Difference Approach

The Difference Approach looks at the relationship between language and gender and, specifically, the differences in communication between men and women. According to this approach, gender differences reflect not only the differences in male and female speech, but also their diverse lifestyles and attitudes.

Difference Approach Difference Approach

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Table of contents

    What is the difference approach?

    Deborah Tannen presented her theory of the Difference Approach in her book You Just Don't Understand (1990)1, which illustrates the various ways that men and women use language. Deborah Tannen's gender theory argues that men and women use language differently in ways that reflect and reinforce their gender roles and power relationships in society.

    Deborah Tannen's difference theory proposed that men and women learn different ways of communicating through socialisation, which then influences them in adult life.

    Socialisation is a process that begins in childhood, typically at pre-school age, where children learn behaviour, attitudes, and routines that are considered 'normal' for the society they grow up in. Much of this process is taught through social interaction.

    Through socialisation, adults and peer groups teach girls how to 'be' girls (or perform femininity) and boys how to 'be' boys (perform masculinity). Boys and girls are taught gendered roles through language and repeated utterances that reinforce how girls perceive their femininity.

    Two children, two boys and a girl, are running around in the park, shouting and playing. The mother tells the girl not to be so loud and 'hysterical' but says nothing to the boys, who are allowed to continue as before.

    In a playroom, a boy is given toy soldiers to play with, while a girl is given dolls.

    Tannen's work challenged earlier research by Robin Lakoff, who presented the Dominance Approach in 1975.

    Difference Approach, Socialization in childhood, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Tannen believed childhood socialisation leads to gender performativity later in life.

    Different approaches in language?

    In 1975, Robin Lakoff published Language and Woman's Place, where she argues that girls were brought up to speak and use language in a way that made them appear as the weaker sex.

    According to Lakoff, women are brought up to speak less frequently than men, give shorter responses, and use a 'woman's register' with specific characteristics.

    Lakoff's research has been criticized by some linguists for being incomplete and biased.

    Deborah Tannen's Difference theory suggests that language is defined more by difference than by male dominance and has received considerable support from other linguists including Janet Holmes, Jennifer Coates, Jean Gleason, and Esther Greif (see below).

    Difference approach: Deborah Tannen

    Deborah Tannen's difference theory argues that men often use language to assert dominance, while women tend to use language to establish rapport and build relationships.

    Tannen has also argued that many of the communication difficulties that occur between men and women can be traced back to these differences in conversational style. A better understanding of these differences can help to reduce misunderstandings and improve communication between men and women.

    Tannen said:

    Male-female conversation is cross-cultural communication.

    (Deborah Tannen, 1990)1

    Deborah Tannen's difference theory identified six main contrasts in communication between men and women:

    • Status vs. support
    • Advice vs. understanding
    • Information vs. feelings
    • Orders vs. proposals
    • Conflict vs. compromise
    • Independence vs. intimacy

    Let's have a look at these differences in more detail.

    Status vs. support

    According to Tannen, women seek comfort and support while men set boundaries to show power and status.

    Friend: 'How's the house coming along? Looked like a lot of work.'

    Woman: 'It was, thank you, the roof needed fixing as well.'

    Friend: 'Sounds tough.'

    Man: 'It wasn't tough at all, everything's coming along just fine, we'll be ready to move in next week.'

    Difference Approach, cartoon of three basic people in green, pink, and blue, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Status vs support is one of the distinctions Tannen noted between male and female speech.

    In her book He Said, She Said (2003)2, Tannen describes how a woman heard her son and two of his friends talking:

    One boy said, 'When we went to Disneyland, we stayed three days.' The second boy said, 'When we went to Disneyland, we stayed four days.' Then her son said, 'We're going to move to Disneyland!'

    Tanner explained this as an example of the male desire to show status. As she puts it:

    [the woman's] son won that round.

    (Tannen, Fir trees, 2012)

    Advice vs. understanding

    According to Tannen, women seek comfort and sympathy for their problems, while men seek solutions for their problems.

    Woman: 'I wish I didn't feel so tired.'

    Man: 'I'll call the doctor.'

    Woman: 'I don't want a doctor!'

    Information vs. feelings

    According to Tannen, men typically communicate to give information, whereas women communicate to build up relationships or to network.

    A joke has it that a woman sues her husband for divorce. When the Judge asks her why she wants a divorce, she explains that her husband has not spoken to her in two years. The judge then asks the husband, 'Why haven't you spoken to your wife in two years?' He replies, 'I didn't want to interrupt her.'

    (Tannen, Interpreting Interruption in Conversation, 1989)3

    Orders vs. proposals

    According to Tannen, men are more likely to make and respond to demands, whereas women are more likely to make and respond to suggestions.

