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Gender differences in communications

Gender Differences in Communications

Gender communication is communication about and between men and women (Ivy and Backlund, 1994). Recognizing gender differences in communication enables both sexes to communicate better with each other. According to Deborah Tannen, (1992, p 17), many women and men feel dissatisfied with their close relationships and become even more frustrated when they try to talk things out. There are gender differences in ways of speaking, and a need to identify and understand them. Without such understanding, we are doomed to blame others or ourselves-or the relationship- for the otherwise mystifying and damaging effects of our contrasting conversational styles.

Pretending that women and men are the same hurts women, because the ways they are treated are based on the norms for men, and are nonplussed when their words don’t work as they expected, or even spark resentment and anger.

Both women and men could benefit from learning each other’s styles. Many women could learn from men to accept some conflict and differences without seeing it as a threat to intimacy, and many men could learn from women to accept interdependence without seeing it as a threat to their freedom.

This paper will evaluate the differences between genders in communication. Part of the study consists in showing that those differences are due to the differences between men and women of course, but that they are also very dependent on the environment into which the conversation takes place. Many cross-gender communication studies only examine verbal communication between a man and a woman, disregarding the environment and therefore fail to completely isolate the interlocutors. An interlocutor is one who takes part in a conversation.

The first part of the paper will examine why there is a need to understand gender communication, and the relation between different world-views and gender communication. The second part of the paper will discuss cross-gender conversational styles. Lastly, this paper will touch on gender communication in a different environment; cyberspace.

Society may wonder why it needs to know about gender communication, and the response is simple. Gender communication is many things but this paper will focus on four basic reasons. According to Ivy and Backlund, gender communication is provocative, pervasive, problematic, and unpredictable (1994). This paper will briefly describe the four basic reasons mentioned to better understand gender communication.

The first reason is that gender communication is provocative (Ivy and Backlund, 1994). Both sexes are interested in how each is perceived how they communicate with others, and how other human beings respond to us. Humans are especially interested in communication with the opposite sex for several reasons; the main reason is we cannot experience the opposite sex firsthand. They are also interested in the possible rewards that may come from successful gender communication.

Gender communication is also pervasive; meaning that interaction with both sexes occurs frequently, everyday, and every hour (Ivy and Backlund, 19914). Interest in the effects of the gender communication process is at a high value due to the sheer number of contacts that occur between the sexes every-single day. When the contacts affect us in profound ways, the importance of these relationships and the pervasiveness of our interactions with significant people make it necessary to have a better understanding of gender communication.

Thirdly, gender communication can be problematic (Ivy and Backlund, 1994). Communication in all forms can be problematic, but when gender is added the communication process, the complexity is expanded because now there is more than one way of looking at or talking about something. Lastly, gender communication is unpredictable (Ivy and Backlund, 1994).

Tannen (1992) states that although men and women in a same community speak the same language, the way they think, feel and what they expect from an interaction leads to differences in the communication. Men and women have distinct viewpoints and attitudes towards life, think differently, and therefore do not have the same notions of what is essential in communication.

Gray (1992) states that the reason men and women communicate in different ways range from biological differences, parental differences, parental influence, education and birth order to cultural conditioning by society, the media, and history. "Men mistakenly expect women to think, communicate, and react the way men do; women mistakenly expect men to feel, communicate, and respond the way women do" (Gray 10).

Women have been socialized since birth not to brag or promote themselves, not to be pushy or bossy. Men, on the other hand, have been pressured to take center stage, challenging others and boasting about what they’re good at. Men also play devil’s advocate, whereas women tend to compromise and ask for others’ input. The aim of a woman’s conversation is to emphasize fitting in, being equal with others, sharing and giving support to those with whom she is talking to. Being this way, women have the tendency to expect the same skills from another woman. In the same sense, men want to achieve intimacy and avoid isolation as well, but this is not as important to them (Tannen, 1992).

According to Tannen, men are traditionally looking for recognition and social domination; they see the world as a battlefield on which each win allows you to get a higher social status. For men, communication is the way to challenge each other and is therefore comparable to a battle, which will only end when one of the interlocutors is defeated (1992). Women tend to be more passive and supportive. Even as the want to reach higher social status, it is not as important to them and they will move ahead using only honorable ways, without stepping on others (Tannen, 1992). The differences in men and women’s goals affect the degree of stress in a communication. When two dominant interlocutors, such as men, are involved in a conversation, the conversation tends to lead to conflict whereas conversation between two women tends to lead to cooperation. As a consequence, cross-gender communication is a mix of competition and compromise (Thorne, 1983).

Men and women’s expectations of a conversation are different. Those differences create a different level of tension in the conversation and therefore have a different style. Problems do tend to appear if women look at a man’s way to communicate from their point of view, and if men try to decode a woman’s conversational style according to their views and rules. Women tend to maintain the flow of the conversation and men use styles disrupting this flow (Tannen, 1992).

"If women speak and hear a language of connection and intimacy, while men speak and hear a language of status and independence, then communication between men and women can be like cross-cultural communication, prey to a clash of conversational styles" (Tannen, 1992, p 42). Female communication obeys other rules than males’ communication. Therefore, men and women have different expectations of a conversation. Opinions of a good conversation are different from men to women. How a conversation should progress, if it is important to let a current speaker conclude his or her term, and how important it is to support the interlocutor actively are all opinions of a good conversation (Coates, 1986). For instance, studies show that women ask more questions than men do, therefore, their different use of strategies show those women are more actively engaged in insuring interaction than men. They then use the answers to these questions as a method to facilitate and keep the flow of a conv!

ersation (Thorne, 1983). Men interpret questions as a request for information whereupon they enjoy giving detailed answers, and in their eyes, those who know more on a subject are ranked higher in status. Women then wait for a question asked to them, which, in their eyes, would equalize the conversation and show interrelation.

