highlighted in a climactic sequence, and a story has a clearly defined plot. Women tend to follow multiple-track, style of presentation in which events, people, relationships, and feelings are described within contexts. In women’s narrative style plot and a climactic sequence are not necessarily found, since relationships, people, and feelings are more emphasized than an event-focused plot. Making women’s narration move fluidly from topic to topic.
Deborah Tannen, a linguistic professor, in her book You Just Don’t Understand, points out that males and females distinctly different conversational style is based upon gender and cultural conditioning. According to Tannen women use rapport talk, which is intended to signal support, solidarity or to indicate that they are following the conversation. In other words, women use conversation to make connections and establish intimacy and community, conversation is more cooperative than competitive. While men, on the other hand, use report talk. Men see a conversation as a means of establishing and maintaining independence, status, and power.
There are several explanations for gendered conversational dynamics, they fall into two broad and oppositional categories: essentialist and constructionist accounts. Essentialist explanations share the principle presumption that some basic, innate quality in women and men accounts for their specific communication behaviors. However, the most obvious form of essentialist explanation is rooted in biology and genetics. For instance, women’s nurturing, inclusive communication style is explained by the greater presence of the hormone estrogen, while men’s more aggressive communication style is explained by the greater presence of the hormone testosterone. Another biological explanation traces communication differences in the brains of the two sexes. Women have greater development of the left hemisphere and corpus callosum connecting the two lobes that governs integrative and synthetic thinking, which enables the weblike structure of women’s communication. Men on the other hand, have greater development of the left lobe, enabling the linear, analytic thought which is a characteristic of men’s communication.
Constructionist explanations share the fundamental assumption that gender is socially constructed, not innate. Constructionists believe that beside from a few quite obvious differences, such as reproductive organs, differences between women and men are constructed and sustained through social practices that reflect the prevailing ideologies in various societies. Cultural theorists argue that the institutions and practices that make up cultures reflect and reproduce distinctly gendered identities. For example, institutions like the military, religion, and schools are hierarchically organized, with men occupying positions of greater power than those assigned to women. Furthermore, practices such as granting maternity leave, but not paternity leave, represent and preserve the cultural expectation that women should be the primary caregivers. A recent addition to the cultural group of accounts is standpoint theory. Standpoint theorists trace how intersections among class, gender, race and other social groupings influence group members’ experiences and, as well as, the identities they form and the patterns of communication they develop.
Some scholars believe that males and females are socialized into different communication cultures and argue that the games girls and boys play teach the sexes different rules about communication. Another constructionist view is psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalytic theory deals with unconscious processes of identification and internalization through which gender is constructed. The fundamental principle of newer psychoanalytic accounts is that core personality is shaped by relationships in the early years of life. Mothers being usually first primary caregivers form distinct relationships with sons and daughters. As there is a basic identification between mothers and daughters, girls typically develop gender identity within a relationship, while boys develop gender identity apart from a relationship, since they do not share the sex of mothers.
Differences in women’s and men’s communication have pragmatic consequences for personal identity and interpersonal relationships. Gendered conversational dynamics complicates interaction between women and men. In general, the two sexes use communication in different ways and to accomplish distinct goals, they often misunderstand one another. Women are often disappointed and frustrated in relationships with men because women reveal themselves and reach out for connection while men, on the other hand, maintain emotional reserve and independence. Also men may be unsatisfied when women respond to their problems by providing empathy and emotional support instead of instrumental assistance. Furthermore, women and men may also fail to understand and appreciate one another’s narrative patterns. The lack of details and contextualizing in men’s narrative method may be frustrating for women, while men are frustrated by the presence of rich detailing and contextualizing in women’s narratives.
Gendered conversational dynamics are generalizations that do not apply to all women and men everywhere and do not represent absolute dichotomies between the sexes.
The truth is that men and women differ in many ways, not only by their physical appearance but as well as in their conversation styles. Jennifer Coates in her book Women, Men, and Language suggests that men tend to disagree with or ignore each other`s utterances, while women, on the other hand, acknowledge and build on them. Thus men peruse a style of interaction based on power, while women peruse a style based on solidarity and support.
