One very interesting conclusion is that she found men tend to communicate for information while women tend to communicate for connection. This was an "aha" moment for me because I finally realized why my wife sometimes comes home and starts talking about some random topic, and why I get impatient waiting for her to get to the point. It is just that she is trying to connect with me through conversation while I am just expecting her to convey information. So now that I realize this, I am better able to relax when talking with Suzanne and just enjoy the interaction.
There are also a lot of good insights here into workplace communication between men and women and pitfalls to avoid. Highly recommended!
A Two Paper Alternative Department Thesis
Presented to the Faculty Of California State University, East Bay
Janelle S. Tamm
Two are better than one;
Because they have a good reward for their labor.
For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow,
But woe to him that is alone when he falls,
for he has not another to help him up.
And if two lie together then they have warmth,
but how can one be warm alone?
And if one prevail against him,
two shall withstand him.
-from Ecclesiastes, 1:9:12
In our society, the fairytale fantasy of meeting the partner of your dreams, falling madly in love, and living happily ever after, is idealized. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people are actually experiencing “happily ever after” relationships. Divorce rates in the United States are sky rocketing out of control and are higher than ever before. In the 1980’s divorce rates were at 50%, and now in the year 2005, those rates are still climbing (Mackey & O’Brien, 1998).
Why is it that the Cinderella fairy tale rarely works out? Because in real life, men and women are different and those differences interfere with their ability to effectively understand one another. Individuals enter into relationships looking for a source of comfort, support and companionship. They want someone who will pick them up when they fall and encourage and inspire them when times are rough. In her book “You Just Don’t Understand”, Deborah Tannen writes “We look to our closest relationships as a source of confirmation and reassurance. When those closest to us respond to events differently than we do, the ground on which we stand seems to tremble and our footing is suddenly unsure.”(1991, p. 73) When partners respond to events differently than expected, it creates unstable ground to walk on, and relationships become shaky. When two people interact, there is bound to be conflict at some point. Tannen also writes “we can’t both stand on the same spot without one of us standing on the others foot. If no one steps aside, someone will get stepped on. You and I are not the same person, so some of our wants will be different and conflict is inevitable.” (1991, p. 149)
It is natural to want to respond to the needs of ones partner, but learning exactly what those needs are requires skillful navigation. If the needs of one’s partner are not understood, their reactions will most likely be misunderstood. A good starting point is to accept that the needs of one person are different from the needs of the other, and gender plays a significant role in what those needs are.
It is a mistake to assume that those around us will be happier and more satisfied with life if they think and act just as we do. That naïve concept assumes we are all the same. Being told you are doing something wrong simply because you are doing it your way, can be a frustrating experience. Our differences are so vast and diverse that they are the leading contribution to faulty communication. For relationships to be successful, it is important for couples to learn how to interpret and decode each others messages and find ways to effectively express what they are thinking and feeling in a way that can be heard and accepted by their partner. Communication is most effective when it is used to seek understanding. Once we are able to acknowledge that our partners have different ways of communicating, it is easier to let go of blame and judgment, and accept that there is not just one right way of communicating.
We have all heard that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. This is an appealing analogy describing the differences between the two genders. Understanding these gender differences holds the key to affective communication. Avoidance of these differences leads to unresolved tensions resulting in disruptive conflicts that often spiral out of control with devastating consequences (Makey & O’Brien, 1998). It may not be possible to prevent conflict from arising, but when they arise, the better equipped we are at handling these conflicts, the better off our relationships will be.
It is important to remember that this paper will discuss behaviors that have been researched and documented, however the overall paper does speak in terms of generalities. It is impossible to apply the findings of one study to an entire gender, and individual differences do exist. For example, if the findings of one study imply that men talk to exchange information more than women, that certainly does not mean that that is the case for all men, all the time. This paper does focus on generalities and trends, and these generalities may not fit every relationship.
The first part of this thesis will be a review of the literature describing many of the differences impacting the daily lives of men and woman. It is crucial to understand these differences in order to understand communication styles, why they exist, what purpose they serve, and the effects they have on those around them. This paper will review societal differences and expectations and then explain how those differences translate and/or relate to different communication styles.
The second part of this thesis will be a workshop that incorporates the information on gender differences and communication style and is designed to educate couples on how to effectively communicate with each other in spite of their diverse patterns. The workshop will incorporate specific tools and techniques giving each couple the chance to learn, practice, and integrate new skills into their own relationships.
