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Pshenichnikova A.,

Senior Instructor, Far Eastern National University

On gender-related variation of politeness in American communicative culture

Every society establishes communicative norms and rules to regulate people’s interaction. Researchers state that mutual politeness is a universal tool for promoting effective communication and avoiding communicative failure [Leech 1983]. When utilized in discourse, polite communicative behavior produces pleasant background to a communicative situation and thus helps making the interaction smooth and productive. However, researchers also note that ideas of polite communicative behavior can vary greatly from culture to culture and from one social group to another within the same culture [Ларина 2003]. Communicative strategies differ due to communicants’ age, gender, educational level, occupation, social status, character traits, etc [Земская 1993]. In this paper, we should like to analyze some cases of gender-related variation of politeness in American communicative culture. The aim of our study is find out whether the standards of polite communicative behavior are subject to gender-related variation in informal interaction. In this paper the term ‘gender’ is used to denote stereotypic qualities and conventional norms of behavior, ascribed to a person by culture and society on the basis of his or her sex [Кирилина 1999].

Linguistic studies show that gender can influence people’s communicative behavior [Coates 1986; Кирилина 1999]. Men and women are believed to practice overlapping but still differing styles of communication. In traditional terms, masculine style is described as competition and feminine style – as cooperation [Coates 1986]. It is also said that communication between men and women is very close to intercultural communication, because men and women belong to different communicative cultures [Maltz 1982]. On this basis, one may assume that men and women have different perceptions of what kind of communicative behavior can be considered polite in an informal conversation. It should be said here that this paper does not deal with etiquette rituals. We define politeness as a normative element of socially approved communicative behavior, based on communicative partners’ mutual respect. We believe that to some extent the category of politeness is verbalized in every communicative act and politeness standards can be observed in the use of verbal and nonverbal means in a given social group.

In order to find out whether the norms of polite communicative behavior are subject to gender-related variation, we analyzed 200 dialogues, selected from modern American novels (100 male-to-male and 100 female-to-female dialogues). We assume that verbal and nonverbal characteristics of male and female characters’ phrases can reflect gender-related differences in communicative behavior of live communicants. The selected dialogues are held in informal communicative situations when the characters’ speech patterns are not stipulated by speech code of an institution to which they belong. We chose communicative situations with interlocutors of approximately the same social status, position, education, age, etc. The characters are usually friends or colleagues, and their familiarity also provides for more informal manner of communication. Given below are some examples of male-to-male and female-to-female dialogues, demonstrating the differences in characters’ communicative strategies in general and politeness norms in particular.

Example #1. Two male characters, colleagues and friends, get together at lunch. Some time earlier, they had to deal with an unusual astronomical phenomenon and it is still on their minds at the moment. One of them is supposed to have some more news on the problem and the other wants to be informed of any further developments.

e.g. [man1] Jim looked at them [odd yellow objects] curiously as Spock started eating. “Something Vulcan?”

[man2] Spock shook his head, finished his bite. “Terran, originally; a variant form grown on McDade. Xanthopipericum flagrantum Ellison. It was once referred to as ‘Sechuan Death,’ though I –”

[man1] Jim waved away the explanation. “Later for botany, Spock. You look preoccupied. What is it with the spectra, anyway?”

[man2] “Irregularities,” Spock said. [Duane 1983:82]

This conversation is directed by one of the men. He begins it by asking his partner about a strange dish that one is eating (Something Vulcan?). However, the man’s goal is to get new information on the problem of the unusual star spectra. That is why he makes interruption when the other man launches into a lengthy explanation (waved away the explanation; later for botany). He dismisses his partner’s phrases about the dish as not corresponding to the main topic and quickly turns the dialogue to the problem at hand (what is it with the spectra). However, his interruption and lack of attention to anything except the chosen point of interest do not hinder the conversation. The other communicant changes the topic and takes no offence at his interlocutor’s seemingly neglectful behavior. He recognizes the info-seeking mode on the other man’s part and starts supplying the information.

As this example and the similar ones demonstrate, male communicants consider it acceptable to control the topic of an informal conversation by aggressive communicative means – they ignore their partner’s phrases on purpose, make multiple interruptions, stick to a chosen topic despite their partner’s wish to change it, etc.

