Do women speak differently?

It is time for me to grasp the nettle.

When I am asked if women speak differently from men, I often have the uneasy feeling that I am dodging the question. “Well, yes and no,” I usually begin before I edge my way into an answer that people don’t seem to want to hear.

Before I do that here, let’s look at some of the big, popular ideas about how men and women use language:

First, there are significant differences in the way men and women use language;

Second, men’s style of communication is more competitive (men are interested in status) and women’s style is more collaborative (they’re interested in relationships);

And these differences cause problems of miscommunication which, if we knew more about each other’s ways of communicating, we could fix.

Let’s take a closer look at how this argument works. Girls and boys tend to play in own sex groups and are thus socialised into different ways of conducting their conversations. Put simply, boys jostle for position and get used to challenging and being challenged, whereas girls, in their talking type of play, learn a more co-operative style.

These style preferences impact their relative success at work. So for example, a young women working in a competitive business environment hasn’t learned to defend herself against the inevitable status challenges. She interprets them as put downs and goes quiet. But for a young man this is second nature. His difficulty is in picking up the signals that someone around the table is being excluded. He interprets her silence as a sign of weakness.

Obviously, I am exaggerating here to show the extremes, something any sensible person who has been in conversations daily for 20 years (or more) would instantly recognise. Not all women are wimps just as not all men are Neanderthals. Nevertheless, the discussions on this topic at English and Power workshops and events, suggest that people are divided on the issue.

Intuitively, it rings true that women and men have different speaking styles as Marianne, a senior manager in global telecoms explains,

Do women prefer a different style? Absolutely, they do. In my experience women rarely go for an aggressive or boasting style. They prefer a more open way of interacting. But the way we speak in our company isn’t as cooperative as I would like it to be. For example no one has any doubts – or at least nobody can show they have any doubts. No one even asks any questions. Everything has to be seen to be clear. So I have to be clear – I can’t express any doubts even if I have questions because I don’t want to appear stupid.”

At the same time, when people get the chance to compare notes and discuss the issue in more depth, most come to the view that speaking styles are not so clearly divided into male and female speakers.

In fact, when I read out a random sentence, one I overheard in a Brussels cafe:

Well, I wouldn’t really call myself an expert, I just Google it and see what comes up.”,

people often become aware of their “first” impression, something along the lines of,

I think it must be a women because they are doing themselves down and weakening what they say by using ‘just’.”

But by talking in groups about what they really think, it soon becomes clear that it isn’t possible to tell. So people get a glimpse of their own stereotypes doing the talking, and they come face to face with the possibility that they themselves contribute to keeping these stereotypes alive – something they most definitely do not want to do as we can see from Ingrid’s reflections on the matter:

“I wish people wouldn’t keep insisting that women speak differently. We should be talking about the work, not the women. My boss is a woman and she is really aggressive. She competes with everyone and takes every opportunity to keep me quiet or even put me down. She’s new, and maybe she’s insecure but it shouldn’t interfere with the project. On conference calls she competes with the others, particularly one of the senior guys – they try to outdo each other all the time – and the goal of the exercise gets diluted in the midst of it.”

Intuitively then, some people believe that the stereotypes describe their own conversational behaviour, and some people don’t.

But what is the research evidence*?

It is unequivocal. Professional women and men use a whole range of different conversational styles influenced by a great many contextual factors, as the case of the young American man in the Brussels cafe confirms. Both women and men employ a rich variety of language features and are well able to use language resources flexibly and with precision.

So no, women are not more indirect than men, men are indirect too; women don’t use tag questions because they are unsure of themselves, they often use them to encourage people to participate, and so do men; men don’t do the lion’s share of the interrupting, and interrupting isn’t all about closing people down, sometimes people interrupt in support, and both women and men do this.

Time and time again the myths about gender and language have been questioned, contested and shown to be just that – myths. The evidence from serious linguistic research from a range of different research perspectives simply does not support the view that men and women speak different languages. But myths are an important source of practical knowledge and we believe them because they seem to be true, and because they are everywhere – particularly in training, coaching and sound-bite science.

Such beliefs influence our behaviour and shape our stereotypes – including our stereotypes of our conversational styles. Challenging and changing these stereotypes isn’t a job for one person.

It isn’t the women who need fixing because they apologise all the time and weaken everything they say by dropping “just” into every sentence; and it isn’t men who need fixing because they take up all the conversational space with their explaining and interrupting – in spite of the often rather funny stories circulating on the basis of these stereotypes. But they are just that – stereotypes. In real, everyday workplace conversations women explain and men say “just”; and women and men do a whole range of other things too.

We can’t really expect to challenge gender stereotypes if our approaches to fixing the problem are unwittingly reinforcing the very stereotypes we want to challenge. We will just end up going round in circles. So let’s not do that.


* For an excellent summary written for an audience of non-linguists, I can recommend Deborah Cameron’s (2007) book, The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak different languages? Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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