Gender Differences in Communication

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A friend was complaining that her boyfriend would not say “I love you” even if explicitly asked to do so. The only exception, she said, was when they were in fact in the act of making love. Then, if asked, he would say the sacred words. Somebody suggested to her that she should not take too much comfort in the exception. When making love, she was told, men would say anything. “He’d tell you he’s the Easter Bunny if that’s what he thinks you want to hear,” a friend told her. The conversation rattled on from there. A couple of weeks later, she related the following:

“We were in bed, making love. I said: “Tell me you love me”. He said, “I love you”. I said: “Tell me you’re the Easter Bunny”. He stopped for a second and said: “I’m the Easter Bunny”. So, I slapped him.”

The poor guy probably still doesn’t know what happened (Griffith, Inter-gender communication, 2001). This anecdote is probably indicative of the differences that exist in the manner in which men and women communicate with each other.

The Hierarchical Culture of Men and the Flat Culture of Women

Social scientists have also attempted to unlock the mysteries of why men and women communicate differently by resorting to all kinds of theories and suppositions, some of them more valid than others.

In 1992, John Gray published a book, which quickly became a bestseller “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”. Gray asserted that we learn to communicate in distinct ways based on our sex. He argued that society teaches different gender-specific values and practices that result in virtual “male-minded” and “female-minded” languages. Men learn to value “masculine” qualities such as competition, virility, and physical pleasure. Women, on the other hand, are socialized to emulate “feminine” ideals, including nurturance, submissiveness, and emotional pleasure. We learn these values early in our upbringing. Society encourages logical analyses among men and emotional analyses among women. Hence, the stereotypical rational man and the emotional woman are embedded in many ideologies in our society (Gray, 1992, p. 20-52).

Gray, however, has been criticized by other social scientists, who believe that his research was indeed almost a farce. Susan Hanson, in her “rebuttal from Venus,” analyzed Gray’s book chapter by chapter (and almost paragraph by paragraph). She concluded that Gray is a male chauvinist and even argued that Gray’s Ph. D. came from an unaccredited university that has been persecuted by the State of California for being a paper mill selling worthless degrees to students (Hamson, 1996-1998, p. 1-123).

Another theory that has attempted to explain the differences in gender communication is the team sport as the hierarchical culture of men and playing with dolls as the flat culture of women.

In every culture of the world, children are taught to be appropriate adults through play. When boys are growing up, they play baseball, basketball, football, cops, and robbers, cowboys and Indians, and war, all of which are hierarchical team sports (Smith, 1995, p. 30). Boys learn to be aggressive, play to win, strategize, take risks and mask emotions. Playing their assigned role in the hierarchy, boys learn to obey their coach unquestionably and play by the rules. In essence, boys learn how to garner power, manage conflict and win without becoming emotionally involved with their competitors (Smith, 1995, p. 31).

In the world of girls, they grow up probably not playing in team sports, although this situation is slowly changing. Girls play and learn their lessons from doll games in which there are no winners or losers. Girl play reinforces getting alone and being nice, learning how to negotiate differences, seeking win-win situations, and focusing on what is fair for all winners and losers (Smith, 1995, p. 38). As a result, girls, unlike boys, have a flat rather than a hierarchical culture. In dolls, there is never a boss doll player (Smith, 1995, p. 39). Girls who try to be the boss quickly learn that this damages friendship. Consequently, when adult women enter a hierarchical organization they often attempt to equalize power, negotiate relationships and share power equally (Smith, 1995, p. 40).

Our language is sexist

In addition to all the difficulties that we encounter in intergender communication, we need to be aware that our language is sexist. Language shapes the world. Marxist social theorists claim that those who shape our language are in control. They can mold the world, at least to a certain extent, and by doing that they meet their own needs and assert their own primacy.

In addition, our language is filled with sexist pronouns. A major element of the “man-made” language is the almost unquestioned use of “he/man” to represent an individual or norm in textbooks, conversation, the media, etc. This extends also to nouns such as policeman, fireman, chairman, etc. Studies have shown that children and students, when reading or hearing a sentence that uses the male pronoun, almost always imagine or assume the sentence to be about a male, as opposed to a woman or even an individual of unspecific gender (Ivy and Blacklund, 1994, p. 378).

