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Talking sex;Books

Exploring Genderspeak: Personal Effectivieness In Gender Communication, By Diana K Ivy and Phil Backlund McGraw Hill pound;22.95 0 07 0322929.

Laurence Alster on the way men and women communicate. It isn't so long ago that, broadly speaking, when men talked, women listened. Rightly, things are different now. Yet, as Exploring GenderSpeak amply demonstrates, finding one's voice isn't quite the same as being heard.

The authors come to this conclusion by way of a comprehensive survey of the functions and characteristics of talk. Starting with a review of the basic biological and social influences on gender, they then examine sexism in language and the nature of male-female relationships as expressed through talk. An absorbing survey, Exploring GenderSpeak is in no way devalued by its constant references to American cultural products, almost all of which students in this country will know well.

Take, for example, the excellent section on media representations of gender. Virtually all the television programmes examined - Cheers, LA Law, Moonlighting, Northern Exposure and similar others - are known over here, as are all the movies and rock (or, more especially, rap) groups mentioned. Less familiar, however, are some of the points made on these products.

Of these, the most worthwhile include the observation that the behaviour of "good" males in daytime soap operas - "caring, nurturing and verbal" - is contrived to fit the expectations of a largely female audience, some of whom, it appears, take these sudsy contrivances to represent reality. On a related theme, it appears that television programmes invariably depict successful career women as far more concerned with domestic and emotional issues than their male counterparts. And, for some commentators, many women-oriented US talk shows - more and more of which we see on our own screens - inadvertently "ghettoise" such concerns as sexual harassment and reproductive rights by presenting them as predominantly "women's issues".

While the precise effect of such messages on audience behaviour is impossible to assess, the rest of the book takes up the issue nevertheless. The result is an always engaging, often entertaining read. All manner of observations on cross- and inter-gender communication conventions are explored, most of them supported by reference to relevant research. Especially pleasing, too, is the regular prodding of readers to really think ("What's your opinion? Do you agree?") about the issues under review.

An ideal text, then, for A-level and first-year higher education students of media and communication studies, though not one entirely blameless. While several languid phrases will pain traditionalists - "For some people, 'friends of the opposite sex' is an oxymoron (kind of like 'military intelligence')" - even less finicky others are unlikely to be swept away by "the internal toilet flush", the authors' preferred metaphor for the first delicious stirrings of love. Pray heaven it doesn't catch on.

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