In communicating with others, all of us rely on shared expressions (e.g. phrases, allusions, gestures), yet often take this set of previous knowledge for granted. Thus, when we enter into conversation with someone who does not have share this knowledge, misunderstanding results.
Each person has a different language style derived from a myriad of sources, which can be broken down into:
1. Dialect, reflection that person’s region or region of origin.
2. Slang, indicating age and/or subculture.
3. Jargon, indicating occupation.
4. Accent, communicating socioeconomic class and geographic origin.
Our awareness of the shared knowledge we rely on when normally communicating is highest when we communicate with geographic foreigners, and is often neglected when we deal with people across different ages, intranational cultures, and (particularly) gender.
Our neglect of gendered language styles can have dramatic consequences: most divorced women cite lack of communication as a significant factor that led to their divorce. Specifically, women often complain that men minimize their problems, treating them as objective and solvable, while men complain that women dwell too much on minute issues, so that conversation never progresses past one or two issues. Broken down, these complaints have their bases in different ways each gender socializes, starting in childhood. For females, talk is tied to development of intimacy, such as through exchanging secrets and sharing emotions. Thus, they expect men to express similar verbal intimacy and understanding. Per contra, males bond not by conversing, but primarily through doing. Further, male social groups (especially in childhood) tend to be larger, such that men must avoid being the subordinate, which may roughly translate into the role of passive listener within conversation dynamics.
Five key ‘misalignments’ or areas of communicative disconnect between men and women arise from such gendered modes of socialization.
1. Physical Misalignment: Women tend to face each the individual they are talking to directly, making long periods of eye contact, whereas men usually sit at an angle to the person with whom they are talking, their eyes usually focussing at different points in the room and rarely making direct eye contact.
Conflict: Women often perceive men as being inattentive or distracted when conversing with them. Men complain that women ‘stare them down.’
2. Topical Misalignment: Women prefer to spend time on one topic, particularly abstract relationship-related topics, analyzing a situation’s meaning, interpretations, and ramifications. Meanwhile, men prefer to talk about tangible experiences and events.
Conflict: Women feel men are conversationally superficial, while men feel women are narrow and excessive in their conversations.
3. Feedback Misalignment: Women provide more immediate feedback as listeners (e.g. “mhm,” “I agree”), while men remain quieter.
Conflict: Women feel men are inattentive, whereas men are annoyed by women interrupting or distracting them with their inputs.
4. Problem-Solving Misalignment: Women often seek empathy and emotional support when discussing their problems, whereas men tend to seek pragmatic and tangible solutions.
Conflict: Women feel their subjectivity and emotions are being quashed by a man’s attempt to solve her problem, while men feel impatient with women who are sympathizing.
5. Analysis-Style Misalignment: Women’s emphasis on empathy in conversation leads them to expect support and agreement when they express an opinion, while men, who are used to more competitive social environments, are used to disagreement in conversations.
Conflict: Women can feel offended when a man disagrees with her, taking it as a form of betrayal, confounding men, for whom argument in conversation is more common.
Overcoming these conflicts depends upon one’s ability to recognize the different language style of the individual he or she is speaking to. In inter-gender conversations, rather than blaming one gender on having poor communication, one should view such conflict as miscommunication, as you would when conversing with a foreigner. Understanding that, say, a man need not make eye contact to listen attentively, or that a woman’s agreements are merely signs of support can allay much of the tension that can arise, particularly in heterosexual relationships.
As I was reading this chapter, I was able to recognize many of these gender differences in communication. However, this recognition was less from persona experience and more from relating them to the issues discussed on sit-coms and the like. Personally, I cannot think of a time when such conflicts negatively affected my own communication. For my own part, I feel I employ a mix of male/female strategies, shifting depending on the situation, and I believe most people I talk to do the same. Thus, I wonder if these gender differences are becoming more antiquated. That is, as youth are less socially divided along gender lines, as it becomes more acceptable for a boy to have a mix of male and female friends, are these communication differences becoming less prevalent? And, if this is true, is the media’s antiquated and polarized notion of gender language styles perpetuating such roles in youths who otherwise would employ a genderless style of communication?
Alternatively, my personal experience might simply result from my eschewal of heteronormative standards/institutions/relationships, while heteronormative society chugs on as communicatively polarized as ever.
What is your experience with gendered language styles? Do you consistently reflect as specific gendered style of communication? Do your friends? Why or why not? I’m curious to know!