• by Roberto Rodriguez
  • 30. June 2018

Gender Differences in Communication

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 friendships. 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 female 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 style 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 the 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 expression than are men (Tannen, 1993, p. 83). Other research suggests that women use more facial expression in general and smile more in particular (Tannen, 1994, p. 84).

Gesture. Although women use more facial expression, 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 to be 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 acceptance. 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, working 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).


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