The power of speaking ladylike

April 24, 2007

Does gender make a difference in the way politicians speak and are spoken to? This is the question posed in a new study1 by Dr. Carmelia Suleiman and Daniel O'Connell from Florida International University published this week in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research. The study of transcripts of three television and two radio interviews of Bill and Hillary Clinton provided Suleiman with a unique opportunity to study perspectives of two politicians and their interviewers and whether or not they were affected by gender.

Conventional wisdom on gender and discourse considers that being a man or a woman is a matter of, among other things, talking like one2. The authors point out that often a layperson can tell by examining a transcript whether the person behind it is a man or a woman. Historically, women's language is the language of the non-powerful. However, many more women now occupy positions of power than previously and therefore may exhibit more "male" characteristics in communication than they used to. Therefore Hillary Clinton might be expected to speak more like Bill Clinton. But, even though Hillary Clinton is a politician herself, she still follows, to some extent, the historic designation of women's language as the language of the non-powerful.

In Suleiman's research, different markers were used to analyze and compare responses in interviews by the Clintons. These markers focused on what are seen as typically male or female language choices and habits in conversation. All interviews were carried out by the same interviewers and topics discussed at both interviews were similar.

The researchers found that Hillary and Bill Clinton did largely conform to their gender roles in the interviews, their language reflecting the historic power relation between men and women. On further analysis, however, it was noticed that many of the differences were attributable to who was doing the interview and their gender, rather than who was the interviewee. For example, as the interviewers increased their use of the phrase 'you know' (a typically female hedge), Hillary decreased her usage. Similarly, Hillary Clinton was called by her first name by male interviewers but never by female interviewers.

Although Dr Suleiman concludes that they cannot confirm or deny whether perspective is gendered, she states that "significant differences between male and female interviewers are to be found and are clearly traceable to personal perspective."

Although feminists may bristle at this demonstration that language perspectives retain a built-in social bias, it's not all bad. It is claimed that Hillary Clinton 'is such a fine teller of stories' that 'her rhetorical intervention may well have saved her husband's presidency'3. Obviously then, there are certain benefits to be had from being treated and speaking like a lady.
1. Suleiman C and O'Connell D (2007). Gender differences in the media interviews of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research (DOI 10.1007/s10936-007-9055-x).

2. Cameron D (1997). Theoretical debates in feminist linguistics: Questions of sex and gender. In R. Wodak (Ed), Gender and Discourse (pp 20-26). London: Sage Publications

3. Kelly CT (2001). The rhetoric of first lady Hillary Clinton: Crisis management discourse. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Full-text article is available to journalists as a pdf on request.


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