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Essay: Use of language between men and women

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  • Published: 16 November 2017*
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  • Words: 1,221 (approx)
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Through day-to-day interactions, the differences in the use of language between men and women can be quite subtle, but when these differences are brought to the surface of consciousness, they can be thought-provoking. It is common for women to be more self-conscious about the way they talk, whether they use the word “like” too many times, if they speak with upward inflection in their voice, or if their pitch is too high. These behaviors are constantly under the microscope of people in power, and something as harmless as an upward inflection in a woman’s voice can be exactly the reason that an interviewer would believe that she isn’t as qualified for a position as all other supporting documents and references say that she truly is. In two articles: “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’” by historian Molly Worthen and “Just Don’t Do It” by linguist Deborah Cameron, language specific to women and the entire millennial generation is examined, especially the way that language influences the perception of others. In women of older generations like Gen X’ers and baby boomers, along with both genders in the millennial generation, speech is shown to be a direct reflection on qualities like authority and intelligence. This speech that has been adapted can greatly affect interactions between people, positively or negatively. Other influences on these qualities include specific uses of language that include word placement, fillers, unnecessary, apologetic words and body language.
Both articles by Worthen and Cameron examine language and how over time in English, women’s language has become more apologetic. While Worthen’s article’s main focus is on the phrase “I feel like”, Cameron’s is more broad to women’s language in general and how it is constantly being policed. Apologetic speech is harmful because it conveys a lack of confidence in what is being stated. Worthen demonstrates the issues with apologetic speech with her focus on “I feel like”. Examples that were provided of this speech were greatly tied to the most recent presidential election in 2016. These include phrases like: “I support Donald Trump because I feel like he is a doer” from a senior at the University of South California and a Yale student that said, “Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic”. These examples demonstrate how the phrase “I feel like” has developed into a phrase that makes a sentence inarguable and therefore not problematic. Who is one person to say that another’s personal experience and belief is invalid to the other? In Molly Worthen’s article, senior at Williams College, Natasha Pangarkar says that this phrase is placed in a sentence in “an effort to make our ideas more palatable”. This is also problematic because it eliminates any real discussion from ever being had in fear of that discussion leading to argumentation. Not only does the phrase eliminate discussion, it eliminates the personal responsibility of our interactions. Emotions play a lead role in our speech and thoughts. Another reason that the phrase “I feel like” is an issue is that it squanders the chance for emotion to be displayed through words. This can make someone seem like they show no empathy, or that they simply do not care at all. According to the article “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’”, neuroscientist Anthony Damasio says that the phrase is simply “laziness in thinking” and that it “conceals more than it reveals”. The phrase is elusive to actual thought and emotion.

Similarly to the use of “I feel like”, linguist Deborah Cameron showcases how the word “just” can be overly apologetic as if in a way to say “sorry for speaking, but…”. Cameron places more focus on the context of the word, though. This emphasis shows that the word “just” isn’t always apologetic, but can rather be assertive in explaining how good or bad something actually was. Both of these phrases have a tendency to eliminate the perception of confidence from the recipient. Along with Cameron’s focus on the word “just”, there is also a portion on vocal patterns, especially those common to women like upward inflection and how those patterns can influence how one’s confidence is perceived. The issue with upward inflection in one’s voice is that it makes every sentence seem like it may have been doubted, therefore harming the credibility. Deborah Cameron also focused on a lawyer named “Hanna” that went through speech therapy to eliminate her high pitched voice so she could sound more “authoritative”. She spoke in shorter phrases and in a bigger voice. This speech therapy was to help create the perception that Hanna was, in fact, a figure of authority, not just some airhead running around. Essentially, the speech therapy helped eliminate the feminine patterns in her voice and language that undermined her authority.

Further, there is a strong relationship between the use of language and the recipient’s perception of the speaker. From personal experience, I have learned that a person does not always need to speak with big, elaborate words and phrases to display his or her intelligence. In fact, from my experience, it is not the exact words that show intelligence, but rather what the language aims to convey, and what it does convey that show this. Filler language is something that can lower the level of perceived intelligence. Most commonly the words “like” and “um” are used as fillers between thoughts, and there is a reason that when someone is doing a TED presentation, that language isn’t a part of his or her speech. These words have a tendency to dumb things down because they show a lack a of cohesiveness between thoughts and words. Cameron’s example with the word “just” is similar to these, as it can tend to dumb down a point that is trying to be made.

Cameron also addresses body language or the lack thereof in her article. There is an advice writing mentioned in the article that is aimed at women in the 1990’s that stated that women should mimic the lack of body language that is used by men in order to make them more successful. Though this writing can almost be considered completely outdated at this point, there is a harmful message underlying in this advice. This writing suggests that the best way to be successful as a woman is actually just to behave more similarly to men. This advice shames women’s natural tendencies, like using more body language when they speak. The reason the gender gap in language is fading between men and women is due to the fact that there is a responsibility that needs to be taken for speech, and nonverbal communications are included in that responsibility.

Language, both verbal and non-verbal play key roles in the way people are perceived by others. While commonly gendered traits like patterns of inflection or pitch of voice should not contribute to the level of intelligence or authority that others see, patterns in speech and use of language should be held to a higher standard. It is a slippery slope when language becomes lazy and unattached. There should always be emotion and responsibility held to the words people say and they act. Accountability should always be taken and there should always be room for constructive conversation and even disagreement.

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