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Review of  Women, Men and Everyday Talk


Reviewer: Victor Lucio
Book Title: Women, Men and Everyday Talk
Book Author: Jennifer Coates
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 26.1066

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry

SUMMARY

“Women, Men and Everyday Talk” provides a thorough overview of the author’s investigation of language and gender in English throughout the past few decades and the theoretical trends that have guided her work.

The book begins by noting the author’s previous works on gendered talk that have been revised and adapted for this compilation, which has a focus primarily on conversational data from both genders, in both same-sex and mixed-sex environments. Transcription conventions are then defined for a clear reading of the data throughout the book. The author prefaces her work with a brief overview of her career development and recognizes instances of professional collaboration and others’ scholarship in language and gender that have inspired different parts of the book. The book is organized into four parts that describe and compare speech inside and outside of friendly contexts, closing with a final note on past and present theoretical frameworks within the field. References and an index appear at the end.

Part I, “Language in All-Female Groups”, includes Chapters 1-5 and ranges in topic from an analysis of female conversations between friends to an examination of the social and developmental contexts in which they are realized.

Chapter 1, “Women’s Stories: The Role of Narrative in Friendly Talk [1996]”, analyzes data from eight stories told by female friends to one another. The chapter deconstructs women’s narrative into different parts following the approach laid out by Labov (1972); the parts include an orientation or introduction of the story’s setting, time, and persons involved, a commentary which evaluates events and suggests a specific interpretation to the listener, and a coda which closes the story and may define or clarify its purpose. The author describes how women’s narratives tend to be of a collaborative nature and focus on daily life, with an emphasis on triumphs, disaster, frightening experiences, and embarrassments that occur ‘in the privacy of the domestic sphere’ (11). While their narratives are intended to construct or reconstruct personal identities, the story is often oriented around other people. Women’s narratives include the use of quotation as part of the portrayal of specified characters and are mostly reactive to some event. Men’s narratives, on the other hand, are often pro-active and more self-oriented, and typically include a nameless description of the parties involved.

Chapter 2, “‘So I Mean I Probably...’: Hedges and Hedging in Women’s Talk [2003]”, discusses the role of hedges between women in the author’s corpus of conversations from the 1980’s and 1990’s. Females ranged in age from pre-teen to mid-forties. Common hedges include the use of modal auxiliaries such as ‘may/might’, modal adverbs such as ‘perhaps’, and discourse markers such as ‘I mean’ and ‘well’. The reasons for their employment vary depending on context and interlocutor, and may presume a false degree of uncertainty or unassertiveness. Each instance of hedging in the corpus is assigned to one of four function categories: to express doubt or degree of confidence, to express sensitivity to another’s feelings, to search for the right word, and to avoid self-portrayal as ‘expert’. Rather than viewing hedges as a crutch for indecisiveness, the author concludes that women, by avoiding explicit commitment to a given point of view, make use of hedges to promote open discussion, inclusion, and collaboration in talking to one another.

In Chapter 3, “Competing Discourses of Femininity [1997]”, the author examines the performance of femininity in exchanges between older and younger adult women by approaching discourse as ‘a system of statements which cohere around common meanings and values’ (Holloway 1983:11). Women utilize discourse to distinctly position themselves in the world, but also, more specifically, to define what it means to be a woman in a particular society. Competing discourses in the conceptualization of femininity, however, have led to various tensions and contradictions. The author also considers the role that men (directly and indirectly) play in the construction of gendered women as heterosocial. She notes, as there are no self-identified lesbian women in the analyzed sample, a non-heterosocial discourse is not treated.

Chapter 4, “Changing Femininities: The Talk of Teenage Girls [1999]”, investigates the conversations of four white, middle-class girls from North London and the discursive techniques they employ while ‘doing’ femininity at 12-13 and later at 14-15 years of age. The author analyzes the range and evolution of conversation topics and how the girls maneuver among them while performing friendship through femininity. At the younger stage, the girls change topics rapidly, the conversation is less collaborative, and disagreement is overt. Conversely, at the older stage, topics are more likely to be sustained, there are fewer interruptions, and hedges are employed suggesting an approximation to the feminine prototype. From younger to older, the talk is increasingly personal and femininity is expressed through a reanalysis of their involvement with family, friends, and male figures in generally all heteronormative capacities. The chapter closes with a metalinguistic commentary by two of the girls at roughly 18 years of age where they reflect upon possible changes in their discursive patterns.

