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Gender and Politeness Essay

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Updated: Dec 17th, 2019

The style of talking significantly reveals one’s gender as well as his/her degree of courtesy. Over the years, many researchers have carried out various researches concerning gender and politeness. There seems to exist a specific style of speech or rather terminologies that people associate to either men or women.

Such terminologies further define one’s level of politeness. According to Mills (2000, p.20) “politeness in gender involves the evaluations, which people engage in through their conversations.” Gender is one of the variables that influence interpretations and some production of linguistic politeness. A person exhibits the level of politeness through the language he/she employs.

For instance, the linguistic symbols of a person significantly illustrate his/her levels of courtesy. Mills (2000, p.34) argues that “politeness cannot be understood from mere utterances of the person or any choices or options made by a single individual but rather as a complex process involving strategies and sets of practice that communities practices.”

These strategies are contested, affirmed and individuals within these communities must be engaged in order to know their own positions and behaviors within their various groups. As the paper unfolds, there exist a strong positive correlation between one’s language and his/her level of courtesy, which further varies based on gender.

Language and Politeness

The level to which a woman portrays courtesy differs significantly when compared to that of men. Language formulation/production and interpretation is also an important aspect when it comes to gender and politeness (Bergvall 1996, p.21). The way society engages in socialization and their language plays a greater part in the question of politeness.

Therefore, circumstances and situations in which people are, to a greater extent play a function in the way they become. Their utterances and their actions towards their fellow colleagues will automatically depict or rather borrow from their way of upbringing.

For instance, as person who was brought up in a family or background where people heckled to each other, this behavior will be cultivated in him or her hence impacting on his/her behaviors and more specifically to his/her politeness.

Interactions and nature of talk in the society also has an effect on the level of politeness. Brown and Levinson’s model on politeness has provided a base line in the study of politeness over the years. In this model, the speaker in any interaction need to uphold to certain standards in his utterances in order to deal with any forces or potential threats in the ‘face’ of his hearers.

Brown and Levinson meaning or implication of “face”, a word coined by Goffman means self image of a person. Therefore, in any interaction speakers employs or uses words or language that would promote his self-image in the eyes of his hearers. Labov (1973, p.66) argues that ‘face’ should be emotionally invested, maintained, enhanced, and continuously attended since it may get lost”.

He refers the term a threat to an individual face as a face of threatening act declaring politeness as the only working remedy. Therefore, politeness (positive) is build by a speaker demonstrating some sense of closeness and showing affiliation like giving compliments and commending positively on issues that people or hearer find important to them. People cannot see or touch politeness.

However, it can be judged by others as a socially constructed norm in which a particular community or society practices. Therefore, when an individual goes against these practices of a society he or she must go through a judgment by the society based on his/her level of politeness. One can identify such “polite people through their utterance and communication full of complements” (Holmes 2006, p.5).

Language and Gender

The question of whether men show any differences in their conversational have sparked heated debate. Some argue that gender does not make any difference when it comes to politeness. However, others hold that some of these “differences are not universal as some of men may exhibit feminine conservational qualities and vice versa” (Chambers & Trudgill 1980, p.54).

To make the issues even more complex, the introduction of computer mediated communication like internet, email, chat on the internet, the issue of gender is of less importance as people are able to hide their identity. Some researchers have come up with their assumptions based on gender.

For instance, Tannen (1991, p.23) argues that “ women talk more than men and are more polite, cooperative as opposed to their male counterparts.” Furthermore, he points out men as authoritative in their conversations, dominating it and often interrupting one another.

Lakoff (1975, p.30) argues that women depict higher levels of politeness in their language and in most cases use polite words in most of their conversation as compared to their male counterparts. For instance, they use super polite forms of language like “would you mind …” “I appreciate for you’re…” and many others.

Furthermore, women are fond of using apologetic expressions in their interactions as opposed to their male counterparts. Some of the expressions they use include, “I m sorry, but I feel” among other phrases they like using. When it comes to complementing each other, Holmes (2006, p.32) argues, “…women compliment more as compared to their male counterparts.”

A compliment is a sign of politeness and consideration, appreciation of what someone has or is.

As previously noted, most compliments are associated with appearances for example “‘I like your dress’, ability or performance compliment like ‘woou you played awesome’, compliments relating to possessions like ‘I Like your new red car’ and compliments relating to personality like ‘I am lucky to be one of the chosen to head this commission’” (Holmes 1992, p.24).

