| Sen.Graham Might Sound feminine(he does!) but he doesn’t use feminine sounding words|
Trump does, beating graham palms down
In the 2016 presidential contest, there has been one thing that supporters and detractors of Donald Trump have agreed on. The chest-pounding real estate mogul from New York has emerged as the quintessentially masculine candidate. Love him or loathe him, Trump’s campaign has been defined by the ways he has asserted his maleness—mocking his opponents for their low energy, bullying his critics, sneering at perceived weakness, boasting of his sexual prowess, vowing to hit back twice as hard as he’s been hit.
But academic research has picked up something that thousands of hours of campaign punditry has missed completely: Donald Trump talks like a woman. He might be preoccupied with grading women’s looks, penis size and “locker room talk,” but the way he speaks and the actual words he uses make for a distinctly feminine style. In fact, his speaking style is more feminine by far than any other candidate in the 2016 cycle, more feminine than any other presidential candidate since 2004.
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More than just a comical curiosity, this fact about Trump’s mode of communication might help explain how a candidate who has been so extensively rebuked for his mean-spirited attacks on immigrants, women, the disabled and even prisoners of war has managed to attract support from millions of voters who adore the way he says openly what they feel. To some, Trump’s ascent is evidence that society still prizes the masculine over the feminine, but what’s happening is more complex, and Trump’s style has qualities that go beyond mere blustery aggression. Research has shown that the more feminine a speaker’s style, the more likable and trustworthy he seems. For Trump, who has been derided for his multiple contradictions and outright lies, that advantage might well have persuaded his supporters to listen to him and not the chorus of media fact checkers.
It’s not just a lazy stereotype that men and women speak differently. In fact, researchers who have sifted through thousands of language samples from men and women have identified clear statistical differences. Some of these differences are exactly what you’d expect—men are more likely to swear and use words that signal aggression, while women are more likely to use tentative language (words like maybe, seems or perhaps) and emotion-laden words (beautiful, despise). But other patterns are far from obvious. For example, contrary to the common stereotype that men can’t resist talking about themselves, women are heavier users than men of the pronoun “I” whereas the reverse is true for the pronoun “we”; women produce more common verbs (are, start, went) and auxiliary verbs (am, don’t, will), while men utter more articles (a, the) and prepositions (to, with, above); women use fewer long words than men when speaking or writing across a broad range of contexts.
Jennifer Jones, a doctoral candidate of political psychology at the University of California at Irvine, has combined these statistics into an index capturing the ratio of “feminine” to “masculine” words, and applied it to the language of 35 political candidates over the past decade. Hillary Clinton’s language falls above the average on this index—more feminine than George W. Bush’s, but less so than Barack Obama’s.
But Donald Trump is a stunning outlier. His linguistic style is startlingly feminine, so much so that the chasm between Trump and the next most feminine speaker, Ben Carson, is about as great as the difference between Carson and the least feminine candidate, Jim Webb. And Trump earns his ranking not just because he talks a lot about himself or avoids big words (both of which are true); according to Jones, he also shows feminine patterns on the more subtle measures, such as his use of prepositions and articles. The key then is not what Trump talks about—making Mexico pay for the wall or bombing the hell out of ISIL—but rather how he says it.
Trump’s unusually feminine style has been on display during all three presidential debates. Here’s how he talked about his economic plans during the first debate: “My tax cut is the biggest since Ronald Reagan; I’m very proud of it. It will create tremendous numbers of new jobs. But regulations, you are going to regulate these businesses out of existence. When I go around—Lester, I tell you this, I’ve been all over. And when I go around, despite the tax thing, the thing that business—as in people—like the most is the fact that I’m cutting regulation…. I’m really calling for major jobs because the wealthy are going to create tremendous jobs. They’re going to expand their companies. They’re going to do a tremendous job.”
To which Hillary Clinton responded in the more familiar—and more masculine—style that we’re used to hearing from politicians: “I don’t think top-down works in America. I think building the middle class, investing in the middle class, making college debt-free so more young people can get their education, helping people refinance their debt at a lower rate—those are the kinds of things that will really boost the economy. Broad-based, inclusive growth is what we need in America, not more advantages for the people at the very top.”
Do these styles register with voters? After all, most people aren’t likely to notice which candidate has used more auxiliary verbs or prepositions, or to be able to say whether men or women use more of either. But superficial features like these may be markers of deeper differences in how men and women talk and what they talk about. For example, using more verbs and fewer articles is a natural side effect of using language that focuses on processes and actions rather than on categories and concepts. Jones suggests that the bundle of features that define the feminine style reflect language that is “more socially oriented, expressive and dynamic, whereas masculine language is more impersonal, long-winded and unemotional.” As she points out, though Trump tends to meander when he addresses his crowds, most people would not use the words “impersonal” and “unemotional” to describe his language. And her research suggests that candidates who speak in a feminine style may have an advantage over those whose language is more masculine.
In a study presented at the most recent meeting of the American Political Science Association, Jones crafted political speeches that hewed to either feminine or masculine norms, attributed them to fictitious political candidates running for the U.S. Senate, and asked volunteers to evaluate the candidates based on their speeches. Candidates who spoke in a feminine style were perceived as considerably warmer, more likable and more trustworthy than those whose style was more masculine. They also were more likely to earn the participants’ votes. The benefit of using feminine language was greater for male candidates than for female candidates—but unlike previous studies that reported that women (but not men) were seen as less competent when adopting feminine traits, Jones’ participants did not penalize female candidates who declined to speak like men.
It would be a stretch to conclude that candidates always stand to gain from getting in touch with their feminine side.
Studies of persuasive communication are notorious for showing sensitivity to context. For example, a 2015 study led by Patricia Strach found that female voice-overs were more credible than male voices in political ads that focused on so-called women’s issues—education, child care and reproductive rights. But viewers found them less persuasive than male voices when the discussion veered to the economy or foreign policy. Other studies point to evidence that emotional language is effective against a political landscape that is filled with gloom and anxiety, but that cooler language prevails under conditions of stability and prosperity.
This makes it hard to draw any fast conclusions about what effect, if any, Trump’s feminine linguistic style has had given the content of his campaign (though it’s worth noting that Trump’s chief rival, Ted Cruz, a lawyer and college debater who is often celebrated for his oratorical gifts, has a linguistic style that skews heavily to the masculine). Still, Jones’ research casts doubt on the narrative that Trump’s supporters are attracted to a political icon of masculinity who is untainted by woman-like traits. On the contrary, it may be exactly these traits—and their associations with emotional connectedness and personal vulnerability—that help to counter the opposition’s portrait of Trump as a domineering misogynist who lacks empathy and concern for others.
“Nobody respects women as much as I do,” Trump has asserted, a claim that leaves many in a slack-jawed state of incredulity. But one thing is clear: Among recent presidential candidates, nobody talks like women as much as he does. And that adds an intriguing splash of complexity to any gender-based story on Trump.
By Julie Sedivy. She’s taught linguistics and psychology at Brown University and the University of Calgary, and is the co-author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You.