It seems clear that other things being equal, women and men do have a preference for different conversational styles. Women – in most western societies at least – prefer a collaborative speech style, supporting other speakers and using language in a way that emphasizes their solidarity with the other person. Men, on the other hand, use several conversational strategies that can be described as a competitive style, stressing their own individuality and emphasizing the hierarchical relationships that they enter into with other people. (Cheshire and Trudgill 1998: 3, cited from Coates 2004:126)
Coates describes women`s style of conversation as cooperative and men's style of conversation as competitive.
Women`s cooperative style of conversation
In the 1970s and 1980s, several researchers who have observed, studied and analyzed interaction patterns of experimental groups, claimed that the prime pattern of interaction in all-female groups is cooperative rather than competitive.
Jennifer Coates, also did several researches to find out what are the linguistic characteristics of cooperative and competitive styles. Her data suggest that the topic and topic development; minimal responses; hedges; questions; turn-taking patterns are some of the relevant categories for understanding how women’s cooperative discourse is achieved.
When it comes to topic and topic development women and men tend to discuss different topics in same-sex groups. Typically, women choose to talk about people and feelings, rather than about things, thus making talk central to women's friendships. As one woman that Coates interviewed, commented: 'I think the friendships I've made have . . . always been around you know the sort of straight-talking, vulnerable talking, and it's exchanged vulnerable talking. It's just like you can say whatever you think or whatever you feel... .'
Unlike women men typically choose to talk about current affairs, travel, and sport. Coates in her research found out that women like to talk about their relationships openly with each other, their experiences of mood swings and backache during their periods, mothers’ funerals, child abuse, wives’ loyalty to husbands, fear of men, holidays. All these topics are developed slowly and accretive with participants building on each other’s contributions.
Women use hedges such as you know, yeah, sort of, I mean and etc. to negotiate sensitive topics and to encourage the participation of others. When discussing highly sensitive topics women often use hedges in order to prevent such talk from being too face-threatening. For example:
Meg: but I did see what amounted to sort of chest hair, black, she’s a very dark sort of dark-skinned and sallow complexion and a lo-
I mean I – I mean I hope I’m just reporting this without any edge to it. You know, so I mean I probably-
Bea: you mean you really feel that she’s turning into a gorilla? (Coates, 2004:129)
Women tend to avoid to use questions as information-seeker devices, rather they use questions to invite others to participate to hedge, to check the views of other participants, to introduce a new topic, or to instigate stories. The following example shows how questions are used to invite others to speak:
[Talking about doctors getting younger]
Karen: I suppose if you’re ill you don’t care do you?
Pat: I suppose not, but there are um- there are limits aren’t there?
Karen: there are
As we can see in this example, tag questions do you? and aren’t there? are used to involve each other in the conversation. (Coates, 2004:130)
The following example shows how questions can be used to introduce a new topic, and involve others in talk.
Liz: wasn’t it terrible about that Oxford student? [initiates discussion of recent murder in Oxford]
Female speakers when it comes to turn-taking and organizing talk often adopt a way of organizing talk where the rule of one-at-a-time does not apply. Coates defines this way of talking a conversational jam session.
I call this way of talking a conversational jam session because, just like musicians playing jazz, women often get together ‘for the spontaneous and improvisatory performance of talk, usually for their own enjoyment’ (Coates, 2004:131).
A conversational session means that the conversational floor is open to all participants simultaneously.
Two key features of a conversational jam session are:
1. that speaker's co-construct utterances
2. that speakers talk at the same time (Coates, 2004:131)
Men`s competitive style of conversation
Jennifer Coates in her book Men, Women and Language states that the characteristics of men`s competitive style are:
- topic choice
- monologues and playing the expert
- verbal sparring
- turn-taking patterns (Coates, 2004:133)
In the case of topic choice, when men talk to each other they prefer to talk about impersonal topics such as cars, sport, current affairs, modern technology, and tend to avoid self-disclosure. In situations when talk does become personal, it often deals with matters such as driving habits or personal achievement rather than feelings.
Coates states: 'Topic choice is not a superficial matter: it has profound consequences for other linguistic choices. Hedging, for example, is closely correlated with more personal and/ or sensitive topics. In terms of floor-holding patterns, non-personal topics encourage one-at-a-time floor holding because these topics lend themselves to what I call “expertism”. (Coates, 2004:133-134)
Another characteristic of men`s talk are monologues, which tend to be associated with playing the expert. „By playing the expert“ I mean a kind of conversational game where participants take it in turns to hold the floor and to talk about a subject on which they are an expert. (Coates, 2004:134)
In her book, Coates gives an example of a conversation between two male friends having lunch together and talking about a variety of topics. Topics such as mobile phones, work and plans for future, the merits of Burger King vs. Mc Donalds, computers. These topics, however, correlate with areas of expertise of the two friends, which means that they both get a turn of being expert as well as a turn at „doing' a monologue.
