Module 4: Gender and Verbal and Nonverbal Communication
Gender and Verbal Communication
Gender and Nonverbal Communication
Strategies for Successful Gender Communication
I. Gender and Verbal Communication
In the past modules, we've spent a lot of time defining key concepts. We've done this to make
sure we have a common understanding as we proceed with our discussion. Now, we must step
back a bit to recognize the important role language plays in how we understand and apply
meaning to everything.
We attach power and meaning to the words we use. Our language affects how we see the world,
others, and ourselves. Language enables us to communicate our thoughts, ideas, and
perceptions to others (Stewart, Cooper, Stewart, & Friedley, 2003). Language also reflects and
expresses how a culture views gender. Gender is constructed through our actions and our words.
A. The Relationship Between Language and Gender
1. Defining and Understanding Language
Language is defined as a system of symbols, signs, letters, and words used by a speech
community to share meaning and experience. Language is symbolic, and abstract. The
word pencil is a symbol for a writing instrument because there is social agreement about the
object that the word represents. There is nothing inherently "pencil-like" about the word pencil,
and this example reveals the arbitrary nature of words.
Trenholm and Jensen (2004) discuss the three levels of meaning in language:
Semantics examines the meaning of words. Through semantics we recognize that kites are for
flying and cars are for driving. Semantics provides a denotative or dictionary meaning of words
as well as a connotative or personal, emotional meaning of words. The denotative meaning
of dog is a domesticated carnivore, but on a connotative level, you may envision a brown
Labrador who is a loyal, trusted companion. A few of you may not like dogs, however, so your
connotative meaning would be quite different—you may envision a barking, begging, biting,
Syntactics focuses on how words are arranged in grammatical sequences (Trenholm & Jensen,
2004). We are usually unaware of syntactic rules unless they have been violated (Adler & Towne,
2003). For example, syntax helps us to recognize that the words in the question, "Would you me
to go out with like?" are incorrectly ordered. Instead, the question should be worded, "Would you
like to go out with me?" In English, meaning is derived from how words are ordered. It is
important to recognize that different languages have different syntactic rules. In French, the
question, "Do you speak French?" is "Parlez-vous français?" which, directly translated, means
"Speak you French?" The question "Have you the dinner made?" would be acceptable in German.
Having a good vocabulary and a firm understanding of grammar doesn't ensure successful
communication. You must also understand pragmatics to correctly interpret the messages you
receive from others (Trenholm & Jensen, 2004). Pragmatic meaning is derived from how
language is used in interactions. Pragmatics takes into consideration how the context, the
relationship between communicators, the appropriateness of your behavior, and understanding
the speaker's intentions affect an interaction. For example, in the United States it is commonly
understood that when someone asks "How are you?" it is not a request for information (Adler &
Towne, 2003). The respondent is expected to provide a short answer such as "Fine" or "Okay.
How are you?" It would be inappropriate for the respondent to provide a long list of medical
ailments and personal problems unless he or she were conversing with a medical doctor or
Pragmatics can be especially difficult when interacting with someone from another culture or coculture, where norms and expectations may differ. You'll recall from module 2 sociolinguist
Deborah Tannen's assertion that men and women come from different cultures and, therefore,
have different communication styles, causing them to experience cross-cultural communication
when they interact. Women use a communication style that emphasizes rapport talk, which
builds and maintains relationships, and men use a communication style that focuses on report
talk, which disseminates information and enhances status (Tannen, 2001).
2. The Constraints of Language
If you've ever tried to express yourself and were unable to find the appropriate words to do so,
you've experienced the constraining effects of language (Ivy & Backlund, 2004). We are able to
verbally express our thoughts, feelings, desires, experiences, and wishes only as long as the
words exist to do so. Ivy and Backlund argue, "There might be a whole host of 'realities' that you
have never thought of because there are no words within your language to describe them" (p.
