Studies show that different backgrounds (including culture, country of origin, native language, geographic region, age, and gender) create different interpretations of language. Because all individuals have different backgrounds and different conversational styles, misunderstandings are likely to arise.1 For example, a minor dispute might arise between a husband and a wife, but their unique conversational styles prevent them from resolving the dispute amicably because they are “talking past one another.”
If we were to take a step back in time, historians would tell us the language and speech style of women was less adequate than that of their male counterpart.2 “Outrageous” you may think to yourself! Fortunately, the modern approach no longer elevates men to a superior position and denigrates women to an inferior position.3 Instead, it says that men and women communicate differently in different dialects—thus called the “genderlect approach.”
Recently, social scientists have embraced the idea that communication between men and women are full of potential misunderstanding much like the “two-cultures model.” The “two-cultures model” suggests that two people from South Africa and Denmark would have a difficult time communicating (even if they had a common language). This “two-cultures model” is based on the notion that individuals with a group develop their own communication style; thus, when groups are socially distance from one another, communication, frustrations, and misunderstandings are likely to arise.
According to the “genderlect approach,” even though women and men are not necessarily segregated, children learn social rules for conversation and interaction during a time when play groups are maximally segregated by sex (age five through fifteen). Matlz and Borker did a study in 1982 which analyzed how girls and boys learn to do different things with words. Girls use words to
(1) create and maintain relationships of closeness and equality,
(2) criticize others in acceptable (indirect) ways, and
(3) interpret accurately and sensitively the speech of other girls.
On the hand, boys use words to
(1) assert one’s position of dominance,
(2) attract and maintain and audience, and
(3) assert oneself when another person has the floor.4
Because girls and boys are separated as children, men and women in effect grow up learning different social rules and communication styles as though they were in entirely segregated groups. What does this mean?
The male “report talk” and the female “rapport talk” equally limit the ability of men and women to effectively communicate with one another.5 Author John Gray said that neither Mars nor Venus was a superior home to live. Both men and women are missing elements to reach full integration of language. Communication problems often lead to conflict or they at least tend to exacerbate conflict. By beginning to understand gender differences in language, we can better reduce or deescalate conflicts that are created by this “genderlect” or “gender-dialect.”
Check back next week for some tips and guidelines to deal with the “gender-dialect” which currently prevents men and women from fully and accurately communicating with one another.
1 See DEBORAH TANNEN, THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT! HOW CONVERSATIONAL STYLE MAKES OR BREAKS RELATIONSHIPS (1986) 23.
2 Caja Thim, Sabine C. Koch, & Sabine Schey, Communicating Gendered Professional Identity: Competence, Cooperation, and Conflict in the Workplace IN JANET HOLMES & MIRIAM MEYERHOFF, EDS. THE HANDBOOK OF LANGUAGE AND GENDER (2003) 528-549.
3 Mary E. Crawford, Gender and Language (1995) 93.
4 Id. at 87-88
5 Id. at 93.