Men are from Mars, women are from Venus: gender differences in communication

Are there characteristically "male" or "female" speech tactics used to achieve communication goals? What defines the particular characteristics of the dialogue between people? Tatiana Popova, Candidate of Philology, addresses these questions in her dissertation "Social roles of the speaker in everyday Russian communication: gender aspect".

In humanities, anthropocentrism remains the fundamental concept. It focuses on "human language and human interactions reflected in language". This leads us to the first question: why did you choose to study gender-specific aspects of day-to-day communication?

The study of colloquial speech enables assessment of the close relationship between language and thinking. In communication, a person employs the ideas of how the world works and inadvertently demonstrates stereotypical behaviours, including speech behaviour. Recently, much attention has been paid to different aspects of human interaction, especially to gender-specific forms of interaction and communication. The ideas of the New Ethics, as well as the frequently raised questions about sex education come to mind. By and large, the rethinking of gender relations seems to have been brewing for a while. I became interested in this topic and wondered if I could find examples in speech that would either reinforce the existing stereotypes or defy them.

Your paper is based on data from the One Speaker’s Day project. What are the advantages of using corpora for linguistic research? Are there any differences between language corpora? In your opinion, do the findings appear to be consistent with the evidence around us?

Corpus linguistics deserves to be the subject not only of a separate lecture, but of a course of lectures. Building a major language corpus is a task for the leading experts in the field. Why? Because a language corpus is a collection of natural language in its most authentic and diverse manifestations.

The existing meanings of the words can be determined from the contexts. The corpus will also show which meanings have become obsolete, and which ones are in a nascent state. No wonder that in recent years, in the Russian Language Olympiads for school students, data from the Russian National Corpus have been extensively used in the contest tasks and examples.

A speech corpus is a database that contains audio files and transcriptions of spontaneous or planned speech in the context of everyday oral communication. The ORD Speech Corpus of Russian Everyday Communication (‘One Speaker’s Day’) features 24-hour recordings of volunteer informants who recorded their oral communication over the course of one day. This method enables to obtain sound recordings of everyday speech in a natural situation. A portable voice recorder is used for the purpose. After setting up the recorder, the informants wear the device for 24 hours.

An important feature of the ORD Speech Corpus "One Speaker’s Day" is that the recordings are obtained from informants who agreed to wear a voice recorder for 24 hours. Is there a temptation to speak "correctly" because you will be listened to? Perhaps. It happens sometimes that people begin to address those who are going to transcribe or listen to the recording.

However, the experiment takes a whole day. The informants might even forget about the recording device. This is evidenced by the topics discussed, locations and vocabulary used. Believe me the language sometimes is so ‘animated’ that you may wish that it would be "corrected".

Are there generation-specific linguistic behaviours? How much, do you think, the respondents’ age parameter affects the findings?

All informants of the ORD corpus of Russian Everyday Communication can be divided into three age groups: younger adults — from 18 to 35; middle-aged adults — from 36 to 50; and older adults — aged 51+. School students and young children rarely come to the attention of the ORD corpus researchers. The relationship between language behaviour, age and gender is, indeed, a topic worthy of a separate study. Let me just say, there is certainly age and generation-specific use of language. Interestingly, our speech usually reflects our current state: age; education; professional activity; and social role. For example, women in the older adults age group often spend time on the phone because they are retired. Similar life situations determine the common features in the structure of their communication. On the whole, a corpus is an inexhaustible source of material for a linguist, because it can be analysed and interpreted employing a variety of indicators for different kinds of metalinguistic use.

Is there a tendency to gender-specific conversational dominance, or a tendency to shift gender roles?

I believe that the ideas of male dominance can be reflected in the features of the dialogue structure. On the other hand, both women and men may interrupt the speaker. In fact, their social roles are more important than gender. You can read more about this in my dissertation and find the examples of how it works.

What do you think is the explanation for gender differences in the modern Russian oral speech?

In my study, I examined data collected from 30 entries in the ORD corpus. I found that the speech behaviour of women can be characterised by a desire for unity and friendly atmosphere of mutual confidence and accord. In speech, this is reflected in the use of special discourse markers — linguistic means of attracting the attention of the interlocutor, such as: "you know"; "you see"; "Can you believe it?"; "Can you imagine?"; "I see"; and so on. These markers verbally signal the speaker’s interest in having this conversation. This is especially common for women in the "older adults" age group. What does it imply? I would not make generalisations, but for me, this is an indication that in conversation a woman unconsciously seeks to create an environment of mutual trust and support. This feature, however, is not found in the "younger adults" age group. Does this imply that times have changed and women have adapted to the new reality? Or, perhaps, their time has not come yet. Well, we will have to wait to see what happens in practice.

Gender linguistics is a young discipline that is methodologically and conceptually diverse. Where can the findings in a study of gender and language be put into practice?

The studies of gender and language are interdisciplinary in nature. Some studies focus on feminitives, other aim to capture linguistic realia. Their primary objective, however, is to facilitate understanding of the principles of human interaction. The findings are also relevant for: teachers of Russian as a foreign language; foreign language teachers; and forensic linguists.

Could you please tell us about your dissertation defence?

I received the reviewers’ feedback in advance. Hence, I had time to think about it and prepare for the discussion.

In 2017, St Petersburg University was given the right to have dissertations defended according to the University internal rules and to award state-recognised degrees of Candidates and Doctors of Sciences. The requirements of St Petersburg University for dissertations and for the scientific qualifications of the members of Dissertation Councils are on par with the requirements established by the Government of the Russian Federation under the current state regulations in the field of attestation of scientific personnel.

I had my "support group" present at the dissertation defence. These are: the members of our scientific seminar; my research supervisor Dr Natalia Bogdanova-Beglarian; and my high school students. I was a bit nervous, but the atmosphere was very friendly and I knew it was going to turn out all right. And so it was! The topic of gender-specific speech features aroused great interest among the members of the Dissertation Council.

What are your plans for the future?

I would like to start the new academic year in a new status — as the University lecturer. I hope I will. I am open to any new ideas and suggestions. I positively respond to invitations to participate in projects where you need to learn something new and you have the opportunity to put your ideas to work.