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Gender Differences In Politeness

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4405 words Published: 6th Jun 2017

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Nowadays the difference between men’s and women’s use of language is one of the most important research subjects among sociolinguistic scholars as a result of its importance in communication. Understanding the different communication patterns which women and men typically use assists interlocutors to reach to better understanding and finally to achieve effective communication. Numerous studies have been widely and deeply conducted to come to conclusion that women and men are dissimilar in the way of interacting and communicating in terms of minimal responses, turntaking, changing the topic of conversation and self-disclosure. As a noticeable feature in cross-gender communications, politeness has begun to draw a lot of interests from many researchers during the past forty years. Therefore, there has been an upsurge in discussions, seminars, journals and researches in such fields as word choice, syntax and intonation to portray how dissimilarly men and women use politeness strategies. It is a high likelihood that gender differences in polite behavior will lead to failure in cross-sex communication. So as to get effective communication, speakers need to understand verbally politic behavior in different genders well.

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There is a general agreement that women are more likely to use politeness patterns than men in their speech. Lakoff, one of the most significant pioneers in this issue, distinguishes women’s speech from men’s speech in these striking features including the use of words related to their interests, empty adjectives, question intonation, hedges, hypercorrect grammar and superpolite forms (1975, p. 53-55). Based on Lakoff’s commonsense beliefs and stereotypes about differences in the way of being polite between men and women in daily conversations, Montgomery concludes that “women’s speech is more polite than men’s” (1995, p. 151). This claim is supported by a great number of well-known empirical works.

There is a substantial body of evidence supporting the view that, in general, women’s linguistic behaviour can be broadly characterized as afliliative or cooperative, rather than competitive or control-oriented (Cameron (1985), Kalcik (1975), Smith (1985)) and as interactively facilitative and positive politeness-oriented (Holmes (1984b, 1986), Thorne, Kramarae and Henley (1983)) (as cited in Holmes, 1988, p. 451).

In fact, every study makes a marked contribution in building an assumption on the difference between men and women’s speech. In order to continue forming a clear sociolinguistic picture of gender differences in communications, this research is dedicated to a Vietnamese social setting. It will provide a profound study of whether female speakers are more polite than male speakers or not in foreign language centers. In this research, some linguistic politeness devices are focused to contribute to better understanding about dissimilarities in polite ways of talking between women and men.


Based on the theoretical study in politeness-related differences between males and females, this project uses the noticeable findings as a data elicitation procedure to investigate the following question:

To what extent do the male and female English learners from the foreign language center of Ho Chi Minh Technology University use similar or different politeness devices in daily conversations?


In this small-scale research, 50 male and 50 female speakers aged between 18 and 25 from the foreign language center are selected to answer some questions. The selection is carried out through the background questions in the first part of questionnaire given to 100 English learners at the foreign language center. All of chosen participants are native speakers of Vietnamese from different family, social and educational backgrounds. In details, the majority of objects are university students whose level is intermediate. They spend a lot of time studying English because they believe that a good command of English will provide a better chance of getting a good job in the future.


The questionnaire used as the instrument for this project contains 3 opened-ended questions and 3 closed-ended questions. The reason why the questionnaire is used and there is no interview is that they can have more time to think about the answer and give response naturally in English. Most importantly, in this way, they can avoid losing their face when they encounter some confusing situations.

First of all, the open-ended questions contain some common scenarios in day-by-day communication, namely making compliments and requests. In particular, every situation requires students to provide two responses in which one is for the same gender and the other is for the different sex. It is widely known that the level of politeness partly depends on many variables including age, social status, and relationship; therefore, two control settings are designed for aforementioned speech acts. Additionally, each part is set up to ask the participants to respond to friends or strangers. All the situations are divided into two main topics.

Topic 1: Situation in which participants give a compliment.

Topic 2: Situation in which participants ask a person to do a favor.

Secondly, in the closed questions participants are asked to rate the level of politeness as well as the frequency of some functions according to their perceptions of using tag-questions and requesting in cross-sex conversations. These multiple-choice questions are created for categorizing and summarizing the results in any meaningful way.


The data were gathered by employing questionnaire used to evaluate the participants’ politeness performances in their daily conversation. To strengthen the argument, each question asked them to write down their responses in either verbally or nonverbally. There is no time limitation so that they cannot suffer from the time pressure.

Presentation and analysis of data

After collecting the date, participants are classified into two main categories in terms of gender. One is the male group and the other is the female group. Next, under each group, their performance of politeness is analyzed in line with syntactic structure and lexical items among the same sex or different sex interlocutors.

The result is gathered into three major parts, namely using tag-questions, complimenting, and making complaints.

