Gender influences how we perceive and interpret the experiences we have. Gender communication theory is based on the results of observational research. These researchers suggest that certain tendencies exist. Being able to recognize these tendencies is helpful. However, we must not make gender-based stereotypes. Members of the same gender differ widely in many ways.
A Different Start
From childhood boys and girls are conditioned by the society in which they grow up to conform to gender-specific expectations. Men are reinforced for displaying strength and independence. Women are reinforced for expressing their feelings and for their ability to connect with others, even to the point of shedding tears. Men do not show their feelings in a group as easily as women.
Every group that meets has a purpose. On average, men are less interested in the social aspects of the group and more interested in solving the problem or accomplishing the task. Men grow up playing in larger groups than women, and more often play games in which there are winners and losers and a goal to be reached.
Women grow up playing games that emphasize relationships, and if anyone’s feelings are hurt, the girls tend to change games. Is it any surprise, then, that when men approach their work on committees, they want to accomplish the task -- and women do too, as long as it is not at the expense of relationships?
Men speak and hear a language of independence and status. In board meetings and committees men tend to be heard and to have their suggestions acted upon. By using their high-impact, direct communication style, men also may not be as sensitive to other people’s feelings as they are to their need to win the “battle.” Male dominance and tone of voice may offend women, while men sitting in the same circle would not take any male’s comments personally.
Women speak and hear languages of connection and intimacy. When in a board or committee meeting, women more often ask clarifying questions and withdraw any suggestion or proposal that might result in conflict or hurt another person’s feelings. They prefer connection with the others in the group.
In general, men have a more direct communication style than women. Men make direct statements, avoid detail, and tend to speak with assurance and authority in meetings -- even when they are wrong.
Women, desiring to keep relationships secure, tend to use a more indirect communication style. They use more tentative phrases, tag questions, and qualifiers in their speech than men do. “I guess,” “I think,” “I suppose,” “I believe,” and “I wonder if” abound in the speech patterns of women, but not in those of men. These two-word combinations make a woman’s statements sound more tentative.
Women frequently use tag questions. A tag is somewhere between an outright statement and a yes-and-no question: “The church potluck is next Sabbath, isn’t it?” By using the tag “isn’t it,” she does not lose face with anyone if she’s wrong. She can simply say that she was given the wrong information. Tagging a question onto the statement, however, weakens the impact of the message she is attempting to send to others.
Direct-speak and Otherwise
A man might make an announcement from the pulpit during Sabbath School that would go something like this: “The Sabbath School Council will meet today at 3 o’clock in the choir room.”
A woman might make the same announcement this way: “We trust that all the members of the Sabbath School Council will be able to attend the meeting today at 3 o’clock. I believe it is being held in the choir room. It is a very important meeting, so I hope to see you there.”
It is not uncommon, then, that a statement made by a man is taken more seriously than a more relational, detailed, indirect statement given by a female. Women who tag their statements and speak indirectly need not marvel when men who say something directly with the same intent have their suggestion taken to the floor for a vote and acted upon.
In small groups of both men and women, women will have to learn how to make more direct statements. Men will have to learn how to be sure not to offend anyone just to make a point.
Neither the male nor female communication style is normative. Rather, leaders of small groups need to realize that members who are male and members who are female have different methods and styles of communication.
An article of this length cannot cover the entire topic of gender communication, but the subject is introduced here with the hope that you will want to do further study on the topic.
Carole Luke Kilcher
© 2006 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists