Women are great communicators, or so it seems. Men are emotional clams; many women make this claim. But perhaps both sexes are being painted with broad strokes.
Could it be members of both sexes are equally effective communicators, but in different areas of daily life and in different ways? Could it also be that both men and women experience feelings, passions, emotions, and impulses deeply, but in dissimilar fashions?
Unfortunately, the gap between how both sexes communicate has gone a long way to exacerbate and deepen what we refer to as the "battle of the sexes."
In fact, of all the contentious clashes fought between men and women and there are many, there is one that is often mentioned as capable of causing a great deal of dismay in a relationship. That is the gap between women’s desire to forge deep, meaningful and sensitive interchanges with their male partners, and men’s desire to have uncomplicated conversations and connections.
Many women complain that men’s utterances are often comprised of four-word sentences mostly dealing with quotidian themes, rather than the more sensitive subjects and in-depth conversations they hope for. Men, on the other hand, claim women spend endless hours on the phone or sitting around with other female confidants in deep but trivial dialog.
Recently, many evolutionary psychologists have made the claim both these behaviors are inherited from our prehistoric ancestors. The theory is that they date back to the dawn of our hunter-gatherer societies in which men hunted and women gathered berries, did the childbearing and took on minder roles.
The main premise is that while men were out looking for prey, any expression of sentiments would not be a productive trait. Consequently, this sort of sangfroid would be engraved in men’s genetic makeup and passed on to future generations.
Similarly, in the case of women, as they toiled together in their villages, they were able to develop personal bonds, and the desire for expressing themselves in deeper conversation somehow grew. These behaviors also engraving themselves in women’s genetic makeup, with today’s result being more talkative, sensitive, communicative and emotionally connected sex.
Male-Female Disconnect in Popular Culture
Over the years, the man-woman communication disconnect has been reflected in popular culture in many interesting but at times funny ways. Think of some of the jokes we hear regularly regarding men's inability to be responsive to women's communication needs. One such joke exemplifying this is:
A woman meets a female friend at the tennis club and asks: “Hey Alice, does your husband talk to you often?” Alice responds: “Oh yes. When he gets home from work, he always asks me what’s for dinner.”
Or what about:
A man tells his friend: “I haven’t spoken to my wife in the last 18 months.” His friend asks: “Gee, why is that?” The man says: “I just don’t want to interrupt her.”
Another notable example is George Clooney’s comedic but extraordinarily insightful portrayal of perennial “downsizer” Ryan Bingham in the 2009 film Up in the Air.
Bingham who works for a consultancy firm that specializes in helping corporations terminate employees finds himself incessantly traveling throughout the U.S. and encountering employees whose lives were about to be upended by their imminent dismissal at his hands.
In true emotional minimalist style, Ryan Bingham not only travels light but attempts to conduct an existence with as little emotional baggage as possible. Even in his side job as a motivational speaker, he extols the virtues of what he euphemistically describes as carrying a light backpack or living a life absent of burdensome relationships.
In addition to this emotional austerity, it could also be men have a heightened sense of what it is to be masculine. This includes virility, bravery, territoriality and many other characteristics easily recognizable in our society as expressing maleness; all of which precludes meaning communications.
An excellent explanation of some of these manly behaviors is in Bruce Feirstein’s 1982 seminally funny book Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, in which he sardonically identifies a litany of conducts men just do not do.
In addition to not eating quiche, Feirstein also mentions that men don’t drink soda through straws, they don’t sniff wine bottle corks, do not relate to anything, and most importantly do not have meaningful dialogues. And of course, they most certainly do not pay $5.00 to watch Jill Clayburgh try to find herself in An Unmarried Woman.
The Science Behind the Male-Female Disconnect
Perhaps it is the combination of the perception of manliness and the genetically encoded need for emotional minimalism that converts a man into a clam. Whatever it is, it seems that men just don’t get the same type of enjoyment from deep and personal conversations as women.
As per Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., president of Kinsey Consulting Services and author of The Silent Language of Leaders, talking through emotional issues releases oxytocin in women. This is further enhanced by estrogen which together creates a powerful cocktail that generates an enhanced calming effect.
On the other hand, the opposite happens to men. Testosterone dampens oxytocin’s properties, which in turn increases anxiety and distress in men when engaged in discussions of this type. The ensuing result is stonewalling as men tend to become emotionally flooded and seek for ways to mentally exit the situation as a way to calm their overly excited feelings.
For guys who have experienced this sort of intense emotion, somewhat resembling the fight or flight response — increased heart rate, fast breathing and cessation of rational thought — they will attest to the fact that at the moment, the only solution they could visualize was to flee, mentally or even physically.
In her famous book Brain Sex by Dr. Anne Moir, she exclaims: “Just as we have body sex we have brain sex. It is acquired in the womb under the influence of hormones. These hormones organize the fetal brain to function in a certain way from birth.
The female is born with a greater tendency to feel things, the male with a greater tendency to do things. In general, girls tend to be more interested in communication and exploring their personal world; boys tend to be more interested in things and exploring their physical world.”
Dr. Moir explains that adult hormones act as brain-modulators. Both male and female hormones interact with the neurotransmitters in our brain in order to influence behavior. These hormones create a greater tendency in men to compete and construct things; in women to communicate and care.
