Like Father, Like Son?

By Lisa Wolcott — January 01, 1991 5 min read

The seemingly innocuous chatter of preschool boys and girls may hold clues to the future conversational stumbling blocks that disrupt communication between men and women.

Sociolinguistic researcher Julia Evans studied the conversational patterns of preschoolers and elementary school children. She videotaped their conversations with a female and a male adult interviewer during a 15-minute structured interview, followed by a 15-minute play session.

Four-year-old girls, she found, volunteered lots of information, but getting the 4-year-old boys to talk was like pulling teeth.

When asked by the interviewer to talk about her family, one girl answered, “Well, the first thing we do in the nighttime is we watch some TV, and then we read a book, and then we go to bed, except my mother stays up to read.”

A boy, when asked the same question, responded, “My dad is on a trip.”

When the interviewer asked the girl to talk about day care, she answered: “Well, I have a friend named Sally. Sometimes we play in the tunnels, but sometimes we don’t play there because it’s muddy and there are worms.” With a little prompting, she continued: “And we have snacks. Sometimes we have oranges, and sometimes we have apples, and sometimes we have cheese and crackers.”

When the interviewer asked the boy the same question, he answered, “We play with blocks.” Hoping to get a bit more information, the interviewer repeated, “You play with blocks?” To which the boy responded: “Yeah.”

These responses, Evans says, are typical.

The conversational disparity may seem harmless, but Evans, who conducted the research for her University of Michigan Ph.D. dissertation, believes the differences in the way boys and girls talk may perpetuate unequal status.

For example, the girls’ information-packed responses—called “elaborations” in social science lingo—contribute to the flow or forward motion of the conversation. Girls add new information to the topic of conversation, maintain the topic, and form an explicit link to the talk of the partner.

But responding, as the boys did, by adding no or little new information is one way to control an interaction, Evans says. It makes the conversational partner ask questions and keep introducing topics until that partner hits on a topic that interests the otherwise detached male.

“If you think of a conversation as a balance,” Evans explains, “you contribute some and I contribute some. If you only contribute a little bit, then I have to contribute a lot more. Even as young as age 4, these girls have already picked up on that social obligation. They’re doing more than their share of the conversational work.”

The pattern of talking or not talking that Evans found in her study is borne out in studies of adult male and female conversational roles. The studies show that women do the majority of conversational “work,” while men maintain conversational control; most of the topics introduced in a conversation are suggested by women, but most of the topics maintained in a conversation are the topics introduced by men.

Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, author of the best-selling book You Just Don’t Understand, says that males and females also have different goals in a conversation. According to Tannen, women use language to establish intimacy, whereas men use language to establish status and protect their independence. She argues that conversation between the sexes is like cross-cultural communication.

Other adult conversation studies show that men interrupt women more often than women interrupt men. And sure enough, Evans found that by the time they are 8 years old, boys seemed to have added this more assertive technique to their repertoire of conversational skills. In the taped conversations, the 8-year-old boys kept interrupting the female interviewer; the girls didn’t.

Evans didn’t attempt to determine whether boys would interrupt girls their own age, but there is, she says, little reason to expect that they wouldn’t. “We didn’t test for that,” she says. “But my hunch is that boys would interrupt a female adult less than they would interrupt a female peer.” Evans says one of the reasons boys may interrupt and girls may not challenge the interruptions is that they’ve grown up with this pattern; studies show that both mothers and fathers interrupt daughters more than they do sons.

Just as men tend to interrupt more, they also have more of a gift for gab. Studies do not support the mythical view that women talk more than men do, according to linguistic experts. In fact, research suggests strongly that it’s the other way around—that once the conversation gets going, males tend to dominate.

Evans doesn’t think it necessary that we all talk in the same way, but she believes it is important to understand how status might be encoded in our conversations.

“The fact that females do more conversational work and are interrupted more often may reflect a lower status,” Evans says. That is, the person who offers up a variety of conversational topics, asks questions, pursues the topics that the partner chooses, and doesn’t contest interruptions has lower status than the person who steers the course of the conversation by choosing the topic and by interrupting.

The conversational differences Evans observed in the 4- and 8-year-old children, she says, do not necessarily indicate that boys enjoy a higher status than girls. Rather, both the girls and boys are probably imitating how they see women and men interacting and are adopting behaviors that reflect the unspoken view among adults that women are second-class citizens.

Evans cautions against generalizing from her study, since the sample was small—only 30 children—and included only middle-class white children from professional communities. She also confined her observations to first-born or only children because studies show that such children are more vocal than others. But because her results are consistent with studies of adult patterns, her findings do raise questions about the political impact of conversation.

“In most ways,” Evans says, “males and females use the same conversational techniques. Which is good, because we would have a total communication breakdown if we didn’t.” She believes, however, that the few but salient differences she found may be responsible for a partial communication breakdown.

People who understand the implications of the research can become better communicators, Evans suggests. Females, for example, might find it easier to get a point across or to finish a thought; males could become more effective listeners. “The point is,” she says, “if we really understand where the breakdowns are occurring, we can do something about them.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Like Father, Like Son?