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Understanding the Linguistic Patterns of Women


Understanding the Linguistic Patterns of Women


It has long been recognized that one of the most regulated groups throughout history is women. In order to thrive in society, women are oftentimes expected to follow explicit rules or standards. How women choose to express their gender has been considered as performative or conditioned by societal norms over time. Historically it has been assumed that such standards are explicitly stated by societal, religious, or cultural communities; Yet this assumption may be outdated. What about the unspoken rules women abide by? How do seemingly innocent language patterns constrain women from freedom of expression? How does the consumption of certain beauty products and internet discourse enforce specific views of how a woman should present herself? In order to discourage women from resisting standard gender norms, language is oftentimes used as a weapon to deplete a woman’s desire for authority, individuality, or self-expression.

When examining how women’s language is perceived, women are usually placed into two categories based on their language patterns: good girls and bad girls. When looking at verbal discourse amongst women, there is a consistent pattern of less harsh or aggressive language in comparison to men. Selnow (1985) highlights studies that assert the idea that women have been systematically trained to avoid “forceful” speech. In order to investigate this assertion, Selnow asked 135 undergraduate students about their background, in what situations they believed swear words were appropriate to use, their perception of different swear words, and how often they swear. The results showed that women swore substantially less than men, viewed swearing as “less appropriate” in certain situations than men did, and that both sexes believed their fathers used more profanity than their mothers. The results of this study suggest that women usually do not swear as much as men, and are more strict about the situations in which they choose to employ curse words.  A later study by Dutta (2016) explored the Bengali language in order to understand how language patterns contribute to a social disadvantage for women in India. As expected, the results revealed that words prohibited from female use, are frequently used by men in many casual scenarios. Together, such studies begin to suggest that language is used in order to reinforce certain stereotypes of how a woman should act. If women choose to disobey these gendered expectations and “act” like boys, they are seen as “bad girls.” Women are confined to a single realm of language that only includes polite, clean language. Upon breaking free of this expectation, women may face negative push back or labels from their community. Therefore, women are socially conditioned to be selective about the situations in which they curse in order to maintain the “politeness” ascribed to them.

While many women must be conscious of when and where they choose to employ profanity or aggressive language, men seldom feel the need to possess the same social awareness. According to De Klerk (2005), when adolescents begin to develop their linguistic repertoire for adulthood, they are oftentimes pressured to use language that is aligned with their performative gender. Unlike women, men are expected to use strong, forceful language because they feel forced to adopt curse words in their everyday language in order to maintain their position as the expected authoritative or masculine gender. The findings reported in De Clerk’s article suggest that women are not expected to use such aggressive language because they are presumed to use words that present them as soft or nurturing. This narrow linguistic attribution to women has encouraged the idea that they are expected to remain in positions of nurture and care, while men are supposed to be the tough, go-getters of the family. Shedding a similar light on how men are systematically entitled to be more careless with their language, Rinaldi (2017) describes the harm of the phrase, “But he’s a good guy!” This phrase is consistently employed after men say or do something offensive, and allows them to face minimal punishment for their words or actions. Rinaldi notes that there is no “female equivalent” to this phrase, and women are expected to be given less mercy for their offensive actions or words in comparison to men. By using this saying as an example, Rinaldi suggests that men are frequently given more leeway when it comes to abusive language because this type of language is expected from them. Normative language patterns such as these encourage the idea that women are to be seen as subordinate to men. While this may not seem alarming, these same linguistic constructs frequently discourage women from being forthright when they speak. Therefore, when women are less outspoken or forceful than men, they are oftentimes overshadowed by the opposite sex, especially in the workplace.  

