Do you think that men are from Mars and women from Venus? Whether we do or not, recent research shows how the way we talk about men and women in everyday life keeps the gender division alive in our culture.
Elizabeth Stokoe analysed British talk data from a wide range of settings, including conversations during a date, radio broadcasts, helpline interactions and online texts. She focused first on replies to questions where speakers explicitly mentioned categories such as ‘guy’, ‘girl’, ‘woman’ or ‘man’. She noted the category that was used and then analysed what was said before and after the mention of the category. Over and over again she found that people first gave a description of a type of behaviour, then followed this with mention of the general category. So, in the first box, taken from an online forum for topics including ‘fashion, beauty, love and sex’, the first poster describes a problem in the texting behaviour of her current boyfriend. The second poster then proposes an account of the boyfriend’s actions in terms of a generalised category (you know what men are like). Together the two people posting have mentioned a range of activities that the second poster proposes as typical of the category of ‘men’. Her you know in you know what men are like proposes these activities as shared common knowledge. The three features description, categorization, and ‘present as common knowledge’ occurred in all the extracts she analysed.
These same three features also occurred in everyday stories. For example, in the second box speaker F is talking to a man on a speed date encounter. She has been describing herself as a ‘big tennis fan’ who also plays a lot of tennis. She formulates two phrases that use gender categories to characterise her engagement with the game. First, she ties the activity of being ‘addicted to golf’ to a lot of men. Second, she formulates what she presents as a typical woman’s reaction to her partner’s addiction (“ooh I’m a golfing widow”). By using you know, she proposes that M shares the common knowledge about how women typically react when men’s extreme sporting activities lead to their wives being left alone. Here, though, F locates herself within the same category as men who are addicted to sport, swapping golf for tennis and warning that her partner may be left as a tennis widow in her own relationships – in other words, she is not a typical woman in this regard.
By analysing examples of this kind Stokoe reveals ‘what counts’ as gendered behaviour in our culture. The activities and behaviour that get tied to gender categories such as ‘man’ or ‘woman’ include, for men, making the first move in a relationship, being casual in relationships, being reluctant to go to the doctor and being addicted to sport. Women, on the other hand, typically nag and wind men up, and are not typically addicted to sport. By presenting these descriptions tied to categories as common knowledge, differences between men and women are presented as taken for granted, and legitimised. The common knowledge part of the sequence is often delivered with a laugh or a smiley tone of voice, allowing the speaker to present the description as clearly recognizable cultural knowledge.
Of course, interlocutors can, and sometimes do, dispute the descriptions. Nevertheless the fact that data from a range of very different settings all contain the same three part combination shows how we construct our social world through language and, in this case, keep alive the idea that men and women belong in distinct cultural and social categories.
Stokoe, Elizabeth (2012) ‘You know how men are’: Description, categorization and common knowledge in the anatomy of a categorial practice. Gender and Language 6: 233-255.
This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire