Grandma’s got her Green Skirt on

Gendered Language:  A review of past and current thinking. (The Long Read)

Answering the questions:

  1. Why does grandma do so much of the family remembering?
  2. Why does grandma make such oblique requests?

By asking my contributors about their grandmothers as well as their mothers and themselves, the timescale of my research spans the whole of the twentieth century, to the beginning of twenty-first. Linguistic research began and developed over the same time. I am interested because the study of speech patterns, in particular the difference between men and women’s speech, comes up in my interviews. Grandma is different to Grandpa and the language we used with our children is one thing but is it the same as the language we use with our grandchildren or the partners of our children?

Our generation was taught how to express ourselves in the fifties and sixties and we retain those speech patterns. Our children and grandchildren have different ones. If I look at the subject of how we converse from a woman’s perspective. There are two angles. From the inside, there is the difference in how women speak compared to men, and from the outside, the words used to describe us. It is useful to grasp these differences, because they maintain hierarchies, sexism, and support a male/female division. (Lakoff:1975).

We learn our place in the world through our parenting, education, religion, media, and workplaces because as Simone de Beauvoir said in The Second Sex, ‘We are not born a woman, we become one’. We act out a performance being a woman. Of course it depends in what context our behaviour was formed. I remember in the seventies, here in the Anglosphere where we all live, (the countries that support a cultural heritage that comes from England).  it was still regarded as wild behaviour to say to a boy… ‘Would you like to go out for a drink?’ One had to wait to be asked, and we were told we risked emasculating a man if we said, ‘I’ll pay’.

‘Men talk and women listen.’ That’s pretty well how it was up to the time of

that accelerated push towards equality in the 1970s.

Last week I was I thrilled to see that the New York Member for the House of Representatives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stood up to the bullying tones of male dominance. ‘So many times I haven’t bothered to argue back,’ she said, ‘it was never worth it, but this time I decided to respond’.

There have been some good examples of women straight talking, and men listening on the media. I see there is a woman cricket commentator for the Test Match, and great female journalists and newsreaders, not reporting on children and baking, are being listened to. It’s a long time since Nancy Astor uttered this putdown when provoked:

 ‘Yes, we women do talk too much, and even then, we don’t tell you half of what we know’.

I think we are agreed though, there are still differences between us, and more understanding of the complications held within language would be helpful. Helpful to us as a partner, employer, employee, mother, daughter, and of course grandma.

The first scholarly work about the differences between men and women’s speech was in 1922 when Otto Jespersen wrote a chapter about women’s language. His idea was that a woman’s language was deficient compared to men’s. Deficient, I say that again, in case you didn’t hear me.

In 1975, when we grandmothers were already grown up, we remember awkward sexist conversations in workplaces, or even within the family while we were raising children. At work we endured the old assumptions about us being there to take the notes or get the coffee. We smiled and as expected crossed our legs demurely as well as we could in our short skirts.  At home we managed husbands, who negotiated the two worlds of work and family. Robin Lakoff, a woman linguist observed us and wrote ‘Language and the Woman’s Place’. … (I only feel the need to define her as a woman linguist in this context, because she spells Robin with an i). She expanded the subject of the differences in gender speech.

‘Women,’ she said, ‘feel it is crucial to be liked by their peers’, and she described a woman’s register, where women used ‘weak’ directives: ‘Would you mind taking these to the photocopier, thank you SO much’. Men she says, use a report style to the point, Take these to the photocopier. She describes this style as ‘rapport style’, designed to build and maintain relationships, not just get the job done.  There are additional phrases women use, that are referred to as hedging, like ‘I’d like to suggest’ or ‘if you don’t mind me saying’ and tags on the ends of sentences like ‘isn’t it? Or couldn’t you?’ that soften the instructions.  At the time of the woman’s liberation movement, Lakoff was not only looking at the way women were expected to speak, but also the way in which women were spoken of, at the time.  Some ways are subtle such as women being referred to as Miss or Mrs when men were only referred to as Mr. which contains no marital marker. The Ms was invented at that time to get around that male dominance.

Even if we are mostly comfortable with the status quo, because we are used to it, differences matter, because language, as Lakoff observed, is linked to assumptions and social hierarchies. Take ‘sir’ for instance, is there a female equivalent? No because it dates from a time when all authority was male, so there was no need for an alternative.

Why should we worry?

These dividing words are subtle, and we become accustomed to them. However the words we choose maintain our social standards, as well as supporting power relations and gender oppression.  The other day, a retired friend, a skilled conversationalist, said she was still getting used to having her engineer husband at home all the time. She told me that marital difficulty around everyday conversations was getting more aggravating:

 ‘I have to constantly remind myself’, she said to me, ‘his remarks are literal, not critical’. ‘For instance when he says to me’, ‘I see you’ve got your green skirt on’. He is stating a fact, observing, that I am wearing green skirt. He might even be pleased he has thought of something to say about my fashion choice. Meanwhile I am reading other things into the remark. That is the skirt I don’t like, I imagine he is thinking, or, that’s not a nice skirt, why did you decide to wear that skirt today? Or even why a skirt today at all?

