Maybe it’s because I’m in the midst of teaching Mary Karr’s groundbreaking 1995 memoir, The Liars’ Club, but when I hear about studies that purport to determine the differences between how men and women speak, I want, in Karr’s inimitable lexicon, to earp.
Granted, these studies do not decree that biology is destiny. But they do claim to have sifted through thousands of language samples looking for language that is “aggressive” and language that is “tentative” and studying the parts of speech favored by men or by women (women, more “common verbs”; men, more prepositions). I am not in a position to judge the soundness of these studies. As with almost anything reporting on men and women who have been educated in a society with certain expectations about male and female behavior, I have my own doubts about their proving anything innately different between the sexes, only because social conditioning begins at a young, no doubt pre-verbal age. And one always wonders how a study might have turned out if it had been looking at factors that draw on no preconceived notions (like, for instance, “emotion words,” correlated with female speech, a list that includes the verbs agree and disagree). When the researcher Jennifer Jones writes that feminine language is “more socially oriented, expressive and dynamic” compared with masculine language’s being “more impersonal, long-winded and unemotional,” I do wonder if there isn’t some question-begging going on.
But as we approach the bitter, chewed-up end of one of the most acrimonious presidential campaigns in history, accepting researchers’ conclusions about masculine and feminine speech produces at least two surprising results:
- Donald Trump talks like a girl.
- Talking like a girl may have helped the Donald do as well as he has.
The first point carries some dubious associations, in that nine politicians, all male, apparently use more feminine speech than Hillary Clinton, and of 35 major politicians, only 10 men use more masculine speech than Carly Fiorina. But at least according to the terms set forth by the linguists doing these studies, Trump is a feminine outlier, more girly than any of the others. Apparently he uses more auxiliary verbs and fewer articles than a more masculine-sounding politician like Hillary Clinton. His language is, per the terms of the studies, emotional.
On the second point, volunteers responded to fictitious speeches, not gender-identified, whose language was more “feminine” by judging those candidates to be warmer and more trustworthy. Apparently those traits matter more in an anxious political landscape, whereas so-called masculine language may draw more fans in stable times. As we live, gentle readers, in anxious times, it’s easy to conclude that Trump’s girl-talk calms our nerves despite such content as “I could … shoot somebody & I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
Of course, whatever volunteers may be told in a study, I suspect we tend to conjure an image of a man when we think of a politician, and so it may be that “feminine” language spoken by a man is a good thing. After all, we like it when male politicians cry, whereas we deride female politicians for doing so. If my hunch here is right, it may account for the other bit of linguistic research marking this particular election, which studies how Hillary Clinton’s language has evolved. Over the past 20 years, she has apparently gone from using a “feminine” number of auxiliary verbs and emotion-laden words to a lexicon heavy on first-person plural, prepositions, and swear words. Her feminine/masculine ratio has declined from 2.5 to 1.9. It may be, as Jones argues, that “changes in [Clinton’s] linguistic style reflect the reality of the political environment, the masculine norms of behavior that permeate our political institutions as well as our expectations of political leaders.” Or it may be, as Jones acknowledges in her paper, that aging could be a factor affecting changes in linguistic style. Anecdotally speaking, I play tennis all summer long with a gang of men over 50, and I have been struck by how little pressure they seem to feel, as they grow older, to sound authoritative or macho. (They do, on the other hand, still talk less than their female counterparts; even calling out the score before each point seems to constitute unnecessary jabber.)
Karr’s memoir makes a particular point of linguistic bluntness, as when she writes that her Texas mother “would have smacked the dogshit out of any yahoo who even approximated getting ready to bother her.” That sentence probably couldn’t make its way into any politician’s mouth. But if it could, I’d be pleased to note that it was spoken by a woman.
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