Cultures Apart: Gendered Interaction and Language

One does not need to do much research to realize that the way men and women talk is different. It is evident in all aspects of language, from tone to word choice. Many people have scoffed at the other gender’s communication style, walking a tightrope of amusement and frustration with the variances. Cultural norms imply that masculinity and femininity are, in part, defined by communication styles. What is not as easily understood is what the specific differences are between gendered language and interaction, and exactly what those discrepancies mean and why. Although sexes are inherently male and female, the social grooming of people combined with natural inclinations is what makes their speech distinctly masculine and feminine. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the different ways in which men and women use language and to assess the impact it has on gendered interactions. Before beginning this discussion, it is important to note that the ways men and women speak have a greater number of overlapping features than disparate ones. Rather than viewing the differences in terms of dogs and cats, then, it is better to compare the language inclinations of men and women as domestic cats to wild cats—diverse, but similar.

To fully discuss gendered speech and interaction, it is best to begin with a brief overview of the origins of language. One way to decide whether language is innate or learned is to discuss its formation. Steven Pinker, a leading expert on language and the mind, believes all language begins with a form of mentalese, which is best described through real-life instances: an experience where what one saying or writing down is not actually what one is thinking in his or her mind. This “mental language” gets lost in translation to the lips or page; one lacks the proper vocabulary or sentence manipulation to converse properly with others; one simply does not have language suitable to grasp certain concepts. Pinker goes on to prove his point, stating “to have that feeling, there has to be a ‘what we meant to say’ that is different from what we said” (57). If what people mean to say is different than what they say, it is logical that humans must have some sort of mother language in their minds. This idea is similar to how many scientists and artists claim their work starts out with images and thoughts as opposed to words. A perfect example is author C. S. Lewis. His entire fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia, began with an image of a fawn (he did not know what to call it at first) standing in a forest, while it was snowing, holding an umbrella and some parcels (Bane 1). That thought haunted him for decades, and then one day he finally translated it into words. Most (if not all) inspiration occurs this way, and then it is often a struggle to translate mentalese into writing, speaking, or actions.

There is clearly something special about human brains that allows people to master language so thoroughly in such a short amount of time. Pinker states that “a person would need a childhood of about a hundred trillion years to memorize [all the sentence possibilities]” (86). It is literally impossible to memorize language as people know it, argues Pinker, so humans must have this predetermined understanding of syntax and grammar, or at least an inclination towards it. Still, even though we are biologically programmed with innate inclinations towards first language, we are also dependent on other humans to acquire language. People have a natural predisposition towards grammar, but they use external forces and rules, too. Essentially, humans have an innate capability to understand and construct a complex language, but those instincts must be fostered by more advanced users. For example, a wolf taken from its pack as a pup will still have natural inclinations to hunt and attack smaller game, hence the concept that a wild animal is never truly safe. However, that wolf may not be a skilled hunter, and he or she may also be less inclined to hunt and more inclined to rest content with a human owner. Language is similar in the sense that it comes naturally to the human race, but people still need that rudimentary concept to be tended to in order for it to flourish.

Next, one must understand how language works as whole before analyzing the complexities of gendered speech. the easiest way to understand language is the phrase structure of grammar. Pinker argues that language structure is more like a tree than a chain because the words are grouped into phrases just like how twigs are grouped onto a branch (98). An example is the common sentence structure of a noun phrase followed by a verb phrase. In the sentence “The fluffy cat drinks milk,” “The fluffy cat” is the noun phrase and “drinks milk” is the verb phrase. The words are the twigs, the phrases are the branches, and the whole sentence is the tree. This connects back to the meaning of grammar, because “grouping words into phrases is also necessary to connect grammatical sentences with their proper meanings, chunks of mentalese.” (Pinker 101). Mentalese itself is best described through real-life instances: an experience where what one saying or writing down is not actually what one is thinking in his or her mind. To summarize, Pinker states that “a sentence, then, must express some kind of meaning that does not clearly reside in its nouns and verbs but that embraces the entire combination and turns it into a proposition that can be true or false.” (117).

