Gender Differences in Communication
Communication is the means by which ideas and information are spread from person to person. People use communication to express feelings, emotions, opinions and values, to learn and teach, and to improve their status. Communication is therefore vital to human interaction whether between parents and children, bosses and employees or even husband and wife. The diversity and characteristics of those involved in any interaction can thus affect communication. Taking account of any diversity in interaction rather than assuming uniformity is important to achieving effective communication.
Good communication is difficult to master and can be a major source of strife in any situation or business. Gaps in communication arise when the intended message is not transmitted or the message is misunderstood. The resultant miscommunication is mainly due to the different styles of communication amongst people. In order to understand the differences of communications patterns we should begin by considering the different elements of the communication process between the sender of the information and receiver. In any form of communication, the sender has a message to transmit that becomes encoded. The receiver obtains this encoded message via some medium or channel e.g. verbal, nonverbal or written, which is then decoded and translated (as shown in the following diagram). In order for the communication process to work both the sender and the receiver must understand the codes. As an example consider the encrypted messages that were sent during World War II. In order for the receiver to understand the message, knowledge of the code was important. We can even consider the situation of an English speaker in Japan. For effective communication either one or both parties should be able to understand and communicate in the language of the other. Good and effective communication can therefore be affected by many things including the situation, time, culture, and gender. The assertion that gender affects communication in different ways has been accepted by a large part of the population today. Gender differences in communication may pose problems in interpersonal interactions leading to intolerance, resentment, stress and decreased productivity. This is extremely critical in business organizations but even moreso in your everyday world and therefore an examination of these differences in the first step to understanding the issues involved and moving towards better communication.
In any study of communication, there is variability in what is meant by "communication". Some individuals may consider only the verbal attributes whereas yet others will consider nonverbal interactions -- and the smart will focus on both. Additionally research studies have focused either on both the microscopic and the macroscopic levels of communication. The microscopic level deals with performance or perception of verbal and nonverbal behavior and the macroscopic assesses behavior on a global level (Canary & Dindia, 1992). In this discussion, both verbal and nonverbal aspects of communication will be considered.
Gender communication Many people use the words gender and sex interchangeably, however these words do not mean the same thing. The word sex refers to the genetic and biological status of being male or female, while gender refers to the psychological and social manifestations of being male or female, i.e. the socially defined, learned, constructed accoutrements of sex, such as hairstyle, dress, nonverbal mannerisms, and interests (Lippa, 2002). Gender therefore focuses on the social construct regarding the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex. It concentrates on the roles and responsibilities, expectations, and aptitude of men and women that are learned, and modified as a result of the interaction of culture, society and environment.
There are two views regarding gender -- the essentialist and the social constructionist views (Robb, 2004). The essentialist view gender as that with which we were born, being part of our genetic make-up. The male and female roles are therefore distinct identities and they shape behavior. However, this view might be somewhat limited since it does not account for the masculine and feminine attributes inherent in people. The social constructionist upholds the idea that psychological conditioning early in life leads to who we are and become as a result of the social interactions. Therefore in this view gender is shaped by society, culture and time.
What then is gender communication? Several have used the term to signify the differences in communication due to biology and others use it to represent differences resulting from social, psychological and cultural interactions. For most researchers gender communication focuses on the expressions used by one gender in the relationships and roles between people. The existence of a difference in gender communication has been a topic of interest for decades with generalizations being made between the sexes. A large volume of work has been published both in the mainstream popular books and in the research arena with linguistic scholars stressing the differences in communication style. While a large volume of literary work on the subject exists, the findings are not consistent and much controversy arises mainly as a result of the biased view of the mainstream publications.
Most published work on gender differences are believed to fall into 2 categories of bias: alpha where the difference is exaggerated or beta which presumes that there are few if any differences between the sexes (Canary & Dindia, 1992). The bias approach adopts the view that "similarities rather than differences characterize men and women" and that while "some noteworthy differences between men and women exist, when both within-and between-gender comparisons are made; the similarities are as important--if not more important--than the differences" (Canary & Dindia, 1992)).
