“He just won’t talk to me”, or “She always wants to talk” are the most common complaints from men and women in relationships. The differences and problems of talking and communicating have long been an
interest for many people. Some say it’s in the different genders’ nature that we are born the way we are, and others say it is the way we were raised and developed our different styles through life. This brings up the ultimate question: nature versus nurture.
Scientists have done numerous studies on the differences in men and women’s brains. Although they are very similar, some have shown evidence that the frontal lobe, used for communication, is slightly larger in women. This is their reasoning for women having the capacity to hold and use a wider range of language. It has been argued that if this were true, women would be able to learn foreign languages and have a much wider vocabulary than men. In other studies, where this theory was tested, it was proven false. Scientifically speaking, men and women have the same ability to communicate, in whatever language. Some neurologists still hold strong to the belief that it is a biological difference, and refuse to believe that it is in the way we are nurtured. There is also the belief that the increased testosterone provides a more introvert personality, one that doesn’t communicate as frequently. This same theory is that with the amount of estrogen in women, makes them more open with feelings. Studies were done on people willing to take the opposite sex’s hormones and take psychological tests before and after. These tests were non-conclusive, and were not widely published. This leads more people to believe it is how we are raised that determine our amount and type of communication.
Psychologists and sociologists, for the most part, believe it is the way we are raised. From as young as still being in the womb, children are spoken to differently. When a woman is pregnant with a boy, and kicks in the womb, people will say, “He’s going to be an athlete with all that strength”. Whereas when a female baby kicks in the same way it’s said, “She must be uncomfortable, and is finding her place”. Although there is absolutely no proof of either of these assumptions, it is as a society how we approach the different sexes from that early of an age. As babies grow into toddlers, they are given different treatment as well. Girls are taught to sit quietly and talk, play house or dress-up and talk with each other. They are essentially sharing their imagination vocally and through action. This is a good example of how we almost steer women to speak intimately with each other. Boys of the same age are not expected to sit together and talk. They are playing, in a somewhat similar fashion, just as girls, but with very different undertones. G.I. Joes and cars and trains are their toys, and they are separately battling each other. There is no collaborating on the same ideas, it’s ‘my guy versus your guy’. Sports are also more prominent in the boy’s upbringing. While these can be team sports, there is little to no communication about anything other than the task at hand.
When children reach the age to go to school, there is definitely gender stratification that is unspoken, but well defined. The rowdy boys get in trouble for making messes, hurting each other or just causing ruckus. It’s not too often a little boy gets sent to the principal’s office for passing notes in class. Girls do just that, pass notes and talk to each other during classes, which is the most common problem of young girls in elementary schools. The stratification extends all the way through school; examples are home economics and shop classes.
There have been several studies on boys and girls of different ages, ranging from five to sixteen years old on how different the same-sex conversations occur, with the most of the results always the same. When two boys were put in a room they sat side-by-side, with little to no eye contact and discussed abstract subjects, almost in a distracted manner. They also looked around the room a lot, with large gaps in conversation. When two girls were put in the very same room with only each other, they purposefully moved the chairs so they faced each other and conversed a lot. There were attempts from both girls to fill a silence in the room with questions and personal information. Deborah Tannen, author of “You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation”, indicates that “Men only communicate when they feel the need to impress or show their social status”, whereas for women, “Talk is the glue that holds relationships together”.
It is also said that men are ‘report-talkers’, while women are ‘rapport-talkers’. By saying this, it is meant that men use communication for sharing information, preserving their independence, and displaying their knowledge, among other things. On the contrary, women are the ‘rapport’ talkers, using conversation for interaction purposes or to establish connections, usually based on shared experiences. Even when the ‘reporters’ and ‘rapports’ interact, they approach a conversation in their own specific ways. This can lead to conflict in a relationship or a friendship.
When in argument, be it at a young age or into adulthood, the different sexes have completely opposite ways of approaching a problem. Men do not like to talk about why the argument is occurring, just the most direct and simple way to fix it. Between two men, this can lead to physical fighting, in some cases, simply because there was no communication about a resolution. The other common coping method for men is to walk away from a fight. This is especially the case in a man-woman confrontation. Walking away is a way of showing disinterest, and a lack of importance to them, but can also be their way of personally resolving it. Although women have been known to physically fight as well, it is not as common as it is in men. Women prefer to ‘hash things out’, and resolve the issue immediately, not to just forget it. Arguments between women are usually very personal, with direct eye contact and emotional communication. It is rumored that women started the phrase “Never go to bed angry”.
