Language and Gender Differences in Computer-Mediated Communication. An Analysis in German Newsgroups

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

26 Pages, Grade: 2




1. Relationship between Language and Gender offline
1.1 Questions and tags
1.2 Interruptions and overlaps
1.3 Interactional styles

2. Research on gender and CMC
2.1. Participation
2.2 Social interaction online - interactional styles
2.3 The use of emoticons

3. Investigating gender differences in German newsgroups
3.1 Hypotheses
3.3 Results
3.3.1 Participation
3.3.2 Interactional styles
3.3.3. The use of emoticons

4. Conclusion

5 References

6 Appendix


As the internet, with its ever-growing number of internet users, is becoming increasingly influential in our society the ways of interacting online are also growing in importance. Many users seem to believe that the internet is a medium where they are able to communicate freely regardless of their appearance, social status or their gender. As a result computer mediated communication (CMC) should differ greatly compared to face-to-face communication, because of the possibility of staying anonymous and not revealing one’s true identity. This would lead one to think that women and men can participate equally online i.e. in chat rooms and newsgroups as their true gender is invisible to other users.

However, gender differences are in fact very much present in the online-world, as men and women do behave differently when communicating online. Even though internet usage of men and women nowadays is quite balanced (US women even outnumber US male internet users), men still seem to be the dominant part in newsgroups and chat rooms, using certain strategies to control the female user. Thus, other internet users can often identify the user’s gender by analysing his/her communicative style, meaning that the gender-influenced inequality also exists online.

Therefore, in the following, I will try to outline the interaction of gender and communicative style in newsgroups to find out whether men and women actually follow different strategies when trying to communicate their point of view and whether there is a difference between anonymous newsgroups and newsgroups in which one’s identity is revealed. Also I will try to find out whether there are differences between English-speaking and German-speaking newsgroups by comparing existing research with a study I conducted in German-speaking newsgroups.

In order to get an understanding of this one has to take a closer look at the differences in women’s, as well as men’s, interactional styles and communication strategies used offline, as well as online, to see if (and how) men dominate communication in general, and thus create an inequality in “real world” as well as the online-world.

1. Relationship between Language and Gender offline

During the 1960s and 70s various studies investigating the relationship between gender and language variations, emerged. One of these researches was done by Robin Lakoff who argued that the differences between men’s and women’s language run deep. She stated that by using super polite forms of speech, tag question and frequent use of adjectives women put themselves in a position of weakness and show insecurity, as these conversational forms are marked by powerlessness (Lakoff 1975).

Men, on the other hand, use a direct and confident interactional style which demonstrates the dominant part in conversations. As mentioned by Sarah Mills (2003:165) this early research was very important as it raised an awareness for the differences in women’s and men’s language use and its effects on behaviour and inequality in power relations. Thus, her research could be described as ground-breaking in these days. This research was followed by a variety of other researches mainly concerning dominance and difference (Fishman 1978, Zimmerman/West 1975, Holmes 1998)

1.1 Questions and tags

Lakoff’s theory could not hold up though, Pamela Fishman (1978), building on this research, found out by taping conversations of three couples that women’s use of questions is in fact not a sign of their insecurity, but a way to facilitate the conversation and keeping it going. Or as she put it women have to do the “interactional shitwork” by using questions, minimal responses and attention getters to start or keep up a conversation. However, she believed that this shows the way in which men control the talk, because men do not do any “work” to facilitate the conversational flow.

Also Lakoff’s findings on tag questions cannot stay uncommented. Tag questions (e.g. “The weather is awful, isn’t it” “Their daughter is beautiful, isn’t she?” ) cannot merely be seen as a sign of insecurity and uncertainty they could also be used as a way to express politeness. Janet Holmes’ research (1992, 319) in fact said that 61% of tags used by men express uncertainties compared to only 35% of women’s tag questions. Women mainly use tags in order to facilitate conversation (59%) compared to only 26% of men. Holmes (1992) interprets this data as showing that women’s use of tag questions clearly expresses a way of being more polite and suggestive than men who, on the other hand, are assertive.

1.2 Interruptions and overlaps

Interruptions are another linguistic feature that generally expresses impoliteness. Thus, one would believe that men, who are seen as being more assertive interrupt more often. Interruptions are considered to be a violation of the social rule and unwritten rules of conversation. LaFrance (1992) believes these interruptions are however, much more than merely violating a social rule, she suggests that:

“Their occurrence not only affects our assessment of the individuals involved but also confirms or contravenes established social statuses” (1992, 497).

