Why Sexist Language Affects Persuasion: The Role of Homophily, Intended Audience, and Offense

By Falk, Erika; Mills, Jordan | Women and Language, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Why Sexist Language Affects Persuasion: The Role of Homophily, Intended Audience, and Offense


Falk, Erika, Mills, Jordan, Women and Language


Since the "linguistic turn" in contemporary philosophy, scholars have examined the ontological and epistemological ramifications of everyday language use. From meditations on the ontogenetic properties of words to linguistic relativism, language and its role in the creation of social reality have been a major topic of discussion and debate throughout the academy (e.g., Bing, 1992).

In the nineteen seventies, this dialogue was applied to the question of women's liberation. Many scholars have argued that the masculine bias in the English language works to both maintain and create gender inequality in society (e.g., Goldsmith, 1980). These arguments are based on prolific studies that document the effects of gendered and sexist language (e.g., Hamilton, Hunter, and Stuart-Smith, 1994). Yet critically missing from the research and theory are adequate empirical explanations of why such results occur. It was with an eye towards answering this question that we conducted the following research.

Justification for Study

While many studies on the effects of sexist language involve an element of persuasion, no studies have examined sexist language from the standpoint of traditional persuasion theory. For example, in 1973, Bem and Bem found that women were less likely to apply for jobs when the ads for the positions were written using masculine-specific wording. This study has clear implications for the persuasiveness of gendered appeals. However, the study did not explain why such behavioral outcomes were observed. Were women less likely to apply for the jobs because they did not identify themselves as the intended audience? Was it because women presumed the source to be male and/or sexist and therefore did not identify with the source? Did the sexist language somehow work to distract or offend the subjects thus decreasing the efficacy of the message?

The literature on persuasion was only of partial help in answering these questions. Numerous studies show that when the receiver of a message feels that she/he is similar to the source of the message the persuasive appeal will be more effective (e.g., Brock, 1973). Absent from this body of literature was the role the message plays in the identification process, particularly when the source or the attributes of the source are obscured. Also absent from the literature was research on how receiver perceptions of the intended audience affect persuasion. We attempted to answer these questions in the course of this study.

Pursuing the mechanism of how gendered language affects persuasion is clearly important to those who are interested in understanding and using effective persuasive appeals. It is also an important step in the continuing process of understanding the link between language and thought. This knowledge adds to our understanding of the effects of sexist language and breaks new ground on the role played by the perceived, intended audience and by the message in traditional theories of homophily.

Review of Literature

Identification and Persuasive Appeals

The idea that people are best persuaded by similar people has been examined in several theoretical perspectives throughout the discipline of communication. In the field of interpersonal communication, sender/receiver homophily has been examined in great detail. Both Rogers and Shoemaker (1971) and Rogers and Bhowmik (1971) showed that homophilous individuals are more likely to form positive impressions of each other. Studies further indicate that sender/receiver homophily increases the efficacy of persuasive appeals (Alpert & Anderson, 1973; Andersen & Todd de Mancillas, 1978; Brock, 1973; Burnstein, Stotland, & Zander, 1961; Rogers & Shoemaker, 1971). Likewise, sender/receiver homophily can make a communicator seem more credible (Simons, 1973) and safe (Prisbell & Andersen, 1980).

Researchers have identified homophily as a multidimensional construct based on feelings of sameness and identification. …

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