Another Word with Linguist Robin Lakoff

The linguist responds to your questions, criticisms and comments.

Another Word with Linguist Robin Lakoff

La conversation (Photo by Guillaume Andreux/ flickr CC 2.0)

Recently we spoke with linguist Robin Lakoff about matters of gender and discourse. We asked our readers to send follow-up questions for Lakoff and received hundreds of responses. Kristin Miller put these queries to Lakoff, who said her answers “suggest the depth and insolubility of the gender morass.”



Kristin Miller: We got called to account by one reader for asking this “simplistic” question in our headline: “Are Women Bound By a Culture of Niceness?” The reader suggested the question wasn’t worth discussing.

Robin Lakoff: Well, first I don’t think the question is simplistic. Underlying it is a very deep and problematic matter: What do we expect of women and men, based on gender? Do we make women do too much of the heavy lifting? I would say yes. Not so much that only women are asked to be nice, but that niceness is much more important in a woman’s self-presentation than a man’s, and that a woman can be seen as not-nice for many more reasons than a man (Hillary Rodham Clinton), so this seemingly trivial distinction has consequences.

KM: Another reader suggested that playing out different communication patterns between men and women is a tired trope and referenced the work of the linquist Deborah Cameron. Where do you stand on Cameron’s theory that we have been making too much of gender differences in speech all this time?

RL: Sociolinguistics is about communicative differences, and how these create and arise out of social-psychological differences. That is hardly trivial, and hardly “tired.” It’s about who we are and how we get to be that way.

I don’t think communicative difference is a “tired trope” — which may mean that that reader doesn’t like to hear about it because it makes him/her worry about gender, and we don’t like to do that. I admit that back in 1973 I saw the issue in an oversimplified way (and Cameron’s views have been expressed much more recently, so she has less of an excuse).

The expectation that women should be, and present themselves as, powerless, created gendered linguistic differences.

Back then I saw the problem as having to do with the choices women were forced to make in order to be “ladies” — i.e., acceptable. In a sense that might have been blaming women for our own problems. But my point was that the expectation that women should be, and present themselves as, powerless, created gendered linguistic differences and I still think so. The kinds of differences that occurred to me back then were much simpler and easier to solve than the ones I think about now. But the problem still is with us and needs to be addressed.

Language is arguably the most accessible diagnostic of social difference, which is why it has proven such an attractive way to talk about gender discrimination and role differentiation. So it is, I would say, impossible to make too much of gender-based linguistic differences unless you think gender-based social differences don’t exist. Good luck with that.

Language is arguably the most accessible diagnostic of social difference, which is why it has proven such an attractive way to talk about gender discrimination and role differentiation.

KM: The Cameron reader also referenced angry women and mean girls on the playground as examples of females no longer being bound by niceness, as they previously were. Is “nice” over for the current generation of young women?

RL: Talking about angry and mean females suggests that such behavior is still seen as more unacceptable than when men are that way (which is more likely to be characterized as “strong” and “assertive”). But I tend to think that there is some truth here — women of all ages no longer feel the same need to be mollycoddled and are more apt to speak and act out. When they do we find it shocking, but it’s a move toward parity — women having discourse options more like those of men.

KM: Is there a bias against men in today’s workplaces, in that women are thought to be better communicators and more suited for the types of jobs that are growing?

RL: Men need to stop whining — so unattractive (see Donald J. Trump infinite examples). For hundreds if not thousands of years, prestigious jobs were available only to men. Now society itself is undergoing radical shifts, including types of work that soon will no longer exist (including lots of those traditionally manly ones) and new ones coming into existence. It is not because women have forced work to change, but because social and economic structures have shifted (which started with the Industrial Revolution). But if the new work favors talents women are more apt to possess, well, guys, suck it up: It’s about time for turnabout!

KM: Several women told us that reading your books changed the way they spoke in professional situations and that in turn changed the way they were treated in the workplace, making them more powerful people in any conversation. What advice would you give women now who encounter a linguistic bully?

RL: Depends on your status versus theirs. If they’re the boss, you just have to be nice or quit. If they are your peer, when they tell you to be nice, say (sweetly), “You first.”

KM: How can we put words back in their proper place? For example, “shrill” — is there any hope for returning it to its original meaning of “high-pitched” instead of a word laden with gender and other baggage?

RL: The meaning of words is always changing and speakers have very little control over it. I don’t think the misogynist use of “shrill” is anything new — the old meaning still exists alongside it — and unless we first get over the idea that higher-pitched voices are worse, it won’t change. You have to change the world before you can change language (for example, “Ms.”).

KM: A reader named Emily Kline wrote: “Reading through this thread…it is like a demonstration of the enigma of communication in our times. People come to the table already angry and spoiling for a fight. Jump on words and irrelevancies and lose sight of the goal which I assume is to improve the way we come across to one another.” What advice do you have for people like Emily, striving to communicate better in today’s climate?

RL: We should first delete “in our times.” These problems have always existed, but it’s only recently that we have developed ways to recognize and discuss them (yay linguistics!). To understand how words are used in dangerous ways is to improve the way we come across to each other. Emily seems to think of language as “just words” or “only semantics.” Nope. It’s the most important thing the species has, and if we’re ever going to get past our anger, we will need language to do it.

To communicate better: Be tactful. Listen. Understand that discourse is two-sided: The power to make meaning is not located only with the speaker, but the hearer/audience shares that power — and that responsibility. That, let me say here, is the most important change in the way I look at the gender/language impasse. It isn’t women’s fault for the way we speak; it isn’t men’s fault for making women speak like that. Our problems stem from the fact that all of us find it very hard to listen to the way anyone talks, but especially women: we tend to listen to how women speak, not to what they’re saying (it happened disastrously to Hillary Rodham Clinton). That is demeaning and demoralizing.

Tricky situations: maybe change the topic, or say, “Well, you might look at it another way….” Or “I guess we have to agree to disagree here…. and how about those [name of team]?” Or the like. If you are otherwise on good terms with the other, you could object. Be courteous even if they aren’t. Or go freshen your drink.

I am not saying this is easy. But we live in interesting times.