The composition of a conversational group will often result in the use of greatly contrasting strategies depending on the gender of those within the conversation. Spoken interaction varies considerably between men and women, directly affecting how a conversation will play out. These differences will be most obvious in mixed-gender conversation. Research by the likes of Mark Liberman gives us an insight into male behaviour, supported by the earlier work of Fisherman. Both researchers highlight he fact that men speak for much greater stretches of time while using a greater number of words, in comparison to women.
We can see then, that males would appear to be dominant in conversation. This differs when the composition of a conversational group consists entirely of women, or men. In these cases we know that males speak less than females, arguably showing a desire for dominance in conversation when in mixed-gender groups, changing their spoken interaction style accordingly. This idea of dominance is supported by most male behaviour in conversation. The very nature of interactions differs greatly between men and women.
Males will generally offer up less support for one another in conversation, while being more comfortable voicing their disagreement. Some research has also found men to be more interruptive of each other, though this has been contradicted by the work of Zimmerman and West. Women, on the other hand, tend to be supportive of each other, showing agreement through back-channelling and other positive feedback. This behaviour displays the competitive nature of males in conversation, compared to the more co-operative, supportive style of females.
The behaviour of males within conversation is documented with the Dominance Theory. Therein, we are aware that males play a dominant role in society, and thus are dominant within language. The idea is supported by numerous researchers who have observed males in conversation, in that we are aware that males interrupt at a much greater rate than women (96% compared to just 4%) and are less willing to pursue a conversation started by a female. These two aspects of male behaviour are clear attempts to build and maintain power in conversation
The behaviour of different genders in spoken interactions complements the content of their conversations. Research has shown women discussing feelings, personal problems and emotions at a greater rate than males, who have been found to prefer discussing topics involving something more tangible. The motives behind conversation also differ. Where females would desire sympathy or support, males are found to simply want a solution, though such observations are often criticised as stereotypical. As mentioned, the dominance theory is one explanation for these differences in male and female language use.
Another, is the difference theory proposed by Deborah Tannen. This theory is often seen as an improvement, rather than a rejection of the dominance theory. Tannen argues that the differences in language use are inherent; not necessarily a result of positions within society. To conclude, it is established that males do indeed play a dominant role in conversation. However, I would agree with Tannen’s idea that this is simply a product of the competitive nature of male interaction, and the contrasting style of female conversation, wherein co-operation is more prominent than competition.