The Conversational Styles of Women and Men

Language and gender research is concerned with the conversational styles of women and men. Scholars and public opinion have defined them as fundamentally different from each other in several respects.

Deborah Tannen (1984) has emphasized the existence of two major types of conversational styles. They shape the communicative behaviour of individual speakers: a high-involvement style and the opposing high-considerateness style. These styles can reflect the general linguistic behaviour of women and men in conversation. While women are said to prefer a high-involvement style, men might prefer a high- considerateness style. However, we need to keep in mind that stereotypes are at work here and that we need to question generalist assumptions.

Tannen's two types of conversational style differ from each other mainly in terms of rate of speech (pace), length of inter- and intraturn pauses, and occurrence (and evaluation) of simultaneous speech:

High-involvement style:

  • Shows a minimization of inter- and intraturn pauses (-> faster turn-taking).

  • Shows a faster rate of speech (-> fast-paced in character).

  • Speaker turns are characterized by frequently occurring simultaneous talk referred to as cooperative overlaps.

  • Application of minimal responses / backchannels (hhm, yes…) as signals of active listening and to encourage feedback.

  • Furthermore, turn construction is characterized by so-called collaborative floors. The term collaborative floor describes the sharing of a speaker’s turn at talk. This means that the current right to speak is shared so that there is a joint turn construction where a speaker completes the turn begun by another speaker.

Cooperative overlaps and collaborative floors have no competitive character; they are valued as a means of expressing group membership and solidarity with and support for other speakers. Women’s style, therefore, is also referred to as a supportive style.

Using language in order to express group membership, solidarity and close relationships between the participants to a conversation, women typically engage in what Deborah Tannen (1990) has described as rapport talk in which simultaneous speech is used to build relationships or rapports.

High-Considerateness style:

  • Shows longer pauses within and between speaker turns (-> slower turn-taking).

  • Shows a slower rate of speech.

  • Shows avoidance of simultaneous talk (-> no cooperative overlaps; maintenance of the current right to talk).

Two Examples of Female and Male Conversational Style

Other linguistic features (stereo)typically ascribed to female and male conversational behaviour:

Structuring discourseFrequent use of questions and tag questions to structure talkLess frequent use of questions and tag questions
Level of politenessTendency towards overall weakening of communicative intention (-> e.g. questions, hedges) -> more indirect speech use (directive requests etc.)More direct expression of communicative intention -> less indirect speech use
Expression of emotionalityCharacteristic emotionality: use of intensifiersReduction of expressed emotionality: objective, referential
Conversational topics / discourse contentPreference for personal (= emotional) topics including affective talk; -> rapport talk (cf. Tannen, 1990); Gossip as typical female speech activityPreference for factual topics; -> report talk (cf. Tannen, 1990)