Is “locker room talk” an excuse? Discourse analyst weighs in

Webinar addresses gendered language, political implications

“I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the p****. You can do anything.”

This excerpt is from the transcript of a leaked tape that recorded President Donald Trump engaging in what many people excused as “locker room talk.” A controversial topic during his campaign, opponents say it is inexcusable while supporters argue, “boys will be boys,” and that he was not a political figure at the time and had an expectation of privacy. Which side is correct?

Although a matter of opinion, Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Georgetown University Dr. Jennifer Sclafani presented a webinar titled “Coming Out of the Locker Room: Lessons on Language and Gender from Presidential Politic” to try to tackle this question.

Sclafani’s research focuses on how people use language to construct meaning, navigate social relationships and negotiate social categories like gender, social class and race. As such, she focuses on linguistics and what language teaches us. One of the first aspects she stressed about the importance of linguistics in the political realm is that it can be used to study how society’s language is shaped. Many people argue, she explained, that presidential language is important because it lays the foundation for what is acceptable for other people who are not in positions of power.

However, a common counterargument is that Trump did not have to practice “presidential speech” at the time the recording was taken, as he was not a candidate for president then. The argument extends further by saying he believed he was in private, simply engaging in playful banter with a colleague, what many refer to as “locker room talk.”

To unpack this, Sclafani first outlined common general language differences among men and women, citing Robin Lakoff as her source. Women, for example, often use hedges, which are words that make affirmative statements sound less taunting. Examples of hedge words are “maybe,” “somewhat” and “perhaps.” Women are also known to use question tags, which is when they make a declarative statement into a question. Instead of staying, “it’s nice outside,” they might say “it’s nice outside, isn’t it?” Men are more likely to be dominant in a conversation, to interrupt, to create debate, to tell narratives. As a result, women come off as weak and are taken less seriously.

Looking at these common conversational traits, Sclafani found it fair to question if Trump is just a “typical man.” Throughout the election cycle, he was known for his interruptions. Sclafani cited every outlet noting more interruptions of Clinton by Trump than the reverse. He also created debate, she explained, by outlining a “me versus them” storyline in which he was a political outsider. Finally, he told narratives, all of which involved him conquering others. This involved his business deals, Sclafani said, as well as his sexual exploits.

Referring to the conversation at hand as “locker room banter,” eludes that it happened in a private, gender-segregated space and was simply language of male bonding. The problem with this argument, Sclafani explained, is the “leaky boundary” between public and private discourse, meaning that the line is continuously blurred between what is public and private, especially in an age of such advanced technology.

Although he was on a private bus, he was minutes away from engaging in public discourse and his microphone was on, whether he knew it or not, she explained, making it debatable as to whether or not he was really in private.

The problem is that people have different ideas about the importance of language. Sclafani explained that while some people believe this recording to be exemplary of misogynistic and sexist language, others contest that it was blown out of proportion.

For the future, Sclafani offered suggestions as to what people can do, especially those in the political realm, to avoid these situations.

The first step is to be aware of the differences between men and women and the language they use. The second is to come up with new language, such as terms and phrases that are more politically correct, and be patient as they catch on. Third, recognize the increasingly blurred line between private and public in the age of social media, noting that it is unlikely anything said or done as a public person will likely stay private. Finally, be clear when talking to others about what each person’s linguistic ideology is. This means that some people strongly believe the president should be a role model for others in everything he does, including how he presents himself even in private conversations, but others do not hold him to the same standard.

Ultimately, the question is too great for a quick and easy answer. It depends on a multitude of factors, not the least of which being how men and women are socialized and the linguistic patterns they are taught.

Sclafani studies discourse analysis, which she defines as studying the language above and beyond the sentence. Language above the sentence refers to conversations, arguments, stories and the like. Language beyond the sentence refers to what the social context is, the channel of communication, the setting, the speaker’s purpose, the audience, etc.

Sclafani teaches courses in sociolinguistics, cross-cultural communication, language and gender, and political discourse analysis. She received her Ph.D. in Linguistics from Georgetown University and has also taught at Hellenic American University in Athens, Greece and the University of Vienna in Austria.