Strange noises

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Do men and women communicate in the same ways? Jane Christopher's Year 11 group studied gender effects in speech and writing

I started teaching A-level language in 1992 and was keen to introduce it at my current school. It is a subject I really enjoy. There is enough rigour to equate its worth to literature and there is the bonus of original writing. I have seen some superb pieces produced by students: a gothic version of Snow White where she calmly wrings a squirrel's neck and a story where a student changed each paragraph to suit a different genre. I started my current group with an investigation into gender as part of their AQA specification B AS-level .

The first challenge is to separate the fact from the fiction: "Men swear while women are concerned with feelings." What has really surprised me is the way our study has influenced how I listen to myself in conversation and in the classroom, both speaking and responding. I have realised why I get so irritated with my brother when he does not offer encouraging noises and seems more interested in facts and having his say. Jennifer Coates, who is on the recommended reading list and whose writing includes Women in their Speech Communities (Longman 1989) and Women Talk (Blackwell 1996), characterises women's style as co-operative and men's style as competitive:

"When talking with women, men seem to use interruptions and delayed minimal responses to deny women the right to control the topic of conversation."

To begin, I wrote a transcript from an episode of television programme The Antiques Roadshow in order to analyse gender differences in conversation. It was fascinating stuff. Despite the fact that the expert asked fairly open questions he clearly wanted closed responses; the more he asked, the less the woman he was addressing said. It appeared to become clear to her that this was not a conversation but a fact-finding session.

Next, we recorded six Year 11 students. We gave the pupils three identical questions to discuss: What did you do at the weekend? What are your favourite films? Do you think that boys and girls communicate in different ways? The sexes were separated at first and then put together to answer the questions again. We listened to the tape with interest. The girls frequently interrupted each other, working collaboratively and making encouraging sounds of "umm" and "yeah"; tags were in abundance, things like: "do you?" and "could you?", intensifiers: "so nice!" and even hedges:

"I think". The boys were competitive, with two of them clearly wanting control, changing the topic and making strange noises! When they did interrupt it was to take over in order to dominate. Placed together, the girls became less assertive and use of hedges doubled. By the end, they said very little. Afterwards the students made presentations on their observations.

The students had to find an extract: film, television or taped conversation. We had Goodfellas, Live Talk (a daytime talk show), and Ready, Steady Cook. When this programme's host Ainsley arriott spoke to a male chef he asked a direct question, remained silent and then interrupted to regain control. When he spoke to the female equivalent, he put his arm around her, joked and during her response to his question frequently made sounds of encouragement and support. He did not interrupt.

Goodfellas was intriguing: the Italian mother clearly aggressive with a male-dominated family eager to please. She adopted male characteristics - seeing conversation as a competition and speaking aggressively yet, ironically, still making encouraging responses. The male extended family waited for her to finish before interrupting to gain control.

Live Talk with Anne Diamond again showed female taking the role of the expert and, as a result, adopting male characteristics of speech. It was interesting to note how frustrated Fred Talbot (the weather man from This Morning) became when his attempts to control the conversation failed. He raised his voice and we considered that he reacted aggressively to encouraging terms from Anne Diamond, which we perceived as an attempt to regain control.

I also viewed a programme about counselling. The counsellor was male yet adopted female characteristics of speech - using tags and making encouraging noises; as though subconsciously aware that the role of the listener is characterised by women.

We linked study on forms of address with encoding in language. I found a reference to one Wilson, a grammarian who, in 1553, ruled that man should precede woman in pairs, as he considered that more natural. No wonder we have "mankind" for humankind and that women can be seen as occupying negative semantic space. Most of us began this topic feeling that "mankind" was acceptable because "we all know it means both". By the end, I think we were starting to realise that it cannot be acceptable to allow girls and women to be defined in language by men. That equality must be reflected in language.

One of the boys, Ewan Carr, wrote:

"In exploring many of the differences between male and female speech we looked at phonology, semantics, grammar, discourse, semiotics and watched television clips of single or mixed sex conversations to test the theory. It was amazing to see how many of our generalisations on the features of male and female conversations were in practice.

"Our final area of study was how our changing society was affecting language, with particular focus on titles that are marked such as 'waitress' that denotes a female. We explored the possible reasons why a word such as this was still in use and yet 'Doctoress' is not (used in the 19th century). We wouldn't call a manager of a company who was female a manageress yet we would use this address as separate from manager in a restaurant. It is interesting to predict what further changes will take place - perhaps we will see a predominance of male suffixes as women dominate the work place. We will have to wait and see."

Jane Christopher is head of English at Droitwich Spa High School and Sixth-Form College

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