NEGATIVE PORTRAYALS OF WOMEN
When attempting to understand gender differences and communication styles, it is crucial to look at society’s views and messages regarding both sexes. Unfortunately a message that society still sends loud and clear is that woman have not reached the same status as men. In her book “In a Different Voice”, Carol Gilligan wrote “as we have listened for centuries to the voices of men and the theories of development that their experience informs, so we have come more recently to notice not only the silence of women but the difficulty in hearing what they say when they speak.” (1982, p. 173) She goes on to say that “the failure to see the different reality of women’s lives and to hear the differences in their voices stems in part from the assumption that there is a single mode of social experience and interpretation.”
It is impossible to discuss gender differences in our society without exploring sexism and how it affects our thoughts and behaviors. Sigmund Freud once wrote “for women the level of what is ethically normal is different from what it is in men” as well as “women show less sense of justice than men, they are less ready to submit to the great exigencies of life, they are more often influenced in their judgments by feelings of affection or hostility.” (Gilligan, 1982, p. 7) Some might easily discount these statements given how long ago they were written; yet these attitudes and opinions still prevail in today’s world.
Best selling author John Gray has written multiple books on the differences between the genders. His thoughts and ideas are read by millions of people and absorbed as the truth because of his experience, education and profession. In his book “Men, Women and Relationships” Gray writes “It is interesting to note that even the dictionary defines insanity as ‘behavior not based on rational, logical thought.’ If this were a valid definition, almost every woman would be diagnosed as insane.” (1996, p. 272) At another point in the same book he writes “when woman try to think like men and make logic more important than their feelings, they tend to become frustrated and confused, especially when they are upset and under pressure to make decisions. Generally when a woman is confused she is trying to make a decision.” (p. 273) He conversely wrote “Men who make their feelings more primary than their thoughts become indecisive and procrastinate. These immobilized men need to get out of their feelings and into their minds.” (p.273) It is unfortunate that an individual with such a prominent voice in society is choosing to put these types of messages out into the world. It needs to be understood that women deal with a different logical system rather than a lack of logic (Tannen, 1991, p. 85). Grey’s statements send the message that men are ethical and rational, and women are illogical, powerless and unable to be competent, capable human beings. It reflects on their interpersonal relationships as well as their competence. These messages and the effect they have on society are exemplified in today’s corporate world.
MEN AND WOMEN IN THE WORKFORCE
In a research article published by Diekman, Goodfriend, & Goodwin, it was shown that men have access to greater societal power than women (2004). Women have traditionally held power within the limits of the home and family life, and men have held power in the public domain such as government, business and military. Gender stereotypes rationalize this existing division of labor. According to this rational, men are more competitive, dominant and assertive, and therefore a better fit to be CEO’s and political leaders and to earn more money. Although women do tend to have more power in their own domain, the power that men have leads to greater control over their own choices and over other people’s outcomes. This leaves women feeling as though they have less control over their own lives and choices and contributes to them feeling powerless. Male dominated occupations are viewed as aggressive and rational while female dominated occupations are viewed as more passive and nurturing (Hochwarter, Perrewe, & Dawkins, 1995). This stereotype leads to the reality that only woman have been allowed to posses power within the home or caregiver roles, and this inevitably spills over into the workplace in a counter-productive way. Today women are reporting higher levels of job demands, yet still have the majority of the household and family responsibilities – their increased participation in the workforce has not decreased their family responsibilities (Hochwarter, Perrewe, & Dawkins, 1995).
Several articles document that on average, woman in the work place are paid less than men, advance less rapidly and command less respect then men. Both genders react more negatively to women in powerful positions than to men, (Diekman, Goodfriend, & Goodwin, 2004) and judge female competence more critically. A performance of the same quality is seen as less indicative of ability in women than it is in men (Ridgeway & Smith-Lovin, 1999; Tannen, 1991). When men and women speak exactly the same, they are judged differently (Bradley, 1981). When men and women used tag questions and disclaimers when they spoke, the women were viewed as being less intelligent and knowledgeable than the men who used the same type of speech. When men and women did not provide support for an argument they were making, the women were seen as less intelligent and knowledgeable and the men were not. Women in traditionally male roles were more susceptible than men to psychosomatic symptoms, physical illness, psychological disorders, and anxiety (Gerdes, 1995). Female dominated occupations are still viewed as being of lower status than male dominated occupations, (Hochwarter, Perrewe, & Dawkins, 1995) and men’s entry into a female-dominated occupation tends to raise the status of that occupation (Diekman, Goodfriend, & Goodwin, 2004).
