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Women’s Language: A Sexist Double Bind

This material courtesy of Nancy Burkhalter, Ph.D

Some say women are kept out of the “power loop” because of the kinds of words and expressions they are “allowed” to use if they are to be considered feminine or polite. Because of these limitations, men are usually given the power slot in conversations and meetings while women remain feminine but powerless.

One way women’s language differs from men’s is by the use of tag questions, as in She is a doctor, isn’t she? or He doesn’t like ice cream, does he? If someone says It’s hot in here, no one would feel obliged to say anything in response. But if someone uses a tag question, as in It’s hot in here, isn’t it?, it turns the sentence into a question that invites the listener to respond. Women often feel that stating flatly It’s hot in here makes the speaker seem bossy, hence the desire to soften the comment. However, the perception is that the individual using tag questions is uncertain. After all, it’s either hot in the room or it isn’t. So why the discussion?

Yet another marker of women’s language is the use of indirect requests. So, instead of saying, Close the window, which seems too abrupt to many women, many choose indirect requests, such as saying, Brrrrr or I have the shivers or Am I the only one who’s cold? to avoid appearing forceful or overbearing. But that kind of construction seems unnecessarily roundabout and can irritate those preferring more direct communication. Both tag questions and indirect requests put women in a classic double bind: they don’t want to appear too forceful because it’s not feminine, but they don’t want to appear wimpy either.

Swearing is almost always the exclusive province of men. It can convey toughness and the confidence to flout society’s rules of proper behavior. It doesn’t mean women don’t swear, but if one uses too much bad or even nonstandard language, especially in the wrong social situation, and especially in a business environment, she is branded uncouth, lower class, uneducated, coarse, etc. After all, women are expected to uphold the standards of society. Moreover, it is important for women to show they know what is right by using correct language. To stray outside any of these expectations in American society is to risk damage to a woman’s image and place in society.

In sum, women’s power in the workplace can suffer if they violate these rules. They want to be equal to men, but the strictures on what they can and cannot say puts them in a linguistic bind that is hard to escape.

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