Date rape is an example of a term that was once nonexistent in our vocabulary. It is a term that
refers to a sexual assault perpetuated by a friend, partner, acquaintance, or date. Although
women have been sexually assaulted by significant others for years, it wasn't until someone
coined the term date rape that it received the attention and concern it has. Up until then for the
most part, this phenomenon didn't really exist, and no one spoke of it. Victims did not have a
word to describe what happened to them. Most survivors of date rape are female, but males are
also victims of date rape committed by men or occasionally women.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is based on the work of linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir
and his colleague, Benjamin Whorf. Sapir and Whorf believed that language shapes people's
actions and thoughts. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comprises two parts: linguistic determinism
and linguistic relativity. Linguistic determinism states that language does not simply allow us
to share our ideas; it literally shapes our ideas (Stafford, 2006). We use words to describe
ourselves because our identities are symbolically formed through language, but the words we
use are often inadequate to fully describe the complexity of our personalities, abilities,
aspirations, and actions.
Think About It 4.1: Female Firemen
What if you grew up in the 1970s and wanted to be a fireman, but
you were a girl? Does the occupation fireman sound limited to
male applicants? Were female occupational opportunities limited
because of the common language of that time? Are children
growing up today more likely to perceive the job firefighter as an
occupation for both men and women as a result of gender-neutral
Language relativism, the most widely accepted premise of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, asserts
that language has a profound influence on our perceptions (Adler & Towne, 2003). "If language
determines thought, then speakers of different languages will experience the world differently"
(Trenholm & Jensen, 2004). There are plenty of words from other languages that have no direct
translation in English. For example, the lighthearted nature of the Dutch is expressed in the
word uitwaaien, which means "walking in windy weather for enjoyment" (Pattinson, 2005). In
Japanese, the word bakku-shan means "a girl who looks attractive from behind, but unattractive
from the front." In Central America, a government employee who appears only on payday is
known as an aviador. What do these words teach us about their cultures?
Think About It 4.2: Does Not Translate?
Have you learned another language and found that it lacked a
word to describe something you commonly say in English? Or
have you found the reverse to be true when you tried to translate
the "something" back into English?
What if the words we use in everyday interactions to express our thoughts and feelings are
biased and sexist? Let's explore some of the differences in the way language defines men and
3. Language Creates Different Expectations of Men and Women
Cultures generally make distinctions between characteristics of the biological sexes to organize
and make sense of the world (Ivy & Backlund, 2004). We go beyond the initial categorization
through our use of language, however, and assign different expectations to men and women. In
the process, we define women and men quite differently.
Differences in the portrayal of men and women are clearly visible in media articles about female
politicians, athletes, and professionals that often focus on their physical characteristics (Wood,
2007). Language defines women according to their relationships and their appearance, and men
by their achievements, status, and actions. The media usually emphasize women's clothing,
figures, hairstyles, and attractiveness while highlighting men's accomplishments and successes.
Wood argues that this reinforces the perception that women are trophies who must rely on their
physical appearance for a sense of identity.
Think About It 4.3: Different Expectations
Do you feel that women are more likely to be evaluated for their
appearance and their relationships and that men are more likely to
be evaluated for their accomplishments? What evidence can you
provide that either supports or refutes this claim? If indeed this is
occurring, what are the consequences? Might plastic surgery,
eating disorders, and codependency be issues for women? Might
high levels of stress be the result for men who feel compelled to
succeed and number their accomplishments?
Women are defined by their relationships—specifically, by their marital status. The
terms Mrs. and Miss indicate whether a woman is married or unmarried (Wood, 2007). Males use
the term Mr., which does not reveal their marital status. A relatively new addition to our
vocabulary is the term Ms., which does not indicate marital status, but it has not been fully
integrated into the general public's vocabulary. Some women reject Ms. because they feel it is
associated with feminism; other women adopt Ms. specifically because of its association with
feminism (Ivy & Backlund, 2004).
