In Praise of Feminine Language

A couple of months ago Idahospud favored us with a fascinating analysis of blogging genderlect over at FMH, which reminded me of a long-simmering desire to take a manly stand for womanspeak. (Oh, the androgyny.)

Every once in a while the Bloggernacle revisits the familiar critique of the stereotypical LDS woman’s inability to make a definitive statement. (The Sugar Beet did the definitive satire which, sadly, I can’t seem to find.) Periodically this alleged inability is bemoaned hereabouts, and there’s certainly something to the criticism. From time to time I have encountered LDS women who seem so uncertain of themselves, so timid, so petrified of offending that they are unable to take a stand or risk disagreement about anything. But I’ve known more LDS women who have no difficulty speaking their minds than I have LDS women who can’t summon the confidence to speak definitively. Passive-aggressiveness and backstabbing, sadly, seem able to coexist quite happily with discursive confidence, and seem also to flourish in a culture in which niceness is the supreme virtue.

But, to the point of this post: I’d like to hear some criticism run in the opposite direction. If we’re going to be critical of stereotypically feminine waffling, let’s be equally critical of stereotypically masculine rigidity. While I think it’s vital for all human beings, women as well as men, to be morally sturdy enough to stand on conviction, to think and act in a certain independence of others’ opinions, it’s equally vital to consider those convictions with the utmost care, and that means–among other things–considering them in the light of others’ judgment. It’s partly for this reason that there’s much to be said in favor of framing one’s statements with the phrase “I think that…” or “I feel that…” or “It’s been my experience that….” These feminine conversation markers, sometimes denigrated as self-abasing, self-hobbling, indications of uncertainty or insecurity, needn’t necessarily be read in this way. They’re also acknowledgments that a conversation is taking place, as well as invitations for that conversation to continue. By framing one’s assertions with “I think” or “In my experience,” we correctly acknowledge our own limitations and allow for the possibility of other voices and other perspectives. “I think” implies “What do you think?”; “In my experience” implies “What’s your experience?” These feminine conversation markers make space for conversation by acknowledging the reality of others’ lives and experiences, the possibility, the validity, the necessity of multiple narratives, of multiple points of view.

When people make heavy-handed statements of the form “This is how X is. There is no room for disagreement” there’s no place for the conversation to go. It either shuts down or flares into violent disagreement, as someone feels that her entire view of the world has just been precluded. Then it escalates. “NO, THIS is how X is.” “Only a fool would claim that X is other than….” “The only possible reason you could believe X is that…” or “I have seen you claim X elsewhere and therefore know that you cannot be trusted in your assertions about Y” and we’re off the races, questioning one another’s motives, namecalling, bound and determined that no one think some other way about X in our presence.

Hooray for feminine language, I say.

At least, that’s what I think. What do you think?

34 thoughts on “In Praise of Feminine Language

  1. 1

    Hear, hear! (IMO)

    People who are overly assertive and self-assured don’t project confidence and capability to me as much as jerkiness (IMO). Too much wafflnig can be annoying too (IMO), but I’ll take waffling over jerkiness any day.

  2. 2

    No, Eve. This is how language is, and there is no room for disagreement: Masculine language is simply better. There’s none of that wishy-washy waffling.

    Only a fool would claim that feminine language is superior. The only possible reason you could believe feminine language is superior is that you’re a girl.

    Also, I have seen you claim this elsewhere, and therefore know that you cannot be trusted in your assertions about cheese . . .

  3. 3

    Great post, Eve! And I say that in the most assertive way possible.

    One egregious example of the pitfalls of priveleging masculine language is in the hyper-masculinized Middle East, where to hesitate before answering a question or to answer it less than assertively is to appear a dullard–for men, at least. I don’t know about for women (unfortunately). So you might ask someone for their opinion on a complex issue, and he won’t feel like he can take his time to answer or think about it carefully before he has to spout a definitive answer. The unwillingness to waffle or hesitate or (at least verbally) change one’s mind has difficult personal and societal implications.

  4. 4

    Eve, I love you so. From time to time someone takes it upon themselves to inform me that my penchant for qualifying assertions, recognizing the possibility that I may be wrong, and disagreeing politely make me a wus. I usually respond that most contemporary rhetoric texts (you know, that subject I used to *teach* upon occasion) list such discursive strategies as markers for a trustworthy speaker. Then I feel all smug :).

