Gendered Voice

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Gendered Voice

Post by polymath » February 9th, 2011, 10:24 pm

For writers, gendered voice is a set of tools for bringing characters to life.

We social beings easily consider gender a biologically based sexual identity. A gamut of disciplines consider it more whole-person identity, personality, and behavior oriented than merely the sex facet. Anthropology, psychology, sociology, political geography, linguistics, stylistics, semantics, semiotics, and rhetoric in its power to persuade, approach gender as perfomative and identity marking processes.

Gender in those two senses encompasses a totality of individual persons and cohort groupings with which persons identify and project identity. Status, age, sex, ethnicity, lifestyle, sexual orientation, political, and religious marker identities combine to make up a whole person identity. Perfomative actions display gender identity. Performative in the special sense, "expression that serves to effect a transaction." [Webster's]

Gendered voice is not solely speech based. It is also a set of nonverbal aspects of behavior; perfomative displays, wealth markers for instance, pecking order demotion and promotion, and context dependent, setting time, place, and situation contexts, for example. Verbal intonation, facial expression, gestural language, and body positioning are also part of gendered voice.

Status building and emotional bonding activities make up the performative applications of identity, and gendered behavior and voice traits in general. A currently accepted axis of gender denotes masculine gender markers relate to status building activities, generally. Feminine gender markers relate to emotional bonding activities, generally.

Robin Lakoff authored the seminal and signal work on multicultural gender studies. Language and Woman's Place, 1975, Harper Row; revised and expanded edition, 2004, Oxford University Press. Extensive excerpts from the 2004 edition are available at Google Books for in-depth review.

Though Lakoff is an avowed feminist, a radical feminist only in the sense she questions and challenges preconceived chauvinistic notions of gender identity, the 2004 edition examines gender identity for a broad range of social subclasses, men and women, and subcultural groups, Black-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, Caucasian-American, Gay men and women, academics and blue-collars and blue-bloods, and how identity factors overlap. The whole encompasses a set of social imprinting and indoctrinating cultural coding conventions and offers insights into decoding methods.

Gender is a subclass of language characteristics that are distinguishable but indivisible from the whole. Gender in the linguistic and sociologocial senses, grammatical sense in particular, patterns identity marking and performative behaviors. Dead languages like formal Latin rigidly pattern gender through marking status and sex. Living languages, Greek and Romance languages particularly, other Indo-European languages generally, also mark status and sex. English language evolution tends toward minimizing gender markers, yet a psychosocial need for identity validation and status and meaningful interpersonal relations preserves if not favors ongoing English language gender marking.

Feminine gendered voice generally tends toward building close-knit cohort units, while masculine gendered voice generally tends toward building competitive cohort units. Generalizing, men want status; women want emotional connections. There should be no wonder communication is generally difficult between men and women. We speak subtly different languages.

But it's not that simple, never was, cannot be. We social beings are as unique in our identities as our fingerprints and DNA, as were are unique in our sonic and gendered voices. Gendered voice is an infinite spectrum of possibilities derived from the competing pushmi-pullyas of desires pressing in and pressing out wanting satisfaction.

After all that deep background, here's a paraphrase of a brief summary purportedly of Lakoff's 1975 edition Language and Woman's Place from "Women's Language" at [**] Oversimplified feminine gendered voice samples, decorum methods for building connections, though including passive-aggressive feminine competition tendencies. Masculine gendered voice tends toward opposites: assertive, self-confident, contentious gender marking tendencies.
  • Hedging language: Language with escape clauses, to avoid confrontation and disagreement, using hedging terms; for example, kind of, sort of, perhaps, I think, I guess, I feel, maybe, and so on.

      You know, I kind of feel differently about Joey than Tilley does. Anyway, I guess maybe that's what he means to her.
  • Extreme courtesy: Assuming a submissive, conciliatory, and/or nonthreatening attitude, tone, and register to avoid confrontation and disagreement.

      If I can borrow a moment of your time, please, might I ask you to help put this heavy box away.
  • Rhetorical questions: Questions posed for persuavive purposes not intended to be directly answered.

      He might not understand women's needs, right? Though, if he doesn't, shouldn't we keep our secrets to ourselves?
  • Interrogative declarations: Using a questioning intonation or syntax to make declarative statements. Spoken questioning intonation changes pitch as a sentence finishes.

