In her book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Communication (1990, p. 42), author Deborah Tannen writes “communication between men and women can be like cross cultural communication” which is to say: men and women have very distinct communication styles.
Women tend to communicate to build and maintain relationships. They share about themselves and learn about others while men tend to communicate to solve problems and accomplish tasks. Julia Wood outlines the different features of communication between men and women. The main features of women’s speech are equality (matching experiences,) showing support by expressing sympathy and understanding, attention to the relationship level (a “focus on feelings and the relationship between communicators rather than on the content of messages”,) conversational “maintenance work” (sustaining conversation by prompting elaborations,) responsiveness (showing interest in what was said,) personal, concrete style (a personal tone,) and, finally, tentativeness (using words and phrases such as “kind of”, “I think”, and “probably”) which is speculated to show uncertainty and a lack of confidence. The main features of men’s speech are establishment of their own status and value, instrumentality (to accomplish an objective,) conversational dominance, expression in fairly absolute, assertive ways, more abstract communication (they speak more in general terms), and the tendency to not be highly responsive (Wood, 1994).
While most may think gender influences in communication are biological, communication scholars are shifting their focus to study how gender socializations, or being raised as a female or a male, affect our communication tendencies (Edwards et al., 2013). Tannen traces differences in communication patterns and styles between men and women to communication with parents as well as peers. People talk to girls and boys “differently and expect and accept different ways of talking from them” and it’s not wrong to say that boys and girls grow up in different worlds, despite growing up in the same community, neighborhood, or even house. (Tannen, 1990).
After meeting with my service project group this week, I found myself thinking “I hope my group doesn’t think I’m bossy.” Then I remembered the “Ban Bossy” campaign that gained a lot of attention in the media this year thanks to celebrities like Beyonce, Victoria Beckham, and Michelle Obama. The premise of the campaign is to eliminate the use of “bossy” because it’s a term generally only used to describe girls who are assertive, while assertive boys are called “leaders.” This distinction can be very harmful to young girls. In fact, according to BanBossy.com “between elementary and high school, girls’ self–esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys’”. This makes me inexpressibly sad.
In Emma Watson’s passionate and moving “He For She” UN speech for gender equality, she recounts how she started questioning gender based assumptions as early as eight years old, when she was called “bossy” because she wanted to direct a play. She also recounts how, at 18 years old, her male friends were unable to express their feelings because our society dictates that men must avoid their feelings and avoid talking about their feelings which shows that these gender-unequal phrases, words, etc. are not exclusive to women. Phrases like “be a man”, “man up”, “grow a pair”, “stop acting like a girl” are hurtful to men. I’ve heard of many accounts from adult homosexual men that have talked about how phrases like these contributed to their confusion about their sexuality and made it feel like they couldn’t be honest with their loved ones and even themselves about their sexuality. This is not exclusive to homosexual men, though. Phrases like these and the genders we enforce on our children can also confuse heterosexual men. The late Kurt Cobain once said “I knew I was different. I thought that I might be gay or something because I couldn’t identify with any of the guys at all. None of them liked art or music. They just wanted to fight and get laid. It was many years ago but it gave me this real hatred for the average American macho male.” In her speech Watson states that in the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death in men aged 20-49 because they are afraid to ask for help. How can we continue to force these gender norms on our children when they are hurtful, confusing, and obviously destructive? These norms isolate us. They divide us. They hurt us.
Personally, I don’t view myself as a stereotypical female communicator. While I do speak very openly and often about my feelings with my husband, I’m not very communicative with my extended family, my friends, and my co-workers. Because of this, most of my co-workers think I don’t like them for months after we start working together and it takes me longer to make friends. This is because people expect me to communicate “like a woman”, using rapport talk to establish a connection, when really, I tend to communicate more using information-based report talk to establish status (Edwards et al., 2013). Additionally, I wouldn’t consider my husband a typically male communicator. My husband is very comfortable sharing his feelings with me, he cries during sad movies, and he uses communication for more than to accomplish a task or solve a problem. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t also question himself and this break from the communication norms of his gender.
While we live in a time when women have more rights and more equality than ever before, we still have a long way to go before we reach true equality. No one country in the world can boast true gender equality. So I’ve decided to try and stay away from thoughts like “Does my group think I’m bossy?” and “Is this task too manly/difficult for me, as a woman, to do?” I want to steer away from using these gender-unequal phrases so I can one day raise children, whether male or female, to communicate confidently in whatever ways they are comfortable, despite gender “norms” or gender influences. I want girls who can be assertive without questioning herself and I want boys who can express their feelings and be more communicative.
Tannen, D. (1990) You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Wood, J.T. (1994). Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture. Florence, KY: Wadsworth, Inc.
Edwards, A., Edwards, C., Wahl, S., and Myers, S. (2013). The Communication Age: Connecting & Engaging, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc
Ban Bossy. Retrieved from http://banbossy.com/
Watson, Emma. UN HeForShe Campaign. UN Headquarters, New York. 20 Sept. 2014. Speech