Feminism | Posted by Talia on 02/10/2012

Thoughts On Gender-Neutral Speech

does gender-neutral language really matter?

As I was doing my AP Psychology homework about the psychology of language recently, I came across some interesting studies about the effect of using gender-neutral speech.

Janet Hyde, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at University of Wisconsin – Madison, conducted a study in 1984 where she asked children to finish stories for which she gave them a first line, like “When a kid goes to school, ___ often feels excited on the first day.” When Dr. Hyde used the word he in the blank, almost all of the kids’ stories were about boys. When she used he or she, about a third of the stories were about girls. This effect is not only present in children, but has also been seen in similar studies with adolescents and adults.

Allen McConnell and Russell Fazio, professors at Miami University and Ohio State University, respectively, did a really interesting 1996 study about using chairman vs. chairperson. When they described ambiguous actions done by a chairman to study participants, they tended to feel that the chairman as assertive and independent. When McConnell and Fazio described a chairperson’s actions, the study participants felt the chairperson’s personality was warmer and more caring.

The results of these studies, plus many others that prove that gender-neutral speech does make a difference, aren’t really news to me. I think feminists have understood the importance of using gender-neutral terminology ever since the 1960s, but it’s always good to know that the rest of the world agrees.

In the he vs. he or she study that I mentioned, I wonder what the effect would be if the study had also monitored what children wrote based on using she or he and just she. Considering the study is almost thirty years old at this point, I also wonder what today’s children would write. My conjecture is that the amount of stories about girls would go up, but I’d be really interested in seeing such a study.

This brings up another question, though – will it ever be split down the middle? Will children ever be able to visualize both men and women? This is part of the reason I dislike it when people use only she. In my opinion, it’s just as bad as using he, just more politically correct. He or she has always been the happy medium in my eyes, but now I’m wondering if I should be using she or he.

While this issue isn’t terribly important in the grand scheme of women’s rights, the language we use about women and men is significant. Based on everything I’ve learned in AP Psych so far, language greatly impacts how a person thinks and feels. In a 1992 study, N. Dinges and P. Hull showed that bilingual people sometimes reveal completely different personalities when taking the same personality test in two languages. If our language doesn’t respect women, how can we expect our future generations to value women’s contributions to the world?

Originally posted on Talia’s blog Star of Davida

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  • Kristina @ at 1:06 am, February 12th, 2012

    I think this is very interesting I know when I write I like to use they instead of he or she. It is simple and quick and you can imagine what ever you want. I am also taking French and everything is either mail or female. Like all objects have to be one or the other. It is really weird because saying or writing it as male or female changes everything it wouldn’t make sense to call un stylo (pen) one stylo. Idk I just think other languages put an odd emphasis on male or female.

  • Renee @ at 4:58 am, February 12th, 2012

    I don’t think that language mattes NOW in the stage that feminism is in.
    When examining the feminist movement and where it is heading I tend to look at the civil rights movement and the push for racial equality.
    So take the N-word for example in earlier times it was used as the sole identicator for a POC and it was well understood that to be an N-word was to be inferior or less than. But the N-word did not stop having those negative connotations because black people said,”Hey that WORD degrades and makes us feel inferior.” It stopped being widely used because black people said, “hey WE are not inferior WE are humans the color of our skin doesnot matter.”
    So basically what I’m trying to say is, it doesn’t matter if the language is neutural or not change the attitudes of the speakers and what they speak will follow.
    P.S: gender neutral pronouns don’t exist in the english languange and I don’t see them existing anytime soon. And when people use ze or zer it comes off pretentious and I want to yell “STOP TRYING TO MAKE ZER HAPPEN IT’s NOT GONNA HAPPEN!”

  • Talia bat Pessi @ at 5:48 pm, February 12th, 2012

    I think it is important, but hey, we’re all allowed our opinions.

    A lot of my teachers are Israeli, and Hebrew is gender-specific like Spanish and French. Some of the teachers will be like “can someone move him?” when referring to a desk because “desk” is masculine. It’s pretty funny when they do it because we’re all confused about what they’re talking about at first.

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