A Sociolinguistic Approach to Gender and Personal Selling

ABSTRACT - Drawing on sociolinguistic and social psychological research, this paper suggests that women typically differ from men in their speech styles and patterns of social interaction. For managers and salespeople, the responses typical of women are often more adaptive than those typical of men.


Val Larsen (1993) ,"A Sociolinguistic Approach to Gender and Personal Selling", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 48-51.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 48-51


Val Larsen, Virginia Tech


Drawing on sociolinguistic and social psychological research, this paper suggests that women typically differ from men in their speech styles and patterns of social interaction. For managers and salespeople, the responses typical of women are often more adaptive than those typical of men.


At the core of feminism is an ideological boundary line which divides feminists into two broad camps: rationalist feminists who deny and radical feminists who affirm that women differ significantly from men (Rose). For the most part, the founding mothers of contemporary feminism (de Bea·voir 1952; Freidan 1963; Lakoff 1975) were rationalists who asserted that there were no important differences between the sexes-a tactic that was easy to justify on practical grounds. Men have often used alleged differences between the sexes to justify the exclusion of women from positions of power and important sectors of the economy. Customs and laws that are portrayed as protections-the ban on women in combat, for instance-often function in practice as protectionist barriers to professional advancement for women. Thus, in many cases, the proper answer to Henry Higgins' question, "Why can't a woman be more like a man," has been, "because men won't let her."

While some customs and laws which have precluded full participation are beginning to change, there are still many formal and informal barriers which prevent women from receiving rewards commensurate with their merit. And like all protectionist barriers, these remaining sexist traditions exact an economic price from us all, but especially, as Gary Becker (1971) has pointed out in his analysis of the economics of discrimination, from women, the objects of the discrimination. [Becker focused on the economic consequences of discrimination against blacks, but his analysis is equally applicable to gender discrimination.] Thus, it is important that researchers not inadvertently reinforce prejudices which impoverish us all.

Though they are fully cognizant of the risk that distinctions between men and women may be misused, radical feminist researchers have recently begun to discover and celebrate certain qualities which seem to be characteristically female (Daly 1978; Gilligan 1982; Tannen 1990). This paper is part of that recent trend. Drawing upon social psychological and sociolinguistic research, it suggests that women typically differ from men in their styles of speech and patterns of social interaction. It applies this basic point in a business context by further suggesting that typical female responses are often more adaptive for managers and salespeople than typical male responses. The pattern of differences between the sexes is discussed in the first section of the paper, the applications to management and marketing in the second.


It has been shown by a sizeable body of research that men and women differ in their typical patterns of social and linguistic interaction. In a series of studies and a review of previous literature, Carlson (1971) encapsulated many of these differences by suggesting that men tend to be concerned with agentic, women with communal goals. The agentic goals typical of males involve an impersonal view of the world, a view in which the autonomous self is separated from its milieu while others are seen as a class of objects to be tested and investigated. Communal goals, on the other hand, are associated with a self defined by its social context, its interpersonal relatedness. Thus, women tend to see both self and others as socially oriented subjects, not as autonomous objects.

Carlson worked at a relatively high level of abstraction, but subsequent research has shown that the agentic and communal conceptions of the self have practical consequences. Thus, research by Maltz and Borker (1982), Goodwin (1990), and Tannen (1990) found that because men conceive of themselves primarily as autonomous agents in a divided and competitive world, they tend to view social interactions as public contests in which the prize is status and respect. Their concern with personal autonomy and public status leads them to favor hierarchical patterns of social organization. Beginning when they are very young and continuing through adulthood, males organize their work and play hierarchically. These hierarchies have the advantage of making it relatively clear what the score is-who is up, who down: those giving orders are on top, those taking them on the bottom. Who gives, who takes orders is negotiated in conversations that are a form of ritual combat. Concerned with their hierarchical position, interlocutors struggle to dominate each other intellectually and, thereby, establish the right to command (Ong 1981). They establish elaborate, apparently impersonal systems of rules to regulate conflict but often fight about how the rules are to be applied in particular cases (Maltz and Borker 1982).

Since women tend to see themselves primarily as members of a community, their typical patterns of social interaction are generally different from those of men. For them, personal status and security is a function of the community's status and strength. They will be strong if their community is strong. And the strength of the community depends on the intimacy of its members. Unlike hierarchical status, communal intimacy does not require that one person be down in order for the other to be up. On the contrary, "the essential element of connection is symmetry," so conversations among women tend to be "negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus" (Tannen 1990, pp. 28, 25). Women's speech patterns tend to be nonconfrontational. Thus, they use tag questions-i.e. "don't you think?"-at the end of their statements more frequently than men do. And they tend to resolve conflict through compromise or evasion rather than through the threats or appeals to rules favored by men (Sheldon 1990).