These realities are based on misunderstandings and false assumptions. Traditional perspectives of leadership center on masculine-oriented concepts of authoritarian and task-oriented behavior and prohibit relationship-oriented (i.e. feminine) leadership behaviors as acceptable leadership behavior. In order for a woman to be a successful leader, she must act tough and authoritative in order to be deemed effective, although this may also cause her to be perceived negatively because she is acting more aggressively and violating her gender role (Stelter, 2002). Men represent powerful activity as assertion and aggression, whereas women portray acts of nurturance as acts of strength. They equate power with giving and care (Gilligan, 1982). When a woman takes on a position of power in the work place, she is susceptible to feelings of guilt, shame, and stress for violating the role society has assigned her such as being passive, nurturing, and positive (Ridgeway & Smith-Lovin, 1999). It is often a struggle for women to balance the demands of their position in the workplace with their gender norms – this is not an issue for men. If a man appears forceful, logical, direct, and powerful, he enhances his value as a man. If a woman acts the same way, she risks undercutting her value as a woman (Tannen, 1991).
Studies have shown that when men and women interact with each other, they more frequently act according to male gender norms, not female gender norms (Tannen, 1991). More women are trying to communicate in ways that may be unnatural to them (trying to communicate in a direct, assertive, forceful manner in order to be affective in the corporate world) while being criticized for doing so. Feminism has sent out some powerful messages about how women have the same potential men do, however that message is often misinterpreted to mean that woman ought to be like men.
Gender roles can inflict a great deal of stress on those struggling to belong to one. We can see above that women experience more stress in the work place on both a psychological and physiological level when they challenge gender norms.
It is crucial to acknowledge and be aware of the types of situations that evoke stress due to gender roles. Women encounter high levels of stress from fear of being physically victimized. This is a much stronger threat for women than it is for men. They also experience higher levels of stress in situations that require an assertive response (Efthim, Kenny, & Mahalik, 2001). Women experience more stress relating to physical appearance, and feelings of shame for not living up to an unrealistic standard of feminine beauty. Relationship failures produce much more shame and stress in women then in men (Efthim, Kenny, & Mahalik, 2001). Women can also have a heightened sensitivity to relationship discord. One reason for that are learned beliefs about how they should maintain relationships. They are taught that behaviors such as the suppression of ideas, beliefs and feelings that conflict with their partner’s, and adopting an attitude of compliance and agreement are the acceptable way to interact in a relationship. This causes women to suppress their authentic self, which increases stress, increases depression, and prevents effective communication ultimately leading to relational problems (Remen & Chambless, 2001). Men don’t typically feel stress related to these situations. Failing a task, or sexual potency issues evoke much more stress in men then they do in women (Ridgeway & Smith-Lovin, 1999). Men tend to suffer from high stress levels in situations linked to failures in instrumental achievement, feeling weak, or needing help (this may be one reason that men tend to avoid therapy).
It is interesting to note that our gender roles not only create stress in particular situations, but actually influence the way we react under stress. Men tend to become hyper focused, unmindful of others and can become completely absorbed in achieving their goals. This can leave them appearing self-centered and narcissistic. When under stress, they tend to have heightened blood pressure and react more out of anger and hostility (Efthim, Kenny, & Mahalik, 2001). Women tend to relate to stress in a contradictory way – they often expand their awareness and become even more conscious of others (Gray, 1996). Rather than becoming angry under stress, women tend to become anxious and withdraw (Hoffman, Levy-Shiff, & Ushpiz, 1993). The multiple roles that women face today (balancing work, home, and family) lead to stressful events that make them more susceptible to suffering from depression (Aranda, Castaneda, Lee, & Sobel, 1999). This can easily cause confusion for a couple in a heated argument. Both partners would be experiencing stress, the man might become hyper focused on the specific problem the couple was arguing about, yet the woman might have a tendency become aware of several similar examples of this problem, she may talk about how her friends handled this when they encountered a similar situation, and she may bring up everything but the kitchen sink. He might then become angry, she might withdraw and become depressed, and nothing would have been resolved.
