In Chapter 2, we set our task as understanding how a single individual's verbal move could get picked up by others and eventually make it into public discourse: how we connect what happens at the Jones's breakfast table on Saturday to the gender order. The first step of this voyage is in the actual structure of verbal activity – how what happens at the Jones's breakfast table is structured so that things actually get said and heard. Verbal activity, from presidential addresses to shouted epithets, is a vast and highly structured system of human engagement. Conventions for carrying on verbal activity differ from culture to culture, and learning how to engage in this activity is a central part of growing up. Whether we are part of a culture that considers children to be human only once they begin to engage appropriately in the give-and-take of interaction, or part of a culture in which adults hold babies up and wave their hands for them – “say bye-bye” – growing up involves learning a great deal about when and where and how to talk. Thus an investigation of the gendering of talk begins with careful attention to the many ways in which talk is constrained.
Human discourse is an ongoing project of meaning-making, and the extent to which an individual or a group or category of individuals actually contributes to meaning depends on their ability to get their contributions heard and attended to. This means being in the situations and conversations in which different kinds of verbal activity take place, being able to get one's ideas into those conversations, and having those ideas heard and taken up by others. And within those conversations, what kind of room is there for people to develop styles or strategies, and for these styles and strategies to contribute to social differentiation? From debate to gossip, from flirting to heart-to-hearts to sermons, gender unfolds in what activities we engage in, and how we actually perform and view those activities.