It is certainly not news to anyone- men just do not have what it takes when it comes to interpersonal communication. But what is it about this tried and true gender stereotype that feeds its existence? Various factors add to the growing myth turned fact. One of the instigators adding fuel to the fire is reality television. Various reality television shows portray men as quiet, subdued even, when it comes to talking about their personal lives, feelings, or experiences. However, when it comes to asserting their position in society, in the workplace, or even in the relationships, men are shown to be leaders and they take control of the situation by asserting their status and knowledge through conversation. By watching these shows, men can interpret their own behavior when it comes to communication as the norm or even learn new communication styles that seem to ascertain the men on reality television a higher place in society or in their personal lives.
According to Webster’s New Dictionary, communication can be defined as “The exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, signals, writing, or behavior.” It is a vital tool in society because communication is the central point of verbally corresponding with others – it allows people to relay messages and express their thoughts, ideas, and emotions to a mixture of people. There are various types of communication and communication styles. The communication styles of men and women are just one example of such.
Women and men have differed in communication styles for quite some time. The type of communication style used by women is often referred to as “relate” or “rapport” talk whereas men are generally said to use the “debate” or “report” style of communicating. Women are generally categorized as being chatty and often said to be constantly delving into personal aspects of their lives with whoever takes a fancy for listening to it. Men, on the other hand, are generally said to be more likely to discuss mainstream topics or “safe” topics such as the weather, sports, or something in the news. Instead of giving people a chance to get to know the person that they may be on the inside, they hide behind the facade of things they may like or other interests that they may have and allow people to then use these material interests or hobbies to mold the opinion of who they are and what they believe in.
One example of this “typical” male behavior can be seen on the latest season of MTV’s Real World: Philadelphia. The show casts seven strangers to live in a house together and work together. It shows the tribulations of living with people that are different than you and the conflicts that arise in what they allow the viewers to believe as everyday, unscripted activities. One of the members of the cast, a 23 year old black male from Houston named Karamo, exhibited distinctive characteristics of how men are said to communicate in the beginning of the show. Rather than telling his roommates an important fact about the way he lives his life, Karamo instead chose to only reveal certain aspects of his life that he considered safe for the roommates to know. Instead of revealing his homosexuality to the roommates, he instead lets them believe for a while that he is heterosexual and tells them things about his interests, such as his love for hip hop music. By not exposing his personal secret, Karamo feels safe and this lack of communication between roommates does not allow them to get to know the real person that he is. By doing this, he forces his roommates to form their own opinion or belief when they may not know Karamo at all. They are left to believe that he may possess qualities of another person and it creates a new personality for him.
While women see communication as a way to establish intimacy or relationships, men look at communication as serving a purpose. Men may use conversation as a way of establishing a need or a want, or seek a solution for a problem. They may try to establish their leadership in a given situation. “Men more typically deal with problems by focusing on the facts and seeking an immediate solution (Torppa).” Women, on the other hand, may look to their family and friends to seek comfort or sensitivity about a particular topic. Men interpret women telling them about their problems as a way to seek a man’s knowledge or suggestions for a solution to the problem or advice. “Men are much more likely to communicate in an attempt to gain control and status. With this purpose, communication becomes a “win-lose” situation with men (Gershaw).”
In Real World/Road Rules: Battle of the Sexes, this difference in communication can be seen throughout the course of the season. The men on the show are more focused on winning and they do not allow personal conflict to interfere with the competition. The women, on the other hand, often make decisions regarding the competition based on their personal likes, experiences, or dislikes of the other women. They allow their emotions to dictate their actions and the men’s actions are inspired by the need for success. This need for success leads the men to communicate in a fashion more designed to achieve status and leadership roles.
For instance, often times there are male cast members who do not like each other or who have personal history that causes tension between them. Rather than letting this factor into the competition, the men forget about their personal drama between one another and only focus on the weaker opponents. On one particular episode, one male cast member Steven overreacted to a comment made by another cast member Shane and slapped him. Rather than allowing this personal drama to be a part of what the show was about, Shane did not want his emotional reaction to what happened between them to be a factor in the voting aspect. This same situation would take place between the members of the female cast on various occasions and when voting would take place, the female cast members would factor in the personal conflict would be factored into who they would vote for.
For example, another cast member from Real World: Philadelphia is 23 year old MJ from Tennessee. Throughout the course of the show, MJ does not mention his girlfriend or the problems that they have been having, since entering into a relationship only two months prior to him leaving for the show. MJ keeps his relationship details quiet and does not speak much about his girlfriend until he needs some advice.
