10 WAYS MEN & WOMEN COMMUNICATE DIFFERENTLY
For men and women, communication can be a very long drive, using different roads -- often to get to the same place.
by Susan Sherwood, Ph.D.
It's the middle of the day during a long drive. He's sitting at the wheel, cruising along. She's sitting in the passenger seat, reading, glancing up now and then at the passing scenery. Suddenly, she turns to him and cries, "Talk to me!"
She's not stir crazy; he's not ignoring her. They're just living the classic divide in communication between men and women. She's more discussion-oriented; he's all action. One reason for these differences stems from the way relationships develop during childhood.
Girls' friendships focus on making connections -- talk is essential to this process. Sharing secrets, relating experiences, revealing problems and discussing options are essential during girls' development. Boys generally take another approach to friendship. Their camaraderie is not less profound; it's just different. Buddy groups tend to be larger, focusing on activities rather than conversation.
This differentiation in youth leads to dissimilar communication styles in adulthood. Women communicate through dialogue, discussing emotions, choices and problems. Males remain action-oriented -- the goal of communication is to achieve something.
Research indicates that these are the general, even common, tendencies of men and women, but these divides are not absolute. There are certainly men who want to chat about their feelings and women who quickly tire of discourse. But one way to classify male-female interactions is to examine them through the lens of childhood: talk versus deeds. With that in mind, here is a list of 10 ways that (most) men and women communicate differently and how these differences affect their interactions [source: Tannen].
10. Nonverbal Communication
Fingers tapping. Eyes squinting. Legs crossing. Hands fluttering. Heads nodding.
Nonverbal communication involves varying levels of body expression, with women usually functioning at high intensity. Faces are animated and hands are in motion, often touching others. Men are more conservative in facial movement and body contact. However, they do tend to be unreserved in sitting styles: sprawling, stretching and spreading out. The intensity level for women drops for the sitting position -- they tend to draw in, keeping arms and legs close to their bodies.
How does nonverbal communication impact male and female communication? Women's actions focus on maintaining the relationship: providing attention and encouraging participation. The goal for men, however, depends upon the task. Want to appear in charge? Use the body to control the discussion space. Want to preserve calm and prevent emotional escalation? Keep the face quiet and impassive [source: McManus].
Does Your Dog Understand You?
Do animals fare any better at communication? Which animal can understand humans better: wolves, chimps or dogs? Turns out that dogs trounce other creatures when it comes to grasping our signals. Researchers discovered that when food is concealed, hidden among several dishes, dogs learn to take cues from their handlers and seek the container holding the treat. Chimps can't. Canines appear to understand the intentionality of the human's hand signs pointing to the food [source: Max Planck Institute
9. Body Orientation
Picture this: It's happy hour after work. On one side of the room, there's a group of women, deep in conversation. Their chairs are all turned toward each other, and they continually make eye contact. On the other side of the room, there's a group of four men. They sit at angles to each other. During much of their discussion, their eyes roam around the room, glancing at each other infrequently. Each cluster is engaged in its preferred style of talk. It's great for tonight, but when group members are engaged with the other gender these preferences may cause problems.
One specific aspect of nonverbal communication is body orientation. If a man won't make eye contact or face his female conversational partner, she (perceiving conversation as integral to relationships) may interpret this as a lack of interest. He may become annoyed that she is rejecting his efforts; to him, his relaxed body position is actually helping him concentrate. The vast differences in physical alignment can make it difficult for talkers to reconcile the two styles [source: Tannen].
Women often use questions in an argument. It's how they present their opposition. Men are more likely to take the simple, direct approach.
"Why do we have to eat here?"
"Are there any quieter restaurants nearby?"
"Not close by."
"I wonder if this place has been inspected lately?"
"Let's go in."
