A Gender Communication Expert Pronounces Trump the Winner at First Presidential Debate (Guest Column)
Clinton’s collaborative use of the feminine “we” (as opposed to Trump’s masculine “I”) and inability to own her accomplishments effectively allowed the Republican candidate to wrest attention and engagement using Twitter-style declarative soundbites.
Sabrina Pasztor is an assistant professor of clinical business communication at the USC Marshall School of Business, where she teaches public speaking and rhetoric and studies organizational communication, media framing and intercultural communication from a gender perspective. The Hollywood Reporter asked her to critique the first presidential debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump through the lens of her expertise.
As an academic who studies communication, gender and media, I sat down to watch tonight’s presidential debate with trepidation. Would either candidate become overly defensive? Interrupt incessantly? Grandstand effectively? Would any of their behaviors betray characteristics of what linguist Deborah Tannen has referred to as “gendered communication?” Why, yes. What shaped Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s strategic approach was their selection of what scholars refer to as “masculine” or “feminine” styles of speech. Both genders can and do employ tactics from either playbook. Masculine style relies on communication of a distinct purpose or goal in the form of a news headline backed up by facts and declarative statements, a need to dominate and control the stage, interruptions to take back control and heavy use of first-person “I,” particularly in showcasing accomplishments. Feminine speech, by contrast, employs rapport, a narrative format that provides the story first and then gets to the key takeaway, questions and qualifiers in lieu of declarative statements (“I’m not sure, but…”) and heavy use of first-person plural “we” to indicate solidarity and collaboration.
I expected both candidates to switch between masculine and feminine speech styles. To be truly successful in any organizational field requires one to do so. So it was not surprising that The Donald interrupted Hillary more, used the term “I” consistently (particularly when he was proud of himself) and frequently provided “the solution” to issues concerning unemployment, immigration and trade deficits first before launching into a tangle of stories intended to show his effectiveness. What was interesting, however, is his agreement with Clinton on several key points related to race. This conciliatory attitude was soundly anchored in feminine speech style. By stating his willingness to agree with her, Trump actually scored a few points in cross-gender speech because he was willing to put his blustery attack mode aside in favor of being perceived as agreeable — a new quality for his persona. Not surprisingly, Clinton employed “we” regularly — as in, “we need to collaborate," “we need to be cooperating” — and started most of her responses with long stories to illustrate her engagement with the community before clearly stating her solutions. She also asked the audience questions to get them to connect the dots to Trump’s many confusing comments and, by extension, his ineptitude; Trump, on the other hand, flatly stated “Wrong!” to comments he didn’t appreciate.
The problem for Clinton is not only that she did not use enough masculine speech, which would have been unexpected and refreshing, but also that Trump’s masculine modus operandi resonates with audiences who respond to stylistic communication. Trump came out swinging and owned the first third of the debate, not because of what he said, but because of how he said it. He quickly positioned the U.S. in an “us vs. them” conflict paradigm against Mexico, China and all those big bad countries stealing “our” American jobs. There was no room for a “we” in this framework and he intended it this way, to emphasize the warlike quality he is propagating as the anti-politician businessperson, ready to rumble. Short declarations like, “We have to stop letting companies leave our country,” “I think I did a good job” and “She doesn’t have the stamina to be president” emphasized his Twitter-sound-bite, commando style of speaking. I remember what Trump said in the debates because he was using masculine communication style to his advantage.
Clinton, by contrast, excelled in her fact-based approach, but for the first half of the debate looked as if she were trying both to be gracious and to assume a persona of an aggressive combatant. Her campaign managers said in advance that her strategy would be to attack Trump at his Achilles’ heels — weakness in factual accuracy and lack of political experience — so we expected some aggression, but it was displayed as awkward and robotic, as evidenced by her gruesome smile, which was meant to be mocking. The repeated use of “we,” while truly indicative of her personal and political value system, was supremely ineffective. Hillary needed to claim ownership of her personal successes, forgetting the team, Democrats and President Obama and instead using that masculine style of communication to really drive home her individual successes — something Trump excels at. It was a fine tactic to disparage Trump’s remarks as irrational, but at some point, she needed to take the ownership of the stage and bring in that magical word “I,” as in, “I will lead.” The power of those words could have tipped the debate in her favor.
Clinton also needed to avoid hedgers and qualifiers at all costs. The “I think, probably” and “It seems to me” again ground her in feminine speech style and make her appear more conciliatory but far less confident than her opponent. Fortunately by the second half of the debate, Clinton relied on these hedgers much less, but the damage had been done. She could have used the final third of the debate to switch over to complete masculine speech characteristics, and gone out with a memorable bang. Instead, she tried to play the snarky card with Trump by mocking his comments, when a quiet, consistent and more direct communication style with Twitter-style declarative statements would have made her more powerful. Clinton needs to forget being liked. By now, people either do or don’t. Trump supporters will not change their vote between now and Nov. 8. But Clinton must seize the opportunity to command that stage as she has never done before. As much as it pains me to say it, that will require her to take a page — or some declarative words — from the book of Donald.