Gender Interaction Analysis

Written for an Applied Linguistics Master’s Course: Sociolinguistics


Section 1: Introduction to Gender Interaction Analysis

     Setting of the Language Sample. The setting for the interaction takes place on a late night talk show entitled “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” The show has had several hosts, and Jimmy Fallon is the current host for this American-based, NBC network television show. He has been hosting this show since February 2014. The show involves interviews with famous public figures, sketches and games with guests and musical performances. Since it is a late night talk show, the target audience is made up of adults, ranging anywhere from 18 to 60+ years of age. However, the guest choices and sketch/game segments can appeal to younger audiences as the show heavily references popular culture and involves participation from well-known celebrities.

     Participants in the Language Sample. The participants in this language sample are Hilary Clinton and Jimmy Fallon. Additionally, it can also be argued that the audience, both those physically present at the interview and those watching the interview on television, are also participants. Though they do not speak directly with the host and the guest, the messages exchanged between Fallon and Clinton are also aimed at them. Hilary Clinton, aged 68, is a well-known political figure. She was first lady to Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001, she served as a U.S. Senator in New York from 2001 to 2009, and she served as U.S. Secretary of State with the Obama Administration from 2009 to 2013. Currently, she is running for the presidential nomination for the Democratic Party in the upcoming election in 2016.  Jimmy Fallon, aged 41, is a well-known celebrity. Prior to hosting the NBC “Tonight Show,” Fallon worked as a cast member on another late-night NBC show, “Saturday Night Live.” Fallon has also done stand-up comedy, starred in various movies, released comedy albums and published books.

     Additional Information. Fallon and Clinton are not close friends, but it is obvious that they have a friendly working relationship. From their interview on this particular evening, it is clear that they have some knowledge of each other’s family and friends. For the purpose of this language sample, we will view the two participants as well-known public figures who are interacting publicly in a host-guest communicative context. The host is meant to engage cordially with all guests and the purpose of his interviews is not to incite controversy but rather to connect guests with the viewing audience on a balanced, non-biased and personal level. It is also important to note that because of the age gap between the host and guest in this context and because Fallon’s background experience and celebrity is not based in politics, his main purpose is to create a conversational context where Clinton can express her political position without his expressing or establishing any partiality or preference for any specific political view. This is done so that NBC as a corporation can maintain an unbiased, neutral stance on political views to the public.

     Language Sample. The following text is the language sample that will be analyzed:

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Section 2: Analysis of Interaction

     Participants’ Communication Patterns. The messages exchanged between the participants in this interview are primarily directed at the viewing audience, despite the fact that the audience is not directly involved in the communication taking place. Fallon maintains a neutral stance when engaging with Clinton on her political views for the upcoming primary election. He asks Clinton a set of approved questions (lines 2, 4 and 6) which will elicit the main points of her presidential campaign. In this sense, we get the impression that the interview taking place is planned since it is a type of public performance where the guest has rehearsed what she will say prior to the interview because her message is significant to securing potential votes (Wardhaugh, 2015).

     However, the interview can also be considered unplanned in some ways as fragmented and overlapping utterances from both Fallon and Clinton are evidenced in their utterances. Unplanned speech should not be confused with unorganized speech where “anything goes” (Wardhaugh, 2015, p. 281). Rather, unplanned speech in this language sample reflects the natural reactions and responses that occur in regular conversations which is the tone that Fallon and Clinton are trying to establish in the interview. For example, in lines 1, 2 and 4 of the language sample, Fallon stutters, uses verbal pauses (“uh”) and rephrases, exemplifying utterances that occur in unplanned speech. It is important to note that Fallon’s unplanned speech patterns here may also be influenced by the time pressure he faced at the end of the interview: he states in an earlier part of the interview that they were running out of time.

     We can also see the use of adjacency pairs in the communicative patterns of the interview. Here, the adjacency pairs take the question-answer format, where the questions posed by Fallon are specifically intended to elicit answers related to Clinton’s purpose in being on the show: campaigning for the Democratic nomination for the upcoming election (Wardhaugh, 2015). The use of adjacency pairs in this context is deliberate in getting Clinton to evoke a specific message and viewpoint to the audience through conversation with the host.

     Gender & Communication Practices and Strategies. Gender roles in this exchange are interesting to note here as the expected strategies of symmetry/asymmetry, intimacy/independence, report/rapport and one-up/one-down that Tannen (1990) illustrates in her book are used in this exchange in transformative ways which challenge gender norms and expectations. The political and social positions of Clinton and Fallon play a role in challenging expected gender roles in communication. Though much of Tannen’s (1990) work illustrates how men prefer asymmetry in communication to establish a hierarchy while women prefer symmetry to establish connection, we see Fallon establishing asymmetry in an unexpected way. The question-answer format (lines 2-7) of the interview allows Clinton to express her knowledge and take control of the conversation while Fallon listens attentively and refrains from challenging her answers. In a sense, we get the impression that Fallon is taking a one-down position in this exchange, in deference to Clinton, as his primary goal in the interview is merely to assist Clinton, through posing questions, so that she can get her political messages out to the audience.

     However, at the same time, Clinton is establishing intimacy with the audience as her messages are framed in a way to establish rapport (Tannen, 1990). In lines 3 and 5 of the language sample, we see clear evidence of Clinton attempting to establish rapport with the audience through her conversation with Fallon as she uses utterances like, “getting more money into your paycheck so…you can have a better shot” and “We’ve gotta get out from under the…problems that college is not affordable…” to show her connection and concern for major issues in American society. Using phrases with words like “you,” “your,” and “we’ve” establishes the rapport that Tannen (1990) notes as one of the conversational strategies most often used by women to promote intimacy, connection and solidarity by showing that she experiences the same problems in these areas as the audience. Furthermore, we see how the audience responds to the rapport Clinton establishes with their applause, expressing solidarity and connection to the messages she is sharing.

