Hillary Clinton talks like a girl. That’s the conclusion of a pair of psycholinguistic researchers who analyzed radio and television interviews with Sen. Hillary Clinton and former president Bill Clinton recorded in 2003 and 2004, just after each had published a memoir. They found that Bill speaks more than Hillary, but Hillary uses you know more than Bill. She says so more often, but he uses more nonstandard forms of speech. Bill addresses his interviewers as “you,” while Hillary calls them by their names. Bill laughs at his own comments; Hillary laughs in response to what interviewers say. In sum, though, she laughs more than he does, at least she did when they were on the air several years ago.
Weighing these findings, the researchers conclude, “Though Hillary Clinton is a politician herself, she still follows, to some extent, the historic designation of women’s language as the language of the non-powerful.”
Detail from the scientific study, “Gender Differences in the Media Interviews of Bill and Hillary Clinton,” by Camelia Suleiman and Daniel C. O’Connel; published online in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, April 20, 2007; http://www.springerlink.com
Strange to think of Hillary Clinton as non-powerful. But stranger still to think she talks like a girl -- assuming, that is, that anyone knows for sure what girls, or boys, actually talk like.
Everybody knows that men and women speak differently, and that these differences often lead to misunderstanding. Some people think the differences are genetic, others argue they are socially constructed. Unfortunately, there’s no general agreement on what constitutes man-speak, or what it really means to talk like a girl. There is some consensus, though, that politicos use language to win votes.
The stereotypes of male and female speech don’t apply to everyone, and sometimes they don’t seem to apply to anyone. While it’s true that women’s voices tend to be pitched higher than men’s, there are plenty of low-talking women and high-talking men. It’s commonly assumed that women talk more than men, and that they’re the ones who work harder to keep a conversation going, but Bill Clinton uses more words than Hillary – at least when he’s not inhaling.
Women are often thought to be more polite, and more correct, in their language choices. And so far as the interviews go, Sen. Clinton doesn’t slur her words or drop her g’s as much as Bill. But these guys both have images to maintain, so it would be a mistake to look at their media performances as uncoached, truly spontaneous speech. Bill’s not really the Yalie or the Yank at Oxford, he’s just plain folks from a little town called Hope, Arkansas. And Hillary may be using forms of language that are thought to be deferential – like you know and so and laughing at other people’s little jokes – to soften her aristocratic image and the press attacks that see her running too much like a man.
Running for office has become a media event, after all, and candidates are heavily coached on every aspect of campaigning, from what positions to take on controversial issues to how to modulate their voices to capture market share. Talking Georgian helped get Jimmy Carter elected governor; not-talking-Georgian-so-much helped get him elected president. George W. Bush had to ditch his own high-toned Yankee ways and talk Texan to get into the state house and then the White House, and once he discovered that mispronouncing words translated into votes, he played that card as well, finding more and more of them to bumble. And whether or not he’s used a speech coach, Barak Obama is discovering as he makes his own presidential bid that he appeals to some whites and is criticized by some African Americans for having too much Harvard and not enough ’hoodin his speech.
Sen. (now President) Barack Obama speaks during the ground breaking ceremony for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in 2006. Some African Americans think there’s too much Harvard and not enough ’hood in his language.
Analyzing the public image of politicians won’t tell us much about how they interact in everyday settings. It won’t tell us how close they are to the stereotype, whether that stereotype is gender, race, class, level of education, or just plain geography. And it won’t tell us how accurate the stereotype may be. Even geographical language differences are up for grabs: listen to people in Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta and you just might think you hadn’t left the North. What studying campaigners’ speech patterns will tell us, instead, is how public figures deploy language to get elected, to stay elected, or to look back on their years in office.
So if Hillary Clinton talks like a girl, that could mean,
a. she is a girl
b. she wants to sound like a girl
c. she wants to sound presidential
d. she wants to be president
e. all or any or even none of the above.