Women make an effort to acknowledge and respond to what their interlocutor has said previously and then try to forge links to a similar topic (Wood, 1997). "When women talk about problems, men usually resist. A man assumes she is talking with him about her problems because she is holding him responsible. The more problems, the more he feels blamed. He does not realize that she is talking to feel better. A man doesn’t know that she will appreciate it if he just listens" (Gray, 1992, p37).

Men tend to ignore what has been said before and concentrate on making their own point. Men want to talk about their interests even if there cannot be any linking to a similar topic (Tannen, 1992). Women tend to interrupt a conversation to show that they are actively listening and support the person they are communicating with. Throwing in short comments, such as a nod and little responses like "mhm" or "yeah" shows a woman’s interlocutor that there is definite listening going on. Men tend to use minimal responses less. However, as incredible as it may seem, men have more success in communicating than women communicate. This success has nothing to do with their talk but it is a consequence of women’s hard work put into maintaining the conversation. The failure of the women’s attempt at interaction is not due to anything inherent in their talk, but the failure of the men to respond, to do inactive work (Thorne, 1983).

Gender communication in cyberspace has been a popular topic recently, so a point will be made to examine it a bit further. Today’s technology allows people to communicate over the Internet, through Computer Mediated Communication (CMC). The community of Internet users are growing rapidly and are becoming and ideal place for many social studies. In CMC, the content is relatively different than with regular communication. In fact, a lot of times, communication is anonymous and allows freedom with ideas and opinions, and it is not based on any selection criteria, such as race, religion, and, of course, gender (We, 1993). Many articles talk about the better quality of cross-gender communication over the Internet. Regular communication is often influenced by the respect one has for the other or by the social rank, etc... On the other hand, CMC allows studying communication between genders, only looking at he verbal communication and how different genders act differently based on what is being said only (We, 1993).

An interesting paper written by Gladys We (1993), Department of Communications, Simon Fraser University, shows a survey conducted within the Internet community, which demonstrates how men and women behave in CMC. The survey shows that a large majority of men and women think that in general, men and women communicate differently online, than face-to-face. Gladys We (1993) makes an interesting statement in her paper. "Both women and men felt that women had more of a presence online and that it is easier for women to make their voices heard online than in face-to-face conversation (We 1993, p 1). An interviewed man made the point that women are able to drive their point home without the familiar patronizing/ trivializing dismissal characteristic of many face-to-face encounters. The point she makes emphasizes the fact that cross-gender communication is often driven by the stereotypes we have of men and women, which does not really exist in CMC. On the other hand, it seems that men become more open online than in face-to-face communication. Online, men do not hesitate to give hugs or even kisses, whereas in more conventional conversations, they are more physically reserved. Once again, the media and the environment influence the style of communication across gender. In cyber-community, there is no fear of the other nor shame because most of the time the interlocutors do not know as much about each other as in face-to-face communication (We, 1993).

Susan Herring performed a study in which she discusses the phenomenon of flaming. According to Herring, (1994, p11) the term flaming can be defined as, the expression of strong negative emotion, the use of derogatory, obscene, or inappropriate language and personal insults.

One explanation that Herrring gives to support this phenomenon is the fact that CMC is text-based and anonymous and so the users feel less inhibited and sometimes tends to forget that there is in fact a human being at receiving end (Herring 1994 p12).

As one can see it is important to know the basics on gender communication in order to achieve a satisfying conversation with the opposite sex. Successful gender-communication does not deal with only knowing how your sex communicates, but it is the knowing a little about the other to help avoid any complications. There will always be some kind of misunderstandings in any kind of communication, but being aware is the first step in good conversation. This paper demonstrates that the differences in gender communication are due to the differences between men and women’s personality, but are also driven by the different situations, environments and media. In regular conversation, women tend to maintain the flow of the conversation whereas men tend to block it, forcing their ideas through. Online, studies show that women can more easily impose their ideas, and men are more open to receive and to communicate in general.

"Not only do men and women communicate differently, but they think, feel, perceive, react, respond, love, need, and appreciate differently" (Gray, 1992, p5).

In summary, Deborah Tannen (1992) states that many women and men feel dissatisfied with their close relationships and become even more frustrated when they try to talk things out. Taking a socialinguistic approach to relationships makes it possible to explain these dissatisfactions without accusing anyone of being crazy or wrong, and without blaming-or discarding-the relationship. If we recognize and understand the differences between us, we can take hem into account, adjust to, and learn from each other’s styles.


Gray, J., Ph.D. (1992). Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. New York: HarperCollins.

Herring, Susan, (1994). Gender Differences in Computer-Mediated Communication: Bringing Familiar Baggage to the New Frontier. Program in Linguistics, University of Texas.

Ivy, D. K. and Backlund, P. (1994). Exploring Gender Speak, Personal Effectiveness in Gender Communication. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc.

Tannen, D. (1992). You Just Don’t Understand. Men and Women in Conversation. London: Press.

Thorne, B. (1983). Language, Gender and Society. Massachusetts: Newbury House Publishers, Inc.

We, G. (1993). Cross Gender Communication in Cyberspace. Canada: Simon Fraser University. Http://

Wood, J. T. (1997). Gendered Lives. Communication, Gender, and Culture. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

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