This is not to diminish the role that life experience plays in our attitudes and behavior, as the brain's wiring is forged as much by our environment and how we are raised. In essence, new wiring is possible at any age, however a large number of programs are engraved in our brain's neural networks from conception to age seven. Consequently, we respond and react to events in our lives from a data base of memories to which we pattern behavior. However, hormones play a large part in how life experiences are received and processed.
Fortunately, hormones don't run our lives as long as we understand how they work. As humans, we are able to stand back and observe our own behavior, modifying it for the better if we wish. This is due to the brain's plasticity which allows neural pathways to change, grow and morph not only during youth but also in adulthood. This makes the pronouncement, 'change your mind, change your brain, change your behavior' an impressive benefit of our brain.
Is it a Tribal Issue?
In keeping with the larger debate of nurture versus nature, we must give equal time to the notion that, perhaps, we are actually dealing with tribal or cultural differences.
Dr. Deborah Tannen a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who also specializes in gender discourse analysis, claims that miscommunication between men and women occurs mainly because both sides do not realize they are engaging in intercultural communication. The implication of this statement is that men and women belong to different cultures and therefore speak different languages.
She calls this form of intercultural communication “genderlect”, which is a combination of the term gender and idiolect. Her assertion is that a male-female conversation is a form of cross-cultural communication.
In her book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1990), Dr. Tannen claims that women tend to speak more in private conversation, as they seek to establish personal connections through communication. She calls this “rapport talk.”
On the other hand, men speak in what she calls “report talk”, which is a way for them to seek to maintain or establish status. This also implies that men speak more in public situations and are less communicative in private occasions.
The following chart shows the results of each communication style for both men and women:
How Men and Women Communicate
Women seek human connections: Intimacy, friendship, true solidarity, communion.
Men are concerned with status: Independence, hierarchy, competitive accomplishments, achievements.
Women talk more in private: For connection and to disclose details of life.
Men talk more in public: To command attention and to convey information.
Women tell stories about others: In order to downplay self and as a desire for community.
Men tell more stories than women: Especially jokes and stories that focus on self.
Women actively listen and ask questions: Non-verbal messages are used when listening in order to signal that they are indeed listening. They question established connections.
Men listen but don't ask questions: Non-verbal messages are not used as they would signal disagreement. Questions are not asked in order to preserve self-sufficiency and self-respect.
Women avoid conflict: Conflict represent a threat to connections.
Men initiate conflict: They are more comfortable with conflict,
Women see conversation as a productive end in and of itself. If they feel sufficiently heard or understood they may not need to take further action to resolve a problem or “make things better.”
Men are conditioned to solve problems. When a woman initiates conversation he assumes she is seeking his advice or assistance.
When a man feels down, a woman might interpret his silence as a sign that she is failing him. She will try to nurture him by asking an abundance of questions. There is also the risk she might act defensively and start an argument.
When men feel down they withdraw into their cave. A man's "cave time" is sometimes equivalent to a mini-vacation.
When women hear from men that their problems aren't immediately pressing, they might feel like the men are attempting to minimize their feelings or talk them out of having them.
Men throw up a wall of resistance when their competence is questioned.
Does all of this mean men and women are destined to never engage in good, emotional and sensitive conversation? Will both sexes be forever speaking past one another? How can we deal with the fact women talk more than men and men just take extraordinary actions to go mentally absent during deep exchanges?
There are some solutions offered by Dr. Tannen regarding genderlect.
- Realize that men-women communication encompasses two distinct cultural dialects. They do not represent a superior or inferior way of speaking.
- Learn to speak in the other sex’s dialect.
- Mutual understanding can go a long way toward bridging the cultural gap between both sexes.
- Men should take sensitivity training and women assertiveness training.
- Understand and concentrate on what it’s said and how it’s said.
Resources and Further Reading
- Are Women Better Communicators than Men?
- Deborah Tannen
- You Just Don't Understand Men and Women in Conversation.
- Is Your Communication Style Dictated by Your Gender?
- Review: Brain Sex by Anne Moir
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Pat on August 20, 2020:
Excellent article everything in this article is very true. I have identified many of these traits through the years in my relationship with my spouse but never took the time to research them and would forget about them. People, like myself, get caught up in the anxiety of misunderstanding their spouse's behavior leading to conflict. This article will be a quick reference for me to help me remember the differences which will change my reactions and improve our communication. You, Mr. Skull just help improve a relationship. Thanks.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on July 11, 2020:
Thank you Umesh.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on July 11, 2020:
Lot of efforts but you have made this nice article. Thanks.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on July 08, 2020:
Thank you Pamela.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 08, 2020:
This is full of very thought-provoking ideas explaining the posible reasons for communication between. I would think over the centuries the type of work men and women do, or the role they play in their marriage is a big factor in communication.
I think times are changing a little bit as women seek to be created equal in the work environment. I don't think I am qualified to actually figure out the whole truth, but it is sure interesting to consider. This is such an excellent article, JC.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on July 08, 2020:
Thank you Lorna. I appreciate your comment.
Lorna Lamon on July 08, 2020:
I don't think I have ever read a more in-depth analysis on this topic. I feel it has so many layers, and personally I have always found it more difficult for my male clients to really open up and engage. Very often I ask them to write down how they are feeling in a journal which we then explore. This does help to break down some of the barriers you have mentioned.
Dr Tannen's solutions do make sense to me as mutual understanding and respect for each others differences may yield great results. As usual your articles are both interesting and well written JC.