In a nutshell, that conversation snippet summarizes each gender's argumentation style. Women often try to get their point across by asking many types of questions: defiant, informational and rhetorical. The questions are designed to present an opposition or gather data. Men's contributions to arguments are often simple and direct. They're so straightforward, in contrast to women's questions, that men might not even realize that a conflict is occurring.
When, finally, both parties realize they are disagreeing, their communication styles have great impact. Men are concerned with being right and less concerned about anyone else's feelings. This perceived lack of compassion upsets women. Men dislike questions, interpreting them as censure, and they react by closing down emotionally. This pattern leads women to become increasingly suspicious and wary. Time to go to separate corners [source: Booher, Whitworth].
"I'm sorry I made such a big deal about which restaurant to go to."
"It doesn't really matter."
"We've both had long days; we just need a good meal."
"Do you want to eat by yourself tonight?!"
After the argument comes the apology. Maybe. You might suspect that women and men handle apologies differently, and you'd be right. Women use apologies to try to create or maintain connections. Men, on the other hand, are concerned with what an apology might do: It might lower them to a subordinate position, a place where they've never wanted to be since boyhood.
After a male-female quarrel, gender differences can prolong negative feelings. If a man fears losing power and avoids apologizing, a woman might consider this insensitive behavior, becoming offended and annoyed. Thus the argument continues [source: Tannen].
6. Giving Compliments
In the U.S., someone who does not make eye contact might be considered rude or even suspicious. Such behavior would be accepted in Japan or Korea, where attempting to maintain eye contact creates discomfort [source: Brady].
Well, if the apology doesn't go well, maybe a compliment is in order. But that path is also tricky.
Scene: A dog park. Several owners are there with their pets. One woman is there with her new golden retriever. A conversation ensues:
Airedale owner (woman): "Oh, your lab is so adorable. What a lovely coat!"
Golden owner (woman): "Thanks. Your boy is very sweet, too." (To a man standing nearby, watching his beagle.) "What do you think of my little girl here?"
Man: "Hmm … looks a little on the small side. How old is she?"
Once again, gender variations are making things difficult. From a young age, females learn to give compliments; it's almost reflexive. Compliments are a way of reaching out to one another, an offer of affirmation and inclusion. Men are more likely to volunteer evaluations instead of hand out compliments. Similarly, they will not seek out compliments because they want to avoid being critiqued themselves.
Naturally, these differing approaches complicate communication. If a woman asks a question with the hope of being praised or flattered, a man may well see it as a way to offer advice. This affects their relative power: The advice-giver is automatically shifted to a higher position, with the woman having lower status [source: Tannen].
Verbal and nonverbal communication can be codified, but it often varies among cultures. For example, although in many countries meals are a time to visit with friends and family, in some Asian and African countries, mealtime is reserved for eating. Chatting would elicit no response.
5. Problem Solving
A dead car can lead to lively discussions between men and women. Their approaches to problem solving are likely to be different -- women want to examine the situation, but men might already be out the door to the dealership.
The car died. Again. It's time to buy a new car. He suggests a slightly used car because cars depreciate quickly. She says she'd like to ask her friends how they like their cars. He wants to look at car reviews on-line. She's worried about the car payment. He offers to go right then to a few dealerships. She relates a story about the first time she bought a car and how exciting it had been. He declares he wants to look at hybrids.
This is not problem solving at its finest but at its most common. Men and women approach an analytical discussion differently. As just illustrated, men tend to focus on facts and seek immediate resolutions; action is the conversational goal. Women desire more extensive talk about problems, sharing feelings and finding common experiences.
Even if there's a mutual dilemma to resolve, such diverse communication goals can lead to frustration. Men don't understand why women don't want to solve problems, why they seem ungrateful for direct help. Women are hurt by the perceived disregard for emotions and frustrated when they believe they are being pushed to acquiesce too quickly [source: Torppa].
4. Getting Your Way
"I want to go to the ocean."
"Really? What do you think of the mountains? Don't you think they're beautiful this time of year?"
"Yeah, but I'd like to do some fishing and sailing."
