June 01, 1990 5 min read

Sociolinguistic researcher Julia Evans studied the conversational pat~- terns of preschoolers and elementary school children. She videotaped their conversations with a female and a male adult interviewerdur~ing a 15-minute struc~tured interview, min~ute play ses~sion. Four-year-old girls the interviewer to
talk about her fam~-
ily, one girl an~-
swered, “Well, the
first thing we do in
the night~time 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 ques~-
tion, responded, “My dad is on a

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 more prompting, she
continued: “And we have snacks.
Sometimes we have oranges, and some~-
times 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 re~-
peated, “You play with blocks?’' To
which the boy responded: “Yeah.’'

These responses, Evans says, are

The conversational disparity may
seem harmless, but
Evans, who con~-
ducted the research
for her University of
Michigan Ph.D. dis~-
ser~ta~tion, be~lieves the
differences in the way
boys and girls talk
may perpetuate un~-
equal status.

For example, the
girls’ information-
packed responses
called “elabora~tions’’
in social science
lingocontrib~ute to
the flow or forward
motion of the conver~-
sa~tion. Girls add new
infor~mation to the
topic of conversation, maintain the
topic, and form an ex~plicit 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 conversa~-
tional partner ask questions, elicit
responses, 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 con~-
tribute 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 conver~-
sational “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.

Adult conversation studies also
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
tech~nique to their repertoire of conver-
sa~tional skills. In the taped conversa~-
tions, the 8-year-old boys kept inter~-
rupting 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,’'
Evans 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 accustomed to this
pattern: Studies show that both moth~-
ers 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 aroundthat once the
conversation gets going, males tend to

Perhaps the myth arose because
females tend to spend a lot of time and
energy eliciting conversation. Or per~-
haps, as Gloria Steinem has argued, it
came about because what they ®MDUL¯do®MDNM¯ say
is being measured against a tacit expec~-
tation of female silence: In other words,
women are expected to “keep their
mouths shut.’'

While Evans doesn’t think it neces~-
sary that we all talk in the same way,
she believes it is important to under~-
stand how status might be encoded in
our conversations.

“The fact that fe~males do more
conversational work and are inter~-
rupted more often may reflect a lower
status,’' Evans says. That is, the person
who offers up a variety of conversa~-
tional 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 interrupt~-

The conversational differences
Evans observed in the 4- and 8-year-
old children, she says, do not necessar~-
ily 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 already adopting behaviors
that reflect the unspoken view among
adults that women are considered
second-class citizens.

Evans cautions against generalizing
from her study, since the sample was
smallonly 30 childrenand in~-
cluded only middle-class white chil~-
dren from professional communities.
She also confined her observations to
first-born or only children because
studies show that first-born children
are more vocal than others. But be~-
cause her results are consistent with
studies of adult pat~terns, her findings
do raise questions about the political
impact of conversa~tion.

“In most ways,’' Evans says, “males
and females use the same conversa~-
tional techniques. Which is good,
because we would have a total commu~-
nication breakdown if we didn’t.’' She
believes, however, that the few but
salient differences she found may be
responsible for a partial communica~-
tion breakdown.

People who understand the implica~-
tions of the research can become better
communicators, Evans suggests. Fe~-
males, 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 break~downs are occurring, we can
do some~thing about it.’'
Lisa Wolcott

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as T