G is for Gender

23 05 2010

According to a BBC report this week, “men are bigger liars than women”: they admit to telling around three porkies a day, compared to women who lie only twice.

Hmm.  This sounds like the kind of dodgy research that Deborah Cameron calls “soundbite science”. In her book The Myth of Mars and Venus (OUP 2007), she takes to task researchers who make newsworthy but unfounded claims for gender differences, of the type “Men interrupt more than women do”, or “Women are more talkative than men”. Or – as in the BBC report – “Men lie more than women”. For a start (she says) such claims ignore the fact that there is as much variation within each gender group as there is between them. Another problem is that such studies take linguistic behaviour out of context: “To make sense of linguistic behaviour we need to go back to the context and look at what a particular linguistic feature was actually being used to communicate” (p. 45). Asking people whether they lie or not overlooks the various pragmatic functions of “not telling the truth” – which can range from deliberate deceit of the Richard Nixon variety, to tactful avoidance of threats to face, of the type “No, it doesn’t make you look fat”.  One man’s deception might be another man’s (or woman’s) discretion.

Nevertheless, such spurious  claims for language-related  gender differences proliferate – especially on the internet. Of course, gender difference (whether real or invented) makes better news than gender similarity. A news headline that read “Women and men both tell a few fibs every day” wouldn’t attract much attention. Nor would it feed people’s apparent hunger to have gender stereotypes confirmed.  As Cameron argues, these alleged differences validate the very popular myth that men and women “speak a different language”, a myth that is founded on the following assumptions:

  1. Language and communication matter more to women than to men; women talk more than men;
  2. Women are more verbally skilled than men.
  3. Men’s goals in using language tend to be instrumental—about getting things done—whereas women’s tend to be interpersonal or relational—about making connections to other people…
  4. Men’s way of using language is competitive …Because of this, men’s style of communicating also tends to be more direct and less polite than women’s.
  5. These differences routinely lead to ‘miscommunication’ between the sexes.

(Cameron 2007, pp 7-8)

Cameron dismisses these claims fairly convincingly, exposing most of them as either fraudulent or exaggerated.  And, in the latest issue of Applied Linguistics (31:2, May 2010) she revisits the topic to critique what she calls “the new biologism”. This is the belief that linguistic differences connote gender differences that, in turn, are both biological and innate. Thus, evolutionary psychologists argue that men talk the way they do because their hunting ancestors had to be strong and silent, whereas women have inherited a nurturing and ‘mutual grooming’ role, reflected in their more empathetic and less assertive speaking style. Cameron argues that – if there are indeed differences between men’s and women’s talk – these owe to socio-cultural rather than to genetic factors. If women come across as less assertive, this may reflect an unequal distribution of power between the sexes in many social contexts.

In  the entry on gender in An A-Z of ELT I deal solely with linguistic gender (as in pronoun marking) and ignore these sociolinguistic issues. Reading Cameron makes me think I should take these issues up – along with the question (that Cameron doesn’t address directly) as to whether women really are better second language learners than men – for which there is a fair amount of supporting evidence, both anecdotal and research-based.

Which raises the question: if – as Cameron claims – women don’t have a genetic advantage, what might the reasons be for their supposed success as language learners?