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Gender Differences in Politeness

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3333 words Published: 24th Jul 2017

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From my experience and observation in teaching English in a great number of mixed-gender classes, there is a big gap in the way men and women use a certain language. For example, when both male and female students are asked to discuss one particular topic, men interrupt women more often than women do. The differences lead me to the wonder whether or not there is a correlation between language and gender. In fact, differences in the way men and women use a certain language have been of interest in the study of sociolinguistics. Therefore, there has been an upsurge in discussions, seminars, journals and researches in gender-related differences. A lot of issues such as word choice, syntax and so on have been taken into account so as to portray how dissimilar men and women use a language. Not understanding gender differences when interacting in either formal or informal situations will result in communication breakdowns. In order to communicate effectively, communicators need to make use of some appropriate politeness strategies as speakers always hope to obtain the respect from the counterparts. Hence, based on a great number of theoretical bases and empirical studies, my paper examines gender differences in conversations in in terms of politeness. My review comprises four sections. The first part looks at the definition and the function of politeness. There is an analysis and synthesis of differences in the way men and women use politeness strategies in the second section. From some explanations for these differences in section three, I suggest some implications for teachers to help learners to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpretation in conversations by using politeness techniques in the teaching process.

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The definition, genres and strategies of politeness

A multitude of researches on politeness have been carried out to explore and expand the classic sociolinguistic work of Brown and Levinson (1987), who state that it is important to avoid causing offence in communication by showing deference to other interlocutors. They consider deferential responses as forms of politeness to avoid communication breakdown between individuals (as cited in Meyerhoff, 2006, p. 84). From the above definition, I assume that the focus of politeness is on the hearer. In this way, tactful consideration of other people’s feeling assists to avoid some potential conflicts, to gain better understanding and then to achieve effective communication. Conversely, modern linguists consider politeness as proper social behavior. In ordinary language use, according to Geyer (2008), “politeness is associated with civil or well-mannered behavior and with social attributes such as good upbringing, status and formal etiquette”. In addition, Watts (2003) adds his idea to validate the current conceptualization of politeness. “Politeness is not something we are born with, but something we have to and be socialized into, and of politeness are available” (p. 10-11). Accordingly, Holmes suggests that “making decisions about what is or is not considered polite in any community involves assessing social relationships along the dimensions of social distance or solidarity and relative power or status” (Holmes, 1992, p. 297). In order to be linguistically polite, communicators should choose some proper expressions which show the degree of social distance and the status difference.

Based on two aforementioned dimensions, politeness is classified into two different genres. Positive politeness which is solidarity oriented emphasizes shared attitudes and values while negative politeness involves expressing oneself appropriately in terms of social distance and respecting status differences (Holmes, 1992, p.297). In terms of the social significance especially politic behavior, Lakoff (1989) distinguishes three kinds of politeness:

(1) polite behavior, which is manifest when interlocutors adhere to politeness rules, whether expected or not; (2) non-polite behavior, amounting to non-conforming with politeness rules where conformity is not expected; and (3) rude behavior, where politeness is not conveyed even though it is expected. (as cited in Kasper, 1990, p.208)

It is advisable to use some proper strategies in order to maintain politeness between speakers and listeners in the conversation. Following the above notion of politeness, Brown and Levinson (1987) point out that some linguistic strategies need to be realized in language to minimize the risk of losing face. They outline four main super-strategies such as bald on-record, negative politeness, positive politeness, and off-record. Firstly, bald on-record strategies used in situations where the speaker has a close relationship with the addressee are direct and unmitigated. The next strategy is positive politeness one which is often utilized to make the hearer comfortable when communicators know each other rather well including using in-group identity makers, seeking agreement, joking, and raising common ground. In contrast, negative politeness strategies are chosen to avoid imposition on the audience through distancing styles like giving deference, hedging, questioning rather than asserting, and apologizing. Lastly, off-record or the indirect strategy explores conversational implicatures by using hints and involving irony. For example, a speaker may use a proverb “A penny saved is a penny earned” to serve as criticism “You are always spending a lot of money” instead of a piece of advice “You should save money” (p. 91- 227).

Some politeness variations between men and women

Differences in the ways that men and women use politeness language strategies have been one of the most important research subjects in sociolinguistic. Lakoff is one of the most significant scholars of gender-difference research for the past forty years. Her 1975 study into language and woman’s place plays a key role in launching the issue of gender-related differences in politeness. In her influential research, she concludes that women’s speech sounds much more polite than men’s sound in terms of linguistic forms like tag-questions and requests (p.17-19). In other words, in conversation females are more likely to use politeness strategies in their speech than males. One aspect of politeness strategies is that the speaker should not impose a viewpoint on other people. Thus a tag-question is a kind of polite statement in that it does not force agreement or belief on the addressees. Using tag-questions is a special linguistic feature of gender differences in politeness. Holmes agrees that in general the women use more tags than the men, as Lakoff predicts. She summarizes her findings in the following table after she carries out a research into a sixty-thousand word corpus containing equal amounts of female and male speech collected in a range of matched contexts.