The alpha bias can be seen especially with books such as Jennifer Coates' Women, Men and Language, John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Lillian Glass' He Says, She Says: Closing the Communication Gap Between the Sexes, Julia Wood's Gendered Lives, and Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, that have sought to explain the gender differences in communication and fall into the category of alpha bias. Jennifer Coates (1986) wrote about her studies involving gender separated discussion groups. From her observations she noted that women reveal a lot about their private lives in their conversations, stick to one topic for a long time, let all speakers finish their sentences and try to have everyone participate. In contrast, men discussed things other than their personal relationships and feelings, change topics frequently, dominate conversations and establish a hierarchy in communication over time.
The hierarchical view in communication has also been emphasized in scholarly work. Males are said to establish a status hierarchy to compete, exert control and maintain the upper hand (Eckes, 2000). Females also establish hierarchies however these are based on friendship rather than power and accomplishment (Robb, 2004).
In her book Deborah Tannen argues that men and women approach conversation with a distinct set of rules and interpretations of talk. Men focus on status and independence; women focus on intimacy and connection--a difference that makes communication between the sexes problematic. She states that "communication between men and women can be like cross cultural communication, prey to a clash of conversational styles" (Tannen, 2001).
In a similar manner to Tannen, John Gray's (1992) book, based on participants' reports in relationship seminars, shows a clear and polarized depiction of men and women. Gray's theory is that women use superlatives, metaphors, and generalizations in their speech which men interpret literally causing miscommunication between the sexes. He also stated that men are more direct and straightforward in their speech.However he states that in addition to a communication difference, there is a difference in thinking, feeling, perception, reaction, response, love, need, and appreciation. As a result his book is often viewed as sexist by many feminists.
Dr. Lillian Glass (1992) noted over 105 sex talk differences in her book. Her findings are similar to those of Coates where she noted that men disclosed less personal information and spoke more loudly than women do. She stated that men use the technique of loudness to emphasize points, while women use pitch and inflection for emphasis. Other findings were that men tended to interrupt more often than women do, make direct accusations and statements, and ask fewer questions.
"Gendered lives" by Wood supports the theory that women use communication as a way to establish and maintain relationships. Wood states that women are responsive, supportive, value equality and work toward sustaining communication. She goes on to show the polarization of communication by stating that men use communication as a means by which to solve problems, maintain dominance and assertiveness. Men are less responsive; their talk is more abstract and less personal.
Communication styles The authors above have all promoted the idea of different styles of communication between men and women. To this extent, there are four areas where gender differences in communication are believed to exist. These are problem solving, communication of feelings, needs and desires, understanding of a situation and relating to it and the approach to situations. When messages are transmitted from sender to receiver, there is a potential for distortion of the message due to how it may be perceived. Differences in communication between men and women may be a result of this distortion or differences in the style and content of the messages. The styles of gender communication have been expressed as "debate versus relate", "report versus rapport", or "competitive versus cooperative". These different styles of communication are believed to be the cause of miscommunication. The commonly accepted differences in these styles of interaction can be summarized as shown: Competitive • Make more commands • Limited emotional content • Quantity of speech limited • Use of slang and/or swearing • Gives information Relational • Ask more questions • Discuss feelings and perceptions • Higher quantity of speech • Polite speech • Includes more detail The work by Tannen supports the view of "report talk" and "rapport talk" where her studies have shown that men engage in solution oriented conversations aimed at the main issue. Women however were said to engage in relationship-oriented conversations that targeted to connect with and relate to the other speaker.
Generally, the communication style of women has been described as being more emotional than men. Women focus on feelings and building relationships while men focus on power, and status. This is also shown in problem solving, where men take a straightforward approach compared with women who tend to establish intimacy, show concern and empathy. Additionally women are also seen to foster cooperation rather than competition.
Men display a higher percentage of task behaviors -- providing information, direction, or answers, and direct disagreement than women do (Eckes, 2000). They use problem solving as an opportunity to demonstrate competence, ability to solve problems and their commitment to the relationship. When thinking about the problem, they expect solutions, exerting power to accomplish the problem solving task. On the other hand, use problem solving as a way to strengthen relationships, focusing on sharing and discussing the problem rather than the end result.
Of course, not everyone feels there is a strong difference. This theory of two communication styles has been rejected by Mulac (1998). He believes that when applied to written work establishing a difference in communication between men and women was difficult. He bases this viewpoint on a study that reported on individuals of non-English backgrounds, of different ages and social classes who were are not able to distinguish whether written English messages had been produced by males or females. He maintains that if such differences exist in speech then these should be an observed difference in writing style.
