Gender and Culture

Jun 01,2012

This is really apropos of nothing, but I was sort of desperate for a topic (again) this week, and when I got into the office today my inbox contained a thank-you note in response to some information I had provided, and the message began

Dear Ms Xenos,

My first thought was actually that it's really kind of troublesome to have to check the recipient's gender before addressing someone in English. It's not necessary in Japanese because -san is used universally. For all the talk that goes on stateside about the rigidity of gender roles here, the system of address is quite neutral. (I used to wonder as a child if it was conceivable that a human language could be completely neutral with regard to gender--I thought it rather odd that the whole pronoun system was constructed on the basis of sex and not some other arbitrary attribute like, say, social position. In Japanese 'sensei' works somewhat like this, at least in theory, although in practise it seems almost anyone can be addressed that way.)

Then I thought about my numerous posts to the local mailing list, disseminations of information from my post at TPIEF and blog ramblings, and wondered for the first time if any impression of gender manifested itself in my writing. (More philosophical types surely think about this stuff quite a bit, but not me.)

I ended up by wondering if, had I been born female in America and moved to Japan, the style of my writing would be any different. There's supposed to be an area of forensic linguistics that can determine an orator's gender with reasonable accuracy based on certain markers and patterns. It should be a lot easier in Japanese because gender is codified in self-referents and other rhetorical tags, but certain patterns seem to emerge in English, too--mostly with regard to subject matter for conversations and blog posts, but also in terms of greater or lesser detail. Women supposedly tend to use specific colour terms like 'mauve' and 'chartreuse' where the most specific men get would be 'pinkish-purple' and 'yellow-green'. Apparently this is rooted in biology; women are more sensitive to colour variations and have less incidence of colour-blindness.

That's about all I can think of to say about that for now. (Oh yeah, and I'm still male, by the way.)

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