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5.3: Gendered Differences in Communication

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    • Identify the differences between the masculine and feminine speech communities.
    • Identify some overall differences as they relate to different gender performativities.
    • Better understand how your own communication style may be influenced by, or reflective of, your gender identity.


    Do women and men communicate differently? Are men from Mars and women from Venus, as John Gray once pontificated? We will explore the performative aspects of gendered communication in this section by focusing on nonverbal and verbal aspects of communication as it relates to gender.

    Nonverbal Gender Communication

    Overall, men and women tend to behave in relatively consistent ways. However, as a product of social conditioning, and in order to appease long-held social customs that have developed around gender binaries, there are some documented differences in the ways that most men and women interact. This is particularly true when they are interacting with other members of their own gender.

    As mentioned in the upcoming Unit 6 of this book, haptics focuses on the role of touch in communication. Proxemics refers to the use of space or proximity in communication. How does this relate to gendered communication? Brenda Major (1981) concluded that differences in the use of touch among males and females is influenced by culture and attitudes toward gender performativity. Females are exposed to more touch than males from infancy due to culturally normalized expectations of independence for boys and dependence and cooperation among girls (Major, 1981). In addition, men are more likely to initiate touch with women than women are with men. Much of the difference is influenced by power relationships and stereotypes of a culture.

    Due to the normalized factors of gender expectations among women and men, females are socialized to be more accommodating and emotionally intuitive regarding interpersonal skills. Also, because of societal norms and social construction, men are less likely to get physically close to other men, whereas women are more accepting of being touched by other women. Some may consider men’s same-sex aversion to touch to be influenced by homophobia, but we also must consider context. While men may not touch each other or be in close proximity when communicating as much as women, it’s often acceptable to chest bump a teammate or give him a slap on the buttocks in an athletic competition. The context matters. Also important are the cultural norms that vary from country to country or ethnicity to ethnicity. European cultures tend to communicate with less distance than in the United States. Proximity also varies between Northern Europe to Southern Europe or from North America to South America. The frequency of handshakes, hugs, and kisses vary from region to region, and culture to culture.

    The differences between men and women sharing a household are not limited to parenting. Studies also show that the distribution of household work remains uneven between men and women, with women straddled with the majority of household chores, despite spending equal amounts of time outside the home earning income. This inequity has far-reaching consequences. Scholars have found that in households where both partners view their chores as being evenly shared, both partners are also more likely to report high satisfaction with their sex life (Gager & Yabiku, 2010).

    One reason for the disparities we see in how households divide time by gender may be that different genders have been acculturated to approach their bonding activities differently (Endendijk, et al., 2017). Whereas men are taught from youth how to bond through shared structured activities like sports, or imaginary play where the roles are assigned, women are typically raised to value communication as the primary means of bonding. Consider for example, the difference between a girl being taught to play with her dolls through imaginary chat or tea times, and little boys being steered toward video games, or a shootout between designated cowboys and Indians (Wood, 2012; Kimmel, 2013).

    Gendered Verbal Communication

    Speech Communities

    One way that theorists have approached the differences in communication between genders is through the framework of speech communities. Julia Wood (2009) discusses the differences of how men and women use language by theorizing that they adopt different speech communities. The goal is to understand the role of culture in creating a set of norms and practices that are influenced by gender performance. Drawing from Langer’s postulation of “discourse communities” (Langer, 1953; Ghosh, 1979) and Labov’s discussion of “speech communities” (1974), Wood formulates the idea of gendered speech communities. The basis of any speech community is a set of shared beliefs and practices that are influenced by history and the experiences in an environment and how these factors over time develop unique characteristics of communication practices within the group. Wood explains that “socialization is a gendered process in which boys and girls are encouraged to develop masculine and feminine identities” (2009, p. 19). The goal of understanding gendered speech communities is to explore how socialization creates these specific patterns of communication among females and males.

    To be a part of a gendered speech community does not imply that you identify as that gender, or that you perform that gender role on a routine basis. Instead, the notion of a gendered speech community suggests that certain broad patterns of communication and specific practices of communication can be tied to either masculine or feminine gender performances, based on long standing traditions, and drawn from the historical research on gender communication, which was most often conducted under the presumption of a naturally occurring gender binary (Wood, 2012).

    Today, we view speech communities as a useful way to examine still prevalent communication practices that may be employed for different reasons, regardless of sex, or gender identity, but that still convey gendered meaning in our society, and/or accord with social expectations based on gender. In other words, these are gendered practices that may be theoretically passé, even though they remain practically consistent.

    Feminine Speech Communities

    People who communicate in the feminine speech community tend to value verbal communication primarily as a means of building and maintaining relationships through the sharing of personal experiences, ideas, or concerns. For this reason, the rituals of talk in the feminine speech community differ from those in the masculine speech community, and are called relational talk. Women have historically been identified in large part by their communication practices, beginning with the supposition that women enjoy talking more than men, and that they crave talk more than men do. Research shows that in fact men and women communicate verbally an equal amount, though they may tend to communicate in different ways overall, and for different purposes (Wood, 2012).

