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British women swear back

Responding to insults: study shows women often more sharp-tongued than men.

Women, it is said, shy away from conflict - also in their use of language: unlike men, they try to de-escalate a heated verbal dispute. Rubbish, says Ruth-Maria Roth, a student of English language and literature at the University of Bonn. In a recent study she debunked the popular image of female behaviour, which is also shared by linguists, exposing it as a cliché. Her work on "resposes to insults" has now earned her the university's Queen's Prize, an annual award established in 1965 by Queen Elizabeth II for research excellence in the field of English studies.

In preparing her dissertation Ruth-Maria Roth interviewed more than 200 British students of both sexes to see how they react to insults. Her findings: while, overall, the male respondents hit back at hostile remarks more frequently than their fellow women students, those women who did go on the verbal counterattack tended to be far more hard-hitting and didn't shrink from swearing.

In an initial questionnaire Roth confronted 116 students at the University of Exeter with eight different insult situations. The subjects were asked to formulate how they would respond in each case. With these replies she was then able to design a second questionnaire offering possible responses to be ticked off, which was presented to 126 other students. By comparing the results, she could confirm that the replies to the first question sheet had been representative.

Blatant language in counter-insults

The female respondents said in at least a fifth of cases that they would not put up with such an insult and would hit back verbally in some way. Among the men this proportion was as high as 35 per cent. However, when a woman does choose to go on the offensive she doesn't hold back: a quarter of women students came up with blatant language in their counter-insult ("fuckshit", "arsehole", "bastard"). Of the male students questioned, only 15 per cent got so graphic; most preferred a more subtle reply to the verbal attack - for instance, giving an sarcastic response or making a joke to take the sting out of an insult.

Sign of emancipation?

Do her findings allow us to conclude that emancipation has now reached women's language usage in conflicts? The 26-year-old English language scholar remains sceptical, "For one thing the method of investigating verbal reactions by means of questionnaires  has its weaknesses: How can we be sure whether the participant would actually respond like this in reality?" This dilemma is often difficult to resolve in linguistic enquiries - nevertheless, Roth's supervisor at Bonn University's English Department, Professor Dr. Klaus P. Schneider, rates her work very highly. It is "the best paper ever to have landed on my desk", not least, he adds, because the subject of "insults" has so far been completely ignored in linguistics.

On a closer look at motivations, the tendency among some female students to hit back really hard might even point in a quite different direction, namely to a feeling of inferiority. Perhaps they feel forced to overcoming a supposed weakness by going on the offensive and responding in no uncertain terms. As Ruth-Maria Roth concludes, "After all, the ability to parry an insult with sarcasm, or even just let it go, usually shows you're much more in control of a situation."

Ruth-Maria Roth
Telephone: 02421/65039
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Professor Dr. Klaus P. Schneider
Englisches Seminar der Universität Bonn
Telephone: 0228/73-5722
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