The use of masculine pronouns makes males linguistically visible and females linguistically invisible (Ivy and Blacklund, 1994, p. 408). According to researchers, it promotes male imagery in everyday life at the expense of female imagery so that it becomes reasonable to assume that the world is male until proven otherwise (Ivy and Blacklund, 1994, p. 409). In other words, women become outsiders in their very own language and in their world to the extent that they cannot even assume their presence or inclusion in any aspect of society.

Obviously, this is changing, but very slowly. Ideally, we should use “He/man” only when actually referring to males and “she/woman” when referring to females. Our language seems to be in great need of a gender-neutral pronoun to use when referring not to any gender but to an individual or a norm. Simply replacing a few words may not be enough. The sexist elements that exist in our language are so wired in our minds and our habits that indeed the whole system of language and symbols may have to be changed.

Women, in general, have essentially no choice but to use the dominant language in their communication, despite the fact that this language is one that oppresses women (Ivy and Blacklund, 1994, p. 409). Women seem to fear appearing masculine or aggressive through their use of the language, and thus tend to employ a series of techniques to express themselves as feminine and non-threatening, such as by using tag questions and word insertions (Pearson, Turner and Todd-Mancillas, 1991, p. 93). While these linguistic tendencies may seem to be habitual and not pose any real threat to women’s place in society, they may prevent women from asserting strong self-expression to the extent that they may be undermining their identities and belief systems.

Gender Differences in Communication

Before we look at the differences, we should be aware that there is an enormous diversity in communication styles and practices within each gender. Most women and men have at their disposal a wide variety of conversational and speech skills, any one of which they may draw upon, depending on the situation, their purposes, the role they are playing, and the context.

In mixed-gender groups, at public gatherings, and in many informal conversations, men tend to spend more time talking than do women (Dixon, 1992, p. 101). In one experiment, cited by Dixon, the men with expertise talked longer than the women with expertise (Dixon, 1992, p. 100). In general, it seems that men initiate more interactions than women (Dixon, 1992, p. 101)

Men are also more likely to interrupt the speaking of other people (Coater, 1006, p. 215). A study of faculty meetings revealed that women are more likely than men to be interrupted. Some of the interruptions that women experience come from other women. In general, women, when they do interrupt, are more likely to interrupt other women than they are to interrupt men. Women also are more likely than men to allow an interruption of their talk to be successful (they do not resist the interruption as much as men do)(Coates, 1996, p. 215).

In meetings, men gain the “floor” more often, and keep the floor for longer periods of time, regardless of their status in the organization (Phillips, 1997, p. 70). In professional conferences, women take a less active part in responding to papers. When women ask a question, they take less time in asking it than men. They go to the central issue faster. In addition, they are less likely to ask multiple questions, and more likely to phrase the question in personal terms (Phillips, 1997, p. 71).

When the floor is an informal, collaborative venture, women display a fuller range of language ability (Wood, 1996, p. 212). Here, in the kind of conversation where women excel, people jointly build an idea, operate on the same wavelengths, and have deep conversational overlaps.

Although there is not such a thing as a women’s language, women use tag questions (“It’s really cold in here, isn’t it?”) and question statements (“Won’t you close the door?”) more often. Both of them may decrease the perceived assertiveness of their speech. In addition, raters perceive those who use a deferential language style (super polite language, hedges and hesitations) as having less power but more personal warmth (Connell, 1997, p. 79).

In general, those who talk more are more likely to be perceived as dominant and controlling of the conversation (Connell, 1997, p. 80). Connell also mentions that those who talk the most in decision-making groups also tend to become the leaders. Especially important are “task leadership behaviors”, such as asking questions, helping to set up structures and procedures for the groups, giving information and opinions, and identifying and solving problems. Interrupters are perceived as more successful and driving, but less socially acceptable, reliable, and companionable than the interrupted speaker (Reardon, 1995, p. 13). In a study of trial witnesses in a superior court, undergraduate student observers rated both female and male witnesses who use powerful language as more competent, intelligent, trustworthy than those who use powerless language (Connell, 1997, p. 80).