    To begin, members of the feminine speech community view verbal communication as an opportunity to express their own identities, and to build relationships through acts of mutual disclosure that demonstrate trust. Female socialization presents different communication patterns than males beginning with childhood games. Wood (2009) explains how girls’ games involve smaller groups with less rigid rules and goals. Girls’ games are more fluid and made up as the game unfolds, in direct contrast to the individualistic nature of boys’ games. Due to the lack of “external rules to settle disputes,” girls learn to cooperate and communicate with each other in a collaborative fashion. Girls’ games are more focused on process than content with sensitivity to feelings. Criticism, exclusion of others and outdoing the competition is not acceptable behavior. The focus is less on achieving a goal. The goal is communication itself as girls strive to create an inclusive environment.

    In the feminine speech community, it is common to relate stories or past experiences, and to do so by providing specific details, in order to create opportunities for others to relate, or find common threads that can lead to a meaningful response. In this community, relationships tend to revolve around sharing of information, rather than sharing activities, and for this reason studies have found that people in the feminine speech community tend to maintain relationships with others, even when they are separated by vast distances geographically (Wood, 2012).

    Into adulthood women use communication to “maintain relationships with others…learn themselves and share with others” (Wood, 2009, p. 21). Women communicate to maintain relationships, offer support and make connections. Where men are more focused on goals and direct competition, women are more focused on understanding emotions and being empathetic. Wood (2009) breaks feminine communication down into seven features or qualities:

    • Maintaining relationships
    • Equality
    • Showing support
    • Conversational “maintenance” work
    • Responsiveness
    • Personal concrete style
    • Tentativeness

    Because the feminine speech community values the building and maintenance of relationships through verbal communication, they are also more likely than members of the masculine speech community to use their talk as a way of offering support to others. In part, this is why members of the feminine speech community are more apt to inquire about issues relating to family, health, and well-being in their conversations, because these inquiries can help them determine if support is needed by their conversation partner. Sometimes the feminine speech community provides support, not just by offering comforting or affirming statements, but also by listening to the other person, and allowing them a chance to process their feelings and thoughts in an environment absent of judgement or critique (Wood, 2012).

    Masculine Speech Communities

    As Wood (2012) theorizes it, the masculine speech community approaches verbal communication more pragmatically. Members of the masculine speech community use talk instrumentally in order to achieve goals. In this community, members share information in order to accomplish tasks- even if the task is something like, starting a relationship. For example, someone from the masculine speech community might view the conversation they make on a first date as a necessary prelude to advancing the relationship to the second date, rather than as an opportunity to share for sharing’s sake. For them, the conversation is framed as a win/lose scenario and their mind is likely working hard to ensure that when they speak they say the ‘right thing’ in order to satisfy their date’s expectations, and succeed as a dinner partner.

    Gendered patterns of communication begin in childhood with the games children play. For boys, the games often involve large groups, are competitive and rely on strict guidelines and rules (Wood, 2012). Boys’ games are about asserting dominance, standing out, and being better than the other players. These factors have a direct impact on communication development as boys are taught to assert themselves, compete and attract attention. Since boys are taught to be competitive and dominant, weakness and vulnerability is unacceptable. Within a team context, individuality is still important because the individual skill set is highly valued. The emphasis of being strong, competitive and invulnerable starts a pattern of communication practices that are more impersonal and focused on achieving an explicit goal.

    Because the masculine speech community engages with verbal communication in a less spontaneous and more instrumental talk fashion, it is no surprise that its members also use verbal communication in a more competitive manner—engaging in verbal and paralanguage tactics designed to one-up their conversation partners, especially during a disagreement. Examples of such competitive tactics include interrupting, scoffing, raising their volume, and using sarcastic tones unnecessarily (Wood, 2012; Greenwood, 2017). Often, these behaviors may not be consciously motivated by competition; rather it is a product of how the community views the purpose and value of talk—as a means by which goals are achieved. In that context, these kinds of aggressive behaviors demonstrate implied values like dominance, bravery, and intellectual superiority (Wood, 2012).

    Masculine speech communities emphasize goals, assertion, preserving independence and enhancing status (Wood, 2009). By respecting others’ independence, males establish boundaries of respect. Masculine talk focuses on the elaboration of a skillset or displays of being able to get things done. Men are less likely to express vulnerability or disclose personal information that will make them appear weak or diminish their status. If someone expresses a concern, the masculine style is to give problem solving advice.

    The following are characteristics of masculine speech communities:

    • Exhibit knowledge
    • Instrumentality
    • Conversational dominance
    • Absolute assertion
    • Abstractness
    • Non-responsiveness

    Differences in the socialized communication practices of men and women often creates situations where someone misinterprets the other’s meaning. If the codes, norms, and practices are not understood across genders, one may respond in a manner that creates a disconnect or conflict. Grasping the various ways feminine and masculine speech communities communicate is important in developing interpersonal relationships.