Gender roles are predictors of personality, coping style, and psychological symptoms. A persons gender can lead to a style of coping that will either protect them from symptoms or increase the likelihood of acquiring them. In a study by Lengua & Stormshak ,individuals possessing more masculine traits tended to have higher levels of achievement, orientation, active and positive cognitive coping techniques, lower levels of avoidant coping styles, lower levels of depression and higher self-esteem (2000).
Pointing out the different stress responses of each gender, is not done to create excuses for negative reactions, but rather to gain insight so we are able to avoid taking our partners reactions personally. It is unfortunate that when we speak of being equal with one another, we often mistakenly assume that we must be the same.
No one is really denying that profound differences exist between men and women. Some studies show that men and women are more similar than they are different (Vogel, Wester, Heesacker, & Madon, 2003), however no studies declare that the different genders think, act, and most relevant to this paper, communicate in identical patterns. It is these communication differences that create confusion and can potentially destroy relationships if they are not properly explored, understood, and respected.
Pointing out our differences is not an attempt at figuring out who is right and who is wrong. This may be an appropriate forum to adopt a “separate but equal” frame of thinking. One thing is abundantly clear from all of the research I have gathered: although men and women approach the world differently, interpret things differently, and value things differently, their equality should never be disputed.
I had originally planned on beginning this section with a simple definition of communication and what its basic function was, however I quickly realized that gender differences factor into even those fundamental descriptions. On a broad scope, communication can be used for inclusion, affection, control, pleasure, escape, and relaxation (Step & Finucane, 2002). However, if we look at things more closely, it is clear that men tend to approach the world from a hierarchical standpoint, viewing communication as a tool to gather information, negotiate what they want and put them ahead of the rest. Essentially they try to “preserve independence and avoid failure” (Tannen, 1991, p. 25). Women tend to view the world as an interconnected community where support and confirmation are valued and communication is used to negotiate closeness and establish connections. For women, the struggle is to “preserve intimacy and avoid isolation” (Tannen, 1991, p. 25). The fundamental differences in these styles are enormous! I am not proposing that men do not seek connection and women do not value their independence. I am saying that within the context of a relationship, these tend to take priority.
INDEPENDENCE VERSUS CONNECTION
In a study described in Carol Gilligan’s Book (1982, p. 159-161) when women were asked to describe themselves, all of the women described a relationship depicting their identity in the connection of mother, wife, lover, etc. Not a single one of the highly successful and achieving women mentioned their academic and professional distinction in the context of describing themselves. In the women’s descriptions, identity was defined in a context of relationship and judged by the standard of care and responsibility. When men were asked to describe themselves, no particular person or relationship was mentioned nor was the activity of relationship portrayed in the context of self-description. Replacing the women’s verbs of attachment were adjectives of separation such as “intelligent, logical, imaginative, honest, arrogant” etc. The male “I” was defined more by separation than connection.
If men have a central need to be independent and woman have a central need to be intimate, without understanding where these needs are coming from and why, misunderstanding and miscommunication are inevitable.
Another study that explored women’s tendency to lean towards community and relationships versus men’s desire for independence (Johnstone, 1989) involved analyzing creative stories written by each gender. The majority of the women’s stories were about community, while the men’s were about contest, competition, and winning. Men rarely told stories that included or revolved around women or relationships, yet the women’s stories almost always revolved around community and groups of people. In the stories it is very interesting to note that when men reported acting alone in a story, the outcome was happy. Conversely, when women wrote stories about acting alone, they involved suffering because of it. From this study, Johnstone concluded that men perceive power as coming from an individual acting in opposition to others, and for women, power is seen as coming from the community. In other words, men view life in terms of a struggle against other people, whereas women view life as a struggle against being cut off from their community.
WHAT DO WE HEAR?