Chapter 5, “Women Behaving Badly: Female Speakers Backstage [2000]”, explores, with the use of dramaturgical terminology suggested by Goffman (1971), ‘frontstage’ and ‘backstage’, women’s performance of themselves in discourse as gendered members of their society. Frontstage performance is carefully controlled for a determined audience, whereas backstage scenarios are generally informal and involve less self-monitoring. According to societal norms, femininity is expressed frontstage by being ‘nice’ to others while potentially repressing one’s true feelings. By contrast, for men and frontstage masculinity, ‘non-niceness’ and abusive behavior are lauded and politeness is commonly frowned upon. The chapter looks at backstage conversations between women of all ages, where women are comfortable discussing non-canonical topics and socially taboo thoughts. While being ‘backstage’ results in a sense of solidarity for women and even acclaim for ‘deviant’ behavior, recognition of frontstage norms is still necessary in defining what is acceptable within the group.

Part II, “Language in All-Male Groups”, includes Chapters 6-9 and investigates conversational turn-taking, linguistic acts of male closeness, and the range of masculinities available to present-day British men.

Chapter 6, “One-at-a-Time: The Organisation of Men’s Talk [1997]”, looks at the practice of turn-taking between groups of men in casual conversation. Unlike women, men often shift the attention from one speaker to the next. The following speaker is then invited, often by use of a question, to exhibit ‘expert’ knowledge of the topic at hand. Men are reluctant to discuss the personal, but will instead lean toward information-oriented themes in order to express closeness. The notable lack of interruption between conversing men indicates interpersonal support, a mutual understanding of the one-at-a-time procedure, and the permissibility of extensive monologues. The author cautions that findings in this chapter involve white, well-educated English speakers and thus may not be representative of all men.

In Chapter 7, “‘So I Thought “Bollocks to It”’: Men, Stories and Masculinities [2000]”, the author, through an analysis of male narratives, describes how the male construction of self stems from a man’s understanding and performance of heterosocial masculinity. She proposes that different factors motivate the production of a spectrum of masculinities with varying degrees of acceptability for both individuals and social groups. Goals found in narratives told by men in an all-male setting may include the desire to exemplify achievement, to ‘one-up’ another speaker, or to potentially discourage or undermine displays of vulnerability. The introduction of personal issues into male narratives is rare. In order to avoid self-disclosure and consequential compromise of one’s masculine image, men often circumvent personal involvement by attending closely to story details, by swearing, or by rerouting the discourse entirely.

In Chapter 8, “‘My Mind Is with You’: Story Sequences in the Talk of Male Friends [2001]”, the author examines the frequency, contiguity, and thematic coherence of stories told in 30 conversations between men. She argues that storytelling is a ‘collaborative achievement’ by all participants rather than an act involving a narrator and a passive audience (169). In the author’s sample, men acknowledge their committed attention to the speaker(s) by linking additional stories to a central narrative. They are able to thus convey a sense of connectedness and solidarity through their language, without an overt expression of closeness, which is stigmatized among heterosexual males.

Chapter 9, “‘Everyone Was Convinced That We Were Closet Fags’: The Role of Heterosexuality in the Construction of Hegemonic Masculinity [2007]”, lends evidence to the close relationship between masculine ideals in Britain and heterosexuality. Hegemonic masculinity, while contestable, is derived from and maintained through the denial of femininity and the ‘othering’ of women and homosexual men. In this chapter, the author looks at data from 32 all-male conversations and a few conversations from mixed-sex contexts. She argues that heterosexual men systematically perform hardness and coolness, dominance, and control while differentiating themselves from women, often excluding them from their narrative storyworlds. Blatant displays of homophobia in all-male environments may occur to reinforce the heterosexual ideal and to distance the speakers from what is considered ‘feminine’. Although men in the sample also participate in collaborative story-telling in mixed-sex situations (a practice typically associated with women), the author suggests that they do this to emphasize heterosexual relationships, thereby adhering to contemporary hegemonic masculinity.

Part III, “Gendered Talk in Other Contexts”, explores the role of gender in data gathered from men and women in workplace environments, performances of humor, and deaf discourse.

Chapter 10, “Language, Gender and Career [1994]”, reviews literature from studies involving gendered language in the workplace and the discursive patterns realized in both male and female-dominant professions. The professional fields investigated in this chapter range from the British Parliament and the court system to medicine and in-home elder care. The author reminds the reader of the association of masculine language with the public sphere and women’s speech styles with the private domain. Since men prefer a more information-focused and adversarial style, the same is expected in the public arena and in male-dominant industries. On the other hand, an emphasis on collaboration and inclusion is more acceptable in the private world and in workplaces where women are the majority. Questions and directives are common in the assertion of authoritarian status in either sphere, but their level of appropriateness and/or acceptability depends on their degree of directness and the gender of the person employing them.