Example #2. Two male characters, close friends, discuss some love affairs at dinner at the restaurant. One of them has a new girl-friend, the other one wants to know the details.

e.g. [man1] Tell me, Thomas, and don’t lie to your best friend, just look me in the eyes and tell me if you have succumbed to a state of monogamy.” Verheek was leaning halfway across the table, watching and grinning stupidly.

[man2] “Not so loud, Callahan said, looking around.

[man1] Answer me.”

[man2] Give me the other names on the list, and I'll tell you.” [Grisham 1992:101]

These characters are equal in social rank, age, ect. Despite this, one of the communicants takes on the role of a leader. His goal is to learn whether his friend is really in love or not. He chooses the topic and makes a number of requests, formed as imperatives (tell me; don’t lie to your friend, answer me). The second man is displeased by the turn to his intimite feelings as well as by the form of the requests. The imperatives direct what he should do, thus threatening his independence. In this situation of “friendly rivalry” following the directives would mean a rise in communicative status for the questioner and a drop in status for the questionee. In order to avoid answering and to reinstate himself, the man makes his own request and forms it as an imperative as well (give me the other names). On his part this imperative request is a means of self-defence, a way to disclose sensetive information without damaging his image. Still the men’s obvious directiveness does not hamper their communication. Both parties consider such kind of communicative rivalry normal and have no intention to break the conversation.

This fragment shows that in informal interaction male communicants willingly resort to directive language to achieve their communicative goals. They do not hesitate to be imposing or to threaten their partners’ liberty by means of categorical imperative requests and direct speech acts in general.

Example #3. Two male characters, close friends, have a telephone conversation. In this fragment one of them tries to make the other one share classified information on a double murder.

e.g. [man1] Who killed them, Gavin? I have a right to know. I’m a taxpayer and I have a right to know who killed them.

[man2] “What’s her name again?”

[man1] “Darby. Who killed them, and why?

[man2] “You could always pick names, Thomas. … What a name. When do I meet her?”

[man1] “I don’t know.”

[man2] “Has she moved in?”

[man1] “None of your damned business. Gavin, listen to me. Who did it?

[man2] “Don’t you read the papers? We have no suspects. None. Nada. [Grisham 1992:75]

As one may see, the first man’s speech is very insistent. He repeats his question three times, thus urging the other one to break down and disclose the information (Who killed them, Gavin?; Who killed them, and why?; Who did it?). The man continues to question his communicative partner, ignoring his many attempts to change the topic. This male character does not use imperatives such as Tell me or Answer me, but the repetition conveys the meaning of an urgent request just as well. Insistence of this kind constitutes a break in polite communication, as the speaker shows no respect for the other speaker’s rights and wishes. In an attempt to avoid unpleasant interrogation and protect his independence, the other man resorts to aggressive verbal moves too. His questions invade the first man’s private zone on purpose (What’s her name again?; When do I meet her?; Has she moved in?) and this leads to the use of invectives (None of your damned business). Thus, communicative partners become rivals; each one tries to lead the conversation and overpower his interlocutor. They are not inclined to compromise and continue their conversation until the second partner is forced to disclose at least some bits of information. At this point, the first partner changes the topic; both communicants are satisfied and neither finds his partner’s behavior unpleasant enough to break the dialogue.

As this example demonstrates, in informal conversations male communicants often see each other as rivals and compete in the power of insistence and persuasion. In order to seize initiative they resort to aggressive communicative moves such as invectives and easily invade their partners’ privacy.

On the whole, the male-to-male dialogues show that male characters’ speech tends to be direct, persuasive, and categorical. The characters prefer direct speech acts, imperatives requests, and avoid expressing uncertainty. They practice communicative rivalry that necessitates communicative aggression. Still, in male-to-male informal communication, these traits of the characters’ speech are not considered impolite and rarely lead to misunderstanding or a conflict.

Example #4. A female character addresses the other female character for information.

e.g. [woman1] Darby smiled at her. “Excuse me. Would you happen to know Laura Kaas?”

[woman2] “Sure.”

