Gender differences in politeness

In her second blogpost, Jiayan Xu reports on her findings from the essay she wrote to round off the course The Sociolinguistics of Late Modern English Letters:

My term paper was about discovering gender differences in terms of politeness theory, taking the Browning Love Letters as the object of my analysis. What I found was that Robert Browning used more positive politeness strategies in his love letters to Elizabeth Barratt, which showed him to be a man full of enthusiasm and positive attitudes, while Elizabeth Barrett showed more negative politeness

This appears to be contrary to many sociolinguistic studies that regard women’s verbal expressions more positively polite. Evidence can be found in Holmes’s (1988) article on paying compliments: for example, women prefer using compliments and a large number of other positive-politeness strategies. Perhaps there are several explanations for why some widely accepted sociolinguistic conclusions on gender variations in politeness strategies could not be applied to the nineteenth-century love letters that I studied.

A selection of courtship letters

First, Barrett was afraid that Robert Browning was deceiving himself, and his fondness of her might not last long. She thought that her lung illness and her disability might bring trouble as well. Additionally, she was ten years older than Browning, which might have made her feel that she would not be able to remain attractive to Robert Browning. This is what she wrote about it, on 15 May 1845: “ …there is nothing to see in me; nor to hear in me—I never learned to talk as you do in London; although I can admire that brightness of carved speech …”.

Secondly, Elizabeth Barrett’s father, Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, wished none of his children to marry, which acted as a major obstacle and blocked any possibly developing intimacy with Robert Browning. My study therefore showed that actually it is the specific context of language use that influences style of letter writing and ways of expressing politeness. How politeness strategies differentiate along with gender differences clearly also depends on such contextual factors.


Holmes, Janet. 1998. Paying compliments: a sex-preferential politeness strategy. Journal of Pragmatics 12, 445-465.

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