In Chapter 11, “Having a Laugh: Gender and Humour in Everyday Talk [2006]”, the author draws from conversational data gathered over the past two decades in order determine the functions of humor in all-male and all-female friendship groups. Hay (1995) suggests that humor is performed to denote differences in power, to protect oneself in a precarious situation, and/or to create or maintain solidarity within the speaker group. Coates shows how men tend to enact humor with jokes and verbal sparring in an effort to appear quick-witted and in-charge, whereas women are more likely to tell funny stories from a personal point of view. Through the collaborative construction of humor, speakers establish a sense of solidarity among themselves since both narrator and respondents must rely on their in-group knowledge to allow for verbal ‘play’.

Chapter 12, “Turn-Taking Patterns in Deaf Conversation [2001]”, compares practices of turn-taking among deaf friends with patterns found in spoken discourse. Two possibilities for alternation found in spoken conversations include a one-at-a-time model typically employed by men and a shared-floor scenario found among women. After analyzing deaf discourses in two participant groups, one male, and one female, the author finds a tendency toward one-at-a-time discourse among the males and more collaborative, shared-floor talk among the females. Coates provides three scenarios for signer overlap: the use of affirmative remarks, the repetition of lexical items, and/or the holding of a particular sign. Coates observes that by calling attention through holding and repeating signs, signers often rely on each other’s peripheral vision to attend to their attempts to ‘take the floor’, ultimately aiding in the transition from one signer to the next.

Part IV, “Language and Gender -- Changing Theoretical Frameworks”, consists solely of Chapter 13, which reviews past linguistic theories of gender and their contribution to contemporary gender research.

In Chapter 13, “The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Mars and Venus in Language and Gender Research [2009]”, the author recounts the changes that have occurred over the last 35 years in the conceptualization and study of gender in linguistics. Recognizing the inevitable approximation in identifying time periods, she loosely divides the timeline into three phases, with corresponding sections within the chapter. Phase 1 (1970s and 1980s) reminds the reader of the early use of the term ‘sex’ to refer to what is now called ‘gender’, since linguists initially reserved ‘gender’ for the description of grammatical categories. This led to a problematic binary between ‘men’s language’ and ‘women’s language’ as well as an ambiguous interpretation of what constituted ‘language and sex’. During Phase 2 (1980s and 1990s), the era during which the Mars and Venus myth was most popular, researchers acknowledged the distinction between ‘sex’ as biological and ‘gender’ as culturally constructed. The author references several of her studies that fall into Phase 2, noting the eventual celebration of women’s talk as distinct, rather than simply as ‘deviant’ or ‘opposite’ from men’s linguistic tendencies. Phase 3 (end of 1990s) includes the recognition of gender plurality, the emergence of queer theory, and a discussion of the connection between gender and sexuality. The chapter closes with a section called ‘Re-emerging binaries?’, which observes a contemporary reappearance of gender ideologies that continue to influence everyday interaction.

EVALUATION

As the author explains, material for this compilation originates from a number of works on language and gender published at various stages of her career. Thus, many of her earlier findings in the book reappear as objects of reanalysis with different contextual considerations. Depending on one’s knowledge of the subject, the reader may find this either repetitive or useful. Nevertheless, due to the presence of recurring data, the transition between chapters is seamless and each section comfortably builds upon the previous one. The author’s early work on women’s talk and later work on the talk of men have resulted in an expanded application of her methodologies and the study of gendered language in different social situations, at the same time as it has paved the path for further investigations in language and sexuality.

A surplus of clearly transcribed examples and the author’s focused discussions provide the specialists in language or gender studies with ample material for critical thought. For the non-specialist, each chapter’s thorough review of past literature and terminology make the reading accessible. A healthy sprinkling of personal anecdotes naturally reflect the ‘everyday’ aspect of the types of talk found in the volume. Coates cautions the reader from generalizing her findings too extensively, as her data from the last few decades represent only speakers of British English. Lastly, the author’s straightforward presentation of the history of language and gender studies makes this book an ideal supplement for an introductory course on gender, discourse analysis, or sociolinguistics. The scope and progression of discussed topics faithfully reflect the contributions of the author and her contemporaries to the evolution of gender theory.

REFERENCES

Goffman, Irving. 1971. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Harmondsworth, UK:
Penguin Books.

Hay, Jennifer. 1995. Gender and humour: beyond a joke. Unpublished MA dissertation. Victoria
University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Holloway, Wendy. 1983. Heterosexual sex: power and desire for the other in Sue Cartledge and
J. Ryan (eds) Sex and Love: New Thoughts on Old Contradictions. London: Women’s Press. 124-140.

Labov, William. 1972. The transformation of experience in narrative syntax in Language in the
Inner City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 354-396.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Victor Lucio is a PhD candidate in Spanish Linguistics at the University at Albany – SUNY. His areas of interest include language and gender, language and sexuality, and Spanish sociolinguistics.

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