Subculture and Conversational Style
JENNIFER COATES is Professor of English Language and Linguistics at Roehampton University. Her published work includes Women, Men and Language (originally published 1986, 2nd edition 1993), Women in their Speech Communities (1989) (co-edited with Deborah Cameron); Women Talk. Conversation Between Women Friends (1996), and Language and Gender: A Reader (1998) as well as many chapters in edited books and articles in refereed journals. She has just completed a book on men, masculinity and narrative, entitled Men Talk, to be published later this year. Her current research interests include the construction of gender through talk, language and sexuality, conversational narrative, and turn-taking patterns in conversation. She has given lectures on her research all over the world, in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Germany, Italy, Denmark and Switzerland. She is Editor of the Blackwell sociolinguistic series ‘Language and Social Change’ and Senior Editor of the Longman ‘Real Language’ series. She is on the editorial board of the Journal of Sociolinguistics and of Language and Discourse, as well as being a member of the editorial board of the John Benjamins series ‘Studies in Narrative’. She has recently been made a Fellow of the English Association.
Coates theorises that girls and boys develop different styles of speaking due to their largely differing interactions in their all boys and all girls friendship groups. Girls and boys tend to belong to same-sex groups where they will sit apart from one another and generally avoid confrontation and when it is required it is often antagonistic. It has been observed that the peer group of a child is directly influential upon their social linguistic development, and gender is the main principle with girls being encouraged to be typical ‘girls’ and boys being encouraged to be typical ‘boys’.
Coates acknowledges the tendency of girls to stick to playing in smaller groups, maybe with just one or two other girls where their relationship is based predominantly on talk whereas boys will adhere to play in larger, hierarchical groups which are based on joint activity, for example sport, where there is often an undisputed ‘boss’.
Two other theorists whom Coates mentions in her own theory are Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker, who put forward the idea that boys and girls both acquire different purposes of speaking. They theorise that girls learn to do the following three things: create and maintain relationships of closeness and equality, criticize others in acceptable ways, and to interpret accurately the speech of other girls. Boys on the other hand are more inclined to do the following three things when speaking: to assert a position of dominance, to attract and maintain an audience, and to assert themselves when another speaker has the floor.
Maltz and Borker make note of gender specific patterns of interaction which begin to develop very early and continue throughout childhood. They specify girls’ talk as collaboration-orientated, where they will often agree and work together to achieve something, for example two girls may team up against one other girl because they want to play with something she is playing with. On the other hand, boys are thought to be competition orientated, where someone always has to have or be the best. Conflict is resolved between boys and between girls in highly contrasting ways and often boys will argue over something for a lot longer than girls will do, who are less likely to be as obstinate and will often reach a compromise or acquiescence by negotiating with one another, whereas boys would often resort in physical attacks with adversarial results where play is disrupted as the protagonistic boys would be less likely to give in to the other. Both boys and girls would be involved in disputes over ownership and in excluding third parties from their play but girls would often work together to achieve something whereas boys would remain independent. Arguments between children either of same or mixed sex use common strategies, one important one being that they organize their talk to emphasise disagreement or opposition. One strategy used only by girls is the widely used ‘he said she said’ accusations where the girl involves a wider range of people in the dispute, and only indirectly challenges the other participant.
I hypothesise using the basis of Coates’s theory that the girls will demonstrate strong friendship bonds with one another, but criticism will not always be deemed acceptable as it sometimes may hurt another girl’s feelings even if it was not meant to be taken to heart. I also predict that in concurrence with Coates’s theory that some of the boys will be fighting to assert their dominance and masculinity, however not all will be aiming to attract and maintain an audience or permanently attempting to be centre of attention, as I believe that is a characteristic which may belong to either a boy or a girl instead of being exclusively that of a boy’s, and is unlikely to be a general male attribute.
I went along to a children’s after school club where I could listen to children’s conversations and investigate the theory further. I managed to record some of their conversations and I was also able to observe other details such as expressions and body language. I found that a selection of the boys lived up to Coates’ theory of all boys learning to assert dominance, attract and maintain an audience and regain the attention for themselves when someone else was in the limelight, although it was by no means all of them who were so sure of themselves. Respect from those who didn’t try and take all the attention became apparent towards those who did.
When observing the girls’ styles of talk I noted displays of affection which resembles their closeness between them for example when they were eating biscuits one of the girls said ‘this is me and this is you’, referring to two halves of her biscuit, and then put the one representing her friend in her mouth, to which the response was hysterical from everyone else at the table, including her friend. I didn’t take note of any attempts of accurate interpretation of speech from other girls, perhaps they were too young to go into that much detail. The girls seemed to have large groups as well as the boys, but there were girls within the group who would come more to life when in a smaller group.
I also noticed that as opposed to Coates’ idea that boys and girls would cringe away from each other at this age, in this instance some, although not all seemed to get along well. There were same sex groups mainly but interaction between the two genders didn’t seem particularly antagonistic although at times their seemed to be competition between the two sexes for example ‘girls are better than boys’ and ‘boys are stronger than girls’.
I found that there were more dominant children in either group of gender and they would often assert themselves by ordering the other children around in such a fashion that the others felt obliged to do as they wished. One example is that of a girl aged 8, who was playing ‘shops’ with another girl. She was the shopkeeper and was telling the other girl what she could and could not buy. When she wanted her to lift some books up she told her several times over with her voice becoming increasingly raised, although she was laughing as she did so which made her seem less pushy. This reinforced Coates’ theory that children have an obsession with ownership and things being theirs and emphasis was used in any dispute.
I can conclude form Jennifer Coates’ theory and my own research that I do not believe Jennifer Coates was completely accurate with regards to the way children use language and for what purposes they achieved. I gathered evidence which supported some aspects of her theory but challenged some areas and suggested that some elements could be applied to either gender depending on the perspective with which you saw it.