Men & Women Tend To Approach Conversations Differently — Here's How
Take a minute to ask yourself: Do you feel a difference in the communication styles of men and women? Though conversation styles vary regardless of the gender, a new study1 is the only one of its kind to research conversational strategies and power dynamics specifically within friendships between men and women.
The study, published in the journal Sex Roles, involved 146 undergraduate students of varying ethnicities in same- or mixed-gender pairs. The students were all assigned both a self-disclosure task, where the goal of the conversation was to facilitate sharing and listening between friends, and a negotiation task, where friends had to make a decision together and make a case for their point of view. The conversations were all video-recorded and analyzed to see if there were any key differences between how men and women tended to communicate—and there sure were.
During negotiations between men and women, men were more direct and self-emphasizing. "Self-emphasizing strategies primarily function to advance the speaker's ideas and wishes," Campbell Leaper, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of California–Santa Cruz and the chief researcher behind the study, explains in the paper. Self-emphasizing communication included directives, repetition, and disagreements. In general, this meant the men were more forcefully stating a course of action (e.g., "put down 'water' on our list" might have been a direct request a man made during the conversation).
Leaper noted that participants may have been careful about wanting to act cooperative with one another, and in this case, the men may have used fewer directives than usual in their conversations.
Women, on the other hand, used more justifications and indirect suggestions. These were comprised of subtle requests for validation (i.e., asking for the other person's ideas or support before stating her own opinion), which were notably less forceful than the men's conversation style. On one hand, this could be viewed as unforthcoming or submissive. Alternatively, though, the women's style of communication could positively affect how well a conversation goes, unlike the male approach, which might be seen as too abrasive.
From afar, it might look like men have the better negotiation strategy—after all, they're being assertive, upfront, and confidently asking for what they want, right? But some past research suggests women could actually have the upper hand, though, because their communication style allows them to get more collaborative, better interpret nonverbal cues, and create more satisfying compromises.
During intimate conversations.
When it came to conversations involving getting vulnerable, sharing personal stories, and connecting, women were more able to share about themselves and listened more intently to their partner's sharing, whereas men used more "distancing" responses, which are "negative responses such as making an irrelevant comment or trivializing the other discloser's feelings." In same-gender pairs in particular, men were more likely than women to make irrelevant comments after their counterpart disclosed information.
"Irrelevant comments suggest that the speaker is not directing attention to the partner's disclosure," Leaper speculates in the paper. "Moreover, these kinds of responses may signal some men's discomfort in dealing with emotionally personal matters. Actively responding to a friend's personal disclosure may challenge some men's traditional masculinity norms regarding the expression of vulnerable feelings."
Indeed, past studies have found men are less comfortable with eye contact than women are, perhaps because our culture demands men perform dominance, power, and status, whereas direct eye contact indicates a deeper level of emotion.
Much ado about gender.
While it is indeed intriguing to delve into the nuances between opposing genders, it's important to note that men and women are not inherently different. Rather, these are just tendencies, likely a product of how we socialize men and women to behave. As stated in research conducted by the American Psychological Association, gender norms are a product of stereotyped, culture-based thinking. There's no denying the reality that many women and men may feel a barrier in communication—especially when it comes to conveying emotions—but those differences may not necessarily represent biological dissimilarities as much as they are learned from environmental influences.
The results of this study suggest people of all genders can afford to learn how to communicate better in different contexts, finding ways to strike a harmonious balance between attentiveness, nonverbal cues, directness, and space for another person's ideas, even when they don't necessarily align with your own.
Georgina Berbari is a multidisciplinary artist focusing on photography and writing. Through these mediums, she creates works exploring the human body, sexuality, nature and psychology. Her work has been featured in the Hecksher Museum of Art on Long Island, ZEUM Magazine, Women’s Health, Bustle, SHAPE, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. She is a Master's graduate of the creative writing program at Columbia University and a Yoga Alliance RYT-200 yoga and meditation instructor.