He said, she said: A perspective on gender communication

by Catherine Fenwick ã 2000

There's a mountain of research on communication between the genders, or the lack thereof. The nature vs nurture debate rages on, people continue to make generalizations and perpetuate the stereotypes. How much is biological and how much is learned? Both contribute and the degree each plays is variable. On the nature side there are chromosomes, genetics and temperament to consider. On the nurture side there's upbringing, culture, habits, expectations, ethics, customs, background and learning which influence people. In the great circle of life we need both male and female. The keys to healthy communication are balance, flexibility, sensitivity, respect and sense of humor. Forget "men are from mars, women are from venus," men and women are from earth, get used to it! I don't care for the Mars-Venus approach because I think it reinforces stereotypes and could be more about manipulation than genuine caring.

We need to challenge our preconceived notions, generalizations and expectations based on beliefs. How we interact is influenced by our expectations of male and female behaviour. We respond to situations based on what we believe about certain groups. At times we are punished if we don't behave in expected ways, because people respond more to their preconceived notion than to the reality of the situation. What do we think about men who are tender, considerate, nurturing? What about women who are tough, assertive, accomplished? Each of us contains anima (feminine) and animus (masculine) energies, both are good and both are needed. Equity and balance of power allows us the freedom to express ourselves and encourage all to join in the fun. When there is an imbalance of power, humor is often used to inflict discomfort. That's not healthy.

Flexibility is necessary if we accept that there are many paths to enlightenment, many styles of communication, but we must understand the rules. Compassion and respect is absolutely necessary so we can help each other to understand. When we operate using both our anima and animus energies we achieve better balance and better use of our strengths. Flexibility helps us to accept what is good in each of us and our, sometimes different, ways of handling situations. Respect helps us to honor ourselves and to honor others. In the research, variation in differences between the genders is generally 60-40 or 70-30, there is more variance within groups of women and men than there is between these two groups. There is a great deal of overlap, so we must be careful not to make broad generalizations. In writing this article I exaggerate a bit to make my points.

What do we know from the research? Women talk more than men. Men, in general, are more focused on getting the job done and are less tempted to get side-tracked by personal stuff. Many women view conversations as an opportunity for emotional connection. Many men view conversations as opportunities to convince, instruct or impress. Women generally are more comfortable with informal, small talk and chit chat. Small talk is good, it can show we care. When we care we pay attention to the other and take a little time to show that we care. There is a biological basis for this focused vs scattered way of functioning. Men's behaviour is more often influenced by their left brain, the analytical, logical kicks in first. Women's behaviour is more often influenced by their right brain, the creative, intuitive kicks in first. There is more interaction between the two hemispheres in women's brains, many of us are really good at multi-tasking, while many men prefer to focus on one thing at a time. For balance and flexibility we could all learn to focus and handle multiple tasks when necessary. Another known fact is that men's brains are bigger, but that doesn't seem to make any difference. Size really doesn't matter!

Direct vs indirect communication, neither is wrong, but it is important that we understand the rules. Men tend to be more direct and come right out with it. "Please send these faxes by noon today." The communication is clear and succinct. Women ask rather than tell, "Could you send these faxes when you have a minute, if you don't mind" Both are saying the same thing. It's up to the receiver to respond. The indirect method denotes sensitivity. In some cultures, the direct approach is considered disrespectful and even rude. Some of us need to work on being more sensitive, attentive, considerate and nurturing. Others need to work on being more assertive and direct. Very few people can read minds with any degree of accuracy. Clear communication depends on talking to people as individuals, rather than as members of a certain group. Communication includes physical presence, background, experience, understanding, beliefs, attitudes, imagination, desires, interests, non verbal cues, time, purpose and the talk itself. It's complex, don't take things for granted, when in doubt check it out.

Mind vs heart decision-making styles. Do our decisions have to be logical? Would we not be better off if we did the analytical stuff then ask ourselves, "Does it feel right?" At times we can begin with intuition such as, "This sure feels right," then follow it up with some logic and analysis.

If you don't finish all the work on your desk you can't go out to play. Who has more trouble with the emotion of guilt? Women lie awake at night, partly because we don't focus on "time to sleep," we also worry more. We even spend piles of money on make-up and hair care, why? We do so many things to cover our imperfections. Why do we think we are imperfect? Where does all this self-scrutiny and self-blame come from? In our culture, there's a long history, starting with Adam saying to Eve, "It's all your fault." Maybe the original sin was Adam looking to blame somebody!