I feel uncomfortable, go back upstairs and change the skirt. I come down again, and he says, I see you’ve changed your skirt…’

A popular book ‘You Just Don’t Understand’, (Tannen: 1990) written by a Deborah Tannen a teacher, was so well received by women in the 90s, the author toured America with it. A precursor to ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’, women felt the book offered answers to the vexing question of miscommunication between the sexes. Its success showed there was a need for unravelling the baffling linguistic differences between men and women. Differences that didn’t seem to be logical or acceptable when there was so much equality in other areas.

More scholarly works, some from Dale Spender and Deborah Tannen followed.

We learned more about the subject of gendered speech patterns. Differences between men and women’s language use, and gendered performance continued to be observed and measured. Women listen they reported, because they have been encouraged to accommodate a partner in a conversation. It was shown that men dominate conversations in public even when they know less about the subject than the female they are talking to. They are typically less chatty at home in the domestic situation though. This was and continues to be frustrating for women especially I note, from my interviews, after retirement. Deborah Tannen (Tannen:1990) explained that outside the home, men are establishing status. They have no need to do that at home. 

Women want to discuss the potential for the day ahead, the family birthdays, the perceived worries about a family phone-call, the man wants to read or hear the news in peace. (I am generalising of course, but I think this will resonate with most of you).

It has been shown by the research of Bruce Dorval (Dorval:1990) that in a conversation, women interrupt less, and encourage the other person to continue. Small ‘mms and a-ha’s help that. Men’s subjects tend to be more abstract and less personal, and I think we know that from our long experience. Men also say ‘that reminds me’ or ‘by the way’ more often he reports, so as to change the subject. The woman more often adds comments, that allow the same subject to extend. If she disagrees, she might say little at that moment, because she more interested in creating a rapport with the speaker. She is learning about this person, is taking mental notes and will consider a counter argument later. Dale Spender (Spender:1985) says the woman is being subordinate at this point, the male is dominating.

In sociology we have been informed about the ‘female mental load’, where the wife/mother/grandmother holds current past and future family issues in her head. I am generalising again, but it is a familiar pattern that ‘she’ devises a complicated intertwined plan which she works away at. When help from ‘he’ is offered, as in: ‘Let me know if there is anything I can do’, it only adds to the load because most jobs have to be defined and described before they can be done. Then we are into the ‘It’s quicker to do it myself’ scenario adopted by many.  In 2012, Arlie Hochschild, in her book, The Managed Heart, describes what she calls, ‘emotional labour’. This is where the jobs of active listening, conflict resolution, and keeping people happy, are managed with a demeanour that is different to how she the person is feeling. Some professions require it, like airline stewards or nurses. Men can of course may adopt it, but in general, (again sorry), research tells us, woman use it consistently. Conversations where there is more listening and nurturing, is usually used by women. However now this rapport method is being used in call centres for a more efficient way of defraying complaints and sorting out problems, when there are no visual clues. Traditionally a female job, customer service employees are now often male. They are being taught to show empathy, keep the calls expressive in tone, but efficiently short.

Deborah Cameron tells us in her book The myth of Mars and Venus, ‘There’s no need to feel bad about the differences, it is just miscommunication’. Good to hear.

‘There are problems with dominance and difference’, she continues ‘but it is more useful to consider the two ways as differential power. For example a roundabout question beginning, with ‘I wonder if you had thought of doing so and so, can be as successful as a direct command. It’s still dominance, but by a longer route’. I think intuitively, we already knew that.

So, the current thinking is that no one needs to feel awful, there are no real conflicts, just differences that achieve the same goals. I have enjoyed looking at the dynamics and the evolving understanding of this convoluted linguistic behaviour because it casts more light on the experience of being a woman and especially grandma, because there are more delicate extensions of our family to negotiate. By the way, I shall have to tell my friend that the green skirt (see above) is lovely but might not be the best choice. I can’t say clearer than that, obviously, because I am a woman.

Please do send your own gendered language anecdotes to share.


Cameron, Deborah, The myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak differently (Oxford university Press 2008).

De Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949).

Hochchild Arlie, The managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (University of California Press 2012)

Dorval, Bruce, Conversational organization and its development, (Advances in Discourse Practices Volume XXXV111 (1990).

Norward New Jersey).

Jespersen, Otto, Language: its nature, development and origin (Hamlin Press 2013 [1922]).

Lakoff, Robin, Language and Women’s Place (New York: Oxford University Press 2004 [1975])

Spender, Dale, Man-made language.  (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1985).

Tannen, Deborah, You just don’t understand: Women and Men in Conversation. (New York Morrow, 1990).

Published by marycane

A PhD student at the Elphinstone Institute Aberdeen Scotland. I am studying the experience of being a contemporary grandmother. In particular I am interested in how those grandmothers, whose family live far away, are passing on their family history.

One thought on “Grandma’s got her Green Skirt on

  1. This writing made me think of how all language has changed since I was born in the 1950s. As a young working woman, I expected to hear (and I’m afraid I was not offended by) sexist jokes and disparaging remarks about women because that is the language I grew up with. It may seem unfortunate to some, but that was how it was. I am happy things are changing, but so slowly! We push on . . . .


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