    Sadly those same discursive strategies too often accompany the passive aggressive behavior you locate as common to LDS womanhood. Here’s hoping that we can get rid of the straight out aggressive “male” obnoxious certitude AND the schizophrenic “female” backstabbiness and simply get in the habit of stating our opinions while noting that they are, indeed, opinions.

    Kaimi, thanks for making me laugh. As usual. For someone who clearly never sleeps you are far too witty.

  5. 5

    Did’ya notice how I surreptitiously implied I’m more trustworthy than other people? Snort.

    Something else which probably comes into significant play in the ‘nacle, filled as it is with people of diversified employ:: what qualifies as superior rhetoric differs per discipline. So of course the ‘nacle will not entertain consensus regarding the “superior” style.

    Hmmm…traditionally, men primarily occupied disciplines marked by “hard” language whereas women occupied those marked by qualification and concession. I doubt there’s a causal relationship at work there, but it could explain some of the reasons gendered speech/writing style is so frickin’ pervasive.

  6. 6


    Here’s the pearl of great price from the Sugar Beet that you were looking for.

    Relief Society Sister Makes Declarative Statement
    By Amy Chamberlain
    HELPER, UT. In a bold move that has sparked discussion and anger in the Helper 2nd Ward, Sister Rosemary Watts made the following comment in Relief Society last Sunday: “There is absolutely no scriptural evidence to support your theory.” The statement was in response to teacher Kathleen Bailey’s comment that Bathsheba tempted David by purposefully bathing naked outside his window.
    Other Relief Society women said it was the phrasing, not the actual words, that caused the subsequent furor.
    “Rosemary didn’t preface her remark with something like “Maybe it’s just me” or “I don’t know if this is true or not,” explained Relief Society president Lacey Holding. “She just came right out and said it. Even a milder phrase like “I was just going to say” would have helped.”
    Holding’s first counselor, Lisa Fowler, says that Watts’s comment has “completely ruined” the spirit of peace and friendship among the sisters. “I don’t know if this will be a good quote for your story or not, but Relief Society is about love and sisterhood,” she says. “Self-effacement is what holds us together. It makes us feel like no one is smarter than anyone else, so that no one feels threatened.”
    The Relief Society secretary, Terrie Moore, cites Watts’s master’s degree in philosophy as the reason for her inability to “get along” with the group. “I guess I’m really stupid compared to Rosemary, but at least I don’ t make the teacher burst into tears halfway through a class discussion,” she said.
    “Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like authoritative statements are more of a priesthood thing to do,” said Moore.

    I agree with you that the stereotypes you describe are far from universal, but, as the bit from the Sugar Beet proves, they are strong enough to be recognizable, and funny. I’ve heard of missionaries getting into fistfights over the interpretation of a passage of scripture. And the random quote from Dr. Strangelove that appears now and then on yourall’s sidebar is pretty good, too: “Gentlemen, you may not fight in here! This is the War Room!”

    I value conversation, and I favor anything that promotes it. Your post hits the bullseye.

  7. 7

    1. Maybe it’s just me, but I seem to have made it through 25+ years of priesthood infused with so-called feminine talk.

    2. I read the description of self-effacing talk, and I read it as “well, that’s just how a bunch of skeptical academics talk when they’re analyzing data.” So does the female language lend itself better to academic-speak? Does male bluster-assertiveness imply a lack of academic seriousness?

  8. 8

    And I just realized that talking about a bullseye might be understood as man talk. Let me revise my statement:

    Eve, your post really hits a home run.

    Eve, you moved the ball down the field, conversation-wise.

    Eve, when it comes to kicking butt and taking names, you really get the job done.

  9. 9

    queuno–I can’t speak about priesthood quorums, but in response to your second point, in my academic discipline (English), I have been trained to talk in a very “masculine” way. Even though people often will acknowledge complexity, feminine qualifiers and modes of speaking make you look weak, not as strong a scholar/intellectual, etc.

