Lost your tongue? – Exploring the Joy Superpower of Assertive Communication

Have you ever felt like the dynamics in your conversations change when they’re between cross-gender participants? Suddenly you’re talking about different topics than normally, you change the tone of your voice or give more space to someone else?

Well, there’s actually a scientific background to it.

Sociolinguistics has studied how and why women and men speak differently. The results cover multiple areas, going from grammatical structures to the way these two groups interact. Luckily, there’s a common ground to be found.

The feminine correctness

One consistent finding is that women tend to speak more correctly, using more standard forms than men. For example, the multiple negation used especially in Detroit (“I don’t know nothing about it”) is largely more common amongst men than women. In one group, 32 % of men used this form compared to only 1 % of women. (Shuy et al. 1967 as cited in Holmes 2013: 166). One study in Edinburgh showed that children as young as 6 years old have already picked up the pattern. (Holmes 2013: 166)

Some theories explain this by framing language as a capital that can be used to impress others in situations where the speaker only has few sources of prestige. Similarly, others explain this by the society’s hierarchy, claiming that language is a way for women to be polite to the dominant group (men) and thus gain status. (Holmes 2013: 167-169) 

“Why should standard or ‘correct’ behaviour need explaining? It is men’s speech which uses fewer standard forms – not women’s.” – Janet Holmes

However, if we turn the question around and ask ourselves why don’t men use more standard forms, there is some evidence that vernacular (informal) forms carry connotations of masculinity and toughness. For example, in one study the participants were asked to evaluate who was most likely to win a street fight based on the way they spoke in a tape. Those who used most vernacular forms were identified as the probable winners. This suggests that men value vernacular forms and employ them as a rejection to female norms. (Holmes 2013: 170)

Cooperation or competition?

“If you had to put money on the likely gender of the ‘shouters’ vs the ‘listeners’ what would you venture?” – Janet Holmes

If we go back in time, we see that men’s socialisation contexts arise from public situations that promote “winning”: this is typically the case in work life and decision making. The norms for women’s talk go back to private contexts, like friends and family, thus emphasizing solidarity and agreement. (Holmes 2013: 315)

The consequences of this can be seen in women’s mitigated way of interacting as well as in men’s tendency to interrupt. The linguist Robert Lakoff was the first to suggest a list of linguistic features preferred by women. This list included lexical hedgers (“you know”, “sort of”), tag questions (“isn’t it”), and intensifiers (“just”, “so”) among other things. Later studies have shown that women do outnumber men in the use of these linguistic features, but they’re used primarily in facilitating interaction: it’s actually men that use these features in expressing uncertainty. (Holmes 1984 as cited in Holmes 2013: 307)

When it comes to interrupting, the best-known study in this field on student’s conversations in public places showed that men did 96 % of the interruptions in cross-gender interactions. (Zimmerman & West 1975: 116) 

West & Zimmerman (1975): “Sex roles, interruptions and silences in conversation”.

The golden middle

Luckily, there’s a third way of interacting: assertive communication. Any action that reflects an individual’s own best interest, including standing up for oneself without significant anxiety, expressing one’s feelings comfortably, or exercising one’s own rights without denying the rights of others counts as assertive behavior. (Alberti & Emmons 1970) Not only it empowers women to be heard, but it also offers men a more up-to-date alternative to either stepping on other’s toes or not fitting the norms of masculinity.

Do you feel like gender plays a role in the way you speak? Do you have a hard time expressing your will without hurting others? Tell us your story! Spark the conversation on down below or on social media using the hashtag #joysuperpowers. And don’t forget to get back next week for the Joy Superpowers podcast episode on assertive communication, featuring the professor, author and keynote speaker Paulette Dale!

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