[woman1] “I need to give her a message. Could you point her out ?” [Grisham, 1992:327]

Both characters are law students of approximately the same age. They meet accidentally at a break between classes, so the communicative situation does not call for much formality. Still one of the women addresses the other one in a very polite way. Her request starts with a smile and an apology (excuse me). These are nonverbal and verbal means, aimed at making the following request as noninvasive as possible. The request itself is nonbinding because the communicant utilizes a syntactic pattern with Subjunctive 4 and the verb to happen (Would you happen to…?). The uncertainty of this phrase makes it very easy for the other woman to give a negative answer without damaging her image. The second request (Could you point her out?) is also indirect and rather uncertain, though a negative answer is unlikely at this stage. The use of the past form of a modal verb (could) and the interrogative quality of the sentence make it polite and minimize the possibility of a refusal.

As this fragment shows, female characters avoid imposing their wishes on their communicative partners and show respect for other party’s liberty. They prefer polite indirect requests even in informal communication. The use of extra polite forms helps a female character to achieve her communicative goal. In a sense, the nonbinding extra polite requests appear to be as persuasive as the imperatives, used by male communicants. They lack pressure and it makes them hard to refuse.

On the whole, the female-to-female dialogues show that female characters tend to pliability, uncategoricalness, unwillingness to conflict. Their speech contains plenty of modal constructions, expressing uncertainty or supposition, many indirect speech acts, requests disguised as statements, tag-questions, etc. The use of such means is due to the characters’ unwillingness to impose their views or wishes on their partners. The characters prefer mild uncategorical assessments and show reluctance to resort to criticism. In female-to-female conversations, excessively polite forms and constructions are not considered an obstacle to effective communication.

Overall, our material shows that male and female characters have different perceptions of what is considered polite or acceptable in an informal conversation. This concerns a speaker’s manner of choosing topics, making interruptions, expressing aggression, verbalizing one’s wishes, etc. by verbal and nonverbal means of communication. Because of the gender-related differences in the characters’ strategies, communicative behavior, found quite polite by one group can be seen as norm-breaking and impolite by the other group. Interpreting other communicants’ phrases within the listener’s own frame of reference and regardless of the speaker’s gender can result in misunderstanding. Thus, directness, persuasive manners, categorical speech, calm and reserved behavior of male characters can make the speakers appear abrupt, aggressive, authoritarian, imperceptive, demanding, etc. when communicating to female characters. At the same time, excessive politeness, indirectness, mildness, pliability, unwillingness to conflict that seem to be a norm of female characters’ speech can hamper communication with male characters, because these traits may be interpreted as vagueness, uncertainty, indecisiveness, inability to prove a point, etc.

However, when analyzing the selected dialogues, we found that more than a half of them (54%) could not be easily attributed to male or female characters if the character’s gender was not indicated in the text. In our estimation, about 19% of female-to-female informal dialogues show some traits of male characters’ speech. We think this figure can be due to individual speech traits of a given character or, more often, due to the parameters of the communicative situations in which these female-to-female dialogues take place. Most of these female characters experience various highly emotional states (fright, anger, happiness, desperation, etc.) that may confuse their speech patterns. As for the male characters, about 35% of their informal dialogues demonstrate a huge likeness to female-to-female dialogues. The male characters of these dialogues use speech patterns, more or less characteristic of female characters. The context shows that some of these irregularities (about 15%) are due to individual speech styles or to emotional state of a given male character. As for the rest of the male-to-male dialogues (20% of the total 100 dialogues of this group), we believe that these irregularities are due to other reasons than the characters’ gender identity.

It is important to note that gender is not the only cause for differences in the characters’ communicative behavior. As a rule, gender interacts with other biological and social characteristics of a person, such as age, nationality, race, character traits, educational level, occupation, etc. [Земская 1993]. The dialogues that we chose for this study are selected from American novels that reflect social values and moral imperatives, characteristic of American society. As researchers note [Стернин 2001], American culture belongs to the group of I-identity based cultures to which the highest values are independence, democracy, and respect for rights and liberties of an individual. Therefore, the norms of polite communicative behavior prescribe people to exercise tact, consideration for people’s privacy, noninvasiveness, benevolence, etc.

