Gender in writing about love.

I was scrolling through the Upshot on the New York Times website and came across an interesting article titled “The Words Men and Women Use When They Write About Love.” This stood out to me because I’ve never really considered writing differences between men and women, other than the usual action for boys, romance for girls that was common back in middle school. I decided to dive in and learn about this difference, and to see if there was even a strong, solid argument for a difference.

Comparison of words men and women use when writing about love. These words were charted based on whether the essay was published and gender of the author. Image from the New York Times.

The authors of this article used essay submissions for the last four years as their data pool. They charted the words along two dimensions: the gender of the author (horizontal) and whether the essay was published (vertical). The words at the top of the chart are more likely in published essays, and the words at the bottom in rejected essays. The words on the left side are more likely in essays written by men, and words on the right in essays written by women. Visually, this is shown using colors: blue for men, pink for women, and purple for the words in the middle that represent overlap.

The authors found differences when talking about families: men typically mentioned son, father, and dad more often while women mentioned daughter, mother, and mom more often. The authors linked this to parents reporting that they felt closer to their children of the same sex. Another pattern that they noticed was that women tended to describe emotion and feeling more while men described action more. These seem to fit into the traditional gender roles: girls and women are expected to be more emotional, to accept and experience feeling, while boys and men are told not to cry, and basically that showing emotion is a weakness. Also noted is the change in male and female behavior: Robin Lakoff says that the line between male and female behavior is blurring:

“Back in the 50s, men could show anger, rivalry and hostility, so they could swear. Women could show fear, sorrow and love, and so they could cry… [Today,] it’s probably best to say we are somewhat confused about gender roles and stereotypes.”

Since our views on traditional gender roles have been changing, maybe this would have been different from 60 years ago. Maybe what we see reflects those changes. The authors mention that men aren’t not talking about emotions, they just aren’t talking about as many of them. Perhaps this might have been different in the 50s: maybe we would’ve seen even fewer emotions mentioned in essays written by men (who knows?).

The part of the chart above that confused me was the published versus unpublished essays. I wasn’t sure why that would be important: people can still use certain words more than others even if their essays and other writings aren’t published. The authors mention this variable in the last few paragraphs of the article: their analysis offers hints at what types of essays are published. The essays published seem to be more specific in their characters and settings.

What might this mean?

This analysis is interesting, but does it have any meaning? From what I understand, this analysis of words could be used to determine who gets published and who doesn’t. Knowing what words are more likely to be published can alter one’s voice when writing. This analysis could also be used by publishers to address how they choose which essays get published; they could look back on their methods of choosing essays, and see if they’ve been making biased decision. For example, one publisher might read an essay and deem it “too feminine” based on the name of the author. On a less serious note, someone could alter their writing to come across as someone completely different when writing under a pen name. For example, if a man was concerned with publishing something about love under his real identity, he could alter his words to seem like his piece was written by a woman. It’s a long process to hiding your identity in your work, but if someone really wants to hide the identity in their writing, it’s a process that might work.

All in all, however, I think it’s difficult to take any meaning from this analysis as a general meaning because it has only sampled a select group of people (at least, from my understanding), which is people who read the New York Times and submit essays to it. I think it would be interesting to see how the words presented might change if there was a more diverse group of people and essays sampled (ie, people who subscribe to other news sources than the New York Times, or people who don’t generally keep up on current events; how might essays written by these people differ? Would they differ at all?). It’s tough to draw solid conclusions from a single data set, and on something as abstract as words used in essays.

What do I think?

I went into this article thinking about the different ways that men and women write about love. This article did indeed provide general differences (action versus emotion, men in the family versus women in the family). I don’t think that the article itself gives enough information about the method used to gather these essays. We know that these words come from essays collected over four years, but how many essays are there? Was the topic/prompt that people were writing for the exact same over those four years? I still have these questions, but I do think that this is a good starting point. Given this general topic, this is the analysis of words used by people that submitted essays to the New York Times.

Another point that keeps coming up in my mind is Robin Lakoff’s comment about the blurring lines between male and female behavior. I wonder if we would have expected less overlap in a situation like this back in the 50s, and if we would expect to see more overlap if we tried this experiment in another 20, 40, and 60 years from now. It’s interesting to me to think about how much our behaviors might change in any of those time intervals, especially considering the changes we’ve seen since the 1950s. That could be a social implication: the blurring of the lines between male and female behavior, and the confusion (and rejection) of gender roles can be shown in our writings about love. I’m interested to see how this might look in larger and later settings as well.


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