‘You are an idiot’.
‘I think you can sometimes be a bit of an idiot’.
Which of these statements would annoy you more?
According to gender and language researchers, the initial statement would arouse the most anger, but why?
Doctor Robin Lakoff, a pioneer in the study of gender and language, argues that this is because the top statement encourages antagonism, whilst the latter is politer and less direct. Throughout her essay Language in Society, she explores the ways in which language is used by men and women, and what this language is believed to say about them. For Lakoff, the relationship between gender and language shows a clear divide in power between men and women. This is a belief that has remained to this day. Language used by women is regarded as feminine and lesser; whilst language used by men is regarded as masculine and stronger. Many view ‘feminine’ language as weak because it comes across as softer and more polite; however, I would argue that this type of language should be seen as – and labelled – constructive language opposed to weak or feminine.
Hedging, for instance, is seen as weak because it suggests uncertainty. Conversation fillers such as ‘like’, ‘sort of’, and ‘kinda’ are assumed to show the speakers lack of confidence; however, Dr Jennifer Coates argues that this device is used to “detach [the speaker] from the force of [the] utterances”. By disassociating the two, the speaker is able to reduce the impact of their speech and appear more level-headed. Take the following example, ‘I think you are kinda overreacting’ is a more approachable response compared to ‘I think you are overreacting’. The use of hedging here allows the listener to save face whilst the speaker is still able to get their point across in a less confrontational manner.
Similarly, apologetic language is assumed to be weak as it places the speaker into the inferior position or position of the wrongdoer. For example, ‘I am sorry, but are you sure that is right?’ uses both apologetic and indirect language to disagree with the listener. By turning the statement ‘you are wrong’ into ‘I am sorry, but are you sure that is right?’, the speaker is able to invite the listener into a conversation and encourage them to give their own opinion and reasoning. Once the listener feels understood and acknowledged the two can engage in negotiation at a faster rate. Again, these devices also allow the listener to save face by placing them in a higher position in the conversation whilst giving them the opportunity to amend their facts.
Generally, I have found that ‘feminine’ language devices seem to promote reconciliation and collaboration, and often lead to a more successful conversation. As such, I find it reductive to label this as ‘feminine’ and prefer the term constructive as it moves away from the stereotypes that are associated with ‘feminine’ language. William Eadie notes that “men who are socialized in expressive ethnic communities are likely to be more emotionally expressive than men who are not” further reinforcing that language is not inherently ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ and should not be seen as related to sex or gender. By associating language with sex or gender it reinforces the belief that not only are men and women socially different, but they must speak in a particular way to be considered a man or woman. When we dictate who people are in this way, we reduce them to a stereotype and ignore the purpose behind their words.
‘Feminine’ language is not weak, it is constructive, and it is about time people realise it.