  10. 10

    I don’t know so much about the male/female split, but as it happens I have worked as a newspaper columnist. From time to time, someone in the community would like to meet me, and my editor pays for lunch at a nice restaurant, and it’s good for everyone because we get to plumb the requestor for future story angles, etc.

    But here’s the thing: when people meet me, after having read my opinion pieces, they invariably say, “But you’re so…short. And you’re writing is so BOLD!” I’m a bit over 5’1″, but somehow they expect me to be much taller.


  11. 11

    Seraphine–how weird that my experience in the same field is different. Ok, not totally: I’m constantly trying to parse the difference (for my students) between prefacing every *obvious* statement of opinion with, “in my opinion….” and using concession where it’s needed. So far as I can tell you’re supposed to use sophisticated language and then all is well. But even that’s dependent on your sub-specialty. New Critics: not prone to concession. Postmodernists: by all means, show me the 47 other possible (un)meanings for what I said or didn’t say. New Historicists: preface your argument with a funny historical anecdote and we’ll happily play along.

    Queno–academics in the humanities generally speak and write differently than academics in the sciences. My husband would rather die that admit, in text, that his scientific findings are not objective. He’s not an arrogant blowhard–that’s just the way science gets written. Like you, my parent’s bishop (and one of my best friends) uses supposedly “female” linguistic markers. I’ve often heard him described as the most diplomatic bishop–and best listner–people have ever had. Hmm.

  12. 12

    Seraphine–could it just be the different programs we’re in? I wonder how much variance programs entertain. The journals seem to vary a lot (though they never pretend to be as objective as do the scientific ones).

  13. 13

    “I’m constantly trying to parse the difference (for my students) between prefacing every *obvious* statement of opinion with, “in my opinion….” and using concession where it’s needed.”

    Yes, and I don’t think it ought to be any different for online discussions. Though I sometimes I tack them on to soften language myself, phrases such as “I think that…” or “I feel that…” or “It’s been my experience that….” ought to be unnecessary because they’re almost all obvious all the time. Turn most posts or comments into a paper and it’s just plain bad writing. Why can’t we all get together and agree that all of our comments obviously represent personal perspectives that are limited by our own subjectivity?

  14. 14

    On the other hand, until we can come to such an understanding, which is probably never, I agree that softening phrases are probably best. I think it depends on one’s audience. I’ve noticed that, for me, the frequency of my using softening phrases varies from blog to blog. Coincidently, the blog where I have been the most conscientious of adding them into comments is this one. 🙂

  15. 15

    Eric, because not all women can speak like the manly ideal you desire.

    They obviously are more spiritual, and that innate superiority keeps them from being able to lower their standards to accommodate our advantage in concise communication, thus rendering their inherently elevated spirituality a hindrance to verbal simplicity – unlike we men, for whom such incisive and non-circular discourse is more natural.

    Maybe not.

  16. 16

    I do my research in machine learning and classification and artificial intelligence, which is all fuzzy, so we’re always qualifying our statements in probabilistic terms, anyway. Nothing is 100%. There’s always a noisy outlier that must be qualified.

    So English is masculine and artificial intelligence is feminine?

  17. 17

    And from what I’ve seen, the so-called masculine talk in academia is the easiest to tear down. At least in my field, where we crouch in hiding waiting to tear down any definite analysis.

  18. 18

    I suppose this is part of why there are differing reactions to use of the language, but I read very little difference in the finality of claims that are made with qualifiers vs. those that aren’t. I’m beginning to realize that I’ve probably been corrupted by years of frequently reading movie reviews – where the industry standard is to only rarely use qualifying terms even though almost always providing highly subjective opinions.

  19. 19

    Janet, my experience has been that English allows for a complexity of opinions (especially since I do a lot of poststructuralist theory), or (un)meanings, as you put it. However, I find that making statements with qualifiers like “in my opinion…” or “you may not agree, but…” is looked down upon. You have to make arguments strongly and forcefully, even if you acknowledge the many other concurrent arguments that exist.

    But perhaps your experience has been different. 🙂

  20. 20

    I find that making statements with qualifiers like “in my opinion…” or “you may not agree, but…” is looked down upon.

    Such statements should be looked down upon, because they are unnecessary and distracting. An intelligent reader can already detect what is and isn’t opinion, and it would be a very timid and inexperienced reader indeed who needed to be reminded of the right to disagree.