Men and women not only speak to each other differently, but they listen to each other differently as well. Communication can be used to satisfy men’s need for status and women’s need for connection, however regardless of what is being said, the majority of the message is determined by the listener rather than the speaker. It is common for men to filter each message by determining if the other person is trying to one-up them or put them down. Women tend to filter each message by determining if the other person is trying to get closer or pull away. The same words might be spoken in each of these situations, but our gender differences will influence the way those words are interpreted. Women are often left with the impression that the men they are speaking to aren’t listening to them when they very well might be. Men typically have different ways of showing that they are listening (Maltz & Borker, 1982). Women are more inclined to ask questions when they are listening. To a woman, asking questions conveys concern and genuine interest. Women will often give more listening responses than men, responses such as mhm, uh-huh, and yeah. Maltz and Borker also found that women responded more enthusiastically by agreeing and laughing. Men tend to have different listening reactions. They give fewer listener responses, make statements rather than asking questions, and challenge rather than agree. An example of these differences and how they can lead to conflict and misunderstanding is the use of the word “yeah”. Women frequently use this word to mean “I’m with you, I follow” whereas men tend to use the word only when they agree. Because of this, when a man is speaking to a woman who has been responding with “yeah,” “yeah,” “yeah,” and then ultimately disagrees with him, he might decide that she has been insincere, or wasn’t really listening to him. Conversely, when a woman is speaking to a man who does not say “yeah,” she may decide that he has not been listening. The man’s style of listening is more focused on the message level of the conversation while the woman’s is focused on the relationship level.
Another key difference in listening styles has to do with making interjections. When men are talking and relaying information, if another man is the listener and has something to add, he will usually interrupt and exchange information (West & Zimmerman, 1985). Women are not taught to respond this way (Tannen, 1991). Women often feel as though they have no choice but to sit patiently and wait their turn to speak, rather than seizing the opportunity to speak. This is a wonderful opportunity for misunderstanding. In this situation, the man would be under the impression that the woman is soaking up all of his information, and she must not have anything to say. Men’s talk towards women often turns into lecturing because women may sit and listen attentively without interrupting or challenging them. Men don’t usually encourage more passive listeners to speak up, and they usually assume that if someone has something to say, they will say it. The discrepancy between men being in the role of lecturer and women being in the role audience member is not the fault of one gender over the other. The imbalance is due to the different styles of communication that each gender has adopted.
If men are interpreting what they hear by relating it to independence and status and women are interpreting what they hear by relating it to intimacy and connection, at times it might seem like men and women are speaking different languages! These languages are developed in childhood and reinforced throughout our entire lives. Men and women spend the majority of their childhood playing in same-gender groups. Even in adulthood, men and women identify with, and prefer to spend more of their free time in the company of same-gender rather than opposite-gender groups (Swim & Surra, 1999). Both male and female children rate same-gender peers as both more likeable and more socially-desirable than opposite-gender peers (Brody, Lovas, & Hay, 1995). When playing, little boys and girls both want to get their way, however they have very different styles of getting what they want. Boys’ style is hierarchical where there is usually a leader who tells the other boys what do to. Girls’ style is more egalitarian, where suggestions from all are considered and accepted (Tannen, 1991). Boys also have a tendency to be more concerned with rules while girls are more concerned with relationships, often at the expense of the game (Gilligan, 1982).
Another source of miscommunication involving gender differences is our different reactions to problems. For every woman out there who is frustrated when a man tries to “fix” a problem that she just wants to vent about, there is a man equally frustrated that she won’t take the necessary steps to solve the very dilemma she is upset about. When woman vent or complain about a problem, it is not necessarily a solution they are seeking (Jackson, Iezzi, Gunderson, Nagasaka, & Fritch, 2002). More often it is a sense of understanding that she is after, and having her feelings confirmed creates a sense of community. When two women are talking, and one is venting about an undesirable event, if the other woman probes, asks questions, and matches her experiences, then the first women feels listened to, understood, and cared about. This concept is difficult for most men to relate to because they tend to be problem solvers, using the information they are given as a way to find a solution. Women frequently use more emotion-focused and interpersonal communal coping strategies, whereas men frequently problem solve, talk problems down, deny that there really is a problem or just look on the bright side (Jackson et al., 2002). Men’s efforts at comforting their female partners are often perceived as belittling when they are in fact trying to provide support in a way that is respectful with their own gender (Jackson et al., 2002). Women often feel unheard and uncared for when the men they are talking to are continually interrupting them with quick-fix solutions rather than just taking the time to listen. This will usually cause the woman to pull away and distance herself which creates more frustration for the man, because he feels as though his sincere attempts to help were ignored and discarded (Tannen, 1991). It is clear that when undergoing stress, most women feel better by talking about their problems and being heard, whereas most men feel better by prioritizing their problems, focusing on one, and then finding a solution for that problem (Gray, 1996). These gender differences in coping styles may reflect gender roles in society, where men are expected to be independent, instrumental and ambitious and women are expected to be emotional, supportive and dependant (Lengua & Stormshak, 2000). This can cause problems when women try and help a man through a difficult time as well. Men often perceive emotional support efforts by women as demeaning or self focused when women are actually trying express sympathy and understanding (Macgeorge, Graves, Feng, & Gillihan, 2004). Men can often feel put-down by a woman’s sympathy and can often resent it. This is not always the case however, and it has been shown that because women are more adept at providing sensitive, emotional support, (they tend to send messages that focus on the explicit elaboration and exploration of the distressed others feelings and perspectives) both men and women prefer to seek and receive emotional support from women (Macgeorge et al., 2004).