    On the whole, the masculine speech community tends to communicate more concisely, focusing on information they view as pertinent, rather than allowing themselves to disclose information as a way of relating to others. For this reason, there is wide room for miscommunication when they interact with people from the feminine speech community (Wood, 2012). One product of the masculine speech community’s view of talk as competition is mansplaining: a sexist practice in which men attempt to assert dominance by explaining things to women that the women either already know, or didn’t want to know (Solnit, 2017). Not all men are prone to doing this, but men who are also members of the masculine speech community are likely to think that by relating their knowledge of something, even if no one has asked them to do so, proves their intelligence and earns them admiration.

    In keeping with their instrumental view of talk, masculine speech community members may also offend people from the feminine speech community if they are seen to be ignoring cues for mutual disclosure or supportive statements. Research finds that in professional situations, people from the masculine speech community tend to misinterpret queries from their co-workers that are meant to start a conversation by assuming the co-worker needs them to solve a problem (Yoshimura & Hayden, 2007). This is one of the most common sources of conflict between the two speech communities. Where members of the feminine speech community may disclose a problem or obstacle they face in order to solicit support, members of the masculine speech community are likely to view this disclosure as an opportunity to fix the problem by providing unwanted advice (Wood, 2012).


    Activity 1: ‘Say What?’

    Invite two students of any gender identity to the front of the room to improvise a scene. Each one is tasked to use a different speech community in their improvisation. Then, let the class volunteer the setting of the scene; the type of discussion- argument, proposal, offer of help, etc.; and the relationship between the two characters.

    Let the scene play out for a moment. Then, let another pair of students take over the two assigned roles and let them perform the speech communities in front of the class. After the scene discuss what specific forms of the masculine and feminine speech communities they saw playing out during the scene. Did it cause confusion between the two characters? Did it cause conflict?

    Activity 2: Writing Reflection

    Ask each student to reflect on their own speech community, bearing in mind that your gender does not have to match your speech community. Then ask them to classify the different friends and family they see regularly into different speech communities. Lastly, ask them to reflect in writing on any miscommunications they have had in the past with those friends or family that don’t share their speech community.

    When the students are done let them share aloud in small groups, or with the class.


    Endendijk, J. J., Groeneveld, M. G., van der Pol, L. D., van Berkel, S. R., Hallers‐Haalboom, E. T., Bakermans‐Kranenburg, M. J., & Mesman, J. (2017). Gender differences in child aggression: Relations with gender‐differentiated parenting and parents’ gender‐role stereotypes. Child development, 88(1), 299-316.

    Gager, C. T., & Yabiku, S. T. (2010). Who has the time? The relationship between household labor time and sexual frequency. Journal of Family Issues, 31(2), 135–163.

    Ghosh, R. K. (1979). Aesthetic theory and art: A study in Susanne K. Langer (Vol. 1). Ajanta Publications: distributors, Ajanta Books International.

    Greenwood, E. (2017). Gendered communication styles in the workplace. XULAneXUS, 14(2), 30-39.

    Kimmel, M. (2013). Angry white men: American masculinity at the end of an era. Hatchette, UK.

    Labov, W. (1974). Language change as a form of communication. In Albert Silverstein (Ed.)., Human Communication (pp. 221-256). Erlbaum.

    Langer, S. K. (1953). Feeling and form (Vol. 3). Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Major, B. (1981). Gender patterns in touching behavior. In C. Mayo, & N. M. Henley (Eds.), Gender and nonverbal behavior (pp. 15-37). Springer.

    Solnit, R. (2017, December 6). Men explain things to me: Facts didn’t get in their way. The Huffington Post.

    Wood, J. T. (2009). Gendered lives: Communication, gender, & culture (8th ed.). Cengage Learning.

    Wood, J. T. (2012). Gendered lives: Communication, gender, & culture (10th ed.). Cengage Learning.

    Yoshimura, C. G., & Hayden, S. E. (2007). The effects of gender on communication and workplace relations. In O’Lynn, C.E., & Tranbarger, R. E. (Eds.)., Men in nursing: History, challenges, and opportunities (pp. 103-120). Springer Publishing Company.


    Haptics: The use of touch

    Feminine Speech Communities: The grouping of people who communicate according to certain common traits that have been associated with feminine performativity

    Instrumental Talk: Verbal communication aimed at achieving a task or accomplishing a goal

    Masculine Speech Communities: The grouping of people who communicate according to certain common traits that have been associated with masculine performativity

    Proxemics: The use of space to communicate.

    Relational Talk: Verbal communication aimed at building relationships or showing support


    Multimedia 1: One TEDx speaker discusses the issues living as both a man and as a woman. See this from the perspective of one person who has experienced gender identity from different viewpoints.

    I've lived as a man & a woman -- here's what I learned | Paula Stone Williams | TEDxMileHigh

    Multimedia 2: A communication researcher, Audrey Nelson, Ph.D., discusses the seven most asked questions about gender in communication. Have you had these same questions? How do they differ from your experience?

    The Most Asked Questions About Gender Communication - Audrey Nelson PhD

    This page titled 5.3: Gendered Differences in Communication is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Daniel Usera & contributing authors.

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