Similar studies involving speech have been investigated to determine whether differences can be detected in taped conversations where the sex of the speaker was unknown. The results here are mixed with some of these studies showing no detectable difference and some studies concluding that a difference was observed.
Verbal communication The communication differences observed between the sexes range from verbal to nonverbal communication. When considering verbal communication researchers look into speech and voice patterns while nonverbal communication encompasses body language, facial language, and behavior Glass, 1992).
Literature reviews of gender differences do not help either way when considering verbal communication. The evidence shows that men are more talkative than women in mixed-sex groups (Eckes, 2000). Many linguists will have us believe that women are more talkative than men. Women are also considered to interrupt conversations and finish sentences. However there are studies that contradict the idea of interruptions as the domain of women. Scientists have sought to rationalize the reason for the lack of agreement between studies as being a failure to define what an interruption and to distinguish between the different types and well as the environment.
Verbal differences include the use of vulgar words, aggressiveness and a tendency to attack the speaker, dominate and interrupt the conversation by men (Eunson, 2005). On the other hand, women are considered as being polite and less aggressive. However, while there are differences in the speech patterns, everyone shows varying degrees of what is considered to be masculine and feminine speech characteristics. This raises the issue of stereotyping and bias, and the effect of other factors that can influence speech patterns. With the interaction of external and internal factors other than gender on communication and the controversy surrounding the two language styles, it is difficult to demonstrate differences in verbal communication based on gender only. As a result, nonverbal communication is seen as the area where gender differences in communication exist.
Nonverbal communication refers to those actions that are distinct from speech. Thus nonverbal communication includes facial expression, hand and arm movement, posture, position and other movements of the body, legs or feet (Mehrabian, 2007). Nonverbal communication or body language has been consistently shown to be different in the two sexes (Glass, 1992).
Women are considered to be more nonverbally warmer than men with a tendency to smile and lean toward others during conversation. Women also use a pleasant warm voice in conversation that is not characteristic of conversations between men (Eckes, 2000). Differences have also been noted with respect to the gestures used while speaking. Men are observed to use straight and sharp movements, while women tend to have more fluid movement. In terms of posture, women tend to keep arms next to their bodies and cross their legs while men often have an open wider posture -- arms away from the body and legs apart.
Another difference lies in visual dominance, with men being considered to be more visually dominant than women. Visual dominance is defined as the ratio of the time spent maintaining eye contact while talking to the time spent maintaining eye contact while listening (Eckes, 2000). Of course, one needs to take into account that women have wider peripheral vision allowing them to give the impression they are looking in one direction while actually looking in another direction.
In communication men tend to sit other side-by-side next to each or stand at some distance. Women sit face-to-face with other women or stand closer, indicating a more open and intimate position that help them connect with one another. For men, a face-to-face position indicates challenge or confrontation.
Nonverbal differences have been categorized as being: 1. primary - hereditary characteristics of male and femaleness. In this aspect the developmental difference in bone structures of males and females determine how they walk, their gestures, and other nonverbal behavior. Body shape is also considered as it relates to nonverbal communication since it affects posture -- larger shoulders in man, and breasts in women. 2. secondary - modeling or observation of same-sex role models. Children model the behavior of parents and consequently learn to follow the patterns of same-sex role models, boys using nonverbal movements similar to their fathers' and little girls act like their mothers. 3. tertiary - popular explanations of reinforcement or conditioning for male or female behavior. Positive reinforcement of behavior increases the behavior, whereas negative reinforcement decreases it and culture is thought to shape appropriate behavior for boys and girls (Payne, 2001). In childhood play, boys are encouraged in activities that involve rough-and-tumble play for boys and girls have been cuddling and nurtured. Although this has been changing in recent times, this division still exists in some societies and cultures.
Nonverbal differences are said to exist along lines of the sex role expectations of society. Specific gender role nonverbal communicative behavior is learned however men and women also use other nonverbal styles not typical of their sex for practical purposes (Payne, 2001). Here the external influences of the situation may dictate the use of nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communicative behavior is also affected by culture. For example the use of space varies from culture to culture, from an appreciation and respect for personal space to a negation. Studies involving the use of space as a part of interpersonal communication recognizes that "people of different cultures do have different ways in which they relate to one another spatially" with spatial use defining social relationships and social hierarchies (Payne, 2001). Examples include the difference in posture between manager and employee, the close proximity by Arabic speakers, and the traditional position of the male at the head of the table in Western society.