INFORMATION VERSUS INTERACTION
It is clear from research done in several studies that men use language to gather or relay information, while woman use language for interaction (Step & Finucane, 2002). If a man is sitting watching the news or a sports game and his wife interrupts to tell him something, he would most likely assume it is because there is something that he needs to know. When he soon realizes that she is only complaining about a problem she is having at work, he might become disinterested or seem annoyed. To him, this is not important information he needs to fix something, and her intrusion may feel like a violation of his freedom. He fails to see that for her sharing her day at work is her way of showing involvement. For most women, the act of listening shows caring and interest, so when men tune out, women often feel uncared for. This vicious cycle can be ongoing unless both genders take the time to understand what their partner is experiencing.
Men’s tendency to communicate for information and women for rapport often leaves women in the role of student, being lectured by a man. When men have information, they tend to communicate that information in a way that can often be received as a lecture rather than a reciprocal conversation. This wouldn’t be a problem in relationships if both men and women imparted information to each other equally. Unfortunately there is a huge imbalance and women more often than not find themselves on the receiving end of most lectures. When women do have expertise and knowledge they are attempting to convey, they are often perceived as less knowledgeable than men with same amount of knowledge, and their “lectures” tend to incite resentment rather than respect. This is not due to women’s lack of knowledge or expertise in the world, nor is it due to their inability to effectively impart information to their partners. It is due to the differences in interactional habits between each gender. Studies show that women are better at decoding and sending nonverbal messages; they are more expressive of certain emotions and more concerned with maintaining intimacy in their close relationships with men. Men seem to be better at controlling their nonverbal expressions, they are more instrumental and task oriented, and they are more concerned with maintaining autonomy in close relationships with women (Vogel, Wester, Heesacker, & Madon, 2003). Studies by Leet-Pellegrini (1980) and Aries (1987), and the observations of Thomas Fox (1990) all indicate that men are typically more comfortable giving information and opinions as well as speaking in an authoritative way to a group, and women are more comfortable than men in supporting others.
Tannen notes that for girls, talk is the glue that holds relationships together. Boy’s relationships are held together primarily by activities. In a study by Swim & Surra, (1999) it was shown that women on average preferred affectional activities such as talking, expressing physical affection (without sex) and cultural activities more than men. Men on average preferred sexual activities, sports, and games more than women.
Some studies suggest that these differences are biological, and the ways in which women communicate are vital to their mental health. Shelly Taylor states that women’s friendship and close contact has an evolutionary heritage (2002). Women and children have increased their chances of survival over the centuries because of these friendships – food, safety, and the care of their children have been met through these tight bonds – bonds that are formed and maintained through talking. Together, female primates provided food, groomed one another, took care of each others offspring, held hostile males at bay, and came together when threats appeared (Taylor, 2002). A study by Martha McClintock showed that when female rats were put in cages together with five other female rats, they lived an average of 40% longer (1998). The male rats just attacked each other.
Other studies suggest that one’s environment plays a stronger role in explaining these differences. Swim & Surra saw a huge environmental factor influencing why women talk more as a way of connecting with others yet men tend to do activities as a way of connecting with others (1999). This study revealed that females experience social reinforcement for turning to friends and talking when they have a problem. Men on the other hand, experience criticism for not dealing with their problems independently.
