WSTC28 – W3
The two-culture theory
- Also known as
o The cultural difference approach
o The difference approach
- Associated with Maltz and Borker (1982)
o The first to conceptualize the two-culture approach to sex differences
in speech and its impact on male-female miscommunication.
The two-culture theory: Maltz & Borker
- Methodology Meta-analysis of previous work on male/female linguistic
- Takes a cultural approach to sex differences in speech
- Based on Gumperz’s (1982) framework for studying problems in interethnic
o miscommunication between different ethnic groups arises because
of incompatible norms of interaction.
o Girls have their own communication style than boys, so there can be
miscommunication between them
o “We prefer to think of the difficulties in both cross-sex and cross-ethnic
communication as two examples of the same phenomenon: cultural
difference and miscommunication (1982:196).
Linguistic differences and miscommunication between men
and women are compared with inter-ethnic communication
- John Gumperz (1977, 1978, 1979, Gumerz et al 1977)
o Examined interactions between English-English and Indian-English
speakers in Britain
o Found differences in cues led to systematic miscommunication
between the two groups/
o Differences in cultural inference
o Conversation is a negotiated activity. Progresses in large part because
of shared assumptions about what is going on.
Gumperz (1977) “The gravy example”
- Indian women working at a cafeteria used falling intonation for questions “do
you want gravy” vs. the rising intonation characteristic in English.
- To English-English speakers falling intonation didn’t signal a question but
a statement which they interpreted as inappropriate and extremely rude
Advantage of Gumperz’ approach
- “…it does not assume that problems are the result of bad faith, but
rather…the result of individuals wrongly interpreting cues according to their
own rules.” (1982:201) Minimal responses in Cultural difference approach
- Positive minimal response ‘yes’ and ‘mm hmm’ have different meanings for
men and women lead to miscommunication
o For women: “I am listening, please continue”
o For men: “I agree with you” or “I am following you’re argument so far”
- differences in use of minimal responses are explained:
o for women indicate they are listening
o For men Indicate they are agreeing
Separate rules for conversational maintenance come into conflict and cause massive
- Different rules lead to different repeated misunderstanding:
o This explains common complaints in male-female interaction
o (1) men who think that women are always agreeing with them and
then conclude that it’s impossible to know what women really think
o (2) women who get upset with men who never seem to be listening
- To what extent does it seem reasonable to you to compare communication
between women and men with interethnic communication?
The two-culture theory: Main claims
- women and men come from different sociolinguistic subcultures
- the rules for informal interaction are acquired during the period of childhood
and adolescence (ages 5-15) where boys and girls socially interact and play
primarily with peers of their own group.
- Differing activities and social norms of girls’ and boys’ peer groups teach girls
and boys different rules for talking
- the rule of interaction that are acquired in childhood and adolescence are
carried over to adulthood.
- Girls learn to do 3 things with words
o To create and maintain relationships of closeness of equality
o To criticize others in acceptable ways, and
o To interpret accurately the speech of other girls.
- Boys learn to do 3 things with words
o To assert one’s position of dominance
o To attract and maintain an audience
o To assert oneself when other speakers have the floor.
Difference/cultural theory - Gender differences in the talk of children and adolescents which show that
girls’ talk is cooperative and boys talk is competitive are similarly observed
in the speech of women and men.
hence the idea by Cultural difference proponents that the rules for
informal interaction that are acquired during the period of childhood and
adolescence are carried over to adulthood.
Women’s speech (female-to-female speech)
- use and expect signs of engagement (minimal responses, nods)
- use of personal and inclusive pronouns (you and we)
- use interjecting comments or questions during a speaker’s turn (signs of
interest and attention)
o There were many interruptions in women’s talk but Interruptions we
not seen as attempts to grab the floor but were interpreted as signs of
support and interest
o It is a sign of that you are paying attention to something. In some
cultures it is rude not to do it. If you don’t overlap it is considered
rude, but somewhere else it is considered rude to overlap.
- Women don’t dismiss what the last speaker says, they acknowledge and
respond to what has been said
- Continuity in conversation and elaboration:
o Women tend to build on the previous topic or link it to whatever they
say during their turn, they tend to talk about something that’s parallel
Men’s speech (male-to-male speech)
- Maltz & Borker note great similarities between men of different subcultures
in their patterns of friendly interaction
o urban Blacks,
o urban blue-collar whites, and
o rural Newfoundalanders
- They point to the same 3 features found among the boys:
o Story-telling (narratives, such as jokes and stories are highly valued)
o Arguing (loud and aggressive arguments: they include shouting,
wagering, name-calling and verbal threats)
o Verbal posturing (practical jokes, challenges, put downs, insults, and
other forms of verbal aggression accepted as normal among
What happens in cross-sex conversation
- Women and men have different cultural rules for friendly conversation
these rules come into conflict in mixed sex interaction.
- In other words, miscommunication and misunderstanding is likely to occur
when women and men try to talk to each other as friends and equals in
casual conversation Miscommunication in mixed-sex interaction