Trump does NOT talk like a woman (BREAKING NEWS: gender continues to be complicated and confusing)

Tldr: gender doesn’t make for good soundbites if you’re doing it right.

Here’s a headline from Politico that is counter-intuitive, aggravating, and compelling: Donald Trump talks like a woman. I’d like to speak out on behalf of a bunch of linguists who say KNOCK IT OFF.

(Full disclosure the parenthetical and the tldr are from other folks thinking about these issues!)

I guess you could follow this Tumblr?

The author of the Politico post, Julie Sedivy, knows about language. So she’s attentive in the first two paragraphs to all of the ways that Trump’s language is aggressive, misogynistic, and stereotypically male. The post is interested in lower-level indications of style — really, I think the question is: Donald Trump clearly commands large audiences. Do gendered ways of speaking have something to do with it?

Before I dive into Trump’s language, I want to give an example of the complication of talking about masculine/feminine styles based purely on whether men or women use a word disproportionately. For this, I’ll go to social media language. In particular, “xo” (hugs and kisses).

  • There are 4.4 times as many women who use xo than men
  • …but 89% of women never ever use xo
  • The people who do use xo are the kinds of folks who tend to talk about blessings, music and love
  • …that group of people is majority-female
  • …but there are plenty of majority-women groups that never use xo
If Amazons use “Themyscira” a lot, is it a feminine word? (Answer: no)

Even without those last three bullet points, it’s a bit weird to say that xo is a woman’s word. In the DC comic universe almost all the Amazons live on an island called Themyscira. I bet they say Themyscira all the time. But it would be weird to say that Themyscira is a feminine word. The more informative statement would be that Themyscira is an Amazonian word.

Sedivy’s Politico article is based on work by a PhD candidate in political psychology at UC Irvine. I can’t find the direct research, but the researcher, Jennifer Jones, has been thinking about politics and performance for a while. Here are the terms she uses in assessing Hillary Clinton’s style elsewhere:

From Jennifer Jones’ research on Hillary Clinton

So I’m reporting on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s use of 60 key terms that I believe underlie the article/research. If Trump is more feminine than Clinton, then he should use the feminine words more and she should use the more masculine words. That’s not what we’re going to see.

First, of these 60 keywords, we should dismiss 31 of them because they are too rare, too evenly split in probability of who says it more, or a topic/referent that shouldn’t really be considered as a style marker (she, email).

We’re left with 19 feminine words and 10 masculine words. 68% of the feminine words are Clintonian…and 80% of the masculine words are Clintonian. Trump is not a feminine speaker. Nor in this line of analysis is he a masculine speaker.

Gender is a huge issue in this campaign both implicitly and explicitly. And there’s really interesting stylistic stuff happening for these candidates. But these two facts don’t interact in a clean, easy “Men are from Mars, Women and Donald Trump are from Venus” story. Gender is a lot more complicated than that.

I believe you’ll be able to investigate many of these words and tell particular stories about how gender is constructed and performed — especially in a race between a woman who would be the first female president of the United States and a misogynist. But coarse lumpings and pre-determined categories aren’t going to get you there.

Pronouns

The first thing you should notice in calling Donald Trump feminine is the pronoun column. In particular, notice that it includes she. I think you’ll see immediately why that’s a problem: Trump’s opponent is Hillary Clinton. So he’s going to use she, Hillary, and Clinton a lot more purely out of reference.

In terms of the others, if we look at just language in the debates:

  • anyone: Hillary uses a lot more than Trump, but combined they still use fewer than 50 total
  • this: a very interesting word because of how it can be used to carry emotional weight, Trump really does use this more, see also Who is the Sarah Palin of the Canterbury Tales? He likes this country and say this and this at the ends of sentences.
  • yours: hardly ever used
  • I: I know that Donald Trump is seen as a narcissist but if you look at their word uses, Hillary Clinton uses this a lot more…mostly to say I think that or to talk about what she’s going to try to do to help people
  • me: a very Trumpian word (let me and his interruptive excuse me as well as his huge use of things like believe me and hardly ever says I believe)
  • myself: more Trumpian than Clintonian but weakly so (under 25 uses combined)

Verbs and auxiliary verbs

  • listening: about ten total uses between the two, very weakly Trumpian
  • need: much more used by Clinton than Trump
  • went: after we consider total words ever spoken, they are basically even in their use
  • am: much more Clintonian than Trumpian
  • been: more Clintonian than Trumpian
  • will: more Clintonian than Trumpian (I will, we will, {policies} that will)

Social references

  • children: Hillary Clinton uses this about a bazillion times more than Donald Trump. By which I mean 112 vs. 78
  • citizen: rare overall, but Trump has never said it in a debate (primary or presidential)
  • email: obviously, this is a campaign talking point not an indication of social reference (but it’s actually pretty rare)
  • said: Donald Trump does do a lot of citation, mostly of himself, the most frequent use for him is i said
  • talking: Trump does more of this than Clinton (we’re talking about, you’re talking about, I’m talking about)
  • who: this is a very Clintonian word (people who, those who, a president who)

Emotion words

In the realm of presidential debates and primary debates since 1960, the relevant story is that this year is more emotional than previous years but that Republicans, in general, seem to use more extreme emotional terms than Democrats.