      I did't do as I was told to do, exactly as I did?
  • Hyperbole: Exaggerated intonation and vebiage with emotional context, and using discretionary italics and other lexical emphases in writing for expressly marking intonation; exclamation points, ellipsis points, dashes, bold formating, discretionary capitalizations or all caps, underscoring, etc.

      Lanney's such a Chunk! So dead weight--very, VERY meh...
  • Empty descriptors, the much maligned adjective and adverb modifiers: Kind and wooly modifiers used to project friendliness.

      Such a sweet and warm bachelor you are. You're sure to marry wonderfully.
  • Nonsense discourse markers: Using prefatory and/or parenthetical interjections with little or no meaning to mark thought-gathering pauses and/or attract attention to what's said or written; for example, uh, uh-huh, huh-uh, well, like, you know, now, okay, and so on.

      Now, I heard Cary, you know, said those mean things. Like, okay. You understand it wasn't me who said them.
  • Prescriptive formalilty: The spoken (or written) equivalent to Standard Spoken and Written English's rigidly proper grammar, pronunciation, spelling, and punctuation rules, and rigorously avoiding idiom, slang, and informal dialect in order to avoid misunderstanding.

      I am suggesting, though I admit my point wasn't clear, now is too soon a time to begin our debate or decision-making.
  • Neutral tone: Limited sense of humor, limited joke telling, for avoiding humor's tendency to be at the expense of others' hurt feelings; avoiding schadenfreude, "enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others." [Webster's]
  • Direct quotations: Tagged Direct Discourse quoting the discourse of others with written or implied quote marks, and direct quotations of others' quotations of others' discourse. Occasionally marking cites with quote-mark gestures when speaking.

      Well, Pat, Marty said to me, "Bobby's a total moron." I said, "You know, she's not so dumb as you think." I think if you weren't as hard on Bobby as Marty is...
  • Mommy talk: Inclusive personal pronoun usage we and our rather than excluding, autobiographical I or excluding, imperative you, singular or plural. Might be construed as negatively condescending in age-inappropriate contexts.

      We need to clean our room and do our chores before we watch TV.
  • Courtly irony: Cliquish passive-aggressive bonding through status building; in-group status building through outsider exclusion using shallow flattery and empty praise.

      Daisy Mae works miracles with cheap Walmart makeup and knock-off costume jewelry.
  • Extended vocabulary, Doll house decorator talk: Precise word choice and use, frequently with abundant descriptive modifiers. Feminine gender marking traits that love-love specific color words and favor similar detailed specificity.

      Plant the fushcia azaleas beside the entrance walkway. I'll have the white silk valances and silk drapes for the sidelight window treatments with floral print accent colors picked up from the azaleas and chartreuse from the entranceway Morrocan floor tile foreground details and chocolate from the walnut door and baseboard trim's lighter grain figure.
A problematic thing masculine gendered voice can do to offend bonding sensibilities is alienate or break emotional connections. A problematic thing feminine gendered voice can do is one-up status sensibilities when there's no overt intention of entering into direct competition. And both and every whichaway possible happen all the time. Ah, life is perfect, perfectly messed up so we social beings have meaningful antagonism forces to push and pull against, and by which we are pushed and pulled.

Well, I haven't done any more than sketch a small surface of gendered voice. Although within the above are trail blazes for paths toward further insights.

Lakoff, Robin, et al, Language and Woman's Place, Oxford University Press, 2004. ... &q&f=false
Webster's 11th Collegiate Edition.
** "Women's Language," ... nguage.htm
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Re: Gendered Voice

Post by Margo » February 10th, 2011, 10:49 am

Gads, I've been waiting days for this post, and then I'm sick on the day it comes out!

Anyway, thanks for the post, polymath. I had read over the Lakoff findings that you recommended to me and found several of them fit me to a T, others not so much. My first inclination was to wonder how much of the difference was a matter of the passing decades. I really would like to see an experiment like this repeated today, even if the best it could do is identify sweeping generalizations.

I will say that I have what I would class as certain masculine communication tendencies when engaged in debate. On forums where my username is gender neutral, I am ALWAYS mistaken for male. In one case, I let the assumption stand for about a year before I clarified my gender to other regular contributors. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that I debate from a place of confidence (lots of debate and public speaking in school and some at work) and address points of contention in a fairly logical, methodical, aggressive way, typically without the hedging language that females innately use when trying to build rapport, avoid confrontation, and foster an 'all points are valid' point of view. Logic language rather than feeling language seems to come off as male, which feeds alllll kinds of stereotypes.

