As a social construct, gender is learned, symbolic, and dynamic. We say that gender is learned because we are not born knowing how to act masculine or feminine, as a man or a woman, or even as a boy or a girl. Just as we rely on others to teach us basic social conventions, we also rely on others to teach us how to look and act like our gender. Gender is symbolic and is learned and expressed through language. Because language is central to the way we learn about gender and enact it through communicative acts, it is itself said to be social and symbolic. Finally, gender communication is cultural. Meanings for masculinity and femininity, and ways of communicating those identities, are largely determined by culture. A culture is made up of belief systems, values, and behaviors that support a particular ideology or social system. How we communicate our gender is influenced by the values and beliefs of our particular culture.
Starting in childhood, girls and boys are generally socialized to belong to distinct cultures and thus, speak in ways particular to their own gender’s rules and norms. This pattern of gendered socialization continues throughout our lives. As a result, men and women often interpret the same conversation differently. Culturally diverse ways of speaking can cause miscommunication between members of each culture or speech community. These cultural differences are seen in the simple purpose of communication. For those socialized in a feminine community, the purpose of communication is to create and foster relational connections with other people. On the other hand, the goal for men’s communication is to establish individuality. This is done in a number of ways such as indicating independence, showing control, and entertaining or performing for others.
Countless books have been written claiming they have the answer for understanding the opposite gender. But what have we really learned about gendered ways of communicating? Following is a comparison chart from one of my PowerPoint Presentations I use in class-
When cultures have different goals for their communication this results in unique communication strategies and behaviors. When the goal is connection, members of a feminine speech community are likely to engage in the following six strategies—equity, support, conversational “maintenance work,” responsiveness, a personal style, and tentativeness.
When the goal is independence, members of the male speech community are likely to communicate in ways that exhibit knowledge, refrain from personal disclosure, are abstract, are focused on instrumentality, demonstrate conversational command, are direct and assertive, and are less responsive. Showing knowledge in conversation gives speakers the opportunity to present themselves as competent and capable. If someone has a problem at work one might respond, “You should do this …” or “The best way to deal with that is …” This strategy is sometimes referred to as a “communication tool box.” While some may interpret this as bossy, responding in a manner that tries to fix a problem for someone you care about makes a lot of sense
When women have to make a decision they will often process and look at options out loud while men tend to process internally until they come up with a solution. Women often think that the man is being unresponsive to suggestions because of this and men often think that women are looking for approval when they process out loud or don't know what they are doing. Further, some men think that a woman's way of processing is a sign of weakness.
Displaying equity in conversation means showing that you are similar to others. To do this one might say, “That happened to me too,” or “I was in a similar situation.” Showing support conversationally involves the expression of sympathy, understanding, and emotions when listening or responding to others. Sotirin (1990), suggests “women use bitching to cope with troubles by reaffirming rapport; men address troubles as problems of status asymmetry and respond with solutions. The characterization minimizes the political import of women’s bitching; it’s not political but interpersonal; not transformative but cathartic” (p. 20). High disclosure in female conversation also is used to build rapport and equity.
A masculine communication style tends to be focused on instrumental tasks, factual information, and minimal disclosure. This is particularly true in the case of same sex friendships. Like the “tool box” or a problem solving approach to communication, when talk is instrumental it has a specific goal or task. It is used to accomplish something. Take baseball or football, for example. The talk that is used in these activities is strategic. In the case of male friendships it is more likely that men will get together to do something. Whether the activity is rock climbing, going to lunch, or helping someone move, the conversation is instigated by a particular activity. While female friends also like to engage in activities together, they are much more likely to get together “just to talk.”
Conversational command refers to the ability to control or manage conversation. This can be done by controlling which topics are discussed, interrupting, or being the one to control the turn taking in conversation. A popular stereotype is that women talk a lot, but most research shows that men talk more than women. More talk time is another way to demonstrate conversational command.
Directness is another feature of masculine communication. This refers to the use of more authoritative language and minimal use of tentativeness. Finally, men generally perform “minimal response cues” (Parlee, 1979). Response cues include saying, “mmm” or “go on” while nodding when listening to others. Fewer verbal indicators of sympathy, empathy, or understanding are likely to characterize this style of talk. While members of this speech community may be less likely to verbally express sympathy or other similar emotions, this is not the same as saying the members of the community do not feel such emotions. For women, tentativeness is the norm, hedging or turning statements into questions is a way of showing tentativeness. This is done with tag questions or intonation.
Because women are more relationship oriented, they tend to lead by consensus. Men tend to be more hierarchical and include only the people closest to them at their level in the decision making process when they think it is necessary.
When a woman is speaking to a man and he does not say anything and stays in neutral body language to show that he is listening, a woman will interpret that as the man being bored or not understanding what she is saying.
–This can lead the woman to become very uncomfortable and repeat what she is saying or ask the man each time if he understands what she is saying. The man then interprets that as insecurity, or talking to much and which then lead him to think she is not assertive or confident to be a leader.
Women will use more direct eye contact to create relationship and connection while many men take that as a challenge to their power or position.
Women will also approach a man from the front while men often approach from the side at an angle, which is how each of them tends to stand or sit when talking to others. Men interpret the face to face as too personal, or aggressive and women will interpret the talking side to side as though he is not being upfront or even hiding something from her.
Women accomplish tasks by building relationships first. They then know who to ask and are comfortable asking others to get things done. Men tend to be more task oriented and go straight to the task. They build their relationships when they are in the task or project.
It is important to note that not all people adopt all of the stereotypical communication behaviors of their gender community. For example, and despite being a woman, I am very direct and not normally high on disclosure. So while the information portrayed above is useful, it is not the solution to a good relationship. Rather, it is honesty in one's feelings, needs, and desires combined with patience and disclosure that are relevant. Further, knowing yourself and having true love,interest and compassion for the other person is paramount. There is nothing wrong with saying "I am upset about something and I just need to complain to you for a bit and have you listen." But being indirect and hoping that someone reads your mind is an absurdity (and one far too many women practice). You have to commit yourself to another person to be truly successful, which includes putting the other person before yourself and making a point to spend un-distracted time together where you communicate honestly.
Maryland State Department of Education