Nature versus nurture The concept of nature versus nurture has been used to explain the differences in verbal and nonverbal communication. It was introduced in 1874 by Francis Galton and since then there has been a debate on which accounts for the observed differences.
Nature relates to biological evolution, genes, hormones, and neural structures. In contrast, nurture is related to culture, social roles, settings and learning, and stereotypes. Nature and nurture both produce sex differences in behavior and gender-related individual differences within the sexes. Advances in biological psychology, neuroscience, and molecular genetics have resulted in new findings that provide evidence on the theory of nature versus nurture of gender (Lippa, 2002).
The influence of gender differences begins very early in childhood and can shape the communication of style of the adult (Tannen, 2001). Studies on children have shown that there are language differences between boys and girls as early as preschool (Eckes, 2000). Tannen highlights differences in the way young girls and boys use language in childhood, stating that girls make requests, use language to create harmony and use more words while boys make demands, create conflict and use more actions.
The differences in adults are thought to stem from influences in childhood such as parents and playtime instruments. In the first few years of life girls are more used to physical touch by their mothers during childhood compared with boys. Women therefore use touch to express caring, empathy and emotions. In contrast, men regard touch as way to communicate sexual interest, orders, and as a symbol of control. Men are seen as being more competitive and verbally assertive due to childhood influences of toys such as guns and swords.
A person's communication skills in addition to being partially genetic, are therefore also shaped by factors such as society, culture and education. Society often expects that a woman should be polite and well behaved. This stems from childhood when girls were told that it is better to be seen and not heard.
Status and Role One argument that has been ongoing since the early 20th century is that gender varies with status and role in society. Even with the advances in thinking, there still exists a division of labor that allocates different work and responsibilities to men and women in societies and cultures. Interactions involving women are characterized as being that which draws out supportive, cooperative behavior, whereas men interact to elicit dominant, directive behavior. A comparison of men and women in the same social roles is therefore important in the investigation of whether a true gender difference exists or the observed difference is confounded by status.
In addition, gender differences can also be accounted for by the difference in status. Research has shown that aggressiveness and dominance found to dependent on status on top of gender (Aries, 1998) and that the differences in communication are sometimes less noticeable in men and women at the same societal level (Powell & Graves, 1998).
Situation The context in which communication occur can have an effect dependent on who is taking part in the interaction, i.e. the characteristics (age, race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation), relationships and setting. Communication between friends may be less stilted than between strangers and acquaintances. In the studies of differences, strangers were grouped together and communicative behavior observed over time. Some may be shy, others concerned with making a good impression and yet others having a laissez faire attitude. These situations will not replicate interactions between families, friends and co-workers and therefore caution should be applied in the interpretation of the observed differences.
Meaning of Behavior Researchers consider interruptions to be a mechanism of power and dominance in conversation. They use this as a benchmark to demonstrate the pervasiveness of male dominance in daily interactions. However the context in which the interruption occurred should be considered before application of a meaning to the behavior. Interruptions may serve many purposes -- as a show of support, understanding and agreement (collaboration) or as a disruption or violation of the speaker's right of speech (dominance). Hence occurrences of interruptions cannot be considered without regarding the reason and function of the interruption.
When status and role, culture, situation, and assigning meaning to behaviors are taken into consideration as confounders, the magnitude of gender differences and the effect size can sometimes appear to be small. Taken into context this means that while there are some differences that can be attributed to gender, the overall magnitude of the difference must also include the interaction of several factors.
Masculinity, femininity and communication There are contexts in which men display feminine behavior, contexts in which women display masculine behavior, and contexts in which the behavior of is differentiated by gender. Behaviors that society label as feminine or masculine are displayed by both men and women; they are not always sex specific.
A study by Rahman et al. (2003) found within sex differences in verbal fluency. The researchers examined gender differences amongst heterosexual men and women, and homosexual men and women. The results of the study showed that homosexual men and women had opposite-sex shifts in their verbal fluency scores. To test verbal fluency, subjects were assessed on letter, category and synonym fluency. Homosexual men had the highest scores on letter and synonym fluency while homosexual women had the lowest scores for letter fluency. The differences were related to the difference in the functioning of the prefrontal and temporal cortices of the groups.
Four theories have been used to explain gender differences in communication. These are on the basis of biological, psychological/sociological, cultural, and religious differences (Payne, 2001). The discussion will focus on culture and biological differences.