    In casual conversation, such phrases are much less objectionable than in reasoned discourse, and their judicious use is often helpful. What annoys is when they become a tic, so habitual that they lose meaning.

    Most annoying of all is the habit of adding an interrogatory singsong lilt at the end of every phrase, whether or not it is a question, signifying some kind of deep insecurity, a constant need for approval. Although this pattern of speech might be characterized as feminine, I have heard many men and boys fall into it, and I think it may be more a generational phenomenon than a gendered one.

  21. 21

    Seraphine–no, the particular phrases you list wouldn’t go over well in text, although concession regarding previous research with which you disagree but from which you’ve nonetheless gleaned insight or information is, in my experience, considered necessary to avoid looking a fool.

    I should have distinguished between oral and written discourse in my earlier comments. Oral discussion is a whole different dealie–but when I considered switching from my MA school to Princeton for the PhD i didn’t exactly because I found the confrontational atmosphere and general lack of collegiality (not just at Princeton, but at other schools I looked at) quite off-putting. I think the pleasant diplomacy and research-sharing of my graduate experience is, sadly, somewhat aberrant.

    But would you agree that concession finds a necessary place in much lit. discourse? I’ve found that to be especially true in feminist writing–with a few strident exemptions.

  22. 22

    Upon a reread, I see myself guilty of prosaic unclarity. Bleah. But I’ve also concluded that, on the ‘nacle, i tend to assume people who clarify muddy prose are female and that men will stick by whatever confusing thing they’ve said as though it is gospel truth regardless off the mud. Which shows my latent sexism–alas. I’ll have to work on that. What a stupid assumption.

    So…what I like best about traditional “female” language: the use of necessary and sophisticated concession, the conversational markers which facilitate polyvocality (which Eve glossed so well), and the occasional apology for ill behavior. What I like least about traditional Mormon “female” language is the ever-present apology for “sins” which require no such thing: “I’m so sorry for existing. I’m so sorry for knowing Greek if you don’t and for pointing out a salient bit of a scriptural explication and making you feel bad for thinking God plunked His own self down and wrote the New Testament in King James English. I’m so sorry for not being invisible.” Especially when that sort of apology eclipses the sort we need more of, both on and off the internet.

  23. 23

    I was actually referring to oral discourse and not written. I had a pretty supportive and non-confrontational grad department, but we were still trained to speak and interact in very “masculine” ways.

    Though thinking through things, I definitely agree with the concession thing–it is definitely important to concede/reference prior research, and my department encouraged us to do this as well.

  24. 24

    A few more thoughts –

    The tendency to use qualifiers is closely tied to perceptions of authority. A woman who can’t stop apologizing for her own existence in other settings becomes like unto Moses coming down from Sinai with the tablets if she is called to teach the Mia Maids a lesson about modesty or chastity. She will lay dow the law, unequivocally and unapologetically. So it isn’t a behavior that is explained solely by gender, but gender and authority are mixed up in ways that are hard to separate.

    I just spent an enjoyable morning listening to NPR while I worked, and their Saturday morning lineup includes Car Talk and Whaddya Know, with Michael Feldman. Feldman’s guest today was a guy who has examined why we converse the way we do, and one of the things he noticed is that men say “uh” and “um” a lot more than women do. The interesting thing was that a man’s female intrelocuters percieved the hemming and hawing to be a means the man was using to monopolize the conversation and to not “relinquish the floor” and let her have a turn. But the men said that they are tongue-tied because the female is in the position of power, and they are afraid of saying something wrong. When a man says “uh”, he is attempting to stall for enough time to read the signals he is getting and revise his statements, if necessary. It was funny, because both parties apparently feel the other is taking unfair advantage.

  25. 25

    Nice post, Eve!

    I agree with several of you who have made the point that using qualifiers tends to be helpful in spoken language, but not so much in written. The logical question that leads me to is whether conversation in the bloggernacle is more like spoken or written language. (I mean, aside from the obvious point that it’s technically written.)

    I think that many comments sound a lot more like spoken language than like written language, and their structure is certainly often like spoken language–short paragraphs, lots of back and forth comments, less emphasis on getting the structure right than in most writing.