    In the following example, Kate is making suggestions, not demands. Like most women, she formulates her requests as proposals rather than orders. Ken, however, perceives her words as manipulation and resents this more than if she had made a straightforward demand.

    Kate: Let's go there tomorrow ... Let's have a party ... Let's park over there ...

    Ken: No, let's not. And stop giving me orders.

    Conflict vs. compromise

    Tannen suggests that women avoid conflict at all costs, and therefore negotiate or compromise. Men tend to favour more direct exchange instead.

    Difference Approach, Conflict vs Compromise, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Conflict vs compromise is another difference between male and female language that Tannen identified.

    Independence vs. intimacy

    According to Tannen, while men use language to show their independence, women use it to connect with others.

    In another situation from He Said She Said, Tannen describes the following exchange a father overheard between his daughter and her friend:

    The friend had said, 'I have a brother named Benjamin and a brother named Jonathan.' His daughter responded, 'I have a brother named Benjamin and a brother named Jonathan, too.' But she didn't. Her father wondered why she would say such a thing. I explained that she was simply offering a matching experience as a sign of goodwill, to reinforce the friendship.

    According to Tannen, this kind of communication starts with socialisation, which begins at the ages of three or four. This is when children learn different ways of communicating, which continue to influence them in adult life.

    Tannen's research and writing focused on miscommunication and misunderstanding between men and women. Her theory demonstrates how women can be different from men in communication without being seen as unequal. Tanner's work challenged Lakoff's Dominance Theory and has since developed into genderlect theory of communication.

    Difference approach: language and gender

    What is 'genderlect theory' and what does it mean in the context of language and gender? Let's find out!

    Saying that men talk about baseball in order to avoid talking about their feelings is the same as saying that women talk about their feelings in order to avoid talking about baseball.

    (Tannen, Fir trees, 2012)

    According to Tannen, male and female types of communication can be best understood as coming from two separate 'cultural dialects'. In other words, men and women communicate in different ways due to social norms and expectations; this difference in communication can be seen in everyday life, in films and on TV.

    Male genderlect uses communication for the following:

    • To exchange information ('Report' talk)
    • To show independence
    • To show status

    Female genderlect uses communication for the following:

    • To network ('Rapport' talk)
    • To connect
    • To develop intimacy

    Television shows provide a major source for observing genderlect, as each character has a communication style that is specific to their personality. This can often appear 'atypical' in terms of gender-specific language. Since Tannen's original theory, there has been a shift towards deliberate genderlect mismatching in dialogue written for tv.

    The next time you watch a tv-show, see if you can identify the genderlect each character uses; for example, the NBC mockumentary Parks and Recreation, which has six male and four female characters, yet, several of the characters do not match their genderlect.

    Difference approach: Janet Holmes (1995)

    Janet Holmes further developed the difference theory and states that:

    • Women are more polite than men (where 'polite' means showing consideration to others).
    • Women use language 'to establish, nurture and develop personal relationships' (Holmes, 1995)4.

    Holmes also argues against Lakoff's thesis, as she states that:

    • Hedging and fillers do not necessarily demonstrate indecisiveness and powerlessness.
    • Tag questions, rather than expressing uncertainty, may be used to keep a conversation going or to be polite and include others in discourse.

    She further defines four separate functions of tag questions, arguing that they can be used to express:

    • Uncertainty
    • Facilitation
    • Softening
    • Confrontation

    Her research has, like Tannen's, been criticised for being based on 'a stereotypical view of women's language' (Mills, 2003) and insufficient data, although her statements are important as they launched the sociolinguist debate (1995) on difference theory.

    Difference approach: child-parent interaction

    The interaction between parents and their children is a significant factor in determining the language that the child will develop as time goes on. Let's look at some theories:

    Jean Gleason and Esther Greif (1980)

    In 1980 psycholinguists Esther Greif and Jean Gleason co-wrote Hi, Thanks, and Goodbye (1980)5, based on a study they carried out on parent-child interaction. The study focused on three routines: greetings, thanks, and farewells, and examined how fathers and mothers teach these routines to their daughters and sons.

    Twenty-two children (eleven boys and eleven girls) and their parents participated in the study. The children were aged between two and five.

    The results suggested the following:

    • Male and female children were treated the same way by their parents.
    • Spontaneous responses were low
    • Parents strongly encouraged the 'thank you' routine more than the other routines
    • Mothers provided more polite models in their own speech than fathers
    • Boys said hi 4I% of the time
    • Girls said hi only 18% of the time.

    The results suggest that the children generally needed to be taught social conventions (as they tended not to be spontaneous); this means a certain amount of conditioning begins in childhood. The boys seemed less shy than the girls in greeting people, although all were treated the same way by their parents, which would seem to add support to Tannen's Difference Theory.