On the contrary, as it is clearly seen in the result that Holmes identifies that men and women do not use tag questions for the same purpose. “Women put more emphasis than men on the polite or affective functions of tags, using facilitative positive politeness devices. Men, on the other hand use more tags for the expression of uncertainty” (1992, p.320). In fact, women tend to consider tag questions as an indicator of politeness while men use them to express uncertainty in colloquial situations.

The different conversational strategies of men and women can be analyzed in terms of compliments to demonstrate that women tend to be more polite than men. Like tag questions, compliments are regarded as exemplary positive politeness strategies as the apparently main function of compliments is to consolidate the solidarity between participants. The remarkable gender difference in politeness is the way women and men use compliments. From the obvious data given by Holmes (1988), it is clearly seen that women give and receive significantly more compliments than men do.


Holmes does not only focus on the frequency of complimenting patterns but also the purpose men and women use compliments. Her study finds out that “women generally perceive compliments as positively affective speech acts, while men may perceive them differently” (Holmes, 1988, p. 451). This claim is supported by many well-known empirical works.

There is a substantial body of evidence supporting the view that, in general, women’s linguistic behaviour can be broadly characterized as afliliative or cooperative, rather than competitive or control-oriented (Cameron (1985), Kalcik (1975), Smith (1985)) and as interactively facilitative and positive politeness-oriented (Holmes (1984b, 1986), Thorne, Kramarae and Henley (1983)). Linguists describe women’s contributions to interaction as other-oriented, and then come to conclusion that women regard compliments as positive politeness devices. Therefore, the assumption that women use more compliments than men is consistent with this orientation. (as cited in Holmes, 1988, p. 451)

While many linguistic studies on gender and language agree with the hypothesis concerning that women are more polite than men, there are also some researchers who disagree. Based on the data drawn from voice mail messages in a legal setting, Hobbs argues that the frequency of male speakers’ negative politeness markers is roughly equal to that of women’s whereas men prefers to use more positive politeness techniques than women (Hobbs, 2003, p.243). Hobbs collected 22 informational messages of which 11 were gathered from the males and 11were from the females to analyze the dissimilarities in the way men and women use politeness strategies. The findings indicate that the general claim about women being more polite than men turns out to be incorrect in the legal voice mail messages.

Positive politeness strategies such as compliments, joking, claiming reciprocity, etc. were used almost exclusively by male speakers; only one female speaker used any of these strategies. Moreover, positive politeness was used only by attorneys; five of the six male attorneys, as well as the sole female attorney, used positive politeness in their voice mail messages. (Hobbs, 2003, p. 249)

The research analysis mainly falls into two kinds of politeness including positive and negative ones. In contrast with positive politeness strategies which are used by the majority of male speakers, the 2003 study of Hobbs reports that men and women use an equal number of negative politeness strategies in their voice mail messages. Such strategies as thanking, taking blame and apologizing, softening the force of requests are frequently used by both male and female lawyers. (p. 252)

Why women and men use differ in the way they use politeness strategies

The commonly held belief that women are more polite than men in cross-sex conversations has been well documented in range of linguistic features from tag-questions to directives. This assumption enables innumerable scholars to undertake a number of researches to explain why this difference exists. Some researchers argue that innate biological differences account for gender differences in politeness while others place an emphasis differential distribution of power between men and women in society.

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First of all, dominance perspective is used to interpret gender variations in politeness. After O’Barr and Atkins (1980) explore the complexity of the relationship between gender and language concerning with polite strategies, they find out that “more females use polite linguistic forms than males in everyday interaction because they are more likely to be in lower-status positions.”(as cited in Schiffrin, Deborah & Heidi, 2003, p.549)

Moreover, Edwards (2009) concurs that most explanations centre on women’s allegedly greater status-consciousness. If women in the society are more status-conscious than men, they may wish to gain status by using more standard forms and polite strategies. Therefore, they are more aware of the social significance of linguistic politeness variables to make their speech a sort of surrogate status. If women’s and men’s speech differs because the status of the genders differs, then it is clear that large social issues of power and subordination are involved. As a subordinate social role implies less freedom of movement, greater insecurity, uncertainty and lack of confidence, women’s speech is expected to be more polite than men’s speech (p. 134-135). In fact, it is necessary for women to secure their social status linguistically especially through the use of politeness strategies. Thanks to politeness strategies in daily conversations, women avoid straightforward statements as “politeness involves an absence of a strong statement, and women’s speech is devised to prevent the expression of strong statements” (Lakoff, 1975, p. 19).