    Of course comments are also more formal than most speech in that they even have paragraphs. And there’s lots of variance from person to person (and from blog to blog, in general) in how formal the comments are. But I think my point still holds true that comments are enough like spoken language that qualifiers are helpful rather than a distraction.

    Tangentially, posts themselves are another animal because they are typically thought out more in advance than are comments. I suspect that this makes them more like written language in general, so perhaps qualifiers would come across as distracting in them. Again, of course, there’s variability depending on who’s doing the posting.

  26. 26

    Eric said,

    I’ve noticed that, for me, the frequency of my using softening phrases varies from blog to blog. Coincidently, the blog where I have been the most conscientious of adding them into comments is this one.

    I like your point about the audience influencing whether you use qualifiers or not. I’m also happy to hear that ZD has had a feminizing influence on you. 🙂 Out of curiosity, at which blogs do you think you use few or no qualifiers? (And I would be interested to hear what anyone else’s impression is on this issue too.)

  27. 27

    The logical question that leads me to is whether conversation in the bloggernacle is more like spoken or written language.

    This segues nicely into Eric’s observations. Different blogs have different “feels.” FMH feels orally residual to me. Times and Seasons not so much. Value neutral–but important when constructing comments.

  28. 28

    Mark, that’s really funny. I’d assumed “um” “eh” etc. signaled anxiety in teenage boys, but not in men. Hmm.

  29. 29

    Janet, I agree with you about FMH and T&S. I think that’s why I comment more on FMH than on T&S. I guess I’m looking more for “talky” discussion than for “writey” discussion.

    Also, regarding the use of “um,” in my experience, even being long removed from being a teenager, I still worry about saying things to make myself look stupid in front of women.

  30. 30

    Ziff, I’d say New Cool Thang is where I’d be the least worried about mitigating my tone. It’s more about ideas themselves over there; it’s kind of like a philosophy class. You can just say what you are thinking straightforwardly and you know people are simply going to respond to your arguments without it ever becoming personal.

  31. 31

    I agree that qualifying declarative statements with one’s degree of certainty (and sources) is a mark of a trustworthy speaker, and it opens up productive discussion.

    In my own blog, I make an effort to present my ideas in terms of “Hey, here’s an idea I’m throwing out there — what do you think of it?” Yet that “gender genie” (linked in the original fMh post) thinks I’m male for practically every post I’ve written. I’m not sure what’s up with that….

  32. 32

    Thanks, as always, to everyone who’s taken the time to comment. Many of you have made excellent points and brought up some fascinating questions about the complexities of written versus spoken language, the norms of academic discourse, and the still emerging norms of blogs. I’ve really enjoyed reading the discussion, and I think you’ve all covered the ground so well that I don’t really have anything to add.

  33. 33

    Hey, it’s all good. I like the feminine way, the masculine way, the asexual way. Whatever. The only thing that is bad is getting offended and censoring thought. That’s bad. As a man, I’ll only use “I feel” when I’m talking about feelings; “I think” when I’m talking about thoughts. But when I’m talking about conclusions I’ve come to based upon the evidence I’ve seen, I’ll either say, “My understanding is” or something along those lines. Usually though, if I’ve arrived at an understanding or conclusion on something, I’ll have lots of evidence to back it up, and if asked why I have such an understanding, will blast away with both guns (figuratively speaking), which people aren’t prepared for and they become intimidated by me from then on. My experience, however, has been that since my understandings are soooo unconventional to the normal way people perceive things, that they usually get offended by my understanding and refuse to listen to the evidences I have amassed to arrive at that understanding.

    I’ve met only two people in my life who can listen to my understandings without getting offended. One (an Ephraimite member) listens and suspends judgment until the resurrection, the other (a Manassahite member) listens, follows the logic, searches the evidence and almost always arrives at the same conclusion. (His opinion is that Ephraimite church members cannot understand what I or he says because they are Ephraimites and he and I are Manassahites. It’s a tribal thing, according to him.) All others get offended. (I’m surrounded by Ephraimites, so maybe he’s right.)

    So, more power to you if you use the feminine mode of speaking. I see no weakness in it. Viva la difference! (There is no one more open-minded than an anarchist.)

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