Traditionally, in Western cultures the woman assumes her husband's last name when they marry
(Wood, 2007). This practice further defines a woman by her relationships. The woman gives up
her own identity and takes on that of her husband. Although some women anxiously anticipate
taking their husbands' names, others perceive the practice as equating them to property
acquired by men (Ivy & Backlund, 2004). A few women are opting for alternatives to this
practice by keeping their maiden names or using a hyphenated last name. It is also common
practice for all children to assume the father's last name. Ivy and Backlund note that all last
names are male because children receive their father's last name at birth. On the rare occasion
that a child is given the mother's last name, the mother most likely passes on the name of her
Think About It 4.4: Changing Last Names
If you are a woman, what are your thoughts about changing your
last name? If you are married, did you change your name? Why or
why not? If you did not change your name upon marriage, how
did others react to your decision? Men, how would you feel if
your wife did not change her last name?
4. Gender-Specific Language
Choosing a title for this section was not easy. You'll see that it is labeled gender-specific
language. Another label is sexist language. What are your thoughts when you see the
words gender-specific language? How about sexist language? Both labels refer to the same thing,
yet each may bring up a very different connotation.
Remember, gender-specific language and sexist language can be used synonymously, and
they refer to "Verbal communication that conveys differential attitudes or behaviors with regard
to the sexes: language that demonstrates that one sex is valued over the other" (Ivy &
Backlund, 2004, p. 159). It favors one sex by suppressing the other (Gamble & Gamble, 2003).
The English language has a male bias and contains some language that actually excludes women
(such as masculine pronouns and male terminology); thus it is considered sexist.
"If words and expressions that imply that women are inferior to men are constantly used, the
assumption of inferiority tends to become part of our mindset" (UNESCO, 1999). The language
we use—the language society uses—clearly influences our perception of ourselves and others.
Many gendered words and expressions are implicit rather than explicit, but the negative results
are still the same. For example, the terms spinster and bachelor should be considered equivalent
terms (Palczewski, 2004). However, there is clearly a negative connotation attached
to spinster that is not attached to bachelor. Palczewski also notes that man can be used as a
verb but womancannot. It is acceptable to say, "Man the ship!" but unacceptable to say, "Woman
The above section entitled Language Creates Different Expectations of Men and Women revealed
one area in which our language is gendered and sexist. We will now focus on three prominent
examples of gender-specific or sexist language: metaphors, masculine pronouns, and man
terminology. As you read the examples and explanations that follow, reflect on how your use of
language influences your perceptions of yourself and others.
"Hey, sweet buns!"
"How's my cupcake?"
"You look delectable!"
"What do you think, pumpkin?"
"You're a tart!"
"You are one smart cookie."
Have you ever been called any of the previously mentioned names? How did it make you feel?
Your interpretation of the messages you receive is influenced by your relationship with the
speaker, the situation at hand, the context or environment, and your goals in the interaction. Pet
names used by a loved one are interpreted quite differently from comments that come from a
boss, a co-worker, or a stranger. The metaphors that compare women to food often trivialize
women (Wood, 2007).
Metaphors that compare women to plants and animals also abound (Ivy & Backlund, 2004). For
example, women are called cow, heifer, kitten or sex kitten, fox, bitch, tiger, and chick. In
addition, there are animal names that refer to female genitalia and are considered vulgar and
offensive. Women are also referred to as a rose, violet, daisy, buttercup, and sweet pea. These
names frequently trivialize and objectify women.
Metaphors also exist for men that compare them to animals, food, and plants. They are not as
plentiful as the list of female metaphors, nor are they as commonly used (Ivy & Backlund, 2004).
However, the effect can be negative because they may trivialize and objectify men as well. Some
examples provided by Ivy and Backlund include bear or teddy
bear, ass or jackass, stud, sport, wolf, pig, meathead, weenie, cream puff, beefcake, and pansy.
