Gender Differences in Verbal Communication

by Ruth M. Green
RUF Lehigh Summer Conference 2004

  1. Caveats
    1. Taken from Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand
    2. May be unique to Americans
    3. Difficulties of generalizations
      1. They make people nervous
      2. Stereotypes capture similarities but obscure differences
        1. Danger of ignoring differences in conversational style is greater than the danger in naming them
        2. Exceptions often prove the rule: “masculine women” or “effeminate men”
    4. Gender differences are a good thing!
      1. Origin can be seen at a very early age
      2. Goal is not to get men to talk like women or vice versa; goal is to give you more strategies at your disposal
      3. Not a sensitivity training seminar; not an assertiveness training seminar
      4. Usefulness in marriage of understanding gender communication – maximum intimacy is better than maximum frustration
  2. Introduction
    1. My interest in this topic springs from trying to understand Ephesians 5.
      1. Ephesians 5:33 Husbands, love your wives as yourself. Wives, respect your husbands.
      2. Why are those particular distinctions emphasized?
    2. Premise
      • The supposition of this seminar, supported by Tannen’s research and my personal observation and experience, is that there is a difference in communication style and objective between the genders – the understanding of which can aid our effective partnership in the kingdom. This difference in style is a reflection of fundamentally different approaches to the world.
    3. Men approach the world…
      • …as an individual in a hierarchical social order in which he is either one-up or one-down. Conversations are negotiations in which people try to achieve and maintain the upper hand if they can, and protect themselves from others’ attempts to put them down and push them around. Life is a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure.
    4. Women approach the world…
      • …as an individual in a network of connections. Conversations are negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus. Life is a community, a struggle to preserve intimacy and avoid isolation.
      • [If intimacy says, “We’re close and the same,” and independence says, “We’re separate and different”, it’s easy to see the asymmetry potential in male/female relationships.]
  3. Areas of conversational differences (not in any special order)
    1. Decision making
      1. Women expect decisions to be discussed first and made by consensus. They appreciate the discussion itself as evidence of involvement and communication.
      2. Men often feel oppressed by lengthy discussion and hemmed in. When women attempt to initiate a freewheeling discussion by asking, “What do you think?” men often think they are being asked to decide.
    2. Expressions of sympathy or offers of help
      1. Can be interpreted symmetrically: evidence of fellow feeling among equals
      2. Can be interpreted asymmetrically: offered by someone one-up to someone one-down
    3. Nagging
      1. Women inclined to do what is asked of them; men inclined to resist being told what to do.
      2. Women inclined to repeat a request that doesn’t get a response because she is convinced that her husband would do what she asks, if he only understood that she really wants him to do it.
      3. A man who wants to avoid the feeling that he is following orders may instinctively wait in order to imagine that he is doing it of his own free will.
    4. Expressions of trouble
      1. Women are often frustrated because men do not respond to their troubles by offering matching troubles.
      2. Men are often frustrated because women do. He feels she is trying to take something away from him by denying the uniqueness of his experience.
      3. Each are further hurt by the other’s frustration.
        1. Women resent mens’ tendency to offer solutions to problems. Women appreciate help in fixing mechanical equipment, but few appreciate help in fixing emotional troubles.
        2. Men complain about women’s refusal to take action to solve the problems.
      4. Women seek connection and intimacy; men seek status and independence.
      5. Men think women are wallowing, wanting to talk about troubles forever, when men want to either find a solution or laugh it off.
      6. For women, telling about a problem is a bid for an expression of understanding or similar complaint
        • Trouble talk is intended to reinforce rapport by sending a meta-message “We’re the same; you’re not alone.” Women are frustrated when they not only don’t get this reinforcement, but quite the opposite feel distanced by advice. The meta-message seems to be “We’re not the same. You have problems; I have solutions.” [example: “The kids have been awful today.”]
      7. In male to male trouble talk, each one talks about his own troubles and dismisses the other’s as insignificant.
        • The meta-message: “You shouldn’t feel bad because your problems aren’t so bad.” Women would feel personally attacked by that.
    5. Quantity of talk
      1. Who talks more, men or women?
        • In a mixed gathering men speak more often and for longer periods of time. Public speaking more equals report talk, whereas private speaking is more rapport talk.
