Guys sometimes ask me for relationship advice. They want me to give them “a woman’s opinion” on a problem they’re having with their wife or girlfriend. My answer never changes. I can’t speak for all women. We’re different. We have different brains.
Your biological sex plays only a small to moderate role in how you see the world. Not all opinions can be predicted based on gender; most girls I know hate the color pink.
The entire idea that you can learn to talk to someone “as a woman” doesn’t make much sense — not from personal experience, and not from a linguistic perspective, either.
When a woman says, “I’m fine,” that could mean twenty things. She might actually be fine. Or she might be sleeping with your brother. Or she might be ever-so-gently telling you to fuck off.
Intonation matters a lot. If she says, “I’m FINE,” after you forgot her birthday for the second year in a row, it stands to reason she’s pissed. You don’t need “a woman’s opinion” here.
Decades ago, linguists argued constantly about this question: Do women and men essentially speak different languages?
Research and discussion have never resulted in a definitive answer. Yes, differences exist. But all kinds of factors intervene : upbringing, environment, culture, economic class, and socialization.
What we have learned is that groups use language to create community. So, to make themselves stand out, some girls (and guys) develop their own speech habits. Valley Girls don’t use “like” and “totally” because they’re dumb. The original VGs did so on purpose, to build social capital and to mark themselves as different from and better than everyone else. Over time, it became naturalized, and eventually turned into a pop culture trope.
Men and women communicate differently in some ways, but mainly because we’ve been taught to do so by parents, teachers, and pop culture. It is possible to unlearn all this bad teaching. Guys can share their feelings. And everyone can use the word “adorable.”
The birth of a stereotype
The “genderlect” debate began back around 1972, when Robin Lakoff published “Language and Woman’s Place,” in which she observed ten characteristics specific to women’s speech:
1. They hedge with phrases like “if you could,” along with words like “maybe” and “almost certainly”; for example, “So I was wondering if, maybe, you could turn the television down?”
2. They use empty adjectives like “cute” and “dainty” and “beautifully.”
3. They observe super-polite forms like, “Would it be difficult to…” or “If you’re not too busy right now.”
4. They apologize a lot, even in the middle of sentences.
5. They don’t talk as much.
6. They refrain from vulgar language.
7. They tag questions onto the end of sentences more often, especially phrases like “don’t you?” or “didn’t it?”
8. They use hyper-correct grammar, like mangling sentences to keep them from ending in prepositions, or always using “whom.”
9. They phrase everything indirectly.
10. They salt their speech with intensifiers like “so” and “extremely.”
Here’s the problem. Only some women of a specific socioeconomic class in the U.S. ever talked like that. Women don’t naturally, as a consequence of their sex, observe any of these rules. What happened? The American middle class expected their wives and secretaries to talk and behave this way. These values became encoded and passed down. If a woman ever violated these rules, she was punished.
If women abided by by these standards, they enjoyed a kind of enhanced status over women in other social classes. Over time, people just assumed it was natural. This indoctrination happens over and over again, affecting the ways we think about gender, sexuality, and identity.
Some small group comes up with rules. We get used to them, stop thinking about them. The rules petrify into natural law. Finally, somehow, “science” backs up what the ruling elite reverse-engineered.
Language and authority
It’s no accident that a lot of these same linguistic traits dictated by Lakoff show up in emails from my students, especially the overachievers. Individuals who holds less power or status feels they have to hedge everything they write, so they send me messages like this:
Dear Dr. Wildfire,
I hope you’re having a great summer! I was just writing to you on this gorgeous July morning to see if you were possibly interested in serving on my dissertation committee? It would be such an honor to receive feedback from you. I’m sure there’s a lot of valuable insight you could offer. If you’re too busy, I completely understand.
Desperate ABD Candidate
It is not only women who send apologetic, adjective-ridden emails. Men also use a lot of these super-polite forms, even if they’re addressing a female professor. Some of them don’t, of course, especially if they have limited respect for me.
I reply to everyone like this:
Okay. Send it to me.
Wow, I’m not even trying there. I don’t have to. I’ve even got the audacity to end my email with a command. Deep down, we both know it’s my job to serve on committees. I’m un-tenured, so I can’t afford to turn down any chance to read a dissertation. But I hold the illusion of authority and power, so I’m the one who can dispense with all the politeness.
Linguists have found all kinds of interesting patterns that discourse plays in different arenas, for both men and women . We’ve learned that men in certain age groups in certain parts of the U.S. speak in upvoice (raise their pitch) at the end of sentences, just as much as women do. We’ve also learned that upvoicing among women doesn’t always mean they’re unsure, or seeking affirmation. Sometimes it means, “Are you paying ATTENTION?”
We’ve learned, too, that a woman often just performs politeness for men, when the truth is she could make a sailor blush. Some of you might remember an email that went viral a few years ago — written by the president of a sorority in Maryland, and beautifully performed by Michael Shannon. You won’t find a better example of a woman disregarding Lakoff’s assumptions.
Communicate with people, not genders
We unknowingly reinforce and perpetuate indoctrinated language norms all the time. Most linguists and language theorists believe in this theory called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis , which suggests that how we talk reflects and shapes the way we think.
So when your boss or coworkers continue to think that women naturally talk less during meanings, or that they’re somehow biologically programmed to always say pretty please and thank you so much, they’re acting kind of sexist. See, I just hedged. Because I didn’t want to offend.
You might be making your relationship problems worse when you blame gender for failures to communicate. When you say, “She’s just being a woman,” you’re dismissing the core problem.
Women don’t speak in some foreign language you have to decipher. Neither do men. Not all men want to talk about video games, or to bury their feelings in jokes. Anyone can shut down if they don’t feel respected, appreciated, or heard.
When you ditch gender stereotypes, talking becomes easier. If you think something’s bothering your partner, just ask him or her; say, “Something seems wrong. What is it?” Your partner is either going to tell you, or he or she is not. And that decision probably has nothing to do with gender.
Be clear and direct. If what you’re saying could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive insult, resist and ask for clarification. For example, you could say, “It sounds like you were just indirectly referencing my penis size. Were you?”
Maybe she actually didn’t mean to offend. In that case, it’s your job to confirm the intent. Hey, maybe she was trying to zing you, but you’re better off knowing than assuming.
Finally, stay aware of your own behavior. You might be unknowingly conforming to gender norms. You might, for instance, hide your feelings because you still subconsciously think men shouldn’t cry.
The same advice applies to women. You might be communicating the way you think you should, the way you were raised, even if that form of communication is not productive. Pay attention. Let go of unfair expectations of others. Push against your own expectations for yourself. Take back control of the way you talk.
Women don’t talk like servants because they’re inherently weaker or more nurturing. They don’t share their feelings more because they’re naturally more emotional. They don’t use passive-aggressive speech because they dislike confrontation. Women can be rude. They can swear. They can tell you exactly what they’re thinking, and what they want. The sooner you get on board with this reality, the happier you’ll be.