Updated: Sep 1, 2020
By Susan Freeman
September 13, 2018
It’s been said that men and women are so different, they must be from different planets. John Gray’s famous book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, popularized this theory through the title alone, even with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
In reality, we all come from Earth, but men and women do have diverse ways of speaking, thinking and communicating overall. Just think of how you would respond to a particular stimulus and how someone of the opposite sex might respond if faced with the same situation. Through extensive research of the genders, many differences have been found.
Most people, though, don’t look deeper into why there’s a difference. Rather, they magnify stereotypes or focus on the surface-level issues instead of digging deeper into why the genders act one way or another.
The Purpose of Communication
Growing up, boys and girls are often segregated, restricting them to socialize solely with individuals of their own gender, learning a distinct culture as well as their gender’s norms.
This results in differences in communication between men and women, inclining both genders to communicate for contrasting reasons. For example, men are more likely to communicate as a way to maintain their status and independence, while women tend to view communication as a path to create friendships and build relationships.
For men, communication is a way to negotiate power, seek wins, avoid failure and offer advice, among other things. For women, communication is a way to get closer, seek understanding and find equality or symmetry.
Much of this communication takes place using nonverbal cues. More than half (~70%) of all communication in conversation is done so in nonverbal form.
Gender Differences in Nonverbal Cues
Nonverbal communication is integral to how we communicate. But each gender uses different nonverbal cues when communicating.
Our faces can demonstrate more than 10,000 facial expressions. But men overall use fewer facial expressions than women. Men also smile less. Women tend to rely heavily on facial expressions, including head nodding and eye contact because, as children, they were taught “more appeasement body language” according to Science of People.
Defined as “the nonlexical component of communication by speech, for example intonation, pitch and speed of speaking, hesitation noises, gesture and facial expression,” paralanguage is used by women much more than men. This includes gesturing noises such as “mhm,” “ah” and “oh,” as well as head nodding. These gestures are a way to convey, “I am listening and understanding what you’re saying,” without actually saying it. Men also use paralanguage during communication, but do so less frequently, and it’s usually just to confirm someone’s comment or to say, “I agree.”
Men are much more likely to command and use personal space than women. Men often prefer face-to-face communication, with the opportunity to shake hands or pat someone’s shoulder. Women are usually comfortable speaking with someone side by side and are more comfortable being in close proximity with other women.
While there are some differences between how men and women communicate through physical touch, there are plenty of similarities because of our genetic makeup. Usually, men use pats, back slaps and shoulder touches as a way to display dominance. Men will use an introductory handshake to set the tone for communication to come. Women, on the other hand, may reach out and touch someone’s arm or offer a hug to build a connection and show support. Researcher Paul Zak, however, found that touch releases a hormone in our brains called oxytocin, Science of People reports.
Men typically have wider postures and stand with their arms farther away from their bodies and legs apart. Women are more likely to keep their arms closer to their bodies and cross their legs.
According to research on nonverbal communication, women learn during childhood to “align their bodies to face the other person” and sit still while using more hand gestures. Women’s gestures are also typically more fluid. Men, meanwhile, use sharp, directed movements.
Women typically use more direct eye contact during communication in order to make a strong connection and develop a relationship. Men, however, use eye contact most commonly as a challenge of power or position.
The communication process is complex, and adding gender differences into the mix only complicates it more. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t better understand how we communicate.
Women are different from men as a result of belonging to different subcultures — and vice versa. When one gender understands the other’s subcultures and reasons for expressing themselves in certain ways, communication can be improved.
The purpose of gender communication is not to change another’s communication style but to understand and adapt to it.
HERE ARE A FEW TIPS FOR OVERCOMING MISUNDERSTANDINGS BETWEEN GENDERS, ESPECIALLY IN THE WORKPLACE OR SOCIAL SETTINGS:
Don’t Fall Victim to Stereotypes
Not everyone fits into the generalizations about men and women. Whether it’s your genetic makeup or the environment you were raised in, many factors can dictate how you act. People may vary widely from the norms.
Understand that men and women have different communication styles. Do not be offended when a person of the opposite gender responds or acts in a way different from what you were expecting.
Note that you may be subconsciously pushing stereotypes and biases that stifle open communication between genders.
There are many distinct styles of leadership and strength in communication.
Learn about the different styles of communication used by men and women and seek to understand the context for both genders. Don’t be afraid to recognize differences and adapt your style of communication to someone else’s.
Become a Leader
With your knowledge of the differences in communication between genders, you can effectively manage and work in a diverse environment and create lasting relationships that will help you along the way. If you’re in the legal marketing, you likely know Heather Morse. I recommend you follow her blog, “The Legal Watercooler” and her “if you read only one thing” posts on social media as she shares some powerful leadership best practices. I learn something new nearly every read.