Debate Magazine

Gender-Neutral Speech

Posted on the 19 January 2012 by Starofdavida
Gender-Neutral SpeechI’m taking AP Psychology thisyear, and so far it’s been a lot of work, but I do enjoy it. As I was doinghomework on language and thinking, I came across some interesting studies aboutthe effect of using gender-neutral speech.
Janet Hyde, a professor ofpsychology and women’s studies at Universityof Wisconsin - Madison, conducted a study in 1984 where sheasked 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 wereabout boys. When she used he or she, about a third of the stories wereabout girls. This effect is not only present in children, but has also beenseen in similar studies with adolescents and adults.
Allen McConnell and RussellFazio, professors at Miami University and Ohio State University, respectively, did a reallyinteresting 1996 study about using chairman vs. chairperson. Whenthey described ambiguous actions done by a chairman to studyparticipants, they tended to feel that the chairman as assertive andindependent. When McConnell and Fazio described a chairperson’s actions,the study participants felt the chairperson’s personality was warmer and morecaring.
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 usinggender-neutral terminology ever since the 1960s, but it’s always good to knowthat the rest of the world agrees.
In the he vs. he or shestudy that I mentioned, I wonder what the effect would be if the study had alsomonitored 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 wonderwhat today’s children would write. My conjecture is that the amount of storiesabout 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 tovisualize both men and women? This is part of the reason I dislike it whenpeople 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 happymedium in my eyes, but now I’m wondering if I should be using she or he.
While this issue isn’t terriblyimportant in the grand scheme of women’s rights, the language we use aboutwomen and men is significant. Based on everything I’ve learned in AP Psych sofar, language greatly impacts how a person thinks and feels. In a 1992 study, N. Dinges and P. Hull showed that bilingual peoplesometimes reveal completely different personalities when taking the samepersonality test in two languages. If our language doesn’t respect women, howcan we expect our future generations to value women’s contributions to theworld?

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