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Differences in the description of themselves

· In teenagers’ diaries ·

Giulia approached the teacher’s desk with a determined look which heralded one of her battles. Behind her, with pallid smiles and with the dedication to the leader whose turn it was typical of happily gregarious 12-year-olds, Arianna and Benedetta appeared. I already knew what was in store for me and in fact they announced to me that they had to speak to me about a problem with the boys. In the past few years I had frequently granted audiences of this kind. This time the problem was that the boys had made a list of the most beautiful girls (I use a euphemistic term) and Giulia pronounced: “We don’t like being judged only for our looks”. I found this a valid complaint and for the umpteenth time in my career as a teacher I confronted in class the thorny question of the differences between females and males.

Illustration by Gianluca Foli

However this year there were some additional elements. This class itself was turned into a small laboratory for me on gender differences for a study I was doing in collaboration with Stefania Cavagnoli of the University of Rome, Tor Vergata. By analysing the diaries of the girl and boy pupils of the class to which I teach literature I attempted to provide the already vast panorama of existing studies with additional elements in order to answer the question: is there a feminine language that differs from masculine language? And if there are differences in the male and female languages, to what extent are they the result of social pressure and/or are they independent of it?

What emerged was a picture somewhat indicative of the manner of expression as well as of the self-perception of today’s adolescents for a total of 21,067 words collected, of which 12,286 were written by 9 girls and 8,778 written by 11 boys, that is, an average of 1,365 words per head for the girls and 798 for the boys. The difference of more than 500 more words on average written by the girls gives a first idea of the different approach to writing about themselves that was found between the male and female groups, even though these numbers do not of course reflect completely the great variety of choices made by individual students, which has seen boys write long passages and girls express themselves concisely.

Another significant fact concerned the variety of words used: 1,789 different words used by the female group; 1,341 different words used by the male group. The girls seemed to write with greater variety in their choice of words, while the boys had more frequent recourse to the same words.

Home and school were the nouns that appeared most frequently in the writings analysed, without distinction of gender, just as the names pertinent to the respective semantic fields were of almost the same use and frequency across the two groups. More significant differences emerged when we focused our attention, for example, on nouns which indicate parts of the body. In the boys’ pages the words: stomach, heart, abdominals, skeleton, muscles, legs appeared; whereas in the girls’ pages we found: mouth, hair, lips, face, head, eyes, nose, hand, feet. That is, in the male writing the body is named in its entirety and in its centre, expressing strength and energy. In the female writing attention rests rather on the parts of the face, on hands and feet, to indicate expressiveness and industriousness.

In the girls’ diaries 240 qualifying adjectives were found, including 47 superlatives; in the boys’ diaries 185 qualifying adjectives were found, including 38 superlatives. A common note among the boys and the girls, which surprised me, was that the adjective which recurred most frequently was tired (12 times for the girls and 14 times for the boys), with the superlative very tired (9 times for the girls, 3 for the boys). Beautiful came only second.

Apart from the fact, unfortunately in this case common to both sexes, of evidently being an exhausted generation, what adjectives did the girls and the boys use to describe themselves?

The girl students used according to the situations happy/very happy/extra-happy (9 times) content, pleased, excited, amazed, preoccupied, angry, calm, kind, sincere, sleepy, lazy. The boy students were just as happy/most happy/very happy (12 times) and in turn they used the adjective content/most content/very content, but also with a high frequency burdened/super burdened/very burdened (six times) which emerges as a completely male quality like stressed/very stressed (five times); we also find insecure, sad, satisfied, ready, impatient.

One adjective that never appears in the male texts analysed but often recurs in the female texts is boring and very boring, complete with one “bo-o-oring”; the context generally expressed a disappointed expectation of newness and a lack of correspondence between reality and daydreams, which would seem more typically feminine.

Another a distinctive trait was the use of adjectives to indicate colours: in the girls’ texts were found golden, silver, white, clear, green, brown, chestnut, fuchsia, sugar-pink, red; in the male texts only the adjective white appeared.

We noticed further that there were verbs which recurred more than once in the female writing but which did not appear in the male writing, such as to get a head start (meant in the sense of doing homework in advance) and to go back over (in the sense of studying again), then to taste, to dance, to change, to believe (used as mitigatory), to learn, to quarrel, to worry, to feel; and likewise the forms I love (three times), adore (five times counting also one extra-adore), while the expression I love [or care about] never appeared in the texts of the boys who were also very reticent with the verb to please, which we found six times compared with the 17 in the female texts (whereas the verbal form I hate was seen at the same rate in both groups. More frequent among the girls was also the form I want (five times compared with once), and the verbs to give (28 times compared with seven), to speak (15 times compared with two), to tell (10 times compared with once).

Verbs present only in the male texts were to train, to combat, to build, to wander around/go for a drive, to set out, to overcome. A greater emphasis for the girls on psychological and mental actions should thus be noted, while for the boys the emphasis was on physical actions.

A further significant characteristic in the use of verbs is that the girls showed a markedly greater use of verbal forms in the future than the boys: in the texts of the girl pupils 39 verbs conjugated in the future tense were counted, while in those of the boy pupils there were four verbs in the future.

While the boys’ grammatical construction usually followed a linear logic with a limited number of clauses, with simple phrases and with frequent punctuation marks, that of the girls expanded in all directions, superabundant with subordinate clauses, the coordinates were often redundant and punctuation was scarce. Ultimately, in the boys’ texts narrative sequences predominated, written in a dry prose and with an almost total lack of figurative language. Although complex and detailed descriptions of locations and landscapes were generally lacking, the actions were well situated in time and in space. The passages from the girls’ diaries were decidedly more expansive, with long sequences of description and reflection. The former, even those in which the use of adjectives was sketchier, were nevertheless rich in detail, one might say panoramic, sometimes with lists of objects and personal considerations from which the subjective dimension emerged powerfully. Descriptions of relations with others had a special place. While the boys simply indicated the existence of a best friend, the girls described the dynamics of the relationship.

From the analysis of the autobiographical texts a greater capacity for expressing their own interiority was seen in the girls, abstract concepts linked to the psychological and relational dimensions, a perception of time in a cyclical form, a strong projection into the future, an emphasis on visual suggestions. The writing was complex, rich, creative and sometimes unexpected.

Instead in the boys there was a greater tendency to express rivalry, corporeity, physical action and activity, concreteness, linearity in time, connections of cause and effect, the senses of touch and taste. The writing was brief and essential, sometimes repetitive.

With both the boy and the girl students we sought to identify the reasons for this diversity. Becoming aware of the positive and fascinating aspects of the differences contributed to smoothing corners and dismantling a few barriers. Above all, recognition of their reciprocal diversity, together with the observation that many misunderstandings derived from false images or expectations of the one sex towards the other helped them to overcome several obstacles which prevented a more serene relationship between girls and boys.

Anna Maria Rossi




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 23, 2019