Genderlect: Why Is It Important?

Good question. But what is genderlect, anyway? Linguists use this blending of gender and dialect to describe how language use differs between men and women (and also to sound cool).

Do men and women use language differently? A large body of research shows that yes, indeed they do. With the advancement of gender equality, these distinctions are becoming more blurred of course, but they are still noticeable and can include anything from different word choices, grammar, posture and para-verbal aspects, to more competitive conversational practices by men and more cooperative (facilitating) ones by women.

which differences?!

Men interrupt women about twice as often as women interrupt men. Women use more questions and minimal responses to advance the conversation, yet have less success in getting their topics developed in mixed-sex talk. Boys’ play shows a clear ‘division of labor’, while girls tend to have flatter hierarchies and take extra care not to offend the other girls or make themselves look too important. And this extends into the workplace as well. Social norms and expectations in terms of ‘feminine’ language and behavior often clash with the normative patterns of strong leadership, creating what Robin Lakoff termed “the double bind” that women leaders often find themselves in. (Assertive women get lower likability ratings and can still be perceived as aggressive, domineering, bitchy and even “castrating”. The same attributes that are admired in men draw negative reactions when they are exhibited by a woman).

And then there is also the question of asymmetries. According to linguist Deborah Tannen, women communicate to share experience and generate mutual understanding – which is a symmetrical approach. You tell me your troubles, I listen and nod, then ask a few heartfelt questions or tell you something similar about myself to make you feel understood. Men, on the other hand, tend to be less cooperative or act as problem-solvers in communication. To women’s complaints, they often react with a simple fix, some quick advice, or with ‘hegemonic’ silence. However, offering rational and analytical advice when what the interlocutor is looking for empathy is asymmetrical: it can be interpreted as a form of ‘oneupmanship’.

OK. NOW WHAT?

Why is this important? Realizing that men and women use language differently can help you target your segment more aptly. Men and women may react differently to the wording in an ad, not to mention the imagery used. They might relate to your brand story differently or express their grievances in a different way. Have you considered how your marketing communications reinforce or challenge traditional gender roles and what the audience’s response might be? The interplay between gender, professional status, communities of practice and culture is also crucial.

Even in business negotiations, research shows that women tend to focus more on the relationship and to expect lower outcomes, while men are typically more task-oriented, hold the floor longer and are more competitive. Men seem more likely to discuss positions, whereas women tend to reveal more personal information and emotions than men. (Although older research, in a different context, showed that working-class men tend to be more emotional than middle- or upper-class women). In general, women find it more difficult to compromise their ethical values for financial and status gains, however, they are more likely to be contentious in virtual environments (online) than in face-to-face negotiations.

genderlect with a grain of salt

An important thing to remember, though, is that there can always be alternative explanations for the observed differences. Gender stereotypes often undermine the performance of negotiators. Women may seem like the weaker sex, but they often hold the reins behind the scenes and are ultimate decision-makers in their families, especially in so-called ‘feminine cultures’.

(I am reminded of the old comic, where a married couple go to counseling and the wife says: “I guess the problems in our communication stem from our mixed marriage. I’m right and he’s male!“)

So, before launching a product, make sure you get all your ducks in a row with help from a professional intercultural consultant (me! me! pick me!).

Need a feminine perspective? Is sociolinguistics a concern for your brand? Contact YourTranscreator for insightful and versatile #translation, #transcreation, #marketresearch and #interculturalcommunication!

Sources: Lewicki R.J., Barry B., Saunders D.M. – Negotiation (McGraw Hill, 2020). Coates J., Pichler P. (eds.) – Language and Gender – A Reader (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).