Individually, these theories seem to only further complicate how language works. There is a collective meaning to this madness, though, as Pinker concludes that every person’s brain has a mental dictionary of words and a mental set of grammar rules unique to that person and his or her culture (85). People have a mental grammar software, so to speak, that is innate and nurtured during the critical learning period. The complexity of language pales in comparison to the complexity of thought, and so goal of language is merely to capture the mentalese of human thought and convey it in a way where other humans can be easily taught the same structure. Pinker sums up this phenomenon best: “complexity in the mind is not caused by learning; learning is caused by complexity in the mind.” (125). Mentalese is the reason we utilize language because it is the most efficient way to communicate the concepts originating in the mind. The question, then, should not be “how does language work?”, but rather, “how do people continuously tweak language to better express their thoughts?”, for language is merely tool to better understand the souls of mankind.

Now that the prerequisites of the origins and structure of language have been discussed and found they are the same for both genders, it is logical to examine the physical properties that define male and female speech patterns. George Yule, a linguistic educator and author, states that “men [generally] have longer vocal tracts, larger larynxes and thicker vocal folds than women.” (275). The transition takes place during puberty, as most voices are alike prior. These physical characteristics and differences correlate directly to pitch, which is a scientific term used to define “the quality of a sound governed by the rate of vibrations producing it,” or the grade of highness or lowness in a tone (Merriam-Webster). Although men and women may be inclined towards certain pitches, they are often capable of speaking in tones common to the opposite sex. Per voice teacher Dr. Brian Lee, “functionally all voices have the same scientific registers available to them.” (1). Although the size of the larynx cannot be altered after puberty, men and women can learn to speak and sing in higher or lower registers than natural to them. Likewise, some perfectly normal men have larger larynxes, while some perfectly normal women have smaller ones (Lee 1). Because of this, there is never a guarantee that one can discern which gender is speaking strictly on tone alone.

Since register alone is not enough to set apart male and female speech, perhaps there is something in the speech patterns of each gender that allows them to be more defined. Yule expounds on this idea, stating that “there is a tendency to exaggerate the differences [of gendered voice] in many contexts in order to sound more ‘like a man’ or more ‘like a woman.’” (275). These prosodic cues can be used to analyze the primary differences in male and female speech patterns. For example, women speaking American English tend to speak with more “rising and falling intonation.” (Yule 276). Men tend to speak in a slightly varying register that ends on a lower intonation; however, female statements and questions often conclude with a rising intonation, as if to invite the other speaker to respond with his or her opinion. Women are also prone to hedges and tag questions in their speech. Study the following sentence: “It’s rather dark out today, isn’t it?” In the sentence, the hedge word “rather” is used to qualify the following word “dark.” The speaker then follows up the statement with the tag question “isn’t it?” Yule defines a tag questions as “short questions consisting of an auxiliary and a pronoun, added to the end of a statement.” (276). This technique is used frequently by women when sharing an opinion. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to avoid both hedges and tag questions, resulting in a sentence like this: “It’s as dark as night today.”

Where do these varying speech patterns and inclinations come from? According to Julia T. Wood, professor of Communication at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the answer lies within the upbringing of children. In her book, Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture, she discusses how men and women are conditioned to have different communication styles or to talk differently. Communication is a cultural phenomenon, claims Wood, and it “exists when people share understandings about goals of communication, strategies for enacting those goals, and ways of interpreting communication.” (19). When people share these understandings, expectations arise and norms are created that best serve the goal of efficient communication. These expectations are implemented in childrearing, resulting in most adults being brought up with the same social norms of communication and language within a given culture. Gendered speech patterns are greatly fostered in the rudimentary period of childplay. Per a classic study by D. N. Maltz and R. Borker in 1982, the researchers discovered two key traits: children almost always played in same-sex groups, and the girls and boys usually played different games (Wood 19). For example, boys tend to play in larger groups with competitive games that establish hierarchal relationships (I’m the general of the army, so what I say goes), while girls prefer smaller groups with cooperative activities that establish reciprocal relationships (Ok, it’s your turn to be the owner and I’ll be the puppy) (Yule 276). These groups and different games lead to different forms of communication and therefore different societal roles.