When women express their hesitation to share opinions in professional settings, they are sometimes met with confusion, especially from men. Some may ask, “Why don’t you just speak up?” However, according to Fessler (2017), a woman’s decision to speak her mind is often frowned upon by her peers. Fessler notes that on popular workplace apps such as Slack, women use the platform as a polite way to engage with fellow colleagues, while men use the program to boast about their accomplishments. Fessler also notes that verbally, women often use less declarative statements than men on the app. After interviewing many women who use the app to communicate with their coworkers, Fessler found that many women tend to believe that men dominate conversations, shut down ideas with little to no explanation, and use various microaggressions in order to assert themselves. Previous theories such as Dutta (2015) have attributed this behavior to gender stereotypes that contribute to how society views communication differences between men and women. Dutta references Robin Lakoff’s (1973, 1975) study, in which Lakoff claims that language is responsible for gender inequality, and that women speak in a way that prevents them from obtaining powerful positions of authority. Unlike men, women feel less entitled to use language that seems blunt or rude to get their point across, and are more concerned with politely presenting their ideas. Ironically, if a woman possesses the same professional habits or tactics that men do, she may face various forms of backlash from colleagues or bosses for being too curt or pushy. However, if she chooses to conform to a “feminine” way of speaking to coworkers, she is submitting herself to the systematic oppression of women via office language. The emerging picture suggests that women are systematically damned when employing the same linguistic strategies used by men in the workplace. Therefore, the language used in places of employment may discourage women from accessing positions of authority because their polite form of leadership is never recognized in important conversations. Sadly, this form of inequality is not only prevalent in places of employment, but manifests within consumer culture as well.

The internet and cosmetics are two unlikely allies when it comes to enforcing verbal constraints against women. Negative, narrow depictions of women are not only sold on the shelves of many beauty stores but are also surprisingly portrayed in various videos on YouTube. According to Radzi and Musa (2017), cosmetic companies use “stereotypical beliefs of femininity” in order to sell their products. The article lists some example names of cosmetics, including ‘Boyfriend Cheater’, ‘Orgasm’, and ‘Striptease.’ These names are sexual in nature and enforce the narrative that women are inherently commodified, sexual objects. Radzi and Musa also claim that beauty products are to be given much of the blame for causing women to obsessed with their appearance, advertising products called ‘Hope in a Jar’ or ‘Dramatically Different.’ Product names such as these reinforce the idea that every woman has an aspect of their appearance that is socially undesirable and should be changed. These techniques employed by cosmetic companies market off of a single, harmful idea of what it means to be a woman. When women are shopping, they can only see themselves represented as their sex-life or as their insecurities. Using names such as ‘orgasm’ or ‘striptease’ to title a cosmetic product, subconsciously enforces the notion that all women are promiscuous. All different types of women can buy that one product, but by giving it a name such as ‘orgasm,’ some women may feel a loss of individuality or self-worth. Equally striking was the finding by Tucker-McLaughlin (2013)  that women on Youtube gain popularity for filming “feminine” videos such as makeup tutorials, music videos, or hair tutorials, while men may receive millions of views for simply filming themselves discussing women in a demeaning way or using profane language while playing a video game. In the most viewed video section of YouTube, only five of the sixty-seven videos contained women as primary actors. Tucker-McLaughlin found that of the other sixty-two male generated videos, nearly 25 percent showed violence, misogyny, obscenity, or a combination of the three. While men had the ability to gain success on YouTube from filming various, sometimes crude videos, women only gained views from narrow, stereotypical categories. However, these findings are not the fault of the YouTubers, but the consumers. Both of these studies assert the idea that because of consumerism, how a woman is portrayed in popular culture is oftentimes dictated by selling a single representation. Women are either advertised as sexual objects or market themselves according to what they believe society expects to see from them. This can hinder any sense of individuality or independence, and instead negatively influences women to perform tired stereotypes according to their gender.

While issues of sexist language are not at the forefront of most conversations concerning gender inequality, certain linguistic patterns can have a detrimental effect on a woman’s confidence. Studies such as Dutta (2016), Tucker-McLaughlin (2013), and Fessler (2017), show the ways in which different forms of verbal communication such as workplace discourse, conversational norms, and marketing can enable women to conform to a single standard in order to prevent backlash or social isolation. While discussing sexist language habits within society may seem a little foolish, these seemingly innocent linguistic patterns prevent women from gaining promotions, reaching a new audience on YouTube, or asserting themselves against aggressive men. Once society stops enforcing the idea that language is gendered, other aspects of gender inequality within the workplace, consumer, and conversational culture may change as well.


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