Dec 1, 2015

The Language of Ladies

Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak. (William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 3, Scene 2) 
A few months ago I saw a blog post on New York Magazine titled, "Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk?" written by Ann Friedman, and after several re-reads, I still like what she has to say.

TL;DR (I take credit for any errors here)

  • Have you ever noticed women apologizing too much? Is over-apologizing or overusing the word "just" sending a message of subordination in the workplace, in politics, anywhere we want to be taken seriously?
  • Do women use too many qualifiers: e.g., 'I'm no expert, but..." which undermine their opinions?
  • What about "upspeak" - also known as Valley Girl Lift - turning a declarative sentence into a question by a raised tone of voice on the last word?
  • Does all this speaking advice sound like empowerment? "Don't sugarcoat, don't water down your opinions, learn to speak like the men do!" Or, are the women the ones who really need to change?

Robin Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California, Berkely, says that all discussion is about what we think we hear. With men we listen for their point, but with women we listen to how they're talking, what words they use, looking for whether they smile. [As someone who frequently hears requests to smile, I believe this last item...]

However Ms. Lakoff also points out that men use the word "just," they use upspeak, they apologize, and she hasn't seen any articles encouraging them to change their behavior.

She concludes with a statement free of apologies, upspeak, or ambiguity, and says, "This stuff is just one more way of telling powerful women to shut up, you b*tch."

The blog post author, Ann Friedman, also offers comments on salary negotiation and career-oriented communication, and suggests that the very things we're told to cut out of our speech here are signs of highly evolved communication.

Ms. Friedman says that the major job of an articulate social species is to understand and share, not necessarily to make an argument or convey information in the simplest way possible.

While doing additional research on gender differences in communication, I was looking through the book, Women, Men, and Language: A Sociolinguistic Account of Gender Differences in Language, Jennifer Coates, Aug. 12, 2004. 

Ms. Coates describes studies showing male conversational dominance over women by observation of conversational irregularities such as overlap (a slight over-anticipation of one speaker by a responder, where the responder begins to speak a few words prior to the first finishing).

In one study at the University of California, Zimmerman and West demonstrated significant difference in conversational irregularities between two same-sex participants and two mixed-sex participants.

The ratio of interruptions to conversation is 0.35:1 for same-sex conversations, and 4.4:1 for mixed-sex conversations. These results have been duplicated by Eakins and Eakins 1979; Leet-Pellegrini 1980; Mulac et al 1988; Schick Case 1988; Holmes 1995; Gunnarsson 1997.

Ms. Coates also notes other studies showing the same male conversational dominance when the woman has high social status (male doctors interrupted their patients twice as often as the patient interrupted the doctor; female patients interrupted their patients less often than the patients interrupted them), and in other professional settings, male interruptions of women resulted in men gaining the floor up to 85% of the time.

What do you think about all this? If you're a man, do you notice women speaking differently, and do you think it undermines their competence? (Answer without fear, please, we really want to know!) If you're a woman, do you have any of these habits?

Amy Schumer's over-apologizing video makes its point in an entertaining way.

And so does Daenerys Targaryen:

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