Playing the piano in Japan can be a hard thing to confess, especially if you are a man. I used to play the piano, and I was totally open about it, however, I had a few male friends who were ashamed to admit that they had piano lessons. Even though I have always been open about it, I have been criticized many times and asked, “Why do you play the piano if you are a boy?” These comments show exactly how society has stereotypes towards gender roles, setting limits on what each gender can and cannot do. According to Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of the article, “‘Bossy’ Is More Than a Word to Women,” the connotation of the word bossy differs when it is directed to a man or a woman. The connotation that the word bossy has played a role in diminishing women’s power and authority among a male-centered society, as men are always expected to be the leader. Thus, women have to worry about how people will see them, which is why they have to figure out a way not to be too bossy or incompetent. Tannen concludes that we must not call girls and women bossy as it “is not just a word but a frame of mind,” which can limit women’s possibilities to improve their abilities (63-65). By “frame of mind,” I think Tannen tried to say that the word bossy sets a limit on women’s minds about what they can and cannot do. Although there are a number of sexist words, there are still some movements pursuing the equalisation of words, especially in Japan, which may reflect a change in the ways of thinking in society, principally about gender roles.
Sexist words affect women by defining the way each gender should behave. This is directly related to Tannen’s idea that even “weak” words such as bossy can act as a “frame of mind” towards women, limiting their ideas of how women should behave (65). Women are restricted by gender-biased thoughts and stereotypes that inhibit them from exercising what they wish, as society itself insinuates that they should not do specific jobs. As working outside has always been regarded as a man’s role, the names of some professions remained in the masculine form as women were expected to work only at home. The usage of gender-specific job titles has become a problem, because women working outside have become more than normal nowadays. Therefore, calling professions exercised by women in a masculine form can be received as an insult as it can be seen as denying women’s identity and freedom to choose a profession. For example, the words “chairman” and “fireman” insinuate that women cannot carry out such work that exercises authority and also saves lives because it is a too-masculine of a task. Names of professions used to end with “men” because society has always been male-centered. Consequently, those words imply that women should not and are not suitable for some professions. It limits women, for instance, from being in charge of prestigious jobs, especially if they are high-positioned. What is more, these words consequently affect the way we think, or as Tannen would say “create a frame of mind” about specific professions, creating bias in our society.
Some sexist words affect men as well, narrowing the way they can act because they have to act as a proper man, as Tannen described in her article saying that men are supposed to be “aggressive” and authoritative, which is also a “frame of mind” towards men (65). We can find biases everywhere, yet we live with them without feeling even a slight bit of discomfort. In Japanese, people used to call every woman who worked at home a “主婦 (shufu)” where the second kanji means “wife.” However, as we have progressed in terms of gender equality, men working at home is not as rare. The problem is that in Japanese, people used to call househusbands as shufu using the same kanji as the one used in housewives. This can also be explained by the example of “看護婦 (kangofu),” which means “nurse,” and uses the same kanji for wife in it. These words are limiting the way men can act, almost insinuating that men cannot be nurses or even help at home. Conversely, even though these words seem to be only sexist towards men, it is sexist towards women as well, because they were first created to limit women’s role in society. It limits women by forming a bias in their minds that their role in society is only to take care of people, either at home or at a hospital. Interestingly, the meaning of each word creates a stereotype in people’s minds which sets an enclosure about what each gender can do, what they are expected to do, and what they should not do.
Although sexist words exist and are unavoidable, many countries have been working on the equalisation of words, and one of these countries is Japan. Japan had mainly used two methods, one is the equalisation of sexist words and the other is the neutralisation of words in order to not separate gender roles. One example of equalisation, the word shufu described above has been changed to “主夫 (shufu),” which has the same sound but uses the kanji of “husband” instead. People equalised words by making one for women and another for men. On the other hand, as an example of neutralisation, there is the word kangofu, which means “nurse.” Now, people call every nurse, male or female, as “看護師 (kangoshi)” which does not use the kanji for “wife” anymore. Here, people neutralise words by making one for both genders. In the States, the movement of word equalisation has been conducted as well. Both words described above, “fireman” and “chairman,” are now neutralised and few people would call others using these words anymore. The usage of gender-neutral job titles has now taken place. “Fireman” has been changed to “firefighter” and “chairman” has been neutralised as “chairperson,” which sounds more fair and less discriminatory. As movements to equalise gender gaps have been conducted in many countries, people are becoming more open-minded towards the change of words. For men, it is much easier to choose to be a “nurse” than it used to be, and for women, it is much easier to exercise authority as a “chairperson” than when they were called “chairmen.” Therefore, the equalisation of words has been breaking people’s “frame of mind” towards gender roles.
Language always changes, so it is inevitable that sometimes they still connote old concepts or ways of thinking, which are also a “frame of mind.” Tannen tried to express that “’bossy’ is not just a word, but a frame of mind” (65), in order to make readers understand and realise that words are playing a role as an “enclosure” on people’s minds. Even though that is true, a number of people are still working a lot on the equalisation and neutralisation of words in order to make a fairer and less sexist environment. The way sexist words can work on people’s minds can sometimes be devastating, as it can limit their thoughts, and in many cases, their dreams. There is no such profession that is only for women or men. Although we tend to use words unconsciously without noticing their meaning, we still have to pay attention to their meaning and be careful about the impact and weight we might have on our simple and plain words.
Tannen, Deborah. “Bossy’ Is More Than a Word to Women.” America
Now: Short Readings from Recent Periodicals. Ed. Robert Atwan. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 63-65. Print.