Women are also affected by some of the conversational patterns. When a woman is interrupted often or her comments are ignored, she may come to believe that what she has to say must not be important (Eakins and Eakins, 1998, p. 119). Women are less likely than men to have confidence in their ability to make persuasive arguments (Eakins and Eakins, 1998, p. 120). Many women feel inhibited in formal, mixed-gender groups (Eakins and Eakins, 1998, p. 120). Some women participate in creating their own passive participation by allowing interruptions, by not taking advantage of natural pauses in the conversation, or by asking questions without explaining the context out of which the question emerged (Eakins and Eakins, 1998, p. 122). Some women, when they do gain the “floor”, talk too fast, as if they knew that they are about to be interrupted (Eakins and Eakins, 1998, p. 123).

There are also gender communication patterns related to power. When people are strangers, they usually expect less competence from women than from men (Buirke, 1997, p. 21). However, if women are known to have prior experience or expertise related to the task, or if women are assigned to leadership roles, then women show greatly increased verbal behaviors in mixed sex groups. A study of witnesses in a superior court found that educated professionals who have high social status were less likely to use “powerless language” regardless of gender (Graddol and Swan, 1989, p. 214). Thus, differences seem to be linked to power and are context-specific. Differences are also socially created and, therefore, may be socially altered. Other studies have found that talking time is related both to gender (because men spend more time talking than women do) and to organizational power (because the more powerful spend more time talking than the less powerful) (Buirke, 1997, p. 23).

In several carefully controlled studies using undergraduate students, assertive behavior by females was evaluated as positively as the same behavior by males (Kramarae, 1991, p. 84). The less-valued behavior was the self-effacing assertive. Subordinates generally prefer a supervisor to balance a task-oriented with a relationship-oriented style (Bem, 1994, p. 135). Research also has suggested that the adoption of task behavior (a focus on getting things done) enhances a female’s adaptability in the organization. “The healthiest and best-liked individuals, male or female, were assertive, decisive, and intellectual, rather than nurturing, responsive and emotional (Fitzpatrick. J., 1993, cited in Bem, 1994, p. 133).

Differences in Nonverbal Communication

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that men and women also use and interpret nonverbal communication differently.

Eye contact. Women usually maintain eye contact longer than men do. However, women are less likely to stare at someone (Tannen, 1990, p. 21). The research shows that women break eye contact more frequently than men do. This is not a contradiction; men simply are less likely to make eye contact, but when they do, they may get “locked-in” without realizing that eye contact is being returned (Tannen, 1990, p. 21).

Proxemics. Edward Hall’s spatial zones generally are drawn closer for women than for men (Hentley, 1997, p. 80). Women approach more closely and seem to prefer side-by-side conversations. This may explain differences in the use of space: men prefer more face-to-face conversations. People are generally more aware of space to the front than to the side (Hentley, 1997, p. 80).

Facial Expressions. Research suggests that women are more skilled at both sending and interpreting facial expressions than are men (Tannen, 1993, p. 83). Other research suggests that women use more facial expressions in general and smile more in particular (Tannen, 1994, p. 84).

Gesture. Although women use more facial expressions, they appear to use fewer and more restrained gestures than men (Tannen, 1994, p. 66).

Touch. Men are more likely to initiate touch with others than do women. Women are touched more than men are (Hentley, 1993, p. 77). Also, women are more likely to associate touch with personal warmth and expressiveness (Thorne, Kramarae, and Henley, 1993, p. 77).

What should be done to improve inter-gender communications?

Every time that we communicate there are three competing goals: (a) a task goal, to get the job done; (b) a relational goal, do not do unnecessary damage to the relationship between the sender of the message and the receivers; and (c) an identity management goal, to make the communication project the image that the sender wants (Tannen, 1993, p. 80).