Early research by Zimmerman and West reported that men seem to interrupt a conversation more often than women, especially in cross-sex conversations (Zimmerman/West 1975:115). Their study showed that in cross sex interactions the male speaker interrupted the conversation 46 times whereas the female speaker only interrupted twice. Thus, more than 95% of interruptions are caused by men. Compared to a same-sex conversation of two males where the first speaker interrupted 4 times and the second only 3 times. The same applies to overlaps, where the men’s talk made up all of the occurring overlaps. This shows a clear imbalance in gender-power relations, where men seem to be the ones dominating the talk.

This idea of power distribution is also visible in other research which shows that the person of higher status interrupts more often than the less influential person (LaFrance 1992:499). LaFrance says that this power imbalance is even legitimised by society:

“ The higher power person is freer to interrupt a person possessing lower power and to expect that they themselves will not be interrupted by the lower power person.” (1992:499)

This would lead to the conclusion that men are believed to be of higher status than women, therefore making it legitimate for men to interrupt a woman in a conversation whereas women are not meant to be interrupting, since being in an inferior position. This “legitimisation of society” is also emphasised in certain phrases such as “talk like a lady” etc. which convey the idea, that women are meant to act a certain way, as it is believed to be this way by society. Also Dale Spender emphasises this idea saying that women who talk like men are often judged as being unfeminine and rude, even though the same style is appropriate for men (Spender 1980)

1.3 Interactional styles

In order to be more effective in staying in this position of power, there has to be a certain difference between men’s and women’s language use as a whole. The use of interruptions and the lack of asking questions applied by men cannot be the only means of being in a superior position when it comes to communication. Therefore, there has also been research on competitiveness, politeness and, in general, topics of conversation applied by men and women in cross-sex conversations.

There seems to be the common believe that the topic of conversation differs greatly between men and women (Holmes 1995, Tannen 1991, 1995). Deborah Tannen (1995), for example, differentiates between rapport and report talk or, as Janet Holmes (1995) refers to it the affective and the referential function of language. Conversations that are about rapport describe the female interactional style and are characterised by the expression and the striving for solidarity and maintaining of friendships, thus they are not a form of conveying one’s own superior position or competing with the interlocutor. This study emphasises clearly women’s politeness, as they seem to be very cooperative and supportive in same-sex conversations striving for harmony in interactions.

Holmes also emphasises this idea of women being more polite than men by saying that “Politeness is an expression of concern for the feelings of others” (Holmes, 1995:4). And this she describes is part of the female interactional style which she characterises as follows:

“ Most women enjoy talk and regard talking as an important means of keeping in touch, especially with friends and intimates. They use language to establish, nurture and develop personal relationships. Men tend to see language more as a tool for obtaining and conveying information” (1995:2)

On the other hand, conversations for men are about report (Tannen 1995). They keep their distance from personal, human issues and tend to choose topics that emphasise their status providing information or demonstrating their knowledge and competing with the same-sex interlocutor. Thus, this would mean that men are less polite, as they do not express solidarity towards their interlocutors. Men also seem to be more talkative in groups i.e. the public sphere whereas women’s talk belongs to the private sphere, as they do not need to display themselves (Tannen 1991).

However, it is difficult to determine whether these interactional styles and the forms of speech of either men and women can be said to be more polite than the other, as it is not just linguistic features, topics of discussion or the expression of concern etc. that determine politeness. It is difficult to judge whether or not an utterance is polite by merely analysing linguistic features (Mills 2003:2) and disregarding the cadence. However, Holmes study (1995) also investigated the use of compliments, which can be clearly seen as a way to express politeness and found out that between women more than half of the compliments were shares, whereas between men almost no compliments were shared. So it seems that men and women have different ideas of how to signal friendliness.

In conclusion, one can say, that the differences between women and men in discourse are quite significant, with each gender using different ways of communicating their ideas, either using the referential/informative or the affective style. However, one has to consider that this rough outline of interactional styles does not take into account ethnicity and social factors, which may let one come to a very different conclusion than the studies mentioned above, as interactional styles might vary considerably.

The studies above make very clear though that men dominate the discourse, however is this also the case when communication occurs online? How do men act out their dominance in newsgroups and chat-rooms as things such as interruptions cannot occur in newsgroups? Are the differences in the writing style so considerable so that users are able to guess the other users gender? The next part will look at prior research on gender and CMC in more detail.

