How to write a bullshit article about women’s language

This blog’s recent campaign against the linguistically ill-informed and politically counterproductive policing of women’s language (if you missed it you can catch up here and here) has generated a lot of interest, and numerous correspondents have sent me links to other examples. Some of them I’d seen before, but others were new to me. I do try to keep up, but the sheer volume of this stuff would make doing it properly a full-time occupation. Fortunately, most bullshit articles about women’s language are fairly similar. If you want to write one, here’s my handy how-to guide.

First, identify some linguistic thing everyone believes, or can be persuaded to believe, that women do (for this purpose it doesn’t matter whether they really do it, or whether men do it just as much). You could choose something that’s already been defined as a problem (like uptalk or vocal fry), or, more ambitiously, you could go for something no one’s been paying close attention to (like women over-using the word ‘just’ at work). Pitch a piece on ‘Why this thing women do with language is damaging to women’ to the editor of just about any publication. It’s a perennially popular formula and there’s always a place for it somewhere.

You can establish that the thing is a real thing by using anecdata and exploiting confirmation bias. ‘Have you noticed that thing women do?’ you might begin. If the thing is already a cliché, like uptalk, then you’ll immediately have them nodding; if it’s not then they probably won’t have noticed it, but many of them will think that’s only because they’re not as observant or as keenly attuned to the zeitgeist as you are. Either way, you’re priming them to accept your premise. Then you can follow up with a tedious anecdote involving some everyday scenario your reader can relate to. Like, ‘the other day at my office, a woman made a presentation where she did X a heck of a lot; my interest was piqued and I started counting Xs, which confirmed that women do X far more than men.’

Once people have accepted that there’s something to be noticed, they’ll be susceptible to the phenomenon known as ‘confirmation bias’—a tendency to notice things that match your expectations (in this case that would be instances of women doing X), while failing to register counter-examples (women not doing X, or men doing X). Soon, everyone will be sharing your article on Facebook with comments like ‘This is so true! I’d never noticed women doing X before, but after I read this piece I heard it everywhere!’

When you’re arguing that X is damaging to women, it’s good to add a couple of links to research, because that makes you look serious and well-informed; but be selective about this. One useful tip is to choose research that investigated people’s attitudes to X rather than their actual use of it. The attitudes people express when they’re asked what they think about X have probably been shaped by reading articles like the one you’re writing, so what they tell you is likely to support your argument (e.g., ‘I hate it when women do X, it makes them sound weak/shallow/like idiots’). This doesn’t really settle the question of what X does or how it’s heard when it’s used in real life situations, but readers might not notice that.

Another potentially useful source is ‘self report’ studies where instead of recording and then analysing people’s behaviour, researchers ask them questions like ‘do you do X?’ ‘How much do you do X?’ ‘Why do you do X?’, and then analyse the answers. This approach is always a bit problematic because of the tendency for people to tell researchers what they think the researchers want to hear, or what they think shows them in the best light; but it’s particularly problematic in relation to language-use, because we don’t have much conscious awareness of a lot of the patterns in our own speech, let alone much insight into the reasons for them. (A particular pleasure during the last week has been listening to people denouncing vocal fry while audibly using it themselves. I don’t think they’re hypocrites, I think they genuinely aren’t aware they do it.)

My next tip is to say things which sound superficially plausible, but on closer inspection are vague and confusing. Don’t be tempted to clarify a point by using concrete examples to illustrate it. If no one is quite sure what you’re talking about, they’ll find it harder to challenge your point with factual evidence.

For example, in her article about the problem of uptalk and vocal fry, Naomi Wolf claimed that the way women speak also affects the way they write. Talking about university students, she said that ‘even the most brilliant tend to avoid bold declarative sentences’. That’s a strong claim, which it ought to be possible to substantiate or refute by analysing a sample of women’s academic writing. The trouble is, it’s unclear what features of written language you’d need to analyse.

‘Declarative sentences’ is clear enough: it means sentences that make a statement rather than asking a question or issuing a command. No problem with spotting and counting those. But that’s what makes the claim confusing: as anyone knows who’s either written or read one, no one avoids declarative sentences in academic essays. Wolf can’t possibly be suggesting that women write essays consisting entirely or mainly of questions and/or commands. So her claim must be that women’s declarative sentences aren’t sufficiently ‘bold’. And that’s where it gets vague: in linguistic terms, what distinguishes a ‘bold’ sentence from a timid one?

If I defined a ‘bold declarative sentence’ as ‘a statement made without qualification’, I could point to evidence which challenges the presupposition ‘bolder is better’. Research has identified the use of hedging (language that weakens the writer’s commitment to the absolute truth of a proposition—like ‘it has been argued that…’ or ‘one possible explanation of this is…’) as a key feature of ‘good’ academic writing (the kind that gets published, or gets high marks). It’s a sign that the writer can exercise critical judgment and avoid overstating his or her case. In academe that’s considered a virtue, not a flaw. But Wolf could just respond that my definition of ‘bold’ wasn’t the one she had in mind. This makes arguing with her like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

If your article generates controversy, and people start responding to it critically, you can re-use some of the strategies I’ve just described. If the criticism is ‘But men do X too’, counter it with some anecdata. ‘Yes, but I’ve noticed they stop doing it when they’re at an important meeting’. (If you’re lucky, no one will have gathered data on that very specific point, so your critic won’t be able to say definitively that you’re wrong.) If someone says, ‘but doing X doesn’t mean a speaker lacks confidence’, bring in a bit of self-report data about what people said when they were asked about their reasons for doing X (‘women agreed that they tend do X when they’re not feeling confident’). If you’re accused of making vague and confusing statements, throw some more vague and confusing statements into the mix. By the time your opponents have deconstructed them all, the world will have moved on to something new.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean your article will be forgotten. The subject of gender differences in language-use is a rich source of zombie facts—myths that refuse to die no matter how often and how authoritatively they’re debunked. Who can forget, for instance, the claim that women utter nearly three times as many words as men do in a day? The author who made it in 2006 had to retract it after various researchers pointed out publicly that it was bullshit. Yet it keeps being resurrected: in 2010 a colleague of mine found it being recycled as a joke on a shampoo bottle (‘what do women do three times more of than men? A: Talk!’).

If your article has done its job, its thesis will join this body of folklore, and future generations will recycle it in their own bullshit articles. (Probably without giving you credit; but you can’t really complain, since the chances are that your own article was also partially or wholly recycled, like an estimated 94% of all bullshit articles on this topic.*)

Of course, not all the articles which appear in the media are bullshit. I’m not saying the only stuff worth reading is the stuff you find in academic journals. Popular writing can be well-researched, informative and thought-provoking. But if an article you start reading has more than one of the characteristics I’ve mentioned in this post—the reliance on anecdote, the links to research which didn’t investigate what people do, only what they think they do, the claims which are too vague to be tested, the loaded but ill-defined terms, the repetition of zombie facts—that’s probably a sign that it doesn’t deserve your attention. Bullshit may endure, but it doesn’t have to be endured.

*In the great tradition of bullshit, I plucked this figure from thin air, and then phrased my claim to imply that someone else had put some thought into it.

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