     Though Clinton’s messages in this interview are primarily directed at the audience, it is important to note the nonverbal establishment of rapport directed at Fallon. The way in which they interact nonverbally during the interview illustrates Tannen’s (1990) description of how women naturally tend to position themselves in respect to each other when interacting, a communicative act she calls anchoring gaze (p. 246). In the interview, Fallon and Clinton “anchor their gaze on each other’s faces, [only] occasionally glancing away” throughout the entire exchange, rarely looking at the audience (Tannen, 1990, p. 246). In this way, they are establishing rapport and solidarity which helps Clinton to connect more personally to the audience through her conversation with Fallon.

     The complex and dynamic ways in which Clinton’s and Fallon’s communicative acts simultaneously adhere to and diverge from Tannen’s (1990) concepts of gender norms is best illustrated in Eckert and McConnell-Genet’s (1998) observations which note that “gender is…produced and reproduced in differential forms of participation in particular communities of practice…[which] are constantly changing…[and] reshaping…both individual identity and any kind of group identity, including gender identity” (as cited in Wardhaugh, 2010, p. 349). From this excerpt and from the language sample, we see the interaction between genders working fluidly and dynamically, in a way that is different from generalizations made about gender and communication.

     Gender & Balancing Power, Status and Rapport. Some of the exchanges in the interview illustrate the balance that men and women establish in communication when issues of power and status are involved. Particularly, it is interesting to note how Clinton establishes power and status in her interview while simultaneously maintaining rapport and connection with Fallon and the audience. The illustrations of Clinton establishing community are clear with the aforementioned communicative strategies she used to maintain intimacy, rapport and connection with the audience through the strategic framing of her political messages. These strategies she used clearly illustrate the concept of community Tannen (1990) discusses in her book, where women view conflict in any form as “…a threat to connection, [which should] be avoided at all times” (p. 150). However, we also see a side to Clinton that does not avoid conflict or contest in the messages she shares in the interview. Though Clinton uses rapport-like language to discuss the issues in American society (lines 3 and 5), her message is also clearly in conflict with established norms in work and education that financially exclude much of the American public. Instead of framing her message in a neutral way, where both the “oppressors” and “oppressed” involved in the conflict are equally considered in her message, she takes a clear stance for the working-class American, in direct opposition to those contributing to the financial issues present in employment and education.

     Additionally, Clinton does not avoid an opportunity to boast as Tannen (1990) would suggest is a communicative act women generally try to evade in conversation. In line 6 of the language sample, Fallon asks her the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” to bring the interview to a close. It is obvious from his nonverbal gestures and from his reaction to her answer that he intended the question to be more humorous than informative to the audience. According to Tannen’s (1990) foundational concepts of gender norms, we would expect Clinton to use indirect language or to avoid answering the question altogether. She instead diverges from the expected reactions and firmly states that she expects to be back on the show, talking with Fallon about re-election. Her ability to express power, authority and confidence in becoming the next president here may be due to the fact that within political positions the roles of men and women are less stratified and less clearly differentiated, leading to less of a differentiation in the way language is used or expressed (Wardhaugh, 2010, p. 351). However, it is important to note that Clinton still adhered to some forms of expected gender norms when she uses the phrase “if you agree” to somewhat play down her confidence in becoming the next president.

Section 3: Conclusion

     From this language sample, we see how the gender norms and expectations for communication between men and women are both adhered to and challenged. This divergence from the expected communicative acts of men and women is in large part due to the political and/or social positions of both Clinton and Fallon. Since they are both well-known and well-respected public figures, symmetry in position was already established between them before the interview even took place. Additionally, because the messages conveyed in the exchange are primarily meant for the audience and because the overall goal of Clinton is to secure votes for the presidential election, it was important for her to establish both rapport and authority as she needs to connect personally with potential voters while simultaneously establishing her ability to lead a country. Clinton’s communication needed to appeal to both men and women, and so the strategies used and messages conveyed in her interview sought to achieve such goals.

     Fallon’s role in this exchange also diverged from the expected gender norms in communication. Since he is the host for a television show on a network aimed at a varied audience, he has to refrain from taking clear political stances which would marginalize or ostracize the audience in any way. He therefore maintained neutrality in his interview with Clinton and refrained from conflict by formulating questions that would elicit her political message while also attending to the political messages of other candidates who are also running for president (as exemplified in line 1).

     Though gender was the primary focus of analysis, it is important to note, based on this language sample and the way it illustrates how communication patterns and strategies can diverge from expected gender roles based on context, that there are a myriad of other factors (social class, race, culture, etc.) to consider when analyzing the speech patterns of men and women in a way that would also avoid analyzing one gender’s speech patterns in relation to the other (Wardhaugh, 2010). It would be important for anyone analyzing communicative patterns and strategies to keep these factors in mind when trying to understand why people communicate in a variety of ways. Gender is not the only factor which effects how communication happens, and gender is not enough to definitively explain why people use language in varying ways.


Tannen, D. (1990). You just don’t understand. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. (2015, September 17).

Rapid fire interview with Hilary Clinton [Video File]. Retrieved from Wardhaugh, R. (2010). An introduction to sociolinguistics (6th ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing

Wardhaugh, R. (2015). Discourse Analysis. In An introduction to sociolinguistics (7th ed., pp. 280-302). Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

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