Janet Holmes & Politeness in men’s and women’s conversation

Language and Gender differences:


  • Politeness


  • Compliments


  • In general conversation



Are women more polite than men?



  • what you mean by politeness


  • which women and men you are comparing


  • the context in which they are talking


Despite this …


Janet Holmes thinks that when all the necessary reservations and
qualifications have been taken into account, the answer is
‘yes, women are more polite than men’


Holmes bases her research on Brown and Levinson’s idea of positive and negative face. She says that women use more positively orientated politeness and that men use more negatively orientated politeness.


Holmes suggests the reason for this is that women and men have different perceptions of what language is used for;


  • Men use language as a tool to give and obtain information ( also referred to as the referential function of language )
  • Women use language as a means of keeping in touch ( also known as the social function )

As Holmes includes politeness, which is defined as “an expression of concern for the feelings of others”, with the social function, it seems that women are more polite then men.


Holmes uses 2 speech acts within politeness to re-enforce her ideas;

  • Compliments
  • Apologies


What are the differences in the use compliments between men and women?



  • Pay and receive more compliments.
  • Regard compliments as positive and affective politeness devices



  • Tend to consider compliments as less positive than women do.
  • Often see compliments as face threatening or at least not as unambiguous in intentions.


Janet Holmes suggests that the discrepancies in male to male and female to female complimentary language may be due to differences in perception concerning the purpose of compliments. The hypothesis is that women use compliments to build connections, while men use compliments to make evaluative judgments.




  • Female; “I love your hair” This is to create a connection between the two women.
  • Male; “nice car” This is not used to create a connection but rather make an evaluative judgement on the car.


What are the differences between men and women in speech?

There is certainly plenty of evidence of differences between women and men in the area of language. It is well established, for example, that girls are verbally more intelligent than boys.


Over many years, women have demonstrated an advantage over men in tests of;


  • fluency,
  • speaking,
  • sentence complexity,
  • analogy,
  • listening,
  • comprehension of both written and spoken material,
  • vocabulary,
  • spelling.
  • Men are more likely to stutter and to have reading disabilities.
  • men are also much more likely to suffer aphasic speech disorders


The Test.


My test was on compliments and how men compliment differently to women. I asked 25 men and 25 women two questions and tallied their answers in a chart. This is what I found.


What do you think of my dress?


  Technical terms Empty adjectives Intensifiers Question
Female 5 14 9 5
Male 6 8 2 12




What do you think of my phone?


  Technical terms Empty adjectives Intensifiers Question
Female 4 16 5 5
Male 11 5 2 9


My results showed that technical terms vary according to the subject however on the whole women use more empty adjectives and intensifiers. Questions also vary according to the subject. The fact women use more empty adjectives and intensifiers re-enforces the view that women talk rapportly and enforce Holmes positive politeness and that women compliment more than men; the empty adjectives were all positive and the intensifiers made the compliments stronger. Men tended to comment on the technical side and also tended to ask technical questions like “why?” and “when did you get it”. This re-enforced the view that men use speech to get things done, referential speech, and that men use compliments to make evaluative judgements.

B Hunt


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