Three differences in the way men and women communicate

Men and women may be from the same species when it comes to biology, but when dealing with communication they have differences that some even consider to be out of this world.  Books like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by John Gray (1992) and That’s Not What I Meant! by Deborah Tannen (1992) have brought issues of gender communication and the importance of understanding such communication styles and techniques to the forefront of American society in recent years.

Three of those styles that are typical differences between American males and females will be discussed in this document.  These three are: conversational style, pronunciation, and independence versus interdependence in storytelling techniques.

Consider the first of these–conversational styles–and how males and females differ.  In a chapter from Language, Culture, and Communication
which contains a bias against males, author Nancy Bonvillain proposes that, depending on the setting, men often speak more and control the conversation more than women.  Bonvillain reported that in formal speaking situations like meetings, males tend to speak from one and one-quarter up to four times longer than females, but the ratios were more evenly distributed when in more relaxed discussion sessions (p. 180).  Bonvillain does not go into detail about this beyond presenting data that often came from small sampling.  I purpose that this is an example showing that men are more comfortable speaking in structured situations when they know the rules of the conversation.  Compare this to times in casual conversation when the rules seem to change often and males do not feel so confident about making interjections at the correct moments.  Females tend to speak more in these scenarios and are apparently more comfortable with the ambiguity–the very thing males find difficult to understand.  According to more of Bonvillain’s limited data, the women tended to have fewer mistakes–intrusions or violations–in cross-gender communication than males who had up to 96 percent of the interruptions in eleven conversations (p. 181).  Tannen does well to summarize the difficulties between male and female communication: “Male-female conversation is cross-cultural communication.” (1992, p. 125).  This well describes the difficulties confronted when a female, looking for metamessages, talks with a male who only sees the message.  Conflict is usually the result unless both are willing to step back and try looking at the communication from the viewpoint of the other and understanding how the other thinks and communicates.

Men and women tend to have differences in their pronunciation formality levels.  According to Bonvillain, women tend to style shift rapidly between informal and formal as shown by pronunciation.  Men tend to maintain an informal pronunciation longer as a shift from informal to formal occurs.  I attribute this to my idea that  women are more conscious of metamessages and take precautions not to send out unintentional messages that can occur with informal speech.  I think women will tend to use informal speech with other women but add formal speech when addressing men because men seem to understand the specificity of formal speech better without the underlying metamessages to confuse them.  Women know this, and men appreciate it.  Men, however, are more apt to use informal speech on other men to send metamessages loud and clear.  Men gain a certain amount of rapport with other men when they show through their speech that they do not consider the listeners to be inferior but to have a common bond at least in language style.  A more formal language style can actually be used to intimidate others and display the authority of the speaker over the listener.

Once, I had a meeting with a vice president at the university where I studied,  he tended to use metamessages–both verbal and nonverbal–to show me he was in charge.  As we discussed an issue, he would shift from a friendly, laid back voice and position in his chair that was informal, as if we were just chatting over tea, to a more controlling posture and use formal pronunciation and  ambiguity to enforce his control.  He leaned forward in his chair, leaned slightly on the table, looked at me and said, “You know what I’m saying, don’t you.”  He came across as saying, “This is the way things are, and we don’t want it any other way, do we?”  I caught the metamessage of “this is the way it is” but I never did exactly understand what he meant with the actual words he was saying.  Perhaps all he meant was in the metamessage.  It is hard to tell sometimes.

Barbara Johnstone wrote in her article, “Community and Contest: Midwestern Men and Women Creating Their Worlds in Conversational Storytelling”, that men and women tend to differ in their sense of community when it comes to story telling.  The difference tends to show how midwestern men and women differ in their ideas of the desirable scenario: individual or community.  Johnstone says that women tend to tell stories in which an individual will fail while a group, in the story, will succeed.  She attributes this to part of male and female attitudes about individuality and community: “. . . women’s stories tend to be about community, while the men’s tend to be about contest.” (p. 69).  Although, some attribute this attitude to societal norms which have been developed about the individuality of men and the community of women, I believe much of this attitude is supported by society through everything from games to news stories, to going to the bathroom.  Games teach both teamwork to males and females as well as the value of the individual in a community, news media shows the lone hero who managed to save someone’s life and the heroine who lives in India and takes care of a community of orphans.  Girls, especially in middle school, go the to bathroom in flocks (if you will); males rarely, if ever, announce they are going to the restroom to see if anyone else wants to go along.  This all affects how males and females communicate in storytelling.  A good story is one in which the protagonist succeeds.  Males tend to tell about a personal experience where they overcame an obstacle while women often tell of working with other people  in a joint action together (Johnstone, p. 69).  In one of the videos viewed in the Sociolinguists class at Oral Roberts University in the Spring semester of 2000, the subjects were a couple who argued about keeping the house clean:  The wife felt it was their responsibility to keep it clean while the husband said that if she wanted it different she could do something about it.  This attitude held by the husband is destructive to say the least. However, the dialog is a good example of how the wife was thinking collective–“we”–while the husband was thinking indendently–“I” or “you”.

Although, generalizations can be made about male versus female communication and storytelling styles, each individual has their own style and it may change from time to time. When  relating a story to someone else, I will often summarize what was said and quote the speakers only a few times.  I also will tend to explain whether the response of the conversation was positive or negative rather than explain word-for-word what the individual said.  This is typical of minimal quotations in male storytelling according to Johnstone (p. 63-66).  As Johnstone points out about typical male conversation, I will be likely to tell when and where the story occurred more than the actually delivering of detailed information about what occurred beyond the positive or negative summary.  However, women tend to use more quotes, Johnson says (p. 67).   Males will use the collective pronouns rarely but as the topic and protagonists of the story varies so will the use of various pronouns.

Male and females have various communication styles that often cause difficulties in understanding each other and building positive relationships.  However, with work and attempts toward communicating males and females can understand each other and build relationships that prove good solid communication.  It has been happening for thousands of years and with a little work and a lot of time, it will keep happening–positive communication developing and occurring between genders who are willing to be flexible and understanding.



This is Part 1 of my final exam for a sociolinguists class at ORU from about 1999. See Part 2 and Part 3