Social scientists have come with a long list of do’s and don’t, especially for women. For example, they recommend that women should avoid using tag questions such as “That’s an interesting idea, isn’t it?” or disclaimers such as “I could be mistaken, but…” or “This may sound strange, but…”(Thorne and Henley, 1995, p. 89).

Women should also use strategic questioning to gain the floor in discussions (Todd and Fisher, 1998, p. 210). The careful use of questions in a conversation controls when a topic is changed and when a topic is extended and discussed at greater length.

Women should probably not adopt male behavior by greatly increasing their rate of interrupting others. Once a woman has the floor, however, she should resist giving it to another speaker until she has completed her points, maybe by saying: “Just a moment, I haven’t finished” (Tannen, 1993, p. 85).

Instead of asking open-ended questions such as “How is the project going?” women should ask closed, more specific questions, such as “When can I expect the report of the data structures?” (Kantrowitz, 1996, p. 136).

Women should also not undercut what they are saying with their nonverbal actions. They should adopt a slightly more relaxed posture, do less frequent smiling (and smile only when there is something to smile about), and less frequent nodding, head tilting and dropping of eyes in response to another’s gaze. They should also avoid using the intonation of a question (raising the voice at the end of a sentence rather than lowering it) when making a declarative statement (Holmes, 1995, p. 8).

Both women and men should learn to state exactly what they want and face the risk of being cut down or wrong, especially at meetings. This is not a safe position, but an honest one. Holmes recommends being concerned more about stating our own position than about how the other person is reacting to us (Holmes, 1995, p. 8). Sargent recommends that both men and women should state their own needs and not back down even if the immediate response is not acceptable. We both should stop self-limiting behaviors, such as allowing interruptions or laughing after making a serious statement. We should practice taking risks and overcoming fear. We should learn to focus on a task and regard it as at least as important as the relationship among the people doing the task. We should stop turning anger and blame inward and stop making negative statements about ourselves. We should stop feeling comfortable with being a victim and suffering. Women should also deal differently with other women. They should develop an old girl network, work more closely with other women, built a sense of community among women instead of saying “I did it, why can’t she?” and support other women to the same degree or more than women support men (Sargent, 1991, p. 201).

Concluding Comments

It seems that while we have more or less learned how to communicate with people from different languages and cultures, we still have not learned how to communicate across gender lines. It seems that men and women have been generally socialized to assume masculine and feminine qualities, which inherently affects how each gender processes and communicates information. Our culture also encourages those differences. Magazines exaggerate the differences between men and women. Women publications usually focus on relationships and emotional health while magazines targeting a male audience often are about business, sports, and politics (Dixon, 1992, p. 51). It seems that men and women approach life from different perspectives.

The mutual goal should be to build a communication bridge between masculine and feminine, one in which we can cross back and forth, regardless of our gender. As Catherine Mai said “If we could strive to learn each other’s values as we study foreign languages in high school, we may appreciate any differences in our sexes and learn that we need not be so opposite” (Mai, 1994, p. 2).


Bem, Sandra Lipsitz. 1994. The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sex Inequality. Boston, MA: Yale University Press.

Buirke, Phyllis. 1997. Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male and Female. New York, NY: Anchor Press.

Coates, J. 1996. Women, Men and Language. London, England: Longman.

Connell, R.,W. 1997. Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics. New York, NY: Stanford University Press.

Dixon, John. 1992. Gender and Communication. Unpublished Master of Arts dissertation. University of Cape Town.

Eakins, B. and Eakins, R. 1998. Sex Differences in Human Communications. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Graddol, D. and Swan, J. 1989. Gender Voices. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gray, John. 1992. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and getting what you want in Your Relationship. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Griffith, Jim. 2001. Inter-Gender Communication.

Hamson, Susan. 1996-1998. The View From My Well.

Hentley, N. 1997. Body Politics: Power, Sex, and Nonverbal Communication. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Holmes, Janet. 1995. Women, Men, and Politeness. London, England: Longman.

