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Gender Differentiation in Conversational Styles

None of the men I’ve spoken to believe me when I point out that women don’t talk more than them and that we don’t interrupt them with our “banter”.

Seriously, we don’t.

According to a study conducted by psychologist Don Zimmerman and sociologist Candace West in their “Sex Roles, Interruptions and Silences in Conversation” study.

"…males interrupt females far more often than they interrupt other males - and much more often than females interrupt either sex."

In fact, “in mixed-sex conversations, men ‘hold the floor’ more of the time than women, even when the women have higher status…” (pg. 210)

Deborah Tannan, a sociolinguist in the 1990s, did a study where she recorded two-and-a-half hours of conversation, noting that, “…men often do dominate their conversations with women by interrupting.”

Dominating conversations doesn’t stop at interrupting, even “stony silence,” is a pass for this. How? She gives an example:

"…she cit[es] a dialogue between a husband and wife in Erica Jong’s novel, Fear of Flying. Bennett, the man, remains stonily silent, while with mounting misery his wife Isadora begs him to tell her what she has done wrong. When he finally tries to leave the room, the scene ‘ends with her literally lowered to the floor, clinging to his pajama leg. But the reason his silence is an effective weapon is her insistence that he tell her what’s wrong. If she receded into silence, leaving the room or refusing to talk to him, his silence would be disarmed.” (pg. 211)

This obviously, can be dismissed as an exaggeration. It is, after all, a reference taken from a fictional account but also points out something that rings true: How interactions are defined by the participation of all parties involved. For starters, patterns of speaking and conversation styles taken on by most women usually contain “frequent use of qualifiers or hedges that decrease the assertiveness in the statement,” we also use what linguists Robin Lakoff calls: “empty” adjectives — adjectives that do not have connotations of power.

Other assessments show that it IS typically women who ‘hold onto’ men, in a very figurative way, when we converse with them. We are usually the ones that try to keep the conversation going.

Pamela Fisherman, a sociolinguist who analyzed 52 hours of couples amongst themselves, concluded that women “work harder” to keep conversations flowing. In our attempts to do so, we are more likely to use tag questions (i.e.: “phrases that can be used to obligate one’s partner to reply”), we give encouragement to continue a conversation and force interest more often to ensure the man knows we are being attentive.

In those moments when we do initiate a conversation on a particular topic, they fail 64% of the time. In comparison to the men on the tapes whose topics successfully carried 96% of the time. This means that, “women had to keep bringing up new subjects all the time and mostly they fell flat.” (pg. 209)

The most notable way that men killed conversations was something as trivial, as minimal, as saying, “Um” when the woman had finished speaking. The woman’s response? They “pursued whatever subject the men seemed willing to talk about.” (pg. 210)

What does this all come down to? It confirms a few things. 1) In mix-gender conversations, women typically put the concerns and interests of men first. 2) In mix-gender conversations, women still come across as less assertive and even, less convincing. (“studies have shown that the tentative style that women often use makes any speaker seem less convincing and believable”, and this becomes an issue when it trickles into work place perceptions, adding another layer to the glass ceiling: “Women [who] were not convincingly powerful in their style of speaking…were not put into positions where they must present themselves powerfully.”) 3) Men interrupt women more in conversations and all-in-all, dominate these conversations. In one way by the conditioned leeway women usually give them (i.e.: we are expected and trained to be more polite and thoughtful of the feelings of others, this slips into conversation style as well. Lakoff specifies that we use “overly proper grammar and excessively polite speech” most of the time). At the opposite end of the spectrum, men are more likely to cut off women through socialized feelings of entitlement a.k.a, a manifestation of male privilege.

[The trippy thing about “privilege” is that many privileged people cannot identify it until it is pointed out to them and when it is, it is usually met with hostility because their power and the cultural advantages the society gives them is being attacked. In context of these studies, it has to do with how the opinions of men are more valued, thus most men grow to internalize these beliefs and this is externalized through putting their views above that of women’s].

For the guys: You may not notice you’re doing it, but try to get in-tuned to how often you talk compared to how often the women in your life talk when they are conversing with you. Whose topics carry on the longest? Who interrupts who the most? Do you give unwarranted encouragement through verbal cues or body language? (e.g: nodding your head, giving “ahuhs” or throwing in tag questions). When awkward silence enters the conversation, who’s the first to break it?

Experiences will differ from person-to-person. But all these studies, from the Fisherman and Tannen’s tapes to Lakoff and Kramarae’s observations (Dr. Cheris Kramarae pointed out that these speech patterns are also cross-cultural), there should be a gender-specific pattern to the conversation styles.

But at the end of the day: No, we do not talk more than you when we are talking with you.

Spencer, Metta et al. Foundations of Modern Sociology: Seventh Edition. “Gender Roles.” Prentice-Hall Canada Inc., 1996. (pg. 209-211)

(Source: exgynocraticgrrl)

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