Monday, August 31, 2009

Hedging our bets

One popular stereotype about women and men's communication is that men are direct and confident in what they say and write, while women are more tentative and uncertain. Well, as Deborah Cameron is at pains to point out in her Myth of Mars and Venus (helpful extracts here), such stereotypes are a load of old cobblers: some women are tentative in certain situations, but so are some men. Gender isn't the main factor at all.

And now a piece of research from the USA into male and female writing styles appears to back up Cameron's points. Nicholas Palomares at the University of California found that given a written email task, both men and women used tentative constructions (hedges, disclaimers and tag questions). Here's a bit more detail:

"I found that women are more tentative than men sometimes, and men are more tentative than women sometimes," Palomares said. "It depends on the topic and whether you're communicating with someone of the same gender. Gender differences in language are not innate; they’re fickle."

In his study, Palomares asked nearly 300 UC Davis undergraduates -- about half of them female and half male -- to write e-mails explaining how to change a flat tire or buy make-up, among other gender-stereotyped and gender-neutral topics. Students were given the name and gender of the person they were e-mailing.

Men were tentative when writing about make-up or other stereotypically feminine topics, especially when they thought they were writing to a woman, he found. For example, one man, believing he was corresponding with a woman, wrote: "… maybe girls prefer the quality of products at Sephora over other major department stores? I don't know."

Women were tentative when writing about changing flat tires and other stereotypically masculine topics, especially when they thought they were writing to a man. For example, one woman, believing she was giving instructions to a man, wrote: "I think they start out by raising the whole car, or maybe just the one tire with a tire jack?"

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