Kantrowitz, Barbara, 1996. Men, Women, Computers. In CyberReader, Victor J. Vitanza, editor. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, p. 134-140

Kramarae, C. 1991. Women and Men Speaking. Rowley: Newbury House.

Ivy, D. and Blacklund, P. 1994. Exploring gender speak: Personal effectiveness in gender communication. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Mai, Catherine. 1994. Cross-gender communication not as tough as it seems.

Pearson, J. , Turner, L., and Todd-Mancillas, W. 1991. Gender and Communication. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown.

Phillips, S. 1997. Language, Gender and Sex in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

Reardon, Kathleen Kelley. 1995. They Don’t Get It, Do They? Communication in the Workplace. Closing the Gap between Men and Women. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Sargent, Alice G. 1991. The Androgynous Manager. New York, NY: Amacom.

Smith, P.M. 1995. Language, the Sexes, and Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Christophe El Kassis

    I reflected on my own experiences while reading this and found a inconsistencies with my everyday life.
    I don’t know if it’s because most of the sources date from before I was born and that we’re in 2020 right now, but it is not men that speak more than women in public gatherings or men that have a hierarchical culture and women that have a flat one. It’s people that differ from other people. Some women do sports and have a strategic mind, some men play sims or minecraft were it’s a win-win situation. Some women speak about every little detail in public gatherings and some men’s voices are the biggest mystery of the century. I never saw a woman who let herself get interrupted, and if she did she’d have a take on it.
    The only thing that I agree on is that language is to some extent sexist, even though the degree varies from one language to another.
    And categorizing all these is what strikes me as sexist, especially the part where scientists tell women what they should and shouldn’t do.

    In the end it’s people with different characters, not men and women. One should support the other based on the individual. If women should support women for the reason that they are just women, regardless of their actual competence, well that is straightforward sexism, and same thing goes for men.
    These articles give the opposite impressions of what the author’s honest intentions are.
    Having read that with what you may call my “mixed-gender” group, we found this article to be entertaining and great comedy material, and we didn’t deny that the existence of such situations but these are based on individual personalities and character and can be equally found in both genders.

  2. Daniel Erdmann

    Dear Roberto,

    thank you for sharing this article and specially your knowledge and expertise with us. I think you speak about a very complex topic that unveils many details that are highly important to our social wealth, on a national and international level. Due to my profession, I am fortunate to communicate on a daily basis with people of both sexes from all over the world. Over the last decade I learned that we first of all need much more time to communicate well on such an international and thus on an intercultural level. This time is needed to double check the content, its reception and impact on the discussion. We have to sensitize ourselves for the different perspectives in that people may approach a topic. And of course, we have to be aware on the possible impact of the cultural background, the religious conception of life, and the fact that many people who communicate with each other do use English as a second language. The global educational society reacts by offering lots of workshops, trainings, and even academic courses that focus on International and Intercultural Communication.

    But how come that the importance and complexity of the inter gender communication was ignored for so long and that mainly intercultural communication was a topic in countless trainings and seminars? In business studies it is more likely generated that what counts is the return of invest and not communication skills. Similar things happen in the studies of pedagogy, where more time is spend on analyzing learning and developing concepts than on getting familiar with proper communication skills. I often say to my students that it does not matter if a conflict is of an emotional or rational nature, in the end it is always a human being taking the decision. Accordingly, we have to place a focus on interpersonal communication and specially, on inter gender communication. It is needless to state that our society is composed by both sexes and it is more than ignorant to not give credit to this gender issue in communication. We should challenge the fact that we are using a male-driven communication setting and ask ourselves how and when this was established.

    Once you are sensible for this context, it is interesting to discover how deeply rooted the impact of this male-communication-setting truly is. So, what would you say? Do we all have to change our proper wording, specially in roman languages? Or is it sufficient to be aware of this context?

    Best regards, Daniel Erdmann

  3. Charalee Graydon

    I enjoyed reading this paper. It does not adopt the approach that men are this way and women are that way but explores the reasons that communication of men and women are different.

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