Though, in the interest of clarity, I have thus far made a sharp distinction between women and men, it is important to keep in mind that on all the dimensions which define agency and communion, the distributions of females and males overlap. So one cannot draw conclusions about individuals on the basis of these studies. Nor can one conclude that agency is bad, communion good, or visa versa. Indeed, Carlson (1971) suggests that the integration of agency and communion is an important developmental task for both women and men since mental and social health depend upon our achieving a degree of androgyny. Carlson also points out, however, that women are more likely than men to be characterized by androgyny, the desired state. Men-and psychiatric patients-are more likely to be one sided, exhibiting a purely agentic orientation.

While the evidence for a correlation between gender and agentic or communal orientation is strong, one intriguing study indicates that a person's orientation may be a function of power, not of gender. In this study of 415 black students at Howard University, no difference was found between female and male students: both genders manifested a communal orientation. White males were the only group which consistently emphasized the individual as a basis for self-esteem (Carlson and Levy 1970). It is possible, therefore, that people adopt an agentic orientation when they are in a position to attain power and make the rules which determine success or failure. The communal orientation, on the other hand, may have arisen as a way of coping with a world where one does not make the rules or have hierarchical status. It makes no sense to appeal to status or rules if your adversary has the status and gets to make and change the rules at will. Under such circumstances, you must, perforce, be flexible and rely upon a network of relationships to protect your interests. This seems to be the strategy that women have adopted.

The thesis of this paper can now be restated in an elaborated form. Though women probably developed their flexible, informal sociolinguistic style as a way of preserving some dignity and influence in a world where social arrangements rendered them formally powerless, the world has changed in ways that often make women's private, interpersonal, communal orientation more adaptive for both men and women than the public, autonomous, agentic orientation usually favored by males. One broad index of this favorable trend is changes in public discourse that have accompanied the demise of governing hierarchies: kings, nobles, and exclusively male electorates.

Public discourse has traditionally been the domain of males, private discourse of females (Kramarae 1981). And even today, men generally speak more in public, women more in private settings (Swacker 1972; Tannen 1990). But while the patterns of public and private discourse were quite distinct in the past, with speeches being much more formal and abstract than conversations, the differences have recently diminished. And virtually all the change has been made in the traditionally male domain of public discourse, for speeches have become more personal, informal, and conversational, more like women's private discourse (Tannen 1990).


In his article on agency and communion, Carlson (1971) suggested that females should, on average, be more effective administrators than males because, being relatively androgenous, they are more likely to devote themselves to accomplishing shared goals rather than to amassing personal control and power. This is a remarkable observation given the dearth of women in administrative positions. But an earlier study of academics by Bernard (1964) both confirms Carlson's supposition and helps explain why so few women have been able to become and remain administrators. Bernard found that while female professors were more inclined than their male counterparts to devote themselves to serving students and the institution, their devotion was not rewarded, for it was not compatible with an organizational structure based on hierarchy and designed to reward the attainment of personal power and prestige. Women did not succeed to the degree one might expect, Bernard suggested, because they rejected or disregarded the agentic first principles upon which the university was founded.

Since business, like academia, has traditionally been dominated by males, it is not surprising that most corporations like most universities were created in the image and to the taste of men. Hierarchy-at Ford, a seventeen level hierarchy until a few years ago (Peters and Waterman 1982)-has been the preferred corporate order. Both internal relations between employees and external relations with suppliers and customers have been hierarchically organized. But in the business world, the market has, for some time now, been unkind to hierarchies. Stodgy and inflexible, wasteful of human resources, many hierarchically organized companies have been unable to keep pace in an increasingly dynamic and chaotic global economy. Competitors which have organized themselves along flatter, more communal lines have been winning market share. The consequent reorganization of many American corporations is a trend that is favorable for women because their habitual communication styles equip them to function well in the flatter, more communal, more team-oriented organizations which are emerging from the turmoil. Nor is the convergence between the ways in which businesses are organized and the communal style of women an accident. Business leaders no longer have the degree of power and control they once had. Companies have become too big, the global economy too integrated, competition too fierce, and the marketplace too chaotic for any one person at the pinnacle of a corporate hierarchy to control the market and make the rules. Everyone has become powerless to one degree or another.

