Language and Gender - An Introduction to the Two-Cultures Theory

Although the study of how gender is manifest in language is a recent branch of linguistics, it has developed into a wide field with a considerable number of studies since the first publications of research findings in the early 1960s. While the first studies in the field focused on differences between the ways men and women talk on a "phonological, morphological, syntactic or lexical level" (Coates 1998: 7), later studies concentrated on findings based on conversational analysis. A number of differences between the ways women and men talk were formally discovered and recorded. Most studies found similar differences; however, concerning the question of why and how these differences had come into being, interpretations vary.

Roughly speaking there are two approaches: the dominance theory and the two-cultures theory. The former claims that many of the so-called typical features of "women's language" are in fact features of "powerless language". O'Barr and Atkins, who were the first to raise this claim, maintain that the term "powerless language" is "more descriptive of the social status of those who speak in this manner, and [it is a term] which does not link [the manner of speaking] unnecessarily to the sex of the speaker" ([1980] 1998: 385). On the other hand, the two-cultures theory, which has been first proposed by Maltz and Borker, explains differences in conversational style by arguing that men and women are part of different sub-cultures and therefore conversation between women and men can be likened to interethnic communication ([1982] 1998: 421). There do not seem to be conclusive arguments to favour either approach.

I feel that both theories have their merits and limitations; however, it is impossible to elaborate on both of them within the constraints of this article. I am currently most interested in issues occurring within "friendly talk", i.e. talk among friends in a non-work environment, and in my opinion the two-cultures theory addresses these issues more accurately than the dominance theory. Hence, I will expand on the two-cultures theory. To begin with I shall introduce an example which illustrates how this theory explains differences in conversational style between men and women: the different interpretation of minimal responses. In the main part of this paper I wish to give a brief overview of the two-cultures theory and expand on possible explanations of how differences in conversational style between women and men may have come into being. I will draw most of my material from Maltz and Borker's paper "A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication" (1982), because they were the first to propose such an approach as opposed to the dominance theorists' approach.

Let us begin by looking at the interpretation of positive minimal responses. This example will illustrate the basic idea behind the two-cultures theory. Positive minimal responses are nods and comments such as "yes", "yeah" and "mm hmm". These responses are common features of conversational interaction. Both, men and women, employ them, however, according to Maltz and Borker's findings, minimal responses have "significantly different meanings for men and women, [which lead] to occasionally serious miscommunications" ([1982] 1998: 421).* The following is a summary of Maltz and Borker's argument as can be found in Language and Gender: A reader on page 421. To women minimal responses simply mean something like "I'm listening to you; please continue." Men, however, attach much stronger meanings to positive minimal responses, such as "I agree with you" or at least "I follow your argument so far." This hypothesis explains why women use minimal responses more often than men. Women indicate that they are listening more often than men would indicate agreement.

In mixed-gendered conversation such differences in interpretation may lead to misunderstandings. A woman talking to a male friend may interpret his infrequent positive minimal responses as a sign that he is not really listening to her, while to him this only means that he does not always agree with her. On the other hand, imagine a man receiving frequent nods and "mm hmms" from his female interlocutor. She is indicating that she is listening attentively, while he may interpret her frequent positive minimal responses as a sign of continuous agreement. Should his female friend later disagree with what he said, his previous interpretation may lead him to the conclusion that women often change their minds. To put this in Maltz and Borker's words: "[T]his short example [...] seems to explain two of the most common complaints in male-female interaction: (1) men who think that women are always agreeing with them and then conclude that it's impossible to tell what a woman really thinks, and (2) women who get upset with men who never seem to be listening" (422). Maltz and Borker conclude that what we have here are "two separate rules for conversational maintenance which come into conflict and cause massive miscommunication" (422). Thus, we may infer the existence of at least two sets of rules for the maintenance of friendly conversation: one set for women, one for men.

Let us now have a look at what Maltz and Borker see as the reason for those two sets of rules for conversational maintenance. They claim that these two sets of rules exist because men and women form their own sub-cultures, even though they interact with each other on a daily basis. At this point I feel it is important to note that the men and women whose speech is the object of Maltz and Borker's study are white middle-class Americans. As such one would imagine they form a more or less homogenous culture. One may therefore wonder how it is possible for members of such a society, in which the two genders interact daily, to form two sub-cultures. Maltz and Borker mention the following as a possible source of male-female differences between the sets of rules which apply for friendly interaction and for carrying on friendly conversation: "What is striking about these [...] rules is that they were not learned from adults but from peers, and that they were learned during precisely that time period, approximately age 5 to 15, when boys and girls interact socially primarily with members of their own sex" (422). Furthermore they argue that by examining "differences in the social organization of play and the accompanying differences in the patterns of social interaction they entail, [... one] can learn about the sources of male-female differences in patterns of language use" (423). Hence, they suggest that these patterns, which are "learned in childhood and carried over into adulthood as the bases for patterns of single-sex friendship relations, [...] are potential sources of miscommunication in cross-sex interaction" (423). In the following I wish to relay some of the characteristics which are specific to either gender's interactions, first in the person's childhood and how these characteristics are later adapted in adulthood.