Metaphors aren't the only form of gender-specific language. Please complete Try This 4.1 before
Try This 4.1: Gender-Specific Language - Please go to My Tools ->
Quizzes & Exams -> to complete this quiz.
What mental pictures did you envision as you completed the activity? Were you quick to assign
some occupations and behaviors to a particular sex? How does your use of language frame the
way you perceive the world and others? We will now look at the use of masculine pronouns.
b. Masculine Pronouns
The English language does not have a gender-neutral pronoun in singular form. In written and
oral communication, the terms he and his have traditionally been used to reference both males
and females. For example, "The boss called his subordinates into the meeting room." However,
use of the generic terms he, his, him, or himself by authors and speakers makes the listeners or
readers more likely to perceive a male. This form of writing and speaking is becoming
increasingly outdated and unacceptable.
c. Man Terminology
Policeman, congressman, foreman, cameraman, craftsman, salesman, spokesman, manpower,
repairman—the list goes on and on. The traditional use of man as a generic noun creates
ambiguity (James Cook University, 2001). The term is exclusionary, and some women find it
demeaning or offensive. The use of male generic nouns creates stereotyped images in the minds
of the receivers. Do you envision a female when you hear the statement, "A salesman already
helped me" or "The spokesman was late for the speaking engagement"? Your answer, most
likely, is no.
d. The Effects of Sexist or Gendered Language
There are many negative consequences of gendered or sexist language. Here are a few examples
(Gamble & Gamble, 2003; Stewart, et al., 2003):
Sexist language promotes narrow-mindedness.
Sexist language offends and belittles others.
Sexist language influences our thoughts and predisposes us to view the world in a
Sexist language promotes a patriarchal or male-dominated society.
Sexist language trivializes and objectifies people.
Think About It 4.5: Sexist Language
What other drawbacks exist to using sexist language? Have you
ever knowingly or unknowingly used sexist language that resulted
in a negative communication outcome? What happened? How
could you have modified your language or behavior to help the
You should be motivated to use gender-neutral language as you recognize the negative effects of
6. Gender-Neutral Language
Our use of language can be confining and restrictive or liberating and empowering (Gamble &
Gamble, 2003). Successful communication outcomes are more likely when you demonstrate
sensitivity by using gender-neutral language. Gender-neutral or nonsexist language is
language that treats both sexes equally, is inclusive of both sexes, and does not explicitly or
implicitly reference gender or sex.
a. The Benefits of Gender-Neutral Language
Ivy and Backlund (2004) present five reasons to use gender-neutral or nonsexist language:
1. Gender-neutral or nonsexist language communicates sensitivity.
2. Gender-neutral or nonsexist language reflects nonsexist attitudes.
3. Gender-neutral messages are less likely to be misinterpreted by the receiver and help the
speaker have a more receiver-centered orientation to communication.
4. Gender-neutral language reflects present-day thinking, and sexist language represents
the outdated thinking of the past.
5. Using gender-neutral or nonsexist language results in stronger written communication
b. Using Metaphors
Generally, metaphors used to describe men and women as animals, food, and plants should be
avoided. The exceptions to this recommendation would be when you have a close or intimate
relationship with someone and you use a metaphor in an endearing manner. Both parties must
view the exchange as positive for this to be considered acceptable. When in doubt, be sensitive
to others and do not use animal, food, or plant metaphors to describe people. You don't want to
be perceived as trivializing, objectifying, or discriminating against women or men.
c. Alternatives to Masculine Pronouns
There are several alternatives to the use of male, gender-specific pronouns. We will examine
1. Some authors use she/her to refer to males and females alike (James Cook University,
2001). For example, "Burp the baby after she finishes one-third of the bottle." This
approach, however, is rightly criticized for being just as exclusive as the he/him variation.
2. New gender-neutral pronouns such as sie and hir have been introduced, but because they
have not been widely accepted or used, most people have never seen or heard ...
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