2. Research on gender and CMC

Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) can be broadly described as a support for human communication via two or more networked computers (Santoro: 1995). Looking at the term in a more narrow sense it only includes communication via emails, chat rooms and newsgroups.

2.1. Participation

Because all of these forms of communication are text-based the user might be fooled in thinking his/her identity is hidden leading to gender equality online, as was claimed in earlier research (Graddol, Swann:1989). Or can one actually say that participation on the internet is equally distributed with an equal proportion of female and male users? A research by Graddol and Swan in 1989 attempted to show gender-equality by analysing participation in newsgroups. However, it also proved that participation numbers are not balanced. They analysed a trial run of staff members of the Open University in Britain using CMC distance-learning facilities. The results showed that women’s participation was almost equal to men’s. However, when the distance-learning facilities were released for students’ use, women’s participation became very low.

Apart from these researches gender and CMC were not really a topic of discussion before the 1990s (Herring 2003:205). This was due to the low participation of women on the internet before that time. However, even though the number of female internet users had risen in the 1990 a research by Gladys We in 1993 showed that men still were the dominant part in CMC, dominating even feminist newsgroups that at first glance should seem to attract women rather than men. However, in two of the three newsgroups she investigated women were very outnumbered, with around 80% of users being male. The third group, which was a moderated one, had a male participation rate of 40%. This idea of male domination in CMC is also emphasised by Kramarae and Taylor (1992) as they believe that in any network men monopolise the talk.

Interestingly, it was also found that newsgroup-posts by men generated a lot more responses by both men and women than posts generated by women (Herring 1993). This might be another hint to why women do not participate equally, as topics that are of interest to them, are not discussed by the group, but rather ignored or at least not generating a lot of responses. This again might be a demonstration of male dominance online, as women are being discouraged to participate as their post is being ignored.

More recent research also states that the lack of women’s participation in newsgroups might also be due to the fact that women are more likely to be harassed than men or men, in general, trying to discourage women from participating by using harsh or aggressive language (Herring, 1996).

More research has been done on this topic, but mostly with similar outcomes. However, how exactly do men dominate and monopolise women’s participation in newsgroups etc. by merely using a different communicative style. As mentioned above, the interactional style between men and women differs greatly in offline interaction, but does it differ in online interaction also?

2.2 Social interaction online - interactional styles

Research conducted by Susan Herring (1994) conveys very clearly the same idea as mentioned in part 1.3 that is that men and women use very different styles to communicate, similarly online. Herring suggests that:

“The male style is characterized by adversariality: put-downs, strong often contentious assertions, lengthy and/or frequent postings, self-promotion, and sarcasm.”(Herring 1994:3)

Whereas the female style is described by her as being supportive and attenuated. Women seem to be acting the same way as offline, striving for solidarity and trying to establish friendships, by thanking, making other users feel welcome and appealing to the group (Herring 1994). They also seem to be asking more questions, expressing doubt and agreeing to others’ ideas openly. Also women seem to be more interested in stating their own opinion and talking about their own experiences. Thus, much the same as could be seen in offline interactions.

The style used by men is very different to the women’s style. As is also the case offline, men seem to be more interested in stating facts, gathering information and in general maintaining a critical stance but not talking about personal issues (Herring 1994).

As already mentioned above, they are more likely to use the adversarial style often using strong or even rude language. This is also referred to as flaming and describes aggressive or vulgar language used in newsgroups or emails. The use of such an aggressive interactional style might be due to the fact that it is not a face-to-face situation in which people might resort to a totally different style as this sort of behaviour could have consequences in the “real world”. But since people seem to feel anonymous on the net this language seems to be acceptable and perceived as normal by users. However, this is due to the different perception of values by men and women as stated by Herring (1994). Women seem to feel the need to cater or express sympathies for the wants and needs of other users, whereas men see greater importance in their right to express what they feel is right; expressing their opinion forthright and direct. Therefore men are much more likely to resort to flaming than women are.


Excerpt out of 26 pages


Language and Gender Differences in Computer-Mediated Communication. An Analysis in German Newsgroups
University of Frankfurt (Main)
Language and Gender
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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520 KB
CMC, language, gender, analysis, computer-mediated communication, interaction, interactional styles, communication, online, offline
Quote paper
Anja Benthin (Author), 2007, Language and Gender Differences in Computer-Mediated Communication. An Analysis in German Newsgroups, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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