As the selected dialogues reflect cultural values of American society as a whole, we think that at least some portion of the dialogues demonstrates the general national traits of communicative behavior, thus shadowing the gender-related ones. Therefore, we may conclude that communicative behavior of the male characters in those 20 dialogues is due to the cultural imperatives rather than to their gender identity. The influence of these imperatives is better observed in the informal male-to-male dialogues, because the male characters’ norm of polite communication stands a bit further from the nation-wide norm if compared to that of the female characters.

Example #6. Two male characters, colleagues and friends, discuss some strange object that one of them noticed on his screen. There are only three people in the laboratory and the communicative situation is informal.

e.g. [man1] I think a ship is heading toward this asteroid.”

[man2] I think you’re wrong,” Brug said. “We don’t have grey ships.”

[man1] I know. [Smith 1996:165]

As one may see, the first man uses an introductory phrase (I think) to voice his opinion. In this case, I think indicates doubt and uncertainty that the character feels at the moment. His partner does not agree with the man’s assessment of the situation. He has a very good reason to believe that the other man is wrong (We don’t have grey ships), but still he begins his phrase by indicating some uncertainty by means of I think. Thus, he makes his disagreement less categorical, avoiding further argument and possible conflict. Instead of asserting himself, this man takes care of his partners self-esteem. His polite turn of a phrase and unimposing tactics allow the other man to correct himself without much damage to his manly image.

As this male-to-male dialogue shows, male can be as uncategorical and unwilling to impose their views on a partner as female characters often are. Criticism and bold negative assessments are avoided by means of using forms and constructions, expressing uncertainty or supposition.

Example #7. A group of officers is exploring an alien machine. A male character addresses his colleague and friend for information.

e.g. [man1] Spock, are you still out there?” McCoy’s voice sounded more exasperated than anxious. “If you are, could you please let us know what the blazes is going on?”

[man2] We have reached the control panel, Doctor, and are proceeding to analyze it.” [Graf 2002:150]

This piece of a dialogue shows the male character’s reluctance to use imperatives and impose his wishes on the other character. When asking for information, the first speaker also expresses his negative assessment of the situation in general and his communicative partner in particular. Nevertheless, even in his emotional state, he does not resort to an imperative such as tell me or answer me as demonstrated in Examples #2 and #3. Instead, this character utilizes a mild invective (the blazes) and makes an excessively polite indirect request (could you please let us know) that signals his displease. This combination is as binding as an imperative, but still it does not turn the request into a directive or an order that might threaten the addressee’s status.

According to some researchers [Ларина 2003], English-speaking communicants consider invectives less damaging and more preferable than imperatives. The use of an invective makes a request more directive, but it allows the speaker to avoid being too imposing and creates an illusion of free will on the part of the addressee.

Overall, the characters in the male-to-male dialogues in question tend to be indirect, uncategorical, and respectful for communicative partner’s independence and right of free choice. Unwilling to impose their wishes or views on a partner, they avoid criticism, negative assessments and show considerable respect for other character’s privacy. The characters also utilize polite clichés in order to minimize direct influence on a partner. Thus, we may say that male characters’ speech comes to resemble that of female characters, because the two gender groups share common social values and follow imperatives of American communicative culture in general.

To further illustrate this thesis, we may try to compare some aspects of communicative behavior of American and Russian communicants regardless their gender identity. Researchers note that American communicants are more indirect and less invasive [Стернин 2001]. They aim at minimum direct influence on a communicative partner and avoid violating other peoples’ right of free choice. At the same time, Russian communicants are known to be too direct, to criticize one’s partner “for his own good”, to give him advice and ask for pieces of personal information. Russian culture belongs to the group of collectivistic cultures, based on we-identity [Стернин 2001]. Due to their culture imperatives, Russian communicants value close relationship, cooperation, and interdependence more than liberty and free choice. Therefore, the principle of unity with one’s partner dominates the principle of politeness in Russian communicative culture. The need for unity explains people’s being inclined to excessive frankness, discussing private matter with a stranger, complaining and self-criticizing.

As a final note, we should say again that standards of polite communicative behavior are subject to much variation, and knowing this fact can spare communicants much misunderstanding.


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