Every race, culture, civilization, and society on this planet shares two things in common: the presence of both men and women, and the need to communicate between the two. The subject of gender differences appears to have engaged peoples’ curiosity for as long as people have been writing down their thoughts, from as far back as the writing of the creation of Adam and Eve, to its current popular expression in books such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. The assertion that men and women communicate in different ways, about different things, and for different reasons seems to go un-argued and is accepted as true by many.
A recent conversation between a young man, in his mid twenties, and me, while at work, reaffirmed my belief that men and women communicate in different ways. Deborah Tannen, a leading scholar of communication, also shares this view of gender and communication. In her research, she finds that the basic uses of conversation by women are to establish and support intimacy; while for men it is to gain status. These styles and motives for communicating represent different cultural upbringings, and one is not necessarily better than the other. However, Tannen also notes in her findings that men tend to interrupt more and ask questions less. The most obvious differences in communication between men and women include listening, verbal communication, and non-verbal communication. When engaging in conversation with a young man (Michael) at my place of employment, I found listening was the most prevalent difference. When speaking with Michael, I realized that I had a tendency to listen to each and every word, while he listened to the main points. I am taught that when a guest enters the store that we are to be active listeners and to respond to everything that they have to say. I find that women react in a more positive way to this than men. Women show attentiveness through verbal and non-verbal cues. Many men avoid these cues to keep from appearing “one-down.”
Most men do not listen to each and every word in a conversation. For example, when speaking with Michael, he seemed to be an active listener, but when the conversation came to an end he asked me what my name was. I had clearly stated my name at the beginning of the conversation. Michael even repeated my name, assuring me that he had heard and understood that my name was Allison. When Michael asked for my name again, I knew that he had been a selective listener and this caused him to forget my name. When engaging in this conversation I found myself judging and stereotyping quite a bit. Michael told me what he does for a living and how much he actually enjoys what he does. He is a military man. From previous experiences (schema), at my workplace, with military men, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was the same way. With the exception of schema, judgment, and stereotyping, listening tends to be the most prevalent difference between men and women. Verbal communication is the second issue at hand. Tannen argues that men seek status in conversation while women seek acceptance.
When engaging in conversation with Michael, I find this previous statement to be true. Michael spoke of his career, his achievements, and his future. I spoke on issues that directly and indirectly related to his. We discussed the Army, his tour in Iraq, and our similar experiences. Men tell more stories and jokes than do women. Telling jokes is a masculine way to negotiate status. Men are almost always the heroes in their own stories. When women tell stories, they downplay themselves. I let Michael speak first because I did not want to say anything that made me sound less intelligent. When I spoke, I spoke in a non-assertive way, while he was very assertive and to the point. Men speak more monotonous and louder than most women. Critics of Tannen would argue from a very early age, males and females are taught different linguistic practices. For example, communicative behaviors that are considered acceptable for boys may be considered completely inappropriate for girls. Whereas a boy might be permitted to use rough language, a girl in the same situation might be reminded to use her manners and be lady-like.
The research on women and language shows that women experience linguistic discrimination in two ways: in the way they are taught to use language, and in the way general language usage treats them. So, for example, women reflect their role in the social order by using tag questions, qualifiers, and fillers to soften what they have to say. Women exhibit their subordinate status through avoiding direct and threatening communication. While in recent years this gap has narrowed, our society retains a tendency to imply that maleness is the standard for normalcy. Some would argue that. The most subtle of all differences are the non-verbal cues. Most men and women think they are capable of comprehending one another’s body language. Since men and women tend to focus more on listening and verbal, non-verbal cues are often ignored. In conversation, women show more exaggerated emotions. Women smile more and nod their head while speaking and listening. Nodding the head is a sign of understanding and a way to gain acceptance. For example, when speaking with Michael I looked him straight in the eyes, smiled and, nodded my head when I agreed or could relate to what was being said. I noticed that Michael made more eye contact, possibly to show dominance. I on the other hand did not make nearly as much eye contact. I find it difficult to do so because I find that eye contact represents trust.
Until I trust a person I make minimal eye contact. Michael’s perception of me may be that I am a very shy and timid person. My personal perception of Michael, based on the conversation is that he is a very independent person, he is very confident, and has a high self-esteem. I thought at first encounter that Michael would have an “allness attitude”, however, to my surprise; he did not have this attitude at all. Although non-verbal cues are ignored, they are possibly the most important key in understanding the differences in communication between men and women. Ethics are very important in today’s society. Ethical communication, or communication that facilitates the individual’s freedom of choice by presenting that individual with accurate bases for choice, is important in interpersonal communication. Ethics set the stage for a fair and reasonable conversation. When I saw the three men walk through the front door with Michael, I thought to myself, “More military men coming into the store to harass our female employees.” At that point I should have avoided personal conversation. I was unethical by engaging in conversation with Michael. The most logical response would have been to greet the men, ask if they need help, and then leave them alone to shop. I continued the conversation because I discovered that Michael was not just another soldier in the store with the intent to harass the female employees.
It is extremely difficult to distinguish what is ethical and what is unethical in communication. When engaging in conversation with Michael I noticed that our perceptions differed, the way we spoke was different, the non-verbal cues were different, and the words we used were different. Although the communication between Michael and I differed greatly, we were still able to understand one another and were able to carry on the conversation. It amazes me how different conversation between men and women can be, yet we are still able to make it work. Through recent research we have learned that gender differences in communication are not something that we are born with, they’re not due to differences in brain matter, and they’re definitely not due to the two sexes being from different planets. We are who we are and we communicate how we communicate because it is what society and culture demand of us. Although this sounds like a simple difference that can easily be resolved you might be surprised; disregarding everything you’ve ever learned about the difference between boys and girls is a mighty big task.