Another answer to the questions why the way men and women use polite strategies varies is associated with the difference approach. This philosophy is mainly based on gender socialization. According to Edwards (2009), a great number of noticeable analyses of gender differences in speech reveal that women’s features especially using greater politeness forms imply more about genuine facilitative and supportive desires than about insecurity and lack of confidence. In other words, men and women may use language for different social purposes, having been socialised in different ways from their early childhood. Women are traditionally expected to focus on personal relationships, experiences and problems in a supportive atmosphere in which networking is a key whereas men are more concerned with factual information often in a combative context. (p. 137)

It can be clearly seen that two above theoretical explanations of gender-related differences in politeness are influenced from diverse philosophies. However, Weatherall (2002) discovers the connection of two assumptions by giving an obvious illustration.

The interactional styles of women and men as co-operative and competitive, respectively, have also been viewed as reflecting men’s powerful social position relative to women. Being polite and co-operative is likely to be most effective at promoting positive interactions for those who hold little power. (p. 80)

Although these explanations come from two different strands of thinking, they have the same goal that is why in cross-sex interactions, polite strategies are used by more women than men. However, they are not an explanatory factor for Hobb’s finding from his research. His surprising findings are elucidated by the social constructionist approaches.

A social constructionist approach shifts the emphasis to language as a dynamic resource used to construct particular aspects of social identity at different points in an interaction. Social categories are not fixed but are subject to constant change; talk itself actively creates different styles and constructs different social contexts and social identities as it proceeds. (Holmes, 2001, p. 14565)

For example, a woman may select linguistic forms contributing to the construction of a more feminine identity in a romantic dinner. Nevertheless, in a meeting she will linguistically construct a powerful identity, for she is a chairwoman. When interacting with her children at home, she may use linguistic forms so as to build a maternal identity. Therefore, the way members of a society use structures to construct proper events changes across the communication activities.

The implication in a language classroom

It is widely acknowledged that understanding the different polite patterns which women and men typically use makes speakers to achieve more effective communication. The fact that interlocutors make fewer attempts to involve politeness in daily conversations because they have been taught not to expect participation!, Stereotyping can have intense negative effects, especially The conception of gender-differentiated politeness use leads to some implications for language teaching and learning. The first implication for foreign and second language classroom centres on social power awareness. As an educator, we had better reduce the role gap between men and women by “selecting materials that represent identity groups more equally, by reorganizing classroom interaction so that all students have the opportunity to talk and demonstrate achievement in their everyday conversations regardless of gender” (McKay & Hornberger, 1996, p. 261).

Another implication for teaching focuses on gender difference in stereotype rather than on so-called dominance approach. Because women’s interactional style is absolutely different from men’s, the interaction between teachers and females students differs from males. While men consider conversations as negotiations to compete women regard as a social network to gain support. It is difference in interactional styles that teachers should take into account when they perform, monitor and conduct one certain activity in class. Due to their opposite viewpoint, teachers had better balance the number of male and female students when they ask students to cooperate to fulfill one task. A group of men is likely to be over-competitive whereas a women group tends to be more supportive. As a result, there will be an imbalance of arguments in a discussion or debate.

Last but not least, teachers should design some tasks related to gender-related differences in politeness so that students can acknowledge what kind of polite linguistic form they use in a cross sex communications. It will result in a more effective interaction in their real life. Teachers help students to realize that stereotypes of women’s speech cannot stay the same style from one activity to another activity. The question is that how and when male speech and female speech are similar or different depends on the conversational contexts, not gender.


As a result of women’s liberation movements, researches on gender and language in politeness started dramatically in 1970s. During the past several decades, many investigators examine politeness variations between women and men in daily interactions. Based on many well-known studies of gender-specific language, this literature review leaps to the conclusion that women tend to be more polite than men through a range of differences in tag-questions, compliments, etc. Most of these linguistic forms are used by more females than males to maintain politeness in cross-sex conversations. Notwithstanding, there are some oppositions to this belief in sociolinguistics. Many researches into language and gender in term of politeness rely on three distinct approaches including dominance approach, difference approach social constructionist approach to give an explanation for these discrepancies.

In summary, I have explored politeness variations between men and women and questioned the validity of the assumption that women’s speech is more polite than men’s. In an attempt to determine the truth of this statement I have concluded that in daily conversations, politeness is regarded as a social lubricant which helps to create rapport. Knowing the differences in polite behavior between men and women can be very helpful to achieve effective communication as well as to enhance relationship. Therefore, politeness plays an indispensible in today’s modern world in which a lot of interactions take place at both personal and business-related level.


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