Are Women Bound by a Culture of Niceness?

Linguist Robin Lakoff on women, men and American talk.

Are Women Bound by a Culture of Niceness?

Conversation. (Photo by Sharon Mollerus/ flickr CC 2.0)

Last month, when Kristin Miller talked with linguist Deborah Tannen about the current state of our public discourse, Tannen recommended that we also talk to her mentor Robin Lakoff, who she called the go-to expert on gender and language. Lakoff, a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of nearly 100 books and scholarly articles on language and gender, the politics of language, sociolinguistics and pragmatics. Among her works are The Language War, Talking Power and Language and Woman’s Place. This week, she emailed with Kristin Miller about the interplay of gender and language in American public discourse. They talked about nasty versus nice women, including how it played out in Utah this week when Secretary of the Interior Zinke was caught on video telling an insistent questioner (a Native American woman) to “be nice.”



Kristin Miller: Do you think that “being nice” in public discourse is something that is only asked of women?

Robin Lakoff: Yes, women are supposed to be “nice” and obedient, and if they stray from that expectation, they can expect criticism (they are no longer good women). Men have to go way beyond what’s permissible before they get criticized (they are just being “strong” and “assertive”), and in any case neither men nor women are apt to publicly criticize a man’s behavior (or dress, or looks), when it’s OK to berate a woman on any of these. So a woman in public life has to tread a much narrower path than a man: Anything she does can and will be used against her in the court of public opinion, and all too often it works against her. But sometimes women can “reclaim” the turf, as when people picked up on “nevertheless, she persisted,” as a rallying call.

Secretary Ryan Zinke at Bears Ears Monument visit (May 9, 2017)

I think the Warren and the Zinke cases are very similar. In both, powerful men are implicitly invoking their right to monitor women’s behavior and make it conform to their own needs and expectations. It’s bad enough that the secretary required the woman to “be nice,” but the real deeper problem is the way that in general men feel they have a right to tell women what they mean (a form of “mansplaining”), how they should behave and what they have done wrong. This doesn’t happen to men.

Thus in the 2016 race, Clinton was repeatedly (and destructively) interpreted; criticized for pretty much everything she did or said; and Trump, who deserved worse, got much less.

KM: Does “being nice” have political and social implications for women?

RL: As long as women tacitly put up with this, we cannot achieve full equality, politically or socially.

KM: American culture has been called, by Deborah Tannen among others, especially argumentative. What does this mean for communication by and for women in the public sphere?

RL: I’m not sure I agree. I would say that our current culture seems highly argumentative, but a lot of the yelling seems to be magnified because of all the media, social and otherwise, that tirelessly reflects and repeats it. A lot of this is very recent.

But in general, politics has until very recently been a male game (still is, really), and runs by men’s rules, which tend to be combative and zero-sum. Demosthenes and Cicero could be and were pretty damn vicious and the Athenians and Romans, by all accounts, ate it up. (When he was running for Consul, Cicero’s brother advised him to say in speeches that his opponent “seduces little boys on their mothers’ laps.” We haven’t gotten quite this far yet…have we?) And the Founders got pretty snappy: Jefferson and Adams and their surrogates really went at each other. Not to mention the real virulence of the dialog before the Civil War…. the nastiness of the McCarthy period and the Vietnam War… So I’m not sure I agree that the virulence itself is anything new. The remedy, if any, would be parity: If the numbers of men and women in Congress and other high offices were roughly equal, I bet there’d be less of this.

KM: Do you think we’re facing something new with this political administration’s style of communication?

RL: Well, yes: the untruthfulness (Spicer and Conway lie; Trump just can’t understand the concept of “truth”); the no-holds-barred personal insults of the campaign and beyond. The infantile nature of Trump’s discourse, in so many ways.

KM: Is there something inherently male in the way Trump communicates?

We see two Trumps: the real one that is desperately afraid of being a girly-man, and the surface one that tries to hide it.

— Robin Lakoff

RL: This is complicated. Verbally (words only) Trump tries very hard to project himself as Ultra-Macho Man. His sentence fragments; his insults and taunts, his insistence on controlling the discourse; and much more. But nonverbally (para- and extralinguistically) we encounter a very different Donald: his gestures and inflectional patterns not infrequently are stereotypically feminine (think of his frequent hand (one or both) gesture: thumb and forefinger in an ellipse; other fingers curled above it — this is the gesture nice ladies use to pick up a tiny delicate teacup). Often in imitating someone’s speech that he doesn’t like, his voice will take on a sort or sneering sarcastic quality, with higher pitch, that I have only heard women use. I mean, besides him. So we see two Trumps: the real one that is desperately afraid of being a girly-man, and the surface one that tries to hide it.

KM: What does that mean for women in the public sphere?

RL: I’m not sure it means anything, other than that masculinity is valued above femininity. News!

KM: What would you tell young women today about how communication plays out in power relationships?

RL: Again, women have to be very careful when power is involved. So if say you’re running for president, and you’re female, you cannot project or imply that you are seeking power or have a right to seek it — as men always do in one way or another. If you do, if you’re not “nice,” you become “unlikable” and thus unelectable. But if you’re too demure or traditionally feminine, you come across as not strong enough for the job.

KM: You’ve been studying this gender and communication for many years — what strikes you most about that long journey — change, stasis or neither?

RL: Well, certainly some things have changed: The very fact that there are many women in powerful roles today (not only in politics, but practically every other institution) means that women’s voices are heard and taken seriously. We have more options about how to talk — think of the stylistic differences between Dianne Feinstein and Elizabeth Warren (and interestingly too, Sally Yates) — both quite effective. But, as the Clinton loss and the critiques mentioned earlier suggest, we are not yet at any sort of equality. But it’s certainly better than it was!

If you have a follow-up comment or question for Professor Lakoff, please send it to yourturn [at] billmoyers [dot] com. We’ll be doing a Your Turn piece on this later this month.

Kristin Miller

Kristin Miller is a senior producer for She has worked on Now with Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason, Moyers on America and Bill Moyers Journal. She’s also been a producer for TED, Sesame Street and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.