That same-gender socialization is often “reinforced through separate educational experiences, creating young men and women who may interact with each other only rarely outside family settings.” (Yule 276). When they do begin to interact together at an older age, their language characteristics are strikingly different in many aspects, including frequency of speech and back-channels. Research has shown that these “natural tendencies often create a rift between men when communicating with the opposite sex as men and women approach conversations differently.” (Merchant 20). Adult conversation frequently mimics childplay, as women are typically more animated, hesitant, and well-mannered in conversation, while men are more confident and dictatorial (Basow and Rubenfield 184). Attributes already recognized in women’s speech patterns (such as ending on a high intonation and using tag questions) play directly into the act of turn-taking in conversations. For example, women “facilitate the exchange of turns” in conversation, while men “take longer turns in speaking” with a hierarchal organization (Yule 276). This creates a perfect flow with same-gendered conversation, but when both men and women are speaking, interrupting is rampant. One study found “96 percent of the identified interruptions [in conversations] being attributed to men.” (Yule 277). Returning to same gender conversations, women also tend to use more back-channels, which “describes the use of words (yeah, really?) or sounds (hmm, oh) by listeners while someone else is speaking (Yule 277). Men not only use these less than women, they also assume that others use back-channels to signify and agreement to what is being said (Yule 277).

Due to all these evident differences, many experts compare the communication of men and women to cross-cultural communication. Many of the disconnections discussed prior must do with the intended purpose of communication for both genders. Research shows that for women, “communication is a primary way to establish and maintain relationships with others,” but for men, it is a tool used for “exerting control, preserving independence, and enhancing status.” (Wood 21, 23). Using the same sentences that were analyzed prior, the woman who says “It’s rather dark out today, isn’t it?” is trying to keep the conversation equally balanced between the speakers, as well as build a relationship with the listener. This can also directly relate to the social norms of women being expected to be more submissive and questioning. Likewise, the man who says “It’s as dark as night today” is expressing a thought in the form of an opinion and showing his independence, as opposed to seeking affirmation from the listener. As the social norms of women are evident in their speech patterns, men are apt to communicate in a way that shows their dominance, self-reliance, and assertiveness. Although it is tempting to perceive one form of communication as weak and the other as strong, they are merely different types of communication that are oftentimes misinterpreted by the opposite gender.

When two or more people from distinctly different cultural backgrounds communicate, it likely that there will be misunderstandings. Since men and women are brought up in different communication cultures (intentionally or not), misinterpretations between the two is a regular occurrence. Since the root of the issue has been discussed, it is best to analyze a common example of miscommunication. One area that is greatly affected by it is relationship discussions. Often, men believe a relationship is going well when it does not need to be discussed (Wood 26). They will only instigate and/or be willing to discuss a relationship if they feel something is wrong. Women, on the other hand, usually think a relationship is going smoothly if there is frequent conversation about the relationship (Wood 26). The heart of the misunderstanding lies in the fact that, typically, men see conversation as a means to an end, while women see the act of communication a sign that a relationship is going well. This is only one of many scenarios where men and women struggle to understand the language culture of the other gender, but the lessons here can be applied to almost any situation.

The origins, acquisition process, and structure of language are the same for both men and women. What differs is their inclinations coupled with the nurture patterns with which they receive it, as well as the social norms they experience early on in childhood. By better understanding the culture of male and female language, each gender can learn to better interact with and understand the other. When the rules of each gender are understood between two people of the opposite sex, their conversation “has become bilingual, and so communication between them is smoother and more satisfying.” (Wood 27). This narrows the chances of misunderstanding motives due to being unable to interpret what the other gender was trying to say. This is not only beneficial to romantic relationships, but also to daily communication at work and in social settings. The lessons learned regarding opposite gender communication are also applicable on a global level, for people “must be prepared to try to understand the impact of the cultures we inherit and, through the creativity with language that we are also given, to find new ways of articulating those cultures before we pass them on.” (Yule 277).

Works Cited

Bane, Mark. “Myth Made Truth: The Origins of the Chronicles of Narnia.” Into the Wardrobe – a

  1. S. Lewis Website. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Oct. 2016.

Basow, Susan & Rubenfeld, K. ““Troubles Talk”: Effects of Gender and Gender Typing.”

SpringerLink. SpringerLink, Feb 2003. Web. 8 Dec. 2016. < /article/10.1023/A%3A1022411623948>.

Lee, Brian. “Are Male and Female Voices Really That Different?” D. Brian Lee, Voice Teacher.

  1. Brian Lee, 5 Nov. 2012. Web. 08 Dec. 2016. <;.

Merchant, Karima. “How Men And Women Differ: Gender Differences in Communication

Styles, Influence Tactics, and Leadership Styles.” Claremont Colleges, 03 Dec. 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2016. < content.cgi?article=1521&context=cmc_theses>.

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2016.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York:

Harper Perennial, 1994. Print.

Wood, Julia T. Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture. Belmont: Wadsworth

Pub., 1994. Print.

Yule, George. The Study of Language: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.


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