  • brave: rare, but Clinton has used it more
  • cried: doesn’t occur
  • disagree: fairly balanced, not that common, a bit more Clintonian
  • evil: I have a whole essay on this (skip to the last section)! But Clinton has only ever said it once in a debate and Trump has never said it, though his primary opponents said it a fair amount
  • relief: a Clintonian word but it’s rare: the phrases are humanitarian relief (twice) and tax relief (once)
  • safe: once you balance rates of usage, the two candidates are pretty even in their use of this word, what’s probably interesting here is that Clinton tends towards be safe while Trump, who tends to use negation a lot more than others, tends to not safe

Cognitive mechanisms

  • because: a more Clintonian word (because I/we)
  • believe: I have so much to say on this! But basically, Trump is a huge user of believe me but compared to all other debaters he is an exceptionally low user of I believe
  • know: a very very Clintonian word but not because she’s a know-it-all, but because she’s using the discourse marker you know, which builds rapport and allows a pause to formulate the rest of an idea
  • result: fairly rare, but not used by Trump in any of the debates and used by Clinton 9 times
  • think: a very very Clintonian word because of her high use of I think that, which would be a great topic for someone to dive into: what is she doing with these?
  • thus: people just don’t use this in debates

Tentative words

  • chance: a fairly Clintonian word but it’s not really about tentativeness, it’s about giving people a chance
  • guess: a fairly Trumpian word (I guess)
  • maybe: a fairly Trumpian word

First-person plural pronouns (supposedly masculine)

  • let’s: fairly Clintonian (let’s talk, let’s not)
  • our: balanced between them
  • ourselves: pretty rare (under 10 occurrences)
  • us: Clintonian
  • we: Clintonian (we have, we need, we can)
  • we’re: Trumpian (we’re not, we’re losing, we’re doing)

It’s questionable whether, if we and we’re break up so differently whether they should be lumped together. Notice how differently they’re being deployed.

Articles (supposedly masculine)

  • a: Trumpian (a great, a disaster)
  • an: fairly split
  • the: fairly Clintonian, although this is normally a very Republican word (the world, the United States, the president, the Republicans)

Prepositions (supposedly masculine)

  • above: rare but Clintonian
  • for: Clintonian (for our, for people)
  • in: basically even
  • to: very, very Clintonian (to be, to do, to the, to get…I haven’t calculated how much more she’s using this with verbs than as a true preposition of direction)
  • under: just a tiny bit more Clintonian
  • without: a tiny bit more Clintonian

Anger words (supposedly masculine)

  • annoyed: isn’t really used in debates
  • cruel: isn’t really used in debates
  • disgust: isn’t really used in debates
  • hate: fairly Trumpian (I hate)
  • kill: rare (under 10 uses), but more Trumpian

If you want to get at the heart of emotional terms, you can take a look at this analysis of extreme words (2016/Trump are extremes — but what are the antecedents?)

Big words (supposedly masculine)

In general, Trump does use shorter words. This and his repetition seem to be important stories…but it’s not obvious to me that it’s a masculine/feminine story you’d want to tell.

  • American: fairly Clintonian
  • industrial: doesn’t get used
  • reconciliation: Hillary Clinton has used it twice in all the debates, Trump has never used it

Swear words

  • bastard: not used in debates
  • bitch: not used in debates
  • shit: not used in debates

For fun: since 1960, there have been 33 uses of darn in debates and 41 of heck. The king of both of these is Mitt Romney. There have been 51 uses of hell, all but 7 have been by Republicans.

Where do you put polite swears like darn, which are really avoidances of taboo terms? How about hell, which is taboo but also deeply connected to religion?

Taking a different tack, starting with different assumptions

I recommend taking a look at Deborah Cameron’s closer analysis of Trump’s banter-bonding-and-Billy-Bush conversation. This has a relationship to an earlier post she has where she writes:

So [what is claimed], men duel and women duet; women engage in intimate gossip while men engage in competitive banter. Locke presents this as an absolute divide: no bantering for women and no gossiping for men…
Well, sorry to spoil a nice neat story, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to call bullshit.

Then she goes about showing men gossiping. It’s fun reading. But it also shows the underlying idea that Trump being more emotionally engaging means that he is somehow feminine. But there are lots of ways that men get emotionally engaged. Look back at the transcript of Trump and Billy Bush: they are very emotionally involved but those are decidedly performances of masculinity.

The more interesting thing to do here, I think, is to ask: what is it in Clinton and Trump’s speech that make them likable and trustworthy to their audiences…and of course unlikable and untrustworthy to partisans on the other side (since they both have historic “unfavorables”).

These will almost certainly tell a gendered story, but it will be more complicated and interesting than starting with a feminine/masculine divide. Particularly given the fact that the data used to group those words is from a pretty different genre than “the way people speak when they are running for president”.

Fwiw, the background of my thinking here comes from work I’ve done trying to combine computational methods and contemporary social theory with Jacob Eisenstein and David Bamman. You can read about this research any of these places, depending on what sort of thing works best for you.