The following example is a brief illustration of their conversation. The topic of their conversation is mobile phones. cos you know we’ve got BT internet at home (mhm) and I’ve set it up so that. Um through the BT internet WAP portal so that Kate can read. Her email that she gets. um on her phone (oh right) which is quite- which is quite useful if you're kinda not behind a computer but I was musing the other day on. On how funny it is that the sort of graphics you get on WAP phones now is like you used to get on the ZX81 (yeah) and every everything's having to adapt to that kind of LCD based stuff (that’s right) um computers have got to the point they’ve got to. and now we’ve gone all the way back with WAP technology . . . (Coates, 2004:134)
This example shows how male speakers are quite happy to hold the floor for a considerable time. With some regularity questions occur in conversation, whether just to seek information, or to encourage speakers to play experts, or even as a way of introducing a new topic, questions are an essential part of conversation. Furthermore, when it comes to using questions, men tend to use questions to seek information, which is something that women avoid, but they also ask questions to invite the addressee to speak.
The following example gives an illustration of an information-seeking question, that potentially invites the addressee to take up the role of expert. But the addressees are not always able to take up the role of expert, as presented in the example.
Peter: what else do they use it for apart from the deaf? or do they have other applications- I don’t mean the deaf, I mean the dumb, do they have other applications?
Rob: well they didn’t develop it for the dumb, I can’t remember why they did develop it, um – I don’t know (Coates 2004:135)
As mentioned above some questions are also used as a way of introducing a new topic, a topic which the speaker can talk expertly about.
Rob: do you know of the Pennsylvania experiment?
Peter: no, tell me about it
[Rob proceeds to talk about the Pennsylvania experiment] (Coates, 2004:135)
As the example illustrates, questions play a significant role in terms of turn-exchange. Male speakers very often use questions to hand over the conversational floor to another speaker. Furthermore, male talk does not always consist of monologues or series of long turns, but it often takes the form of an exchange of rapid-fire turns. As illustrated in the following example, where Sam and Ray disagree about whether apples are kept in cases or crates:
Sam: they come in cases Ray not crates
Ray: oh same thing if you must be picky over every one thing
Sam: just shut your fucking head Ray!
Ray: don’t tell me to fuck off fuck (. . .)
Sam: I’ll come over and shut yo-
Jim: yeah I'll have a crate of apple thanks [laughingly using a thick
Ray: no fuck off Jim
Jim: a dozen . . .
Dan: shitpicker! [amused]
(Pilkington 1998: 265, cited from Coates 2004:135-136)
In this example we see Sam disagreeing with Ray, Ray disagreeing with Sam, Jim disagreeing with Ray, and Dan criticizing Jim. But however, the participants of this conversation and in any other similar exchanges seem to be enjoying themselves and their talk contains much laughter. Thus it is a friendly sparing and not quarrel.
Moreover, in contrast to women, who often adopt the jam session model, male speakers prefer more a one-at-a-time model of turn-taking. Also, overlapping talk is rare in a male talk, because of the choice of most men to use a one-at-a-time model of turn-taking, and the overlap is interpreted as deviant as an attempt to grab a floor. Thus in mixed conversation, women and men may easily come into conflict over overlapping talk. However, overlapping talk does sometimes occur in male talk. While a one-at-a-time turn-taking model seems to be the norm of male talk there are exceptions. The following example illustrates a conversation among a group of American college students talking about others whom they identify as ‘gay’:
Ed: he's I mean he's like a real artsy-fartsy fag (. . .)
Ed: and he sits next to the ugliest-ass bitch in the history
Ed: of the world and
Bryan: and they’re all hitting on her too, like
Ed: I know it’s like four homos hitting on her
Bryan: four guys hitting on her
(Cameron 1997: 56, cited from Coates 2004:137)
In this brief example, we can see how they overlapping each other as they jointly construct an account of these “gay” men. Sometimes men`s talk draws on collaborative features, it is important to see how the content of the talk displays relatively aggressive masculinity when it comes to this example an aggressively heterosexual and anti-gay masculinity.