In a therapy setting, I authomatically switch to a more emotion-centered language when establishing rapport and encouraging a client to stay in a moment and feel without judging themselves or the feeling. If I have to use the confrontation skill, the language gets less emotional and slightly more logical, though I would say it never fully crosses over to logical language, because that triggers defensiveness, in my experience. I can certainly understand why it would. The tone is different, as is the purpose. Wow, could we get into gender issues and roles with that one!

I'm also struck by the idea that these styles can be learned and intentionally cultivated. I was surprised when I learned years ago that a large portion of romance novels were being written by men using female pseudonyms. And, of course, one of the BEST therapists I have even had the honor to work with is male and has absolutely mastered a combination stance of supportive and confrontational language that involve great subtlety in linguistic shifts rather than large, obvious swings from one to the other.
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Re: Gendered Voice

Post by polymath » February 10th, 2011, 11:33 am

One of the strongest criticisms of Lakoff's gender studies is that she bases her modeling on her self-identity and interacting observer experiences. While that runs contrary to every principle of objective research and reporting, without a base from which to set off in a new direction from previous studies she'd have fallen into the gender-biased groove she strived to question and challenge.

I do gender observations the same way, from my relative observer interaction space. I note decorum's power to effect performative results most easily. Decorum in the rhetorical sense: "A central rhetorical principle requiring one's words and subject matter be aptly fit to each other, to the circumstances and occasion (kairos), the audience, and the speaker. . . . Essentially, if one's ideas are appropriately embodied and presented (thereby observing decorum), then one's speech will be effective." [Silva Rhetoricae] Effective decorum doesn't mean only bonding activities, it also includes status competition activities.

Creatively, for instance, a person might be demoted in animacy and therefore status by labeling a him a her or an it. A thing can be promoted by labeling an it a he or a she. Using a formal honorific title can promote or demote a person. The modern masculine title mister, abbreviated Mr., derives from a deformalizing of master, a term at one time used to address juvenile males, as does the contraction ma'am from French loan word madame or the traditional English term mistress for a juvenile female become the gender markers Miss, abbreviated Ms., and Mrs., informal dialect Missus, gender marking a wife, gender marker landmines of potential contention in this Postmodern, socially conscious milieu.

English language gender marking subtly recognizes comparative speaker and audience status, ethnicity, and sexual identity, etc., or in short, psychosocial-sexual identity, using relatively unnoticed decorum methods. When in doubt about gender identity, defaulting to formal, neutral gender dialect is a best practice, though formal dialect can offend when familiar dialect is more appropriate to circumstances, and neutral dialect can be creatively lackluster.

Imagine a pair of lifetime love interests addressing each other formally. What does their formal register say about them? It could mean they've grown emotionally indifferent toward each other. Contrarily, it could be their secret pillow-talk language they use in public for covertly signaling affection.

Another context, a tyrranical boss absentmindedly addressing transient laborers using formal diction. Objectionably condescending? Patronizing? Will they understand the point or will they ignore the boss altogether for lairding over them?

Vulgar language used by an actively participating female at a traditionally all-male venue might endear the males toward her and toward females attending the venue in general, say a blue-collar worker's union meeting. At the least, she speaks to the males using their comfort zone dialect, thus building a feminine connection using a conventional masculine gender marking trait. Other females present might be alienated by the competition marking of vulgar language, though. And vulgar language might be inappropriate if not criminal or legally actionable under other circumstances. Masculine bonding-type sports analogies and innuendos are far more appropriate in mixed gender venues than open vulgarity.

A blue-collar WASP patriarch might contentiously display his status by gender marker demoting the animacy of females, children, ethnic minorities, non-Protestants, and gender marker promote his status by boasting of his machismo exploits to his male peer cohort. Chest-thumping, antler-rattling, growling, peacock tail-feather fanning, strutting-his-stuff stuff.

A less than emotionally or statutorily secure masculine gender trait uses shortcuts to status building by contentiously competing with others' status at others expense, frequently from a statutory high ground by talking over perceived or actual subordinates, demoting with thinly veiled contempt disguised as sarcasm or irony, interrupting conversations, marginalizing or ignoring others' contributions and accomplishments, undeservedly claiming credit for the accomplishments of others, and so on.

