How Does Gender Affect Communication?
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus?
We've all been there--those situations when a silly argument turns into a full-blown battle of the sexes. For centuries, men and women have sometimes felt as if they were from different planets. The root of this problem may just be in the ways we attempt to communicate with each other. In some situations, it can be quite comical; but in others, it can cause huge misunderstandings that ruin relationships. But it doesn't have to be that way.
Communication can be affected or hindered because of the different ways men and women express themselves and interpret others. Recognizing these differences in communication will allow us to prevent these misunderstandings when communicating with the opposite sex. After a little research, I came up with a few interesting explanations of this "battle of the sexes" phenomenon.
Our Brains Are Different
In relation to intelligence, women develop more white brain matter, and men develop more gray brain matter (University of California, Irvine, 2005). In other words, a male brain represents more information processing centers, and a female brain represents more networking between these processing centers. No, this doesn't mean that men are smarter than women or vice versa--sorry to disappoint you! It simply implies that men and women tend to do things differently.
Rex Jung, co-author of a study done at the University of California, Irvine, says that these brain differences explain why men tend to excel in tasks involving more local processing (like math), while women tend to excel at incorporating and absorbing information from the more scattered gray matter regions in the brain, such as those necessary for language capability. Part of this has to do with the ways we were brought up as children--more on that later.
One main difference in communication between men and women is all in the thought process. Women tend to articulate their thought process. For example, as they go through a process such as decision-making, women tend to talk about their internal psychoanalysis as they go. Men go through the same process; however, they tend to wait until they have the answer before they say very much about the subject. Counselor Julia Cole explains that in relationships, many people fail to recognize this main important difference, which can cause or exacerbate and argument. A man may mistake a woman's pondering as her final answer and accuse her of changing her mind too often. A woman could think that a man isn't even considering an issue and accuse him of not caring (Gamble, T.K, 2005). Sound familiar? Of course, not all men are the same and not all women are the same; but all too often issues like this arise.
Another interesting difference is that men and women, when each faced with a problem, tend to try to help each other out in different ways. Deborah Tannen offers the paradox: "If women are often frustrated because men do not respond to their troubles by offering matching troubles, men are often frustrated because women do" (2007). In other words, women tend to desire a sympathetic response to their troubles, so this is what they do when someone comes to them with a problem. However, men tend to respond to problems with solutions. How might this pan out into an everyday argument? If men respond to problems with solutions, how might they react if a woman responds with sympathy and explaining a similar problem that she went through? How might a woman react negatively if a man simply offered a solution to her problem? Does any of this even make sense??
Take Tannen's example of a conversation between a husband and a wife, we'll call them Tom and Sue. Tom actually became offended when Sue tried to empathize with him.
Tom: "I'm really tired. I didn't sleep well last night."
Sue: "I didn't sleep well either, I never do."
Tom: "Why are you trying to belittle me?"
Sue: "I'm not! I'm just trying to show that I understand!"
If you have a sense of humor, these situations can be so easy to just sit back, shake your head and laugh at, but Tannen explains that Tom may have felt that his experience was being belittled by Sue. "He was filtering her attempts to establish connection through his concern with preserving independence and avoiding being put down" (2007).
A woman could be offended when a man simply offers a solution to a problem she is having. For example:
Woman: "I feel terrible about my new haircut."
Man: "You could go back and ask the stylist to fix it."
Woman: "Oh, so I guess you think it looks bad too."
Man: "That's not what I meant."
Woman: "Then why did you tell me to go back and fix it?"
Man: "Because you said that you were upset with the way it looked."
The woman simply desires to feel that she is understood, and that she isn't crazy for being bothered by certain things. Women want to know that there are others who have the same kinds of problems that they do.
Tannen further states, "if women resent men's tendency to offer solutions to problems, men complain about women's refusal to take action to solve the problems they complain about" (2007).
Many men see themselves as problem solvers, so they become frustrated when their sincere advice or solutions are met with disapproval from a woman. Say, for example, that a woman keeps telling her boyfriend about problems she is having with her coworkers. Her boyfriend may offer piece after piece of advice that she may not take, but she feels the need to continue talking about the situation. This, of course, can be frustrating for both involved. The explanation is quite simple. She wants to receive an expression of understanding like, "I know exactly how you feel," or I've felt the same way before."
There is also another factor to consider when studying the differences in communication between men and women. Keep in mind that the way we communicate based on our gender is also learned. This phenomenon is apparent in mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.
In an article by Liz Sandoval-Lewis, Campbell Leaper, a developmental psychologist at UCSC describes how it is not just the way men and women communicate differently, but rather the topics they choose to discuss:
Fathers and sons tend to talk about sports and construction-oriented toys. With these topics, the men and boys are more likely to "emphasize directive, task-oriented communication."
Mothers and daughters tend to talk about "feminine-stereotyped activities, such as playing house, [and] are more likely to emphasize collaborative communication" (1998).
Leaper suggests that parents should include their sons and daughters in conversation and activities that will help them practice both types of communication. The more directive task-oriented speech will prepare them for the work force, and the collaborative, supportive speech will prepare them for interpersonal relationships.
Things to Remember
In order to avoid misunderstandings that can lead to arguments, men and women must understand their differences not only when in an argument but also when helping each other. We need to remember that men and women have different needs, and we communicate our thought processes differently.
In general, women see conversations as "negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus;" and men see conversations as negotiations "in which people try to maintain the upper hand if they can." In addition, in conversation, a woman tries to protect herself from being pushed away from others, while a man tries to protect himself from being pushed around by others (Gamble, 2005, p. 223). Understanding our different styles of communicating can help us to avoid misconceptions, misunderstandings, and arguments; and will allow us to make a better connection with each other. When we do this, we finally realize that men and women aren't from different planets after all; sometimes we just speak different languages.
Gamble, T.K. & Michael, W. (2005). Contacts: Interpersonal communication in theory, practice, and context. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Sandoval-Lewis, L. (1998). Gender often does matter in communications between parents and children. Currents. Retrieved April 30, 2007 from http://www.ucsc.edu/oncampus/currents/97-98/05-11/leaper.htm>
Tannen, D. (1990). You Just Don't Understand. New York: HarperCollins.
University Of California, Irvine (2005, January 22). Intelligence In Men And Women Is A Gray And White Matter. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 28, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2005/01/050121100142.htm