I shall begin with an overview of the nature of the characteristics specific to the female gender. According to Maltz and Borker girls tend to play in small groups, most often in pairs (424). Friendship is seen "as involving intimacy, equality, mutual commitment, and loyalty" (424). The basis of these qualities is language. In girls' friendships most of the work is done with words. Using words they learn to "create and maintain relationships of closeness and equality, to criticize others in acceptable ways, and to interpret accurately the speech of other girls" (424). What was important in their childhood, namely the correct usage and interpretation of spoken language as a means to create and maintain friendships, continues to be of importance in adulthood. Maltz and Borker state that "women's conversation is interactional. In friendly talk, women are negotiating and expressing a relationship, one that should be in the form of support and closeness, but which may also involve criticism and distance" (427). The linguist Coates even likens women's friendly talk to a jam session, where all participants' voices "combine to a shared text" ([1997] 1997: 55). As we can see women's friendly talk appears to be of a cooperative nature.

Let us now establish what characteristics are assigned to the male gender. Maltz and Borker argue that boys "play in larger, more hierarchically organized groups than girls" (425). Here spoken language is used mainly to "assert one's position of dominance, to attract and maintain an audience, and to assert oneself when other speakers have the floor" (426). These characteristics live on in adult men's talk where friendly interaction is characterized by "storytelling, arguing and verbal posturing" (429). The audience is of major importance in male-only interactions. Maltz and Borker point out that "narratives such as jokes and stories are highly valued, especially when they are well performed for an audience" (429). However, the all-male audience differs significantly from the all-female audience. Maltz and Borker maintain that "challenges rather than statements of support are a typical way for men to respond to the speech of other men" (429). We may conclude that men's friendly talk more often takes the form of monologues, such as telling stories, or a good-natured fight with words, such as verbal posturing.

The above was an overview of some of the differences in cultural background between male and female speakers and how these differences result in a different conversational style. Based on these observations Maltz and Borker suggest that "women and men have different cultural rules for friendly conversation and that these rules come into conflict when women and men attempt to talk to each other as friends and equals in casual conversations" (429). In their paper they suggest a number of areas in which men and women possess different conversational rules. However, it is beyond the scope of this article to list any area other than the interpretation of minimal responses, which we have discussed earlier.

Of more interest seems to me the direction of further research Maltz and Borker are suggesting. While researching their paper "A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication" (1982) Maltz and Borker studied differences in the cultural background of speakers according to their gender. Since they were the first to propose this model, their approach to the topic was broad. Yet, their theory offers sensible explanations for a variety of issues. Thus, Maltz and Borker rightly suggest further, more specific studies of single-sex communication in order to crystallise more gender specific conversational rules. Next to this obvious line of further research, Maltz and Borker are aware that these rules may not only be tied to gender, but also to other factors. One of these factors they see in the sexual orientation of the speaker. Therefore, they suggest studies of conversational patterns of homosexuals (431). Another promising line of research is seen in studying of conversational patterns of tomboys (431). In doing so Maltz and Borker hope to "make more explicit some of the differences in conversational rules" (431).

In this paper I have tried to introduce the two-cultures theory as proposed by Maltz and Borker. We have seen how within one seemingly homogenous culture men and women may be thought to form two different sub-cultures. As such they have different sets of rules for conversational maintenance. Maltz and Borker argue that the rules for conversational maintenance are learned during the age of socialization. They point out that the set of rules applying to friendly conversation is learned from peers, who are usually of the same sex. In this paper, we have seen how women-only talk appears to be of a collaborative nature. This is explained by the fact that among women and girls language is used to establish relationships of closeness and equality. For men on the other hand, talk often serves the purpose of asserting one's position within the hierarchy of the group. Thus men-only talk is of a more competitive, monologue based nature than women-only talk. Maltz and Borker argue convincingly that these differences in the rules for conversation maintenance are at least partly responsible for conflict in mixed-gender friendly conversation. I hope to have given the reader a concise introduction to the two-cultures theory, because I believe it presents a valid alternative to the dominance theory.

* Daniel N. Maltz and Ruth A. Borker, A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication. In Coates, J. (ed.), Language and Gender: A Reader, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1998). All subsequent references to this text will be indicated by page numbers in parentheses.

Coates, Jennifer (ed.)
1997 — The Construction of a Collaborative Floor in Women's Friendly Talk. In Givon, T. (ed.), 55-89
1998 — Language and Gender: A reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd
Givon, T. (ed.)
1997 — Conversation: Cognitive, Communicative and Social Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins
Maltz, Daniel N., and Ruth A. Borker
1982 — A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication. In Coates, J. (ed.), 417-434.
O'Barr, William M., and Bowman K. Atkins
1980 — "Woman's Language" or "Powerless Language"? In Coates, J. (ed.), 377-387

This paper was written for "Writing Skills2" in June 2003.
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