Masculine attractiveness is traditionally associated with physical stature and status achievement; feminine attractiveness is traditionally associated with physical appearance and receptiveness. They are respective attractivenesses rooted in the ancient and ongoing biological imperatives of reproduction instincts, a presumptive division of labors based on biological distinctions, and mating dominance strategies. Men's achievements mark them as suitable or unsuitable providers and protectors; women's appearances mark them as suitable or unsuitable receptors and nurturers of progeny.

Presumptive division of labors from biological distinctions meaning expressly a menstruating female's blood scent jeapordized a hunt or a raid's success by attracting predators and spooking prey or spoiling the element of surprise. Thus males administered hunting and war and subsistence and protection, and by default of biological imposition, females administered home fire tending and foraging close to home and nuturing vulnerable progeny.

According to anthropological theory, at one time in the remote past female attractiveness and popularity within a cohort was based on successful reproduction. An alpha matriarch was fertile and fecund and had her choice of mates. Males competing for her favor promoted her status. Females competing for her respect and esteem and friendship promoted her status. Her mating selections promoted males' status to alpha males or demoted them to betas or beneath-notice omegas. She selectively promoted or demoted familial females' status to partner or apprentice alphas, betas, or omegas. Manifested processes of selective human breeding, actually.

I'm most in my comfort zone socially when I'm not surrounded by pretentions of superior identity. A kitchen setting of a humble and loving family is warm and inviting. The mausoleum-like feel of well-to-do family's living room feels confrontational. Don't touch, look at our wealth that you're forbidden to have, that we won by exploiting your unworthy class. Advertising tends to alienate me rather than attract me by its pretentions of material wealth representing self-worth.
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Re: Gendered Voice

Post by bcomet » February 10th, 2011, 2:57 pm

So many juicy points for discussion/thought. Whew.


On the lighter/(harsher) level of female:
polymath wrote: According to anthropological theory, at one time in the remote past female attractiveness and popularity within a cohort was based on successful reproduction. An alpha matriarch was fertile and fecund and had her choice of mates. Males competing for her favor promoted her status. Females competing for her respect and esteem and friendship promoted her status. Her mating selections promoted males' status to alpha males or demoted them to betas or beneath-notice omegas. She selectively promoted or demoted familial females' status to partner or apprentice alphas, betas, or omegas. Manifested processes of selective human breeding, actually.
Sounds like typical high school queen-bee clique/social control behavior. (Must be a hangover from monkey-dom.)

polymath wrote:Advertising tends to alienate me rather than attract me by its pretentions of material wealth representing self-worth.
And then it goes the other way too.

It is typical now to see the depiction of what we call "the crying lady" in advertising. She is depressed (i.e. needs meds), overwhelmed (i.e., needs household items), controlling (i.e. needs controlling technology), trying to keep up (i.e. needs new car). But basically, she is crying or ready to cry. She is supposed to be "us": every woman, every wife. If we don't recognize her in ourself, we should recognize her in our wife, sister, mother, our own inner feminine side... (say what? Our inner-feminine side now has PMS?) These products are supposed to placate her before she cries again. She really gets All The Attention when she cries. We can't stand it.
(I hate that persona and the advertisers who demean "female" to that. It's almost as bad as the female who puts on over-red, rubberized lipstick and then kisses herself in the mirror to death. What a brain!)

Another typical is "the stupid man." Boy, is he stupid! If he plugs something in, it will blow up. If he makes a move, he will fall on his face. If his boss is in the room, he will not know it as he screws up again. He is stupid, stupid, stupid. We had better buy this man a product (or one to help us cope with him) (or one to make us not be him) before the whole world blows up.

Much advertising expects us to react to being talked down to, like we are morons. Even the high cost items are geared to wealthy idiots or would-be-wealthy idiots, banking on how stupid they are, that they would need to live up to their own hype.


On the other hand, advertising can be smart and savvy and talk straight to the buyer. But instead, it more often either tries to talk down to the target buyer and/or annoy him/her to death to buy buy buy (principle of repetition.)


Onto gender confusion: it is so interesting and prevalent. Who are we anyway???

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Re: Gendered Voice

Post by polymath » February 10th, 2011, 3:24 pm

Astute observations, bcomet.

I think gendered voice is an excellent topic for sharing personal horror stories, insights, observations, and inspirations from gender marking, perfomances and displays and voices, for our mutual writing benefits.
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