Most men will say that they have one or two close friends they can share their feelings with, however they will often go days, weeks, or months without talking to their friend. Usually when men talk to their friends on the phone they are more comfortable discussing business, politics, or sports (Leaper, Carson, Baker, Holliday, & Myers, 1995). They tend to avoid talking about personal relationships and if they do mention their wives or family it will be in very vague and brief terms. Women on the other hand often prefer to share intimate details of their lives because it makes them feel like they are not alone, and they have someone who will share their experience and understand what they are going through (Tannen, 1991).
This does not mean that a woman can’t let a man watch TV without interpreting it to be a rejection of her or a sign that he does not love her, nor does it mean that a man can’t understand how important it is for a woman to talk and share mundane details about her day without assuming she is being manipulative and trying to keep him from doing what he wants to do. It simply means that more effort must go into accepting and understanding the different needs of each gender so that misunderstandings based on gender differences can be avoided.
TAKE ME AS I AM
Misunderstanding gender differences is a very common problem that seems to plague many relationships. This becomes of particular interest when the needs and wants of our partners are not being met. The dilemma that most of us struggle with is that we try to satisfy the needs of our partner in a way that would best satisfy our own needs rather than what would best satisfy our partner’s needs (Gray, 1996). Although one might have the best of intentions when doing this, their efforts might be meaningless if they are not received or recognized by their partner. Women and men assume that because we all live in the same world, its possible to understand each others experiences based on their own experiences. It is clear that relating to each gender in the same way isn’t always productive; yet no matter how dissatisfied each gender is with the results they are getting, they rarely try to change their approach. When what we are doing isn’t working, most people fall into the trap of trying even harder at what they are doing, rather than trying a different approach. Instead of putting more effort into the same ineffective behavior, men and women could both benefit from flexibility. It is important for both genders to relate to each other on the other’s terms rather than applying the standards of one group to the behavior of the other (Tannen, 1991). Most of us are locked into a right or wrong way of thinking, and its difficult to accept that different styles of doing things can both be “right”. One example of this would be the misconception that women talk more than men. Women don’t talk more than men in general, but the context needs to be taken into consideration. For example, in the public sphere, men actually talk much more than women (Ridgeway & Smith-Lovin, 1999).
When men and woman communicate there is a subtle yet significant difference in the way they approach a situation. Tannen notes that women approach situations thinking “have I been sufficiently helpful?” and “do you like me?” (p.129) whereas men approach situations thinking “have I won?” and “do you respect me?” These different approaches to relating to others have profound affects on the outcome of a conversation. Men, in seeking to gain respect, accept that they may not be liked, and women, in seeking to be liked, realize that they may not be respected. When a woman has a conversation with a man, her attempts to accentuate their similarities and avoid showing off might put her in a one-down position, and can easily make her appear incompetent or insecure. In a study performed by Elizabeth Aries at Amherst College it was shown that in discussion groups the men tended to take lead of the conversation by offering opinions, suggestions, and information (1987). The women tended to react by offering agreement or disagreement. The men tended to impart information and the women tended to respond to it. Women will often offer agreement intended to increase a connection with another person. Men will often misinterpret this as a sign of women being indecisive or insecure. Women’s reasons for doing this have nothing to do with their knowledge, but more to do with their attitudes towards their relationships with others.
Another example of this involves the use of the words “I’m sorry.” These two little words can have very different meanings depending on the context in which they are being uttered. An apology has the ability to frame a person in a one-up or one-down position. Women have a tendency to say “I’m sorry” more than men, but that does not mean that they feel they are at fault more than men. “I’m sorry” can have two meanings, one can mean “I apologize” and the other can mean “I am sorry to hear that”. Women tend to use the words to express sympathy and concern, not to apologize. For men, saying “I’m sorry” can interfere with their status and put them in an inferior position.
It would benefit both men and women to learn and use styles more typically used by members of the opposite gender. I’m not suggesting that each gender abandons their style of communication entirely, but having more strategies at their disposal used by the opposite gender will make any relationship more satisfying for both partners.