What is striking in both management and marketing is the extent to which changes in perspective over the past sixty years have moved women's way, shifting the emphasis from agentic autonomy and power to communal cooperation. To focus first on relations inside a company, management gurus have long held that rigid, rule-bound hierarchies are dysfunctional. Drucker (1942) and Deming (1986) have argued since the 40's that it is workers at the bottom of a hierarchy who have the most intimate knowledge of production processes and that an organization's hierarchy must be flattened to take advantage of the workers' knowledge (Drucker 1992). They and successors like Peters and Waterman (1982), Naisbitt and Aburdeme (1985), Sink and Tuttle (1989) have argued that authoritarian management (the style most compatible with the male concern for status and order) must give way to networking, people-oriented management (a style compatible with the inclinations of women). They suggest that workers be organized in small, non-hierarchical teams which can be flexible and innovative as they solve problems. The teams that comprise this adhocracy can be kept small only if people who have an interest in the team's actions but are not on the team can be confident that their interests will be represented (Peters and Waterman 1982). And this, in turn, is possible only when team members have a communal rather than an agentic orientation.

To focus on just one sociolinguistic consequence of this trend toward flattened hierarchies and a people orientation, Crosby (1972) has suggested that male managers enhance their chances of achieving their first goal, survival, by adopting the indirect communication style of women, for an indirect proposal to stockholders or employees will not destroy the manager if it is denied or modified. Direct orders carry the risk of involving one in a battle to the death over something that is not very important.

Like management, marketing has seen over the course of this century a broad shift from an agentic to a communal orientation. Sales involved little more than haggling and pressure selling prior to the turn of the century (Bartels 1988), and in the early decades popular lecturers on sales like Paul W. Ivey (1925) emphasized the development of an agentic sales personality, an aggressive stance characterized by the ability to persuade customers to accept the salesperson's viewpoint and purchase the product. But by the 50's, the sales orientation was beginning to give way to the marketing concept with its customer orientation (Dawson 1970; Kolgraf 1980), and some have suggested that customer orientation may be succeeded by a still more communal societal orientation in which the interests of the larger society take precedence over those of the individual consumer (Robin and Reidenbach 1987).

The relevance of these shifts to the issue of gender becomes apparent in an anecdote recounted by Deborah Tannen. Tannen (1990, pp. 66-67) reports the experience of a woman who returned to a computer store for help in understanding how to operate her PC. On her first visit, a man assisted her. Clearly status conscious, he emphasized the difference between himself and the customer by using technical language and a condescending tone. He explained the proper use of the machine so quickly that the customer could not remember anything he had said or done by the time she got home. Dreading the encounter but still unable to use the product, the customer returned a week later and was helped by a woman. This salesperson sought to minimize the distance between herself and the customer, using non-technical terms where possible, carefully explaining technical terms she could not avoid. Instead of merely demonstrating procedures, she had the customer perform them herself. The customer left the second session well satisfied.

As trained marketers, we recognize that the salesman was deplorably deficient in customer orientation. His gender did not make that inevitable: not all men confuse their customers, and not all women make information easy to understand. Still, Tannen uses this anecdote to make a larger point about the communication styles typical of men and women. Because men tend to be agentically oriented, they generally frame conversations as adversarial contests for status from which they try to emerge one up. Thus, the salesman's behavior was a natural outgrowth of his agentic orientation. Because women, on the other hand, have a communal orientation, they tend to play down their own expertise and frame conversations as a cooperative, collegial endeavor just as this saleswoman did (Boyan 1989). Women are therefore more inclined than men to be customer oriented. They are less likely to need Dale Carnegie-type training, for viewed in the light of sociolinguistic research, it is evident that Carnegie (1981) sought to make salesmen more effective by training them to communicate and socialize as a woman would.


I have focused in this paper on the advantages of a communal orientation to women and to businesses which hire women. But a communal orientation is not always advantageous. There are circumstances when it is important to display one's credentials or hold the floor in public or take an openly adversarial stance vis ß vis an opponent. An agentic orientation equips one to do these things. So ideally, we should all be androgenous and bilingual, able to switch between agentic and communal modes of sociation and discourse as circumstances warrant. Men should develop a communal, women an agentic side to their character. That goal is probably worth pursuing (Heilbrun 1973), but it is not as simple as it seems-at least not for women.

Among the many asymmetries in our society which are disadvantageous to women is an asymmetrical willingness to tolerate untypical behavior. When women are not assertive in public settings, they are negatively judged to lack confidence or competence. When they are assertive, they are negatively judged to be unwomanly (Lakoff 1975; Leet-Pellegrini 1980; Tannen 1990).

Finally, I must concede a point to Lakoff (1975), Spender (1980), and Kramarae (1981), rationalist feminists who argue that differentiating the discourse of men and women may play into the oppressor's hands. Women's pattern of discourse has not developed in a vacuum but rather in a patriarchy jealous of its power and determined to force upon women styles of speech and sociation which frame them as subordinate and inferior. Where patriarchal assumptions remain entrenched, speech strategies which are intended to foster community may simply reaffirm the subordination of women or may be interpreted as doing so. It will, therefore, often be difficult to capitalize upon the strengths of women's communal orientation while at the same time avoiding further victimization.


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Val Larsen, Virginia Tech


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20 | 1993

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