Men and Women’s Communication is Different—Sometimes
For years now it has been a part of the popular wisdom across American society that men and women communicate differently. Over two decades ago linguist Deborah Tannen suggested that it was almost as if the two sexes were raised in different cultures. Popular author John Gray expanded the metaphor from intercultural to interplanetary: men are from Mars, he claimed; women are from Venus.
As with many catchy truisms, rigorous research indicates that Gray’s famous phrase contains some truth, but it also covers over many complexities. Our interest was in exploring some of the nuances of differences in nonverbal communication by men and women.
Research already documents disparities between men and women’s nonverbal behaviors, particularly regarding what is termed “non-verbal immediacy”, or behaviors that create psychological closeness between people. Nonverbal immediacy includes behaviors like eye contact, smiling, direct body orientation, close proximity, gesturing, vocal inflections, and physical contact while communicating. In general, women are more accurate at reading this sort of nonverbal communication than men are. They also use more non-verbally immediate behaviors than men. For example, they tend to smile more and maintain more eye contact when they are talking. Some scholars have pointed out that the same repertoire of nonverbal behaviors that are associated with women’s communication are also considered to be typical of low power communicators, whereas men commonly use high power nonverbal behaviors. According to these scholars, women’s nonverbal behaviors regularly communicate a lack of social power.
But do women and men actually behave differently across a range of situations? What happens, for instance, when women are in high power positions over men? Do they still use low power communication? And do women and men in other cultures besides America display the same sorts of differences in their nonverbal communication? To investigate these questions we surveyed university students in three countries—Brazil, Kenya, and the United States—about the nonverbal behaviors of their best friends and those of someone who would have power over them: instructors at their universities.
Friendships versus the Classroom
Our research showed that just as popular wisdom would suggest, women used a whole range of non-verbal behaviors calculated to establish psychological closeness with their best friends, and they did it more frequently than their male counterparts. They were also more likely to recognize these sorts of behaviors than men were—whether it was a male or a female friend that performed them. In one sense, then, our research supports the idea that women are more adept than men at using and recognizing certain types of non-verbal communication with people who are their social equals.
But that was not the case when it came to the college classroom. When women were in the relatively powerful position of college instructor, students saw no difference in men and women’s nonverbal behaviors. Women did not use the sort of gestures, posture, and facial expressions that would establish relational closeness with their students any more than male instructors did. Nor did they use them less. In other words, female instructors were apparently comfortable adjusting their communication to fit the situation.
American men may be from Mars and women from Venus, but Brazilian men and women are from Brazil
Our findings indicated that best friends and instructors used similar nonverbal behaviors across all three countries. However, whereas American women noticed these behaviors by their friends more than American men did, there was only a slight difference between Kenyan men and women, and no difference at all between the perceptions of men and women in Brazil. Brazilian men and women used and perceived similar numbers of nonverbal cues, not only in the classroom but also in close friendships.
When we looked at these differences in more detail, we found that men in all three countries perceived the behavior of their friends and instructors similarly. The variation between countries turned out to be attributable to the women; American women both used and recognized more of these nonverbal cues than either Kenyan or Brazilian women did. The communication differences that exist between American men and women do not mean those same differences are universal. Americans visiting, counseling, or working with individuals from other cultures will likely find differences in communication between the genders, but those differences may not be the same as the ones in their own cultural environment.
It turns out, then, that men and women do communicate differently—sometimes. Like most aspects of human communication, reality is complex. American women nonverbally signal psychological closeness more than men when it comes to close friendships, and they pick up these sorts of cues more than men as well. But when women assume a high power role, like that of college instructor, the differences disappear.
Perhaps women are simply flexible; they adjust their communication depending on the role they are playing in a specific relationship. Men are more consistent across situations. Therefore, although it is helpful for women and men to be aware that in specific relational roles they may tend to communicate differently, in the classroom (and probably in supervisor-subordinate relationships in the workplace) they are likely to have many more commonalities than differences.