Gender and professional communication: The role of feminine style in multilingual workplaces


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Since the pioneering study on women's language by Lakoff (1975), a great number of studies have been conducted on women's style of speaking and the difference from men's, especially in relation to English. One general claim widely made in the 1980s and 1990s was that women were more co-operative conversationalists and more sensitive to the face-wants of others (Maltz and Borker 1982; Coates 1996; Holmes 1995; Tannen 1990). While there has been controversy as to whether there is such an entity as 'women's language', spoken by all and only by women, the notion of women's language has become a popular belief held by the general public. And, as women's language represents a normative form of how women are expected to speak, it acts as a symbolic 'meaning resource' (Cameron 1997, 2000; Ochs 1993). In other words, the meaning potentials associated with women's language provide speakers, within a particular community of practice, with a resource that they can draw upon to produce and interpret utterances. In this chapter, linguistic and prosodic characteristics typically associated with normative women's ways of speaking are referred to as feminine style of speech or feminine speech. Following the social construction paradigm (e.g. Crawford 1995; Hall and Bucholtz 1995; Kendall and Tannen 1997; Johnson and Meinhof 1997), a feminine style of speech is viewed as a resource or strategy that many women tend to employ for specific ends. By creating a particular persona through the use of feminine speech, speakers create alignments with others to get things done. Within this perspective, individual speakers are seen as active producers of gendered identities rather than as passive reproducers of fixed gendered behaviour (Kendall and Tannen 1997, 94-5). A feminine style of speech in English invokes complex, often negative, associations such as demureness, deference, and a lack of power or influence (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2003; Lakoff 1975). Feminine style therefore often poses problems in professional contexts. For example, a broad pitch range, often seen as characteristic of women's speech, is associated with qualities such as being overemotional and lacking in authority. It was therefore avoided by Margaret Thatcher, for example (Cameron 2000, 443). However, more recent studies have shown that a feminine style of speech can in fact be a useful means of conducting professional communication, given different professional roles and contexts. For example, a study by Cameron (2000) on language used by service workers in seven call centres in Britain demonstrated that linguistic and prosodic features typically associated with women's ways of speaking (e.g. a broad pitch range, questions showing empathy, and frequent use of backchannels to show understanding) provide a useful resource for projecting warmth, sincerity, excitement, friendliness, helpfulness, and confidence. Projection of these affective qualities is felt by service workers to be important for the fulfilment of role expectations. Additionally, Holmes and Schnurr (2006) have examined interactions in white New Zealand workplaces. They found that feminine style as evidenced by, for example, the frequent use of hedges and mitigations, can be an effective linguistic device in specifically 'feminine workplaces'. That is, it facilitates professionals who directly deal with clients, social issues or education in workplaces which are people-oriented. Indexing femininities such as 'considerate' and 'affective' in such communities of practice is seen as conducive to fulfilling certain professional roles such as that of manager. However, using a feminine style is said to be likely to evoke a less positive response in 'masculine workplaces' which are more task oriented, for example IT companies and manufacturing organizations. Recent research has therefore suggested that the feminine style of speech invokes certain kinds of femininities. However, while an increasing amount of research is being conducted on the role of a feminine style of speech for professional communication, its scope tends to be limited to English and to monolingual contexts. Relatively little is known about languages other than English or multilingual contexts. Piller and Pavlenko (2001) pointed out that there has been widespread monolingual bias in the research field of language and gender. They emphasize the need for placing language and gender studies within multilingual contexts to enable researchers to bring new dimensions to the interplay between gender and other social factors. For example, such a move may uncover complex ways in which gender is interrelated with power, social status, native/non-native speaker status, a speaker's degree of proficiency in the more prestigious language, or the degree of acculturation to the majority culture (Piller and Pavlenko 2001, 32-7; see also Piller and Pavlenko 2004). The present chapter, therefore, explores the role of a feminine style of speech for professional communication in an Asian language in a multilingual context. Specifically, it investigates the role of a feminine style of Japanese by female Hong Kong professionals who use Japanese in intercultural work contexts. Of particular interest is whether the desire to index femininities is the main goal of speakers, or whether other factors are involved in influencing the use of a feminine style of speech in multilingual professional contexts.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProfessional Communication
Subtitle of host publicationCollaboration between Academics and Practitioners
PublisherHong Kong University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9789888052677
ISBN (Print)9789622099654
Publication statusPublished - 2009

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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