This behavior reinforces the belief that males only discuss issue or situations when seeking advice or a solution to the problem. As viewers, we do not see MJ discuss his feelings about his relationship or his girlfriend. Producers probably cut out the softer side of MJ, leaving the audience with a feeling that MJ lacks emotion and is a “typical” male: concentrating on sports, drinking, and women. This perception of MJ leads viewers to believe that MJ lacks an emotional side. It also gives directs viewers to the assumption that MJ only discussed his relationship in the hopes of getting advice as to the current predicament that he found himself in regards to his relationship.
Not only do men use communication as a means to solve their problems, they also use conversation as a tool of status. “For males, conversation is the way you negotiate your status in the group and keep people from pushing you around; you use talk to preserve your independence (Tannen, 43).” Because men talk to obtain status, most of these conversations occur in public whereas women have most of their conversations in private, to establish intimacy (Kelley).
At public gatherings, informal conversations with strangers, and in groups of mixed gender, men are often seen conversing more than women. Men were often seen to be initiating the conversation in a desperate attempt to be the leader of the pack. Some of examples of this would be men using conversation to assert their position as the director of the circumstances or to establish the control over a particular situation or conversation. This often occurs because men speak up more when they are familiar with the aspect of the conversation or when they have a particular expertise on a subject. Those who are more talkative in a group setting are most likely seen as more dominant and often tend to become the leaders of the situation, especially in regards to decision making groups (Vanfossen).
For example, on the Real World: Philadelphia, out of the four men of the house, Landon was portrayed to be a quieter, more sensitive male. However, in the workplace environment, Landon instantly became outspoken and overrode many decisions that the household was trying to make as a group, which could easily be explained because of his interest in their particular field of work and his experience in the field. He chose to become the leader and by doing so, he was more talkative and less responsive to ideas that the women of the house had to say. In one instance, the group was given a project that they were all required to work on. Landon chose to take it upon himself and do most of the assignment, leaving some pieces of the work to be divided by another male roommate, MJ and two of the women. Instead of including the whole group or finding a solution that was better suited to the whole group, he chose to split the work up and not inform the rest of the roommates about the plans to work on the assignment or if any help was needed.
My Super Sweet 16 was another reality television showed created and produced by MTV. This show featured spoiled teenagers and their extravagant parties planned and hosted by their parents. Although only one episode featured a male hosting the party, we see the characteristics of what the media and reality television wants the public to see in regards to males and their communication techniques. When 15 year old Hart and his father are trying to decide on a suitable location for the party, both become assertive and try to take on leadership roles: Hart as the host and honoree of the party and his father as the man behind the endless wallet. In order to get what he wants, Hart insists that he is the making the decisions and instead of working out a compromise or talking about the situation, the more aggressive male (Hart) wins the fight and his father caves in to his demand.
Because men and women are seen to have these different roles in society with regards to communication, reality television often portrays men as being uncomfortable when women show their intelligence and knowledge in the form of assertive behavior. When they do depict this particular form of conversational behavior, they are said to be “acting like men” or are often described as “manly”. This type of behavior is often shown to be looked down upon by men on reality television. Often times, the women who exhibit the qualities of aggressive or assertive behavior is dismissed by the men or treated in a rude manner. This treatment that the woman may receive is quite different from how a man would be accepted if he were to display the same behavior.
In one episode of Real World: Philadelphia, members of the house went out for lunch together and throughout the meal, the topic of politics and religion was brought up by MJ, one of the male roommates. As he continued to discuss his personal ideas and beliefs, another roommate, 23 year old Sarah began to express her thoughts and opinions regarding The Passion of Christ. While Sarah is expressing her views regarding the movie and makes a claim that the movie was “anti-Semitic,” MJ dismisses Sarah’s claims and gets frustrated with the conversation. He immediately wants to change the subject and cannot accept Sarah’s views or opinions as valid, even though he may disagree. Later, he further disrespects Sarah as an intelligent human being when he refers to her as “sweetheart”.
Like many aspects of life, reality television plays a large factor in society and they way people behave. As viewers of reality television, we often are influenced by actions we see on reality television and we may perceive these actions as standard. As society begins to accept what we see on reality television as standard, more people begin to experience what they have previously viewed and allow aspects of reality television to become a part of their everyday life and experiences. Stereotypes become a reality when we as the audience begin to take the actions of reality television cast members and create a new custom of the way we live and act.