There’s a terrific post by Dan Clayton over at the Macmillan English Blog about Deborah Cameron’s linguistic research on gender. Basically he’s pointing out that male and female differences in communication styles have been over emphasized and he quotes Deborah Cameron saying that the differences are about as large as a gnat’s fart. Ha! But the point is that when they look at speech data, variables like context and power and status are much more important than gender. It all sounds very sensible.
And it raises a question. How has the myth that men and women communicate in significantly different ways arisen when there’s scant evidence in the data? Presumably it’s because it’s an intriguing idea? There have been lots of best sellers along the men-are-from-mars-and-women-are-from-venus lines, including ‘You Just Don’t Understand’ by Deborah Tannen – a sociolinguist. A book called ‘You understand perfectly well 99% of the time’, while more accurate, wouldn’t have had the same appeal.
It reminded me of some quick and dirty research that I did a while back to explore a rather different topic. I recorded a conversation of a misunderstanding two ways, switching roles between a British (female) speaker and American (male) speaker. I wondered whether I might discover some transatlantic differences in interpretation. I didn’t. But I was surprised to find a gender variable.
It seemed that female listeners were more inclined to blame the female speaker for the misunderstanding and male listeners were more inclined to blame the male speaker. (If there had been no gender variation, my stats should have been about fifty-fifty. Instead they came out about two thirds-one third – so a bit more than a gnat’s fart in this case.)
So when we’re judging people’s communication skills I think we might be more lenient and forgiving to the opposite sex. Similarly, we seem to hold our own sex to higher standards of accountability, which is rather unfair if you think about it. So now I’m guessing it’s another manifestation of our desire to believe in significant gender differences in communication. But the men-are-from-mars-and-women-are-from-venus explanations are largely myths – delightful and intriguing ones – but myths nevertheless.