CONFRONTATION, CONFLICT, AND BEING DIRECT
Men and women are not only playing by different rules in this world, but at times it seems as though they are playing different games entirely! The meanings of conflict, as well as the means for dealing with them, are fundamentally different for each gender. During the early child-rearing years, when it comes to matters concerning the children, husbands tend to avoid face to face conflict, whereas wives tend to use a more confrontational style; however this tends to be the exception rather than the rule (Mackey & O’Brien, 1998). To most women, conflict is seen as a threat to a relationship and confrontation is avoided whenever possible. While men are usually comfortable in situations where there is competition, struggle, conflict, and combat (Ong, 1989), women prefer to settle disputes without direct confrontation, and are frequently in the role of peacemaker. Being in the role of peacemaker promotes the likelihood of seeking agreement. When a man and a woman are discussing something, it is quite common for the man to raise different points of view. Men often feel that this is an interesting contribution to bring to the conversation, certainly more interesting than simply agreeing with everything. Women often feel that disagreeing is a threat to intimacy and is felt as a source of contention. Because of these differences, it is essential for the growth of any relationship to realize that what may appear as irrational behavior might simply be the result of different gender styles.
The perception that women are the weaker sex may also be exacerbated by gender differences in communication. If men are spending their time trying to fight for status and be in a dominant position, women may unfortunately fall into a subordinate position by default. When men want something done, they will typically state what they want in a direct way. The payoff for this type of interaction is one of status – you’re on top because others are doing what you asked or told them to do. Women, however, talk in the spirit of rapport, and this often leaves them labeled powerless. Yet if you get your way because others are wanting the same thing you are, then the payoff is rapport (Basow & Rubenfeld, 2003).
Nonverbal communication can be the source of more conflict and misunderstanding than verbal communication. When messages are inconsistent, only 7% of the message is from the words spoken, 38% of the message comes from the tone of voice, and 55% comes from facial expressions (Mehrabian, 1971). Given that at times, 93% of the messages we are given are coming from nonverbal communication, nonverbal behavior differences can have a significant effect on a relationship. Study after study has shown that women sit closer to each other and sustain eye-contact much more than men do. Men tend to sit at an angle, and avoid looking directly into each other’s faces. There are several explanations for why these differences occur: looking directly into another mans eyes might seem like a hostile act, or looking directly into the eyes of a women might seem like a sexual advance, or flirtatious (Scollon, 1982; Becker, 1988). Regardless of the reasons why these differences occur, they tend to create profound effects on relationships and intimacy. Men’s tendency to keep more space between them and others, as well as avoid eye-contact more often then women, can often lead to the assumption that they are disengaged. Women engage in these behaviors as a means of connecting with others, therefore it is often mistakenly assumed that men are avoiding connection or intimacy and are detached.
These differences are being discussed in this paper because they can lead to severe misunderstandings that often breed contempt and have the power to destroy relationships. When a person acts in accordance with their gender norm, and it is misinterpreted or misunderstood by the other gender, the effects of that behavior are often exaggerated and provoke an equally aggravating response from the other person. When a man is feeling as though his space is at risk, or as though he needs more freedom and independence, his first reaction might be to withdraw from the relationship. This behavior can set off a fear response in the woman, and causes her to fear losing intimacy. As she panics about losing this intimacy or connection, she may try to control her partner and keep him closer. This signals his alarm bells to go off, as he feels his freedom is at risk. The cycle may continue to spiral downward until it either hits rock bottom, or one or both partners become aware of what is going on and takes proper steps to understand how both partners can have their needs met without setting off alarms for the other.
The ultimate goal of this paper is to provide an overview of several of the gender differences that cause misunderstanding and create confusion and condescension in relationships. The hope is that this understanding will create changes within those relationships, however, even if no change is made, just having a basic understanding of these differences can be helpful in improving a couple’s communication with each other. Simply realizing that different genders have different ways of approaching communication often promotes more acceptance and discourages blame. This awareness reminds people that there is not one “right” way to communicate or behave. Assertiveness trainings try to teach women how to talk more like men, and sensitivity trainings try to get men to talk more like women. Although many relationships would be improved if each partner learned to be more sensitive or assertive, it isn’t necessary for men and women to abandon their way of communicating in order for their relationship to survive. Being willing to make some adjustments, however, might be necessary for each partner to be fully heard and understood. Learning how to communicate in a way that your partner can accept, and learning how to interpret each other’s messages in a realistic way will improve any relationship.
Disagreements are a part of any relationship that can’t and shouldn’t be avoided. It is when those disagreements begin to spiral out of control that something needs to be done. Understanding the different communication styles between the genders can help prevent this from happening and can take some of the sting out of disputes. Being told you are doing something wrong, simply for doing it your way, can be exasperating and learning that we each have different ways of showing we are listening or that we care, is crucial for any relationship to grow.