Sep 052011

Rome visit, June 2008 - 57
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.


 Posted by at 8:12 pm

  16 Responses to “Gnats’ farts and gender”

  1. To understand all is sometimes to condemn all, when we condemn traits in others that we have (or fear we have) ourselves. If other people seem Other enough, we may forgive them when we should not.

  2. Hi Vicki:
    To posit an evolutionary predetermination for the way men and women speak is like saying that dogs bark and birds sing. I base it on nurture, not nature. Women speak like the English, and men, like Americans. If my female editor wants me to fill in for a vacationing colleague, here’s the scenario:
    She: “Hi Marc, how are you?”
    Me: “Fine, Lois, how are you?’
    She: “Pretty good. How was your Labor Day? Did it rain where you were?”
    Me:”OK. No, it was cloudy.but it didn’t rain.”
    She:”That’s good. We had a few sprinkles, but everything turned out OK. Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you that Nevin’s on vacation next week.”
    Me: “Good for him.”
    She: “I wanted to ask you, do you think you might be able to sub for him on the editorial page?”
    Me: “Yeh, that no problem.”
    She: “Oh, gee, thanks a lot! That’s great!”
    Me: “Sure.”
    Here’s the reverse:
    Me: “Hi Lois, howyadoin’?
    She: “OK, how are you? Did you have a nice weekend?”
    Me: “Fine. Listen, Nevin’s on vacation next week. Can you sub for him?”
    She: “Sure, no problem.”
    Me: “Thanks a lot.”
    This is one example of my experience in the way in which men and women differ in their exchanges, but I think the roles are due to socialization and longstanding tradition. Men are taught to get to the point right away, women, to set the scene before they make a request. I’m not implying better or worse, just different aspects of communication.

  3. John and Marc, thank you so much for these thoughtful repsonses.

    John, I thoroughly agree with you. And Otherness is a double edged sword.

    Now Marc, as I understand it (and I may well have misunderstood), the key thrust of Deborah Cameron’s point is that variables like power and status and the context in which communication takes place have much more impact on the words we choose than gender. And despite having thoroughly enjoyed devouring books by Deborah Tannen et al, I reckon Deborah Cameron’s probably right about that.

    But what’s important isnt always what’s most fun. And gender is a delightfully intriguing variable to explore, especially when illustrated as charmingly as you have done here. Would you mind if I reposted your comment as a post – attributed properly, of course?

  4. Hi Vicki and John and Marc,

    I’d say that we do tend to hold our own sex more accountable. After all, we’ve been watching them a lot more closely than the other sex, competing with them when it comes down to biology and evolution and all that. (Plenty of time to look at “our” specimens of the “Other” once we’ve captured them.)
    So your research, Vicki, makes perfect sense, I’d say. Women are connaisseurs of women, and men connaisseurs of men.
    Now: Who’s to prove me wrong? That’s the whole problem with gender studies 😉


  5. Vickie:
    Absolutely! This issue has deep ramifications, not only about relationships between the sexes, but about how we get on in all human exchanges. You could use it as a metaphor to describe the way countries relate with each other, how ethnic groups move forward within societies, and the like. On the most basic level, it has to do with power – the one-up, one-down dichotomy – and the ultimate goal of all negotiation; to allow each party to come away from the table with something of value.

  6. would like to add a comment made by one of my students this week. Who were honest, enthusiastic, open and very forth coming with their opinions. 😉

    To quote:

    Stew: “(name), what is the best perk you get from your job?”.

    female student: “hmmmm…the perk of my job is that the teams who work directly in my department are all men. Which is the best,as I am surrounded by men and do not have the other stress”.

    male student: “Not so much chat then”
    other female student: “huh?”

    female student: “Men are more direct, and not as ….. hmmm… how do I… nasty”.

    This could reflect what Anne mentions above about being harder on your own gender.

    Or my student does not feel as judged, or the need to compete on many different levels, and forced to fight with cliques from her own gender.

    I really believe it depends on the function of the conversation, as well as the role/status and relationship of the participants. Power play being the worst culprit to determine the manner of communication in my humble opinion.

    As someone who focuses on group dynamic, this interests me more than just the comparison between gender. If we focused more on this effective communication within groups maybe we could work on functioning better within them.

  7. Stew, they sound like a lovely group of students who have gelled well and I’ve no doubt their teacher helped foster that.
    This reminded me of something I read somewhere about popular adolescent girls coming under stress from a need to tell secrets. Disclosing to one friend but not another was part of bonding, but a problem too, because at some point you run out of secrets to tell.

  8. Adolescent boys come under this stress in the sense of doing something, usually stupid or macho, to prove themselves to the herd. Likewise not displaying your intelligence blatantly due to the disdain from the herd to the “geek”.

    Reading Guy Deutscher and “Through the looking glass”. Am intrigued what he has to say about or at all on the subject of gender. Just reading about the assumptions of the complexity of “civilised” against “primitive” lingos.

  9. Vicky – it is unfair that you (clearly off doing many fine and exciting things EXCEPT writing on your blog) are leaving me (clearly doing nothing EXCEPT reading your blog) to try and come up with something pithy to say on this particular post.
    I have failed since September 5th!

    Please lets have some of your holiday snaps at least!!!

    ps does anyone, male or female, use pithy anymore?

  10. Oh Chris and everyone. My apologies for the silence. I hope to get onto it this week.

  11. That’s a European week?
    Or American?

  12. Ha! Oh Chris – forgive me. It’s a pathetic excuse but it’s a trip prep week when everything has taken longer than it should. Packing now for flight, but I’ll take pictures and when I get back (10 days), I’ll post ’em along with lots of other stuff. Promise!

  13. have a great tri…hang on – don’t you need a porter?!

  14. ‘Oh sweety, this post is absolutely delightful…’ er, hang on… I can’t say that, can I?

  15. […] September, I wrote a post about gender  which prompted a response from Marc Leavitt. It was just too enjoyable to leave lurking in the […]

  16. […] politeness, pragmatics  Add comments Dec 022011   Last September, I wrote a post about gender  which prompted a response from Marc Leavitt. It was just too enjoyable to leave lurking in the […]

 Leave a Reply