We all know the popular stereotypes of what happens to adults as they advance in age: they become less competent, are often seen as less “feminine” or less “masculine” to the point of being androgynous or even asexual, and they become grumpy and discontent. Yet, research by Stanford professor of Japanese languages and linguistics and Clayman faculty research fellow, Yoshiko Matsumoto—who studies the relationship among language, gender and age—reveals how everyday conversations between elderly Japanese women belie these stereotypes.
Japan is aging faster than any country in history and Japanese women have the world’s longest life expectancy: 87 years, according to the World Health Organization. Japan has a strong social welfare system, relatively high rates of labor participation among older adults and is generally supportive of its elderly, says Matsumoto.
However, despite the large population of older women in Japan, scholars know very little about their linguistic patterns. To fill in this gap, Matsumoto analyzed 33 hours of recorded casual conversations among four relatively healthy Japanese women, aged 70 to early 80s. She analyzed their peer-to-peer conversations and also spoke with them directly.
The results of her study highlight misperceptions in our stereotypes of older women.
It’s a common belief, explains Matsumoto, that Japanese women of this age follow the Confucian model of the “good wife,” who is respectful and subservient to her husband. Her research, however, found that these women “happily compete in criticizing their husbands’ selfish behaviors.” One woman complained that she had lost her hearing because her husband was always shouting at her, and then laughed.
Older women also have the reputation of being disinterested in sexuality, their bodies or romantic images. Yet, the elderly women in Matsumoto’s research enjoyed making “physical and romantic comments about themselves and men.”
Research participants, Matsumoto found, also shared traumatic or sad life events, such as the death of a husband or the illness of a loved one. However, these conversations were often peppered with a sense of humor and a friendly camaraderie rather than a grumbling or complaining tone consistent with the stereotype of the elderly.
Matsumoto uses the concept of “quotidian reframing” to illuminate this process. In a psychologically intense narrative, she says, individuals use their “quotidian” or ordinary selves to bring humor or lightness to an emotionally trying experience. This is achieved by “inserting a scene that is reminiscent of ordinary life while recounting a memory of a grave event.”
For example, research participant Akiko described being at her husband’s hospital bed as he died. While recounting this event to a friend, she explained what happened, then laughed and remembered how her husband was always telling her that she talked too much, even on his deathbed. In this moment, Matsumoto notes, Akiko decoupled herself from a serious event and instead superimposed a memory from ordinary days to lighten the conversation.
Matsumoto’s research “helps dispel stereotypes of age and gender and provides a more nuanced understanding of older women.” Although identity is often understood in terms of separate social categories such as gender, ethnicity or age, conversational narratives reveal a more complex and diverse picture that reflects the accumulated personal histories of the elderly women Matsumoto studied.
Her findings encourage us to move beyond generational bias and to recognize the diverse social roles and identities of older adults, as well as their complex outlooks on their lives and relationships.