In support of the fact that women seem complimented more often, a study carried in New Zealand portrayed 57% of women answerers as relating to appearance compliments compared to the 36% depicted by men. Viewed from a non-sarcastic perspective, the compliments seem no more than positive polite utterances acting as a way of satisfying the positive courteous intention or meaning of women.

Gender and Politeness

When it comes to gender and politeness, Labov (1973, p. 67) upholds the opinion of women as more polite and ones who never say “no” directly but rather say it indirectly as opposed to their male counterparts. For instance, some of the tactics they use include delaying in their response, employment of hedging expressions, using “of remarks” and by giving an acceptable reason for their lack of interest in certain issues.

Zimmermann & West Dominance model further supports the claim that men in most instances appear antagonistic in their application of language as opposed to their women counterparts who seem timid.

According to Holmes (1992, p.20), society expects women to exhibit acceptable behaviors, which see most girl children given much attention compared to the boy children who seem left to stay roguish sharing what they like.

Therefore, the society too expects them to demonstrate politeness in their use of language and in their conversations at large. As a result, they speak in a more standard form as opposed to male counterparts.

In addition, women stand out as subordinate groups and therefore they must demonstrate politeness avoiding offending the males by looking after their own face.

Gender usually develops from impressions and experiences from the society, which the people come from. Therefore, “…gender is not a possession or something that men and women develop, and perform” (Butler 1990, p.40). Therefore, one can best understand the issue of gender from a society field as illustrated through the people linguistics.

According to Tannen (1991, p.243), women are more positive when it comes to giving complements as opposed to their male counterparts. When talking to same sex peers, most of the women use positive courtesy schemes. Furthermore, politeness dominates a peer-to-peer interaction as opposed to interactions with other people or groups.

In addition, the study reveals that women apologize more often as compared to their male counterparts. This research therefore demonstrates to some degree how courtesy varies based on gender and further illustrating that women are likely to appreciate most often as opposed to women.

This politeness is because of the past socialization and upbringing where as they are socialized as role models and appreciative in all they do by the society.

Mills (2004, p.180) claims that, “politeness ought to enhance affirmation and act as a distinction of a person’s social position from the others” implying that politeness should be inherent rather that attaching it to the collective rank of people in the society. An individual’s politeness need not to function as his/her security mechanism but a tool for alleviating his/her social position.

Politeness is something that one can prove over along period. It does not come from the first appearance or utterance of the person but it must proof the test of time before its approval. This means that the community as a whole needs to approve someone’s politeness as opposed to individual level basis.

The meaning of politeness is also an issue that requires close attention as there might be conflict of what it means. The meaning of politeness may vary from one person to another due to different in situations, circumstances and socialization.


Based on the expositions of the paper, it seems evident that there are some differences when it comes to gender and politeness as reveals through the day-to-day interactions and the style of talking.

Nevertheless, it is not ample to base the argument on the male and female’s use of politeness strategies in their communication in their particular interactions but rather on the gendered domains like the community of practice and the apparent standards. It is also important for one to analyze closely how the people seem judged based on their utterances in order to get a clear understanding of what politeness really is.

Without proper consideration and analysis, the judgments may not hold any truth. Furthermore, the power of masculine and feminine strategies of speech needs consideration in the long run within the interactions of people on various issues. Understanding of community of practice is important since through it people can forge ahead and understand clearly the relationship between gender and politeness.

Reference List

Bergvall, V., 1996. Constructing and Enacting Gender through Discourse: Negotiating Multiple Roles as Female Engineering Students. Rethinking Language and Gender Research. Theory and Practice. Singapore: Longman.

Butler, J., 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London, Routledge.

Chambers, J., & Trudgill, P., 1980. Dialectology. Cambridge: University Press.

Holmes, J., 1992. Women’s talk in public contexts. Discourse and Society, 3(2): pp. 131-150.

Holmes, J., 2006. Gendered Talk at Work. Oxford: Blackwell.

Labov, W., 1973. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Pennsylvania: University Press.

Lakoff, R., 1975. Language and Woman’s Place. New York: Harper and Row.

Mills, S., 2000. Rethinking politeness, Impoliteness and Gender identity. Web.

Mills, S., 2004. Class: Gender and Politeness, Multilingua, 23(2), pp. 171-190.

Tannen, D., 1991. You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, London: Virago.

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