    Jennifer Coates (1993)

    Coates worked with Tannen's theory and further supports the idea that women share feelings in order to reach a shared understanding and as a means of offering solidarity.7

    Coates also argues that girls and boys develop different speaking styles early on and that this is because peer groups influence their social language development, with gender being a key component.

    Coates made the following observations based on her research on children at school age:

    • A child's peer group directly influences their social linguistic growth.
    • Girls tend to stay in smaller groups that involve talking.
    • Boys tend to stay in bigger groups that involve joint activity.
    • As a result of different interactions within their groups, boys and girls develop different language habits.

    Christine Howe agrees with Tannen but suggests that gender is not a key factor; she claims that boys and girls develop differences based on other factors (not only gender-based). Howe's research suggests the following contrasts between men and women in communication:

    • Women are active listeners and avoid strong language.
    • Men use language in a more competitive way than women to seek power.

    Her work supports the Diversity Approach.

    Difference approach vs. diversity approach

    Tannen's theory supports the idea that gender influences our way of communicating. She also suggests that women may have a different way of communicating without making them subordinate or inferior (essentially: it's okay to be different!).

    The Diversity Approach argues that gender has no influence on language but that other factors (including context, society and socialisation) influence the way men and women communicate. In other words, the male and female gender does not physically or biologically exist; instead, gender is created through the repetition of acts, routines and beliefs or, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir:

    One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

    (Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949)

    Judith Butler is another key philosopher in this area who defines gender as:

    performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed.

    (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, 1990)

    In other words, the social roles for both men and women come from a mix of behaviour patterns that we adopt as we develop.

    In her book The Myth of Mars and Venus (2008) Deborah Cameron challenges the myths surrounding gender differences and claims there is as much difference and similarity within each gender group as there is between men and women (also explored in Janet Hyde's work in 2005).

    Cameron suggests we should think about gender in linguistics in a more complex way than we have done so far:

    It cannot be reduced to the simple generalizations which are endlessly repeated in popular sources.

    (Cameron, The Myth of Mars and Venus, 2010)

    Hyde, meanwhile, proposes the Gender Similarities Hypothesis (2005), which indicates that there are actually fewer differences between men and women than there are similarities.

    Males and females are similar on most, but not all, psychological variables.

    (Hyde, 'Gender Similarities Hypothesis', 2005)

    She also warns of the dangers of focusing on the differences. For example, viewing depression as a largely female problem could result in under-evaluating depression in men.

    Study tip: because the Diversity Approach is seen as the most current approach to gender use in language and introducing, it would be useful to introduce it when writing about relevant topics.

    Difference Approach, Diversity Model, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The difference and dominance approaches are very different, however, both are important in your study of English Language.

    Communication would seem to be a highly individual phenomenon that depends on multiple factors, not all of which have been researched. The above-mentioned theories represent just a few ideas. What do you think about the connections between gender and language? All of these theories were published before 2010.

    Do you think contemporary attitudes to gender have changed since then? If so, what impact would this have on the study of gender and language?

    Difference Approach - Key Takeaways

    • The difference approach suggests that men and women learn different ways of communicating in childhood which then influences them in adult life.
    • Tannen's theory challenges Lakoff's Dominance Theory, which claims that women are conditioned from childhood to be subordinate in language.
    • Tannen identified 6 key differences in the ways that men and women communicate.
    • Tannen's theory has since developed into genderlect theory.
    • Male genderlect uses communication for 'Report' talk, to show independence and status.

    • Female genderlect uses communication for 'Rapport' talk, to connect and to develop intimacy.


    1. D, Tannen, You Just Don't Understand, 1990
    2. D. Tannen. He Said, She Said, 2003
    3. D. Tannen, Interpreting Interruption in Conversation, 1989
    4. J. Holmes. Women, Men, and Politeness, 1995
    5. E. Greif and J. Gleason. Hi, Thanks, and Goodbye, 1980
    6. J. Coates. Women, Men, and Language, 1993
    Frequently Asked Questions about Difference Approach

    What is the difference approach in English Language?

    The difference approach looks at the differences in communication between men and women.

    What is the dominance approach in English Language?

    The dominance approach suggests that women are conditioned from childhood to be subordinate in language.

    What is the diversity theory?

    The diversity model argues that society and socialisation (and not gender) influence the way men and women communicate.

    What is the dominance approach vs the difference approach?

    The dominance approach in the English Language focuses on the reasons why men and women use language in such different ways, whereas the difference approach simply looks at what these differences are.

    What is Deborah Tannen's gender theory?

    Deborah Tannen is a linguist who has made significant contributions to the field of gender and language studies. Her gender theory argues that men and women use language differently in ways that reflect and reinforce their gender roles and power relationships in society. 

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