Cat-calls: A four-point research agenda


Recent buzz in social media about ‘street harassment‘ (and its hilarity) motivates me to write down some on-going musings on what I suspect to be a largely un-researched and un-analyzed speech genre: Cat-calls.

  1. Further research is needed.

A very brief search on this topic hasn’t turned up much– more in the popular press and travel writing than in academia, although I’m surely missing things. The following conclusions are based on my own limited observations; Do they ring true for others (in particular other women)? What (sociolinguistic) research exists on this topic?

  1. This is a recognizable, structured speech genre or register.

Say you’re walking down the street and you hear someone behind you say “Hey miss”. You instantly know whether it’s a cat-call or whether it’s someone trying to get your attention for some other purpose (you dropped your gloves while leaving the store, for instance). Right? How do you know? If the lexical choice doesn’t indicate that you’re being objectified (e.g. “Hey baby” directed towards a person who is not an infant), in English intonation can be an indicator (e.g. rising intonation in each word [H↑ey m↑iss] versus phrase-final rising intonation, as in most question sequences [Hey mi↑ss]). Another key indicator is a turn-taking structure that does not rely on interlocutor response; the cat-call opening turn is typically met with silence or a rejection of the opening turn, and I suspect that this uneven turn-taking or lack of up-take is an anticipated/ integrated feature of this genre. Conversation analysis of a corpus of cat-call data could reveal these and other patterns.

  1. This register exists across languages, settings, & time, albeit with significant variation.

3.1 Variation in form and frequency.

The most common form of cat-call where I currently live in southern Oaxaca, Mexico, is something in between a “hiss” and a “shhhh”. If I were walking down the street in Philadelphia and heard someone hissing I would not take it to be a cat-call, but I learned very quickly to recognize it as such here. Additionally I find cat-calling to be less frequent here than in other places I’ve lived. Apparently it’s especially common in Brazil. It would be possible to document frequency and form of cat-calls in public places and/or collect survey data in different parts of the world.

3.2 Variation in interlocutors

Cat-calls are typically directed towards a lone individual, and often (but not always) come from a group. Psychology research seems to back this up. Are cat-calls more likely to occur when the object of the call looks local, or non-local? As a stand-out Caucasian in a Latin American town do I get more or less cat-calls than women who are from here? When & where does this have an effect? Observation and interview or survey data would be needed.

3.3 Variation across cultures

In a Spanish and Zapotec-speaking town where English speakers are not common, I have been cat-called with the phrase “Hey baby” on a surprising number of occasions. I have never been cat-called with the Spanish or Zapotec equivalent of this phrase, and only rarely have I been cat-called with words (the hissing being more common). My untested hypothesis is that men who spend time in the US learn the US cat-call genre (more vocal and more frequent than the local Oaxacan genre) and apply it when they see someone who fits the US ethnic stereotype. I would need to stop ignoring these comments and start asking men where they learned them in order to test this hypothesis. I’m not sure it’s worth that effort.

3.4 Variation across time

When I commented to some friends that cat-calling does not seem to be very frequent here, they started reminiscing about a practice that they say was common a few decades ago, but is no longer used. This involved either A) whistling in time to match the pace of a woman as she walks down the street, or B) whistling a sequence mirroring the syllables and prosody of the Zapotec phrases “Napalu guichi la?” or “Napani guichi la?” (“Do you have hair [yet]?” or “Does it have hair [yet]?”). They claim that everyone knew what the whistled sequence meant (and understood its reference to puberty) although the actual words were never used. Numerous interviews would be needed to back up this anecdote.

  1. Is verbal hygiene justified?

Will a more detailed description of this register somehow make it shrink? I would be happier if this register would disappear, although that seems unlikely given its cross-linguistic presence. Although I’m generally not a fan of policing or coercing speech, I think that it might be justified in this case. In the meantime, since the register isn’t disappearing, and it’s impossible to ignore completely, choosing to think of those hisses and comments as an interesting speech genre seems like the best approach to take.

