Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sex and Language

Sex Differences

Women and Men and the Words They Use

Geoff W. Sutton

It doesn’t take a psychologist to know that women and men use language differently. But how are they different and what do their words tell us about gender? Not long ago I attended a regional conference where social psychologist, James Pennebaker was a featured speaker. I have long been a fan of words so I looked forward to his talk. As slide after slide went by, I wanted more so, I bought the book. The title might sound uninspiring (The Secret Life of Pronouns…) but Pennebaker is a good writer and he has lots to say backed by some pretty creative research.

So who said these words as they introduced their commencement speeches? Can you tell if a woman or a man delivered these inspirational messages?

I thank you for allowing me to be a part of the conclusion of this chapter of your lives and the commencement of your next chapter. To say that I’m honored doesn’t even begin to quantify the depth of gratitude that really accompanies an honorary doctorate from Harvard. … And I can tell you that I consider today as I sat on the stage this morning getting teary for you all and then teary for myself, I consider today a defining milestone in a very long and a blessed journey. My one hope today is that I can be a source of some inspiration. (Click for answer)
To the graduates in particular, I have to tell you, you’re way ahead of me already. I never made it to my commencement, either from college or graduate school. I went to college south of here, in a small town called New Haven, Connecticut. And, well, I celebrated a bit the night before the ceremony. The honest truth is, I slept through much of my commencement. Then, after I had finally made it to Harvard for graduate school, I took a job before I had finished my Ph.D., and wrote the final chapters while working in New York. I couldn’t get away from work for Commencement, and I got my degree in the mail. So, 19 years later, it is a great honor to receive, in person, a Harvard degree. (Click here for answer).

Here’s a few sex differences. I’ll comment on what they might mean following the list.

1. “I”               Women use I more than men.
2. “We”           Men and women use the plural we-words at about the same rate.
3. “A, an, the” Men use these articles more than women.
4. “Happy”      No differences on positive emotion words.
5. “Because”   Women use more words about thinking than do men.
6. “People”      Women use far more words about relationships than do men

Pennebaker and his colleagues use computer software to analyze words from conversations, writing assignments, historical documents, court testimony, and the internet. The previous list of words makes sense when we consider what men and women talk about. Women most frequently talk about relationships and men talk about things like cars and fishing. Yeah I know it’s a stereotype but researchers analyze group data so the findings are going to be typical of a large sample and individuals will be different from the average man or woman.

Now a few points about the specific words

1. “I was feeling a little down yesterday.” I-words and personal pronouns tell others about what we think and feel. It seems that women are more self-aware than men. The differences between men and women are not small. You can probably notice the difference without a fancy computer program.

2. “We had a great time…” In conversation, people use we words to share experiences. Researchers find the use of we increases warm feelings and a sense of being connected.

3. Articles are used with concrete nouns like “the game,” “the boat,” “a great play.” Men focus a lot on talking about specific objects.

4. “Why did she do that? Perhaps she was feeling…” As women exchange communication about relationships, they assess how people think and feel and what the causes might be. These words reflecting cognitive activity are usually linked to analyzing how people interact.

What about famous authors? 
How well do famous authors match word usage to character gender? Pennebaker has a few tables for you. I’ll note a few examples

Thorton Wilder, Our Town: The dialogue of the lead characters matches their sex.
Nora Ephron, You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle: Women and men talk like women.
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus: Men and women talk like men.

Pennebaker has more nuggets. I’ll include a few more findings. For the rest you will either have to look up the research, buy the book, or wait for another blog post.

  •  People in power positions use more noun clusters (articles, nouns, prepositions, big words) than the verb clusters (pronouns, auxiliary verbs, cognitive words indicating hedges) used by people in lower social positions.
  • People reveal their personality in the language they use. Among other findings, an analysis of Osama bin Laden’s language shows high self-confidence with a high need for power and a low need for affiliation.
  • Numerous studies document the power of expressive writing. People who write about health and mental health topics show improvements in health and mental health.
  • When people express their true beliefs, they use more words, bigger words, and more complex sentences compared to those expressing alternate or false beliefs. There’s a whole chapter on Lying Words.

When it comes to religious organizations, the voices of women have been few and far between. In my tradition, Christianity, there is a great silence in the Scriptures and in the churches.

Sure. A few women appeared here and there. We know their thoughts and actions through the voices of men.

But in recent decades we see that some religious groups allow women to speak and lead. 

And so I wonder how the rhetoric of religion will change when women's voices are heard for a few centuries heretofore.

Read more about women and Christianity in A House Divided.


Pennebaker, J. W. (2011). The secret life of pronouns: What our words say about us. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

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