      2. Why the stereotype that women talk a lot?
        1. Women should be seen and not heard
        2. Men think women do because they see women talking in situations in which they would not, or about subjects that men do not find interesting, or at home alone.
      3. The #1 complaint that women make about their husbands: he doesn’t talk to me
      4. The #2 complaint: he doesn’t listen
      5. “Nothing” may be a man’s ritual response at start of conversation; to women it is a terminating signal.
      6. Men honestly don’t know what women want, and women honestly don’t know why men find what they want so hard to comprehend and deliver.
      7. Women feel the need for interaction (talk) most keenly when he is at a distance. This starts a mutually aggravating spiral of trying harder.
      8. Why this is accentuated in the home: men and women find different sources of comfort in the home
        1. Men – freedom from having to prove themselves and impress through verbal display
        2. Women – freedom to talk without being judged
    6. Small talk & Gossip
    7. Listening
      1. Women (and men, too) complain, “You’re not listening!” What they may mean is, “You don’t understand what I said in the way that I meant it” or, “I’m not getting the response I wanted”
      2. Women are inclined to ask questions, respond with more agreeing and laughter, give more listening responses (mhm, uh-uh, yeah); “Yeah” means “I’m with you; I’m following”
      3. Men use “yeah” only when they agree. If a women says “yeah, yeah, yeah” and then turns out to disagree, they may conclude that she is insincere or hasn’t been listening.
      4. A man focuses more on the message level of talk than on the relationship or metamessage level.
      5. In a man’s world, fewer listening responses communicates less competition
      6. Women expect partners to encourage them to hold forth
      7. Men assume that anyone who has something to say will say it
      8. Even men who want to ingratiate themselves with women are more likely to try to charm them by offering interesting information than by listening attentively to whatever information the woman has
    8. Storytelling – the place where we form assumptions about the right way to behave and create our worlds
      1. Men tell stories about themselves, and generally stories that make them look good, about contest
      2. Women tell stories about themselves, about men, about children. Stories about community, or that make them look foolish [e.g.: Dave McClellan out of gas; Nicole kills fish]
    9. Apologizing
      1. Women use “I’m sorry” to express sympathy and concern, not just to mean “I apologize”. They use it in a ritual way.
      2. “I’m sorry” for men is a struggle because it puts them in a one-down position – something they are programmed to avoid
      3. When woman apologizes to a man.
        • Accepting an apology can be rude. A person who apologizes takes a one-down position. Accepting an apology preserves that asymmetry. A women apologizes to restore relationship. Deflection of apology restores balance. Expected response: “It’s no matter” or “I’m sorry I ….” or “You were overworked, etc.”
      4. When a man doesn’t apologize to a woman
        • Men need to get over their inhibitions about apologizing. Learn to. The cumulative effect of a woman doing all the apologizing in a relationship is resentment or escape.
      5. Women need to demand an apology less. Recognize that it comes at a higher price for men. Father, forgive them.
  4. Some ramifications for group gender conversations
    1. A mixed gender meeting means that women will accommodate more to men’s style than men will to women’s. That’s why we have same gender small groups at conferences.
    2. Ways of talking associated with masculinity are also associated with leadership and authority, whereas feminine ones are not.
      • Understand that women in a position of authority (and I’m talking about Biblically legitimate positions of authority) have the burden of risking their femininity – in the eyes of others (both men and women)
  5. Some conclusions
    1. Our assets can be our liabilities
      1. The inherently challenging nature of male talk can inhibit an ability to form male friendships, tempting men to look for emotional support from women more than they should
      2. Women can have an overabundance of rapport, feeling the pressure to have matching troubles or to tolerate self-absorption
    2. Women can learn from learn from men to accept some conflicts and difference without seeing it as a threat to intimacy
    3. Men can learn from women to accept interdependency without seeing it as a threat to their freedom
    4. Nothing hurts more than being told your intentions are bad when you know they are good, or being told you are doing something wrong when you know you are doing it the way you were made
    5. Learn how to interpret each other’s messages and explain your own in a way your partner can understand and accept
    6. There is no one right way to listen, to talk, to have a conversation, or a relationship