Tag questions

It is widely acknowledged that the major grammar function of a tag question is seeking agreement from the listeners. Besides, tag questions are considered a kind of polite statement in which it does not force any agreement or belief on the addressees as in Lakoff’s pioneering research, she concludes that women’s speech sounds much more polite than men’s in terms of linguistic forms like tag-questions and requests (p.17-19). Therefore, using tag questions is one of linguistic features which this research is primarily concerned to verify gender differences in politeness.

The finding of question about the frequency of using tag-questions reveals that men tend to use more tags questions than women in communication. The number of male speakers who often use tag-questions doubles that of female speakers with 7 and 3 out of 30 respectively. Although the result is completely opposite to the description of women’s speech given by Lakoff, one of the most significant pioneers in gender-difference research, that women have a tendency use more tag questions than men (1975, p. 53). However, it matches with Dubois and Crouch’s surprising findings that “in at least one genuine social context, men did, and women did not, use tag questions both formally and informally. In this context, the claim that tag questions signify an avoidance of commitment, and cause the speaker to give the impression of not being really sure of himself, of looking to the addressee for confirmation, even of having no views of his own, is open to serious doubt (1975, p. 294).

A small number of people choose tag questions when interacting with other speakers is that they are not familiar with the structure of tag questions. For them, the grammatical rules are too complicated and various to acquire in a foreign language as it is a new terminology which does not exist in their first language. In fact, Zhang explains that mistakes arising in the process of learning English tag questions are caused by students’ incomplete application of rules.

In order to produce some sentence structures, more than one rule should be used or a rule is used to some different degrees. But learners sometimes fail to understand or apply these rules completely. For example:

She hardly plays with you, doesn’t she? (does she)

I never said she was wrong, didn’t I? (did I)

The learner knows the agreement rule of forming an English tag question. But when there are some words which denote negative without the word “not”, the learner has some difficulties in dealing with the whole sentence. Thus he produces the above sentences instead of correct ones. (2010, p. 580)

Another reason for low level of frequency in using tag questions is the variation of intonations. In English, the intonation on the tag questions determines the function of the tag. In other words, communicators can change the meaning of a tag question with their pitch of voice. For instance, with rising intonation, tag questions sound like a real question. Notwithstanding, when the intonation falls they sound like a statement which does not require partners to give a real answer.

If the tag is spoken with a rising intonation, as in a question, the function of the tag is much closer to that of an interrogative. The speaker indicates that he has made an assumption about the state of affairs but he is not sure as to the validity of that assumption. The listener is requested to indicate whether the assumption is valid. If the tag is spoken with a falling intonation, as in a declarative sentence, the speaker indicates that he has made an assumption and is requiring only confirmation of its validity from the listener (Mills, 1981, p. 643).

In addition to the frequency of using tag questions, there is a big gap in the purpose male and female speakers use in daily conversation. The following table presents the result after investigating how similarly men and women use tag question.




Expressing uncertainty









It is clearly seen from the table that male and female interlocutors have completely different purpose in using tag questions. While numerous men use tag questions to signal doubt about what they are asserting and look forward to information confirmation, a large number of women consider them as facilitative devices and softening tools for negative comments. This finding is the same as Holmes’ summary in her research into tag questions as politeness devices. She identifies that “women put more emphasis than men on the polite or affective functions of tags, using facilitative positive politeness devices. Men, on the other hand, use more tags for the expression of uncertainty” (1992, p.320).

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This finding is mainly explained by the most widely-identified difference theory which reveals that “men and women use language for different social purposes, having been socialized in different ways from earliest childhood” (Edwards, 2009, p. 137). In his large-scale study, he clarifies that women’s gossip traditionally focuses on personal relationships, experiences and problems in a generally supportive atmosphere. They consider the world as a network of connections and conversations as negotiations for closeness in which people seek support and reach consensus. Men, on the contrary, are more concerned with factual information, often in a competitive or combative format. They see the world in a hierarchical social order in which they are placed either up or down. For them, life is a contest and a struggle to achieve and maintain their power (Edwards, 2009, p. 137).


In everyday life, there are a large number of speech acts we can use to show positive politeness like greetings, seeking agreements, avoiding disagreements, joking and showing sympathy. Among them, a compliment serves the function of not only positive politeness strategies but also potential face threatening acts (Holmes, 1988, p. 445). The questions four and five are designed with the intention of measuring how many politeness linguistic patterns both male and female speakers use when they pay their friends or a stranger a compliment.