3 thoughts on “Cat-calls: A four-point research agenda

  1. Digging this post, Haley, and taking sociolinguistics right to what has been blowing up my FB feed all day for the last two weeks. I’ve got some interesting comparative data on hissing from West Africa but there it isn’t at all a part of cat-calls but just neutral attention-getting, though it’s hard for any Westerner to ever accept it as such even when you know. I’m curious though about how we use register? It’s definitely a recognizable speech act/genre but I’m wondering how we draw the line between register and this kind of thing or if we need to. Maybe I think of registers in a more traditional sense; as a way of talking that can be used in almost any different speech act (though to varying degrees of success), but you can’t really use cat-call register to order a sandwich or give a sermon, no? Thoughts?

  2. Great post, Haley! I want to offer some food for thought, and perhaps an alternative possible hypothesis for you. You say that you get called, “hey baby” on the street often, and that you think it might be that “men who spend time in the US learn the US cat-call genre (more vocal and more frequent than the local Oaxacan genre) and apply it when they see someone who fits the US ethnic stereotype”.

    In Mexico there’s what’s called the piropo, a form of a compliment that can be delivered in what could be considered a “cat call”. I’m sure there are nuances as well as historical and geographic specificity and change to this practice. There is at least one academic article (Moore, 1996) on the subject of piropos, and if you google “piropos” there will be many websites with wonderful metacommentary on this practice, like: “Para quien no tenga una idea de que estoy hablando, [los piropos] son dichos que usualmente le decimos a una hermosa mujer desconocida, para ya sea conquistarle, agradarle, o simplemente para hacerla reir” From

    There are some funny/well known sayings that I’ve heard here and there throughout the years (never addressed at me, always in some form of a joke in conversation or on TV). Like, “ay chiquita, tu con tantas curvas y yo sin frenos”. [Rough translation: hey baby, you with so many curves and I have no breaks].

    So, in other words, I wonder if its that the men who call you ‘hey baby’ are doing so because they learned the “US cat call genre” or if they are simply adapting a circulating/wider mexican practice to a form in which they think you will understand…?

    Just some food for thought!!! And, another fun site that lists the “100 best mexican piropos”, with a comic depicting the communicative situation! :

  3. Thanks Coleman & Sofia for your great comments!
    Since writing this I have started to pay more attention to cat-calls (or piropos?) on the street, and have already been questioning some of the things I wrote (previously I actively tried to ignore all this, which is not the best base for data collection clearly…). There’s room for lots of illocution/ perlocution confusion, especially across cultures, and I am sure my off-the-cuff interpretation has lots of flaws.
    Sofia, I’ve never heard of piropos here, but I will ask around about that, and that could definitely be a cause I wasn’t aware of. A few friends have commented that men here do not typically call out to women unless they’re drunk, which contributed to my interpretation that they picked that up somewhere else- I suppose national culture, international TV, and/or international labor migration would all be candidates.
    Coleman, it’s true the hissing can be neutral here, but occurs FAR more often in a cat-call scenario (lone woman walking, group of men watching), so I’ve come to associate it with that. The term ‘Guera’ or ‘Guerita’ is another that can be neutral, or a cat-call, now that I think about it. So the fact that there is a gray area of interpretation is important, and supports your argument that it’s not a register, which I think I agree with. But there is still something recognizable and systematic going on, right? I can imagine come-ons & inuendos slipped into sermons & sandwich prep pretty easily actually (sins, buns, sausages…). But would that be the same genre as a call out on the street? The ‘give (sexually-infused) attention to an un-known person’ genre? Is the illocutionary intent to get attention or to give it? If attention-grabbing is a key part of this genre, maybe I’m wrong about non up-take of turns being an expected feature…
    Darn it, I might have to do real research on this after all.
    Final comment, I’ve noticed there is plenty written about ‘verbal harassment’– but if we’re looking at practices like the hissing or casual uses of ‘guera’ or piropos, I wouldn’t say the speech act is ‘harassment’ necessarily. But then, what is it? Whatever it is, it’s illocution/perlocution is definitely very dependent on cultural setting.

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