"You like hiking, don't you? Why don't we do some mountain biking, too?"
Looks like there might be separate vacations this year. Men and women have very different ways of trying to get what they want, which can make it difficult to come to an agreement. Women are typically in conversation mode; they are more likely to ask questions. Their goal is to get others to acquiesce through agreement. Men often interpret this approach as manipulation. They will make statements rather than suggestions. Their objective is to get their way directly and quickly. If that doesn't work, they'll exit the discussion; they may either be angry or simply less passionate about the subject.
These discussions, then, often do not go smoothly. Men are resentful, believing women are trying to trick them. If men won't participate in back and forth negotiations, women feel slighted. This could easily turn into an argument-something that no one intended [source: Tannen].
Humans regularly communicate with each other, but we're certainly not the only species that does. Honeybees are one of the most extensively studied communicators. After a hard day's work, a bee returns to the hive and performs a series of "dances," providing information concerning the location, quality and amount of the flowers found that day [source: NOVA].
"Where should we go for vacation?"
Who talks more, men or women? Take into consideration all interactions during the day, with family, work, friends and businesses. Would you guess women are more loquacious? A lot of people would. And a lot of people would be wrong.
Research indicates that there is no significant difference between women and men in the amount of words spoken, although, when they do talk, men tend to use more words at a time. The major difference appears to be when men and women do their talking. Women spend more talking time with family and close friends, expressing support and discussing experiences. Men tend to talk more at work and in formal and social settings, and their goal is the exchange of information, even when conversing with a buddy.
At home, women do talk more and become perturbed with less responsive partners. Women try to work on their relationships, while men see little need to speak unless there is a specific purpose -- a problem to solve, a decision to make [source: Tannen].
"Where are the bandages? I cut my-"
"I was working on the-"
"Ooh, it's bleeding a lot."
"I know, that's why-"
"Here are the bandages. Do you want-"
"I'll do it."
"What are we doing for dinner?"
Most people dislike being interrupted, but most people do it at one time or another. Women interrupt to show concern, but they think men disrupt the discussion by shifting the subject. Men do try to control the conversation by disrupting it. They also believe a woman's supportive interjections (for example, "go on") are interruptions.
Frequent interruptions, no matter the cause, no matter the target, can lead to frustration. This can build to anger and, unless the guilty party gets things under control, the discussion will come to a screeching halt. Or perhaps just screeching [source: Cowie].
Differences Among Doctors
You go to your doctor for a prescription. Do you go for a chat? Research indicates that male and female physicians communicate differently with their patients. Male doctors tend to talk less than their female counterparts, resulting in reduced time (10 percent) with patients. Overall, female doctors are more patient-oriented, discussing the interconnectedness of health, emotions and social relationships [source: Roter, Hall, & Aoki].
Men might wish to come off as experts in some of their emails, while women tend to write more supportive, less aggressive communications.
E-mail. So helpful, convenient and quick. E-mail. So overused, annoying and redundant. It's also pervasive. A 2009 study found 1.4 billion people worldwide use e-mail, sending 247 billion messages daily [source: Radicati]. Due to the enormous number of e-mails sent, it's perhaps not surprising that the tone of most messages is conversational, with little attempt to revise that pattern. Mistakes occur in spoken language, and they also turn up in e-mail.
Most of the e-mail women send revolves around relationships: being supportive, making suggestions, apologizing, asking questions and offering thanks.
Men's e-mail messages are very different. Not only do men more often portray themselves as subject experts, but they have a more contentious interaction style, employing sarcasm, profanity and insults. Men may be looking for information from others through e-mail, but they are also seeking influence and respect.
Communication, whether non-verbal, verbal or typed into a computer, is open to interpretation. That is especially true when men and women are evaluating each other. Awareness of variability in communication styles can be the difference between an effective, fulfilling conversation and a distressing upsetting, prolonged argument [source: Rosetti].