When men and women are conflicting, the major problem is not usually the original issue at hand, but more of the insults and hurt that result from it. Studies done in couple’s therapy show that men lean towards bringing up a grudge they have been carrying, talking about past problems that can pertain to what the current conflict is. Women choose to bring up men’s downfalls: what they do wrong or don’t do at all. When a man feels challenged, he focuses on being right, whether or not he is. It becomes a battle of the wills in a male’s head. Many times it seems if the woman doesn’t like the direction of the argument, it is shifted to unsolicited advice. Being on the defense, they feel, makes them realize what the opposite person should be doing. It is the commonality between the sexes in an argument to fix the other, and to not admit any wrongdoing.
As John Grey, author of “Men are form Mars, Women are from Venus” likes to point out, men withdraw into their caves where the women stand outside and demand attention. A man will withdraw into his ‘cave’ and focus on his particular problem. These episodes can be observed by a lack of interest, increasingly distant, forgetful and an unresponsive attitude. Men will choose to distance themselves from his peers, or spouse, and do independent activities. Women react to personal problems in their own way, which usually involves a friend. It is through talking and reasoning that women can come to a conclusion of their frustration. Talking on the phone, writing in a journal, or having personal contact with someone is the woman’s way of coping. Understanding the differences in the approach men and women take to different situations is the key to success.
There are also significant differences in the way men and women speak publicly. It is suggested that men communicate more and are more comfortable speaking in public than women. Usually men talk more frequently and for longer periods of time than women in a business-type setting. For women, a private conversation is a more comfortable setting, where there is no group of people looking at them. This may be because women are more self-aware of their appearance and of judgment. This is only a theory, and many examples can prove just the opposite.
There is also the other type of communication, the silent kind. Body language can be just as descriptive as spoken words. It is obvious when someone is upset or happy or scared, simply by the look on his or her face. While speaking, though, men and women have different movements while in conversation. Men prefer their personal space and only use hand gestures when an important topic is being discussed. Women, on average, use emphatic hands to tell stories or share information. They also are more comfortable touching another person to show intimacy, even with people they are not acquainted with. Men do not cross their arms when feeling uncomfortable or defensive, as women tend to. A common body language to men in a conversation is to steeple the fingers together, a sign of feeling superior. The posture of a man or woman can also give signals of himself or herself. When uncomfortable in a private setting, women will cross her legs and fold arms over them or pull her knees up to the chest in a protective stance. Men will fidget or change positions frequently, often standing when not necessary. Another indicator of attitude is the touching or fondling of an object. This is universal for men and women, meaning that they are contemplating something, by holding an object and appearing to study it. Another commonality between both genders is the non-verbal attempt to right a wrong. A simple cough or clearing of the throat can be an indicator that you have sat in someone else’s seat, or are offending them by some sort of your language or discussion.
Even things as simple as a smile can have so many different meanings. A man can smile out of happiness, or smile in a sympathetic way. The smile can be an apology or an excuse, but easily misread. Many times men revert to body language, instead of language, when in a situation with a woman. It can be a suggestive smile to an unknown woman he likes, or a sympathetic smile to his wife who had a bad day. Women, who want conversation and consolation and are instead give only the smile, can misread these small signals. It is easier for a man to show his emotions in small, almost unrecognizable signals. When men usually don’t touch others, they will still pat a co-worker on the back, showing friendship or assurance. When a woman is crying, a man will not usually hug her, but rub her back. It is almost completely opposite for women; they rub the back of a co-worker or stranger, and hug and embrace a loved one or anyone crying. It is these differences in body language that subtly set us apart.
Men and women have their differences and similarities in talking, sharing and simple communication. Although conflict can arise from the misunderstandings, it can also prove to be beneficial if looked at from the others’ point of view. Through a combination of understanding the differences between the ways everyone talks, and how they use body language, there is a middle ground that can be reached. Though no one will ever know how or why the two sexes speak so differently, and whether it is nature or nurture, it will always be. Quite possibly, it is a combination of the two, and by overanalyzing the differences and problems, we create a problem of it’s own. Taking into consideration that we are all different, men and men, women and women, we can possibly solve the qualms of communication.
Fast, Julius. The Body Language of Sex, Power, and Agression. New York: Evans, 1977.
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Glass, Lillian. He Says, She Says: Closing the Gap Between the Sexes. New York: Putnam’s, 1992.
Goodman, Gerald. The Talk Book. Pennsylvania: Rodale, 1988.
Gray, John. Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Moore, David. The Dependent Gene. New York: Holt, 2001.