Response to friends

Response to strangers

From the two above bar charts, in general, women are more polite than men in paying and receiving compliments, which matches with Wardhaugh’s claim that “women are reported to use more polite forms and more compliments than men (2010, p. 343). In details, in the scenario in which the participants is required to give a compliment on their same sex friends’ new clothes, the figure of female speakers choosing to compliment in an extremely polite way is four times more than that of male speakers. The percentage of the former is nearly 80% and the latter is 20%. They use some compliments such as “It really looks good on you, doesn’t it?”, “How pretty your dress is” and “What a pretty blouse you’re wearing!” as positive politeness devices. Another evidence is that when they compliment on a stranger’s a pair of shoes, men use less polite compliments than women to either the same sex or the opposite sex partner.

The dominance theory is one of most significant explanations of the commonly held belief that women are more polite than men in cross-sex conversations. The relationship between gender-related difference in politeness and power has been investigated for the past a few decades. After O’Barr and Atkins (1980) explore the complexity of the aforementioned relationship, they find out that the different language features particularly politeness strategies between males and females are related to the status rather than the sex of the speaker. They indicate that more females use polite linguistic forms than males in everyday interaction because they are more likely to be in lower-status positions (as cited in Kendall & Tannen, 2003, p. 549). Thus, in the society women wish to gain higher status; for example social class, occupation, etc. by using more standard language and more polite forms in day-by-day conversations. As a result, they become more aware of the importance of linguistic politeness in maintaining communication. In a word, higher speaker power will be associated with lower level of politeness.

However, it is interesting to find that male participants use as many politeness linguistic strategies as females when they have a cross-sex conversation with both friends and strangers. It means that men tend to compliment more politely to women than to men. In addition to the belief that women’s self-esteem is lower; hence, their face needs to be protected, “females are more nurturant, more emotional, and more sensitive to the needs of others than males” (Bern, Eagly, Piliavin and Unger, as cited in Durkin, 1995, p. 456). That is the reason why male participants pay much more attention to their use of words and speak more politely when having a talk with female partners in order to avoid the risk of hurting their feelings. In this case, gender plays an indispensible part in the choice of polite language forms.


Most sociolinguists remarkably appreciate the role of indirect requests in building up the politeness in conversation. Ervin and Tripp, for instance, illustrate that it is useful for speakers to use indirect interrogative requests because they give listeners an out by explicitly stating some condition which would make compliance impossible (as cited in Saeed, 2003, p. 234).

In terms of requests, from the above data, not only female participants but also male interlocutors prefer using indirect and polite structures so as to reduce the risk of threatening the addressee’s negative face. “Will you please close the door?”, “Won’t you close the door?” and “I wonder if you could be so kind as to close the window” are used by over 60% of men and women when they are required to ask a person to do a favor. The finding is partly against the general agreement that female communicators use more superpolite forms than male ones. This result offers some new insights into how gender influences the way men and women uses politeness strategies.

Therefore, a new way of studying the gender difference in politeness-related linguistics is found in the 1990s. Many recent sociolinguists appreciate the social constructivist approach in explaining the variation of politeness behavior between men and women.

A social constructivist approach shifts the emphasis to language as a dynamic resource used to construct particular aspects of social identity at different points in an interaction. Social categories are not fixed but are subject to constant change; talk itself actively creates different styles and constructs different social contexts and social identities as it proceeds. (Holmes, 2001, p. 14565)

Additionally, in her research, Goodwin view activities rather than society as the relevant unit for the analysis of the data. She concludes that stereotypes about women’s speech fall apart when talk is arranged in a range of activities. In order to construct social personae appropriate to the events of the moment, the same individuals articulate talk and gender differently as they move from one activity to another (1990, p. 9). In other words, speakers do not hold the same communication style across a wide range of activities. For example, a woman may choose linguistic forms which can contribute to the construction of a more feminine identity in a romantic date. Nonetheless, in a meeting in the role of a chairwoman, she will linguistically construct a powerful identity. When interacting with her children at home, she may use linguistic devices with the intention of creating a maternal identity. Therefore, the way speakers use structures to construct proper events changes in their communication activities.


It can be clearly seen from the table that it is the relationship between the communicators that affects how politely participants speak, not the gender difference. Both men and women claim that they will take the relationship into consideration when they make a request (the figure of the former is 56% and that of the latter is 67%). The closer the relationship is, the more direct their request is. Their answer is supported by Samovar, Porter and McDaniel’s conclusion in their 2009 work. They find out that “the closer the relationship between two persons, the less the power differential between them and smaller the magnitude of imposition the less likely it is that they will employ conversational indirectness” (2009, p. 173).

