The explanations given for differing conversational styles concentrate on the linguistic behaviour of women which has initially been treated as deviant and deficient language behaviour in comparison to men’s language. This needs to be further explained.

Different scholarly approaches have provided possible explanations for female communicative behaviour in language and gender research. There are several approaches, the most important of which shall be presented here in historical order:

(1) The Deficit Approach

  • Is the earliest approach within language and gender research.

  • It argues that women’s language is deficient in comparison with men’s language. Men's language has long been thought to constitute the social norm. Of course, this point of view would be considered highly sexist today.

  • The early work of Robin Lakoff is typically associated with the deficit approach. In her book Language and Woman’s Place (1975), Lakoff has coined the term women’s language which is devalued as weak, unassertive, and therefore powerless in character. Women’s frequent use of questions and tag questions, hedges and empty adjectives (nice, divine…) in conversation were interpreted by Lakoff as a linguistic expression of this unassertiveness.

Linguistic studies were largely dominated by male scholars until the mid and late 20th century who tended to consider men superior to women. This fact might explain Lakoff's extremely sexist and degrading view of women. Feminist approaches and the establishment of feminism in society try to change this perception.

(2) The Dominance Approach

  • The Dominance Approach argues that women have an inferior social position in society and that men dominate women.

  • These social conditions are reflected in male and female language use: Men dominate women linguistically and women are linguistically powerless. Women's language the linguistic expression of their social powerlessness.

Again, the dominance approach is highly sexist. Today, it would face severe attacks, not only by feminists but by linguistic scholars in general.

(3) The Difference Approach

  • The more modern difference approach argues against the assumption that women are socially inferior to men.

  • The genders are different (biologically and socially) but equal in status.

  • It states that the different conversational styles of women and men are the result of socialization processes during which girls and boys learn to use language in different ways.

  • Thus, one of its basic ideas is that women and men belong to different subcultures with different norms of language use.

  • As a consequence, miscommunication may occur in female-male conversation which Deborah Tannen describes in her popular book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1990).

More recent approaches direct the focus on the importance of doing gender for language and gender research. Gender is not a given and static characteristic; rather gender identity is created in talk (compare, for example, the works of Judith Butler).

You may also listen to the podcast below which presents an entertaining and vivid overview of these and more recent approaches. It also includes relevant linguistic examples.

Podcast: "Gender and Linguistics" (Melvin Haack with Jill Bahadir, TU BS, SS 08)
Here we go with another kick-ass episode of "60 seconds of linguistics". Admittedly, this one's a bit longer (12 minutes) --- but it's surely worth it. Women vs. men: deficit, dominance or difference? Are we different after all? Listen and think!