Thursday, November 15, 2007

Men and Women: Same Species, Different Planets

It’s no secret that men and women are different. Just look at the symbols that distinguish a male from a female — they are different colors, shapes and directions. The physical differences between a man and a woman are also very clear. However, beyond the obvious gender differences are the dissimilarities that have required much research and analysis: communication styles. The ways men and women interact are so different that linguist Deborah Tannen refers to male-female exchanges as cross-cultural, and psychologist and relationship expert John Gray goes as far as saying that men and women are from different planets. With the vast amount of differences in the field of gender communication, I tend to believe that Gray might be on to something when he says that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

The first difference in communication styles between men and women is body language. In her book He Says, She Says: Closing the Communication Gap Between the Sexes, Dr. Lillian Glass notes that men take up more physical space when they sit or stand, with their arms or legs stretched out away from their body; gesture away from the body; and assume more reclined positions when sitting and listening. These differences in body language are evident in a classroom. For example, as I observed my current classes and thought back on my former ones, I noticed that the majority of male students seemed to be lounging more than the female students — sitting on the edge of the seat, legs stretched out in front of them and leaning against the back of the chair. However, this isn’t the case for all the male students. Some have very good posture, while a few of the female students assume a reclining position. Such positions could send the wrong message to the teacher. For instance, the teacher might conclude that the students are not interested in the subject matter or that they are not paying attention fully. If this is just how someone sits in order to be comfortable, then a miscommunicaiton has occurred. The differences in body language are also evident in news programs and talk shows. For example, when Good Morning America correspondent Bill Weir interviews Johnny Depp, he leans back in his chair and often makes large hand gestures that take up space. (Pay attention to the following times in the interview: 1:12, 1:49, 3:03, 4:12 and 4:30). On the other hand, when Katie Couric interviews Brad Pitt on The Today Show, she leans in toward her interviewee, does not lean against the back of the chair and although she makes some hand gestures, they are not as expressive.

Another difference in communication styles between men and women is how each gender listens. In the Mercury Reader article, “Sex, Lies, and Conversation,” Tannen notes that most women complain that their husbands don’t listen to them. She says that the “impression of not listening results from misalignments in the mechanics of conversation.” In other words, men do not maintain eye contact when they are having a conversation, which signals to the women that they are not paying attention. This communication difference is illustrated in the case study “He Says, She Says.” When Ginger is talking to her boyfriend Luke, he often responds to her while watching a roller blader pass by or glancing at a construction site. Julia T. Wood, the author, notes that “Ginger tries to make eye contact with Luke, but his eyes remain focused on the construction.” However, this is just his style of listening. Although he often looks away from her, he still responds to her, which indicates that he is listening. Yet, women want more assurance that their male conversation partner is listening to them. I have seen my mother often get angry at my father and accuse him of not listening to her because he is either watching TV, looking at his dinner, or doing something else while she is talking to him. Although he might not hear what she says every now and then, for the most part, he is listening. In fact, as I was reading the part in “Sex, Lies, and Conversation,” where the college student’s boyfriend listens lying down with his arm over his eyes, I thought of my father. He gets up at 3 in the morning to go to work, and as a result is tired early at night. He often sits on the couch and just rests his eyes. When my mother talks to him like this, she presumes that he is ignoring her. However, he is listening; he simply responds with his eyes closed.

A third difference in the way men and women communicate is that women talk to relate while men talk to resolve. In the Expert Magazine article, “Helping Business Women Bridge the Communication Gap,” Rosalind Sedacca notes that women focus on communicating, making connections, exploring emotions and being understood, while men focus on taking action and solving problems. I have noticed this difference in my relationship with my brother. Whenever I talk to him and tell him how stressed or worried I am about something or about any other problem I am having, he usually tells me what I should do. Sometimes, his advice irritates me because I wasn’t telling him about my problems so he could suggest a solution; I was simply filling him in on some aspects of my life. At first, I thought he felt like he needed to give me advice because he is older than me, but now I think it is that coupled with the fact that he is a male. Tannen put this difference best when she said that "women talk to establish rapport ... while men talk to report." This rapport/report difference is illustrated in the following clip from the TV show Friends. In this scene, Rachael (Jennifer Aniston) tells her friends Monica (Courtney Cox) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) that she and Ross (David Schwimmer) kissed. Monica and Phoebe immediately want to know all the details and are very attentive. In fact, Monica even tells Rachael not to start the story without her as she runs to get wine and unplug the phone — she doesn’t want to miss a thing. Now when Ross tells his friends, Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) about the kiss, he leaves out all the details. He is simply reporting what happened.

The Friends clip demonstrates one last difference in gender communication: the idea that women are more comfortable self-disclosing personal information. Rachael has no problem revealing to her friends all of the details about her kiss with Ross. In fact, her friends expect that she will disclose this information, while the opposite is true for Ross. I have also noticed this difference in the workplace. At my internship this past summer, the female employees seemed friendlier with each other than the male employees did with the other workers, both male and female. The women often spoke about topics outside of work, such as their family or future vacation plans, while the men spoke more about work-related topics. If a female worker were not aware of the differences in gender communication, she might perceive her male co-worker as unfriendly.

It is possible for disputes to arise when both parties in a relationship do not understand the differences in gender communication. Clinical and Medical Psychologist Michael G. Conner says in his essay, “Understanding the Difference Between Men and Women,” that “recognizing, understanding, discussing as well as acting skillfully in light of the differences between men and women can be difficult.” Sometimes it would be helpful to have a gender translator, as suggested by this cartoon. With or without a translator, Conner stresses the importance of this understanding because “our failure to recognize and appreciate these differences can become a life long source of disappointment, frustration, tension and eventually our downfall in a relationship.” Therefore, it is essential for both men and women to understand the different ways the opposite sex communicates. Only then will male/female relationships become and remain healthy.


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