Sex refers to one’s biological status as male or female, as determined by chromosomes and secondary sex characteristics. Gender, however, refers to the behaviors and traits society considers masculine and feminine.46 Shuhbra Gaur stated “the meaning of gender, according to her, depends on the ways a culture defines femininity and masculinity which lead to expectations about how individual women and men should act and communicate; and how individuals communicate establishes meanings of gender that in turn, influence cultural views.”47 That being said, you can have a female that has a masculine gender and, conversely, a male that has a feminine gender. Gender is all about how society has taught one to perceive the surrounding environment. The different traits that an individual displays is how one interprets gender, while other traits depict how an individual was raised and developed. Heidi Reeder noted that “In Western culture the stereotypically masculine traits include aggressiveness, independence and task orientation. Stereotypically feminine traits include being helpful, warm and sincere.”48 Sex is predetermined, and in most cases, it cannot be changed, but gender, on the other hand, is fluid and can vary in many different ways.
Gender is formed at a young age and then reinforced for the remainder of a lifetime. That does not mean that gender cannot be changed; it just means that one would be going against what gender society deems an individual should be. Gender comes from communication from influential figures in a person’s life. Gender plays a major role in perceived closeness and disclosure.49
When we talk about gender, we are not considering what the person is born physically. Rather, we consider what the person feels psychologically. Sandra Bem (1974) was interested in gender roles. She created a Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI). Based on her findings, she was able to categorized four types of genders: feminine, masculine, androgynous (a combination of both feminine and masculine traits), and undifferentiated (neither masculine or feminine).50 When you combine sex and gender together, you can have eight different combinations: masculine males, feminine males, androgynous males, undifferentiated males, masculine females, feminine females, androgynous females, undifferentiated females.51 Most people will perceive themselves as sex-typed or androgynous, rather than undifferentiated.
Bem’s work in gender has been eye-opening. She contended that there are three main gender perspectives in Western culture. First, males and females are psychologically different. Second, males are considered more dominating than females. Third, the differences between males and females are natural. If we can understand these basic differences, then we can communicate and function better.
Each of the gender types will communicate differently. Feminine females will perceive interpersonal relationships as possibilities to nurture, to articulate their emotions and feelings. Whereas, masculine males will view interpersonal relationships as competition and the potential for gaining something. Androgynous male and androgynous females do not differ much in terms of their perceptions of interpersonal relationships. However, androgynous males and females, as well as feminine females are likely to sympathize with others more than masculine males.52
In the United States, we have expectations for how males and females should communicate and behave.53 We learn sex differences at a very young age. Boys and girls play, perform, dress, and respond to things very differently. Girls are taught that it is okay to cry in public, but boys are taught to “be a man.” It is acceptable for boys to pretend to play guns and for girls to pretend to play being mothers. Males are conditioned to have instrumental roles, which are task-oriented responsibilities. Females are condition to have expressive roles, which are focused on helping and nurturing others, which are relationship-oriented roles.
Many popular guides to enhancing communication skills place particular emphasis on exploring your own needs, desires, and motives in the relationship. Some of the goals you have in a relationship may be subconscious. By becoming more aware of these goals, and what you want to achieve in a relationship, you can identify areas of the relationship that you would like to improve and generate ideas for making these changes.
Because people in relationships are interconnected and interdependent, it takes people willing to be open about their needs and relationship goals and willing to work on improving communication and, hence, the relationship in general.
As discussed previously, clear communication is necessary to give and receive information. Words have multiple denotations and connotations, and word choice is critical when you communicate about areas of your relationship that are not satisfying. Asking for and providing clarification and sending explicit messages, obtaining feedback to be sure that you are understood, and listening carefully to the feedback are all important components in effective communication. Finally, when you communicate, remember that everyone wants to be heard, to feel valued, to know that they matter, and to be assured that their ideas are important.