The implication in a language classroom

All the results of this small-scale study not only confirm the previous findings discovered by numerous celebrated sociolinguists but also reveal some new findings from Vietnamese foreign language classrooms. These interesting findings about the differences in politeness use between male and female learners lead to some implications for the process of language teaching and learning.

The first implication centres on the acquisition of tag questions in classrooms. From the survey, a great number of Vietnamese students whose level is intermediate or even advanced hardly use tag questions although they can adequately manipulate the form, usage as well as intonation when they are required to do so. Therefore, as an English teacher, a well-prepared presentation and a lot of intensive exercises and drills should be used in order to get students to apply them to real life situations. Besides the basic rules, some exceptions and complications should be introduced to learners so that they give a correct form of tag questions in no matter what conversation they have.

More importantly, educators should help students recognize the importance of this grammar points in communication. Whenever learners know that tag questions are regarded as an extremely useful tool in daily conversations regardless of their complexity in the forms, meanings and intonations, they prefer using tag questions more often. For example, tag questions are not normal questions which are used for asking new information but powerful devices for addressers to confirm certain information, express uncertainty, facilitate and soften negative comments.

Last but not least, owing to the complicated system of tag questions, Beardsmore (1970) recommends that the teaching should be undertaken from an easy to more difficult stage. The difficulties come on three levels including form, meaning, and intonation. To achieve a positive use of tags, the teaching should pay more attention to basic patterns and leave some anomalies to the end (p. 18).

Another implication for English teaching and learning comes from the new results in complimenting and requesting. It cannot be denied that the gender difference plays an important part in selecting appropriate polite forms; nevertheless, there are other criteria such as age, social status, culture and relationship which communicators should bear in mind before making up their mind to use a certain politeness strategy. Accordingly, in their 1985 book, Tillitt and Bruder advise that in many cultures it is considered inappropriate to compliment babies while in the U.S it is common to say “What a cute baby!”. Moreover, when you are invited to a dinner in an English family, the host is happy to hear that you appreciate the food. Hence, you should compliment the food no matter how delicious the real food is. However, you do not need to compliment each dish separately. You can give a general compliment which is followed by a s specific one. For example, the meal was delicious, especially the lamb (p. 68).

Additionally, based on many ELT researches into communicative approaches, Canale and Swain summarize that communicative competence consists of three components like grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence and strategic competence. In their well-known work “Theoretical Bases of Communicative Approaches”, they write:

In view of Chomsky’s (1965) strong claim that competence is to be associated exclusively with knowledge of rules of grammar, both Hymes (1972) and Campbell and Wales (1970) propose a broader notion of competence, that of communicative competence. This notion is intended by them to include not only grammatical competence (or implicit and explicit knowledge of the rules of grammar) but also contextual or sociolinguistic competence (knowledge of the rules of language use). Furthermore, Hymes (1972) explicitly and Campbell and Wales (1970) implicitly adopt the distinction between communicative competence and performance, where this latter notion refers to actual use (as cited in Canale & Swain, 1980, p. 4)

Therefore, I strongly suggest that the procedure of teaching and learning either compliments or requests consists of three following steps:

  • Teaching and learning some possible patterns used in compliments and requests in line with the scale of politeness (from less polite to more polite and then to superpolite)
  • Teaching and learning sociolinguistic competence of these patterns.
  • Practising these patterns in real life exercise so that learners can get used to the patterns. As a result, they can use these politeness devices naturally.

Let’s take a clear illustration. Firstly, teachers ought to provide learners with the knowledge of requests especially the importance of indirectness of requests in maintaining politeness. For instance, the function, whom to request, what to request, how to request and how to reply to a request need to be presented in various situations in daily life. Next, social knowledge about how and when to use utterances appropriately should be given for Vietnamese learners to acquire sociolinguistic competence. In this way, they can know when to use some superpolite forms or when to use less formal language. After that, they are given some authentic drills to practice how to give and reply to a request appropriately.


In summary, this paper gives a view on politeness gender difference between Vietnamese male and female learners. The findings make a positive contribution in portraying the picture of both similarity and difference in the way men and women use polite language. It can be concluded that women are not always more polite than men in Vietnamese context. Many interesting insights; for example, “the gender of the listeners is one of crucial factors influencing polite behaviors of the speakers” are found in this research. Besides, language educators can know that Vietnamese students see politeness as an effective way to avoid conflicts and to save face in conversations. Lastly, Vietnamese leaners’ politeness strategies change with the relationship between addressers and addressees. In this case, gender becomes less significant factor affecting the change of interlocutors’ politeness strategies. Thanks to the result of this paper, language planners can know more about their leaners’ communicative competence especially in using politeness linguistic devices in the process of language teaching and learning.


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