Culture The word culture indicates the lifestyle of the people within a group and denotes the values, beliefs, artifacts, behavior and communication. Culture is learned being passed down from generation to generation, providing guidance for ethical and moral behavior. Gender communication can be considered to be a sub-culture since it is passed down from generation in the interactions that children have with their parents and other adults. This idea appears to validate the theory of nurture and its effect on communication. Tannen (2001) has shown that the role of culture is critical to the understating of the communication skills of a person. Tone, aggressive speech, and interruption of the speaker all depend on cultural background. In Asian culture, aggression is not considered to be appropriate behavior, with both men and women showing politeness in their conversation with others. Depending on status, tone is used to indicate displeasure.
Studies have shown that preschool Chinese girls are bossy and argumentative with boys depending on the scenario (Eckes, 2000). In the Chinese culture women are dominant in the domestic context while men play a more powerful role in business. Role play in which domestic scenes are performed show a difference in tone, language and behavior with girls showing dominance and boys being deferent. In contrast Western culture does not show such a demarcation of roles.
A literature review on gender differences in Japan and the United States looked at sex, cultures (i.e., nationality), and the interaction of sex and culture to determine which accounted for differences in communication in men and women (Waldron & Di Mare, 1998). The review concluded that there are not many major differences in communicative styles between Japanese men and women. A similar study on Asians in Hong Kong also found that although some, there was not that many significant difference in communication styles between the sexes. When the effects of culture and sex were compared, culture appeared to be the more important variable in affecting communication. The authors of this study concluded that sex differences manifest themselves differently in Japan than in the United States.
Biology and brain structure Gender difference in communication has been related to biological factors. This age old theory is regarded by some as sexist since it was used in the past centuries to subjugate women. The current view leans toward a biological basis of sex differences in brain and behavior. This area has been developed in recent time with an increasing numbers of studies in the behavioral, neurological and endocrinological sciences.
That there exist differences in the male and female brain structure has been the topic of academic research and popular books such as Moir and Jessel's Brain Sex, where they discuss the theory in relation to the processing of information. Differences in cognition between the sexes has been documented since the last century, with males showing great aptitude on visuospatial tasks and females scoring higher in verbal fluency tests (Allen and Gorksi, 2002).
Recent studies on structural differences in the brain of men and women account for the greater verbal fluency by showing that the corpus callosum (the huge crescent-shaped band of nerve fibers connecting the brain hemispheres) is larger in women than in men (Lippa, 2002). Since parts of the corpus callosum as well as the anterior commissure, another connector, appear to be larger in women they are thought to permit better communication between hemispheres. Anne Campbell's (1989) work on brain lateralization supports the theory of brain structure differences accounting for differences in gender communication. The planum temporale, a region of the brain involved in verbal ability has been shown to have greater symmetry in females (Allen and Gorksi, 2002). Campbell concluded that the female brain is therefore better organized for communication being less lateralized with functions spread over both sides of their brains. This she states explains the reason why women use words more expressively than men. Based on brain differences women are better communicators than men, a difference that probably existed at birth.
Current research using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has shown that differences in brain anatomy of males and females may explain differences in cognitive behavior (Gur et al., 1999). The superior performance by women on verbal and memory tasks has been explained by the difference in hemispheric specialization of cortical function. Using this background as the basis for their study, Gur et al. (1999) found that parallels between gender differences in cognition and differences in gray matter exists. Results showed that the percentage of gray matter was higher in women and in the left language hemisphere and women outperformed men on the language tasks.
In a more recent study, researchers in France have found differences amongst males and females groups on brain activation strength linked to verbal fluency (words generation) (Gautier et al., 2009). Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the study showed that there is a gender effect, as well as a performance effect, on cerebral activation. The gender effect was found regardless of performance with men activating several regions of the brain in comparison to women having high fluency.
These studies involving magnetic resonance imaging of the brain during problem solving tasks provide evidence that supports the theory of brain structure and gender difference in communication. Of course, results of studies are still being debated since some studies are being reviewed for having yielded conflicting results.
Some studies have shown that a difference exists in hemispheric activity in men compared with during certain language tasks. And a few studies have failed to find differences in functional asymmetry. Since the task used in the studies may not be comparable, then the results should be interpreted with caution since a difference in task is shown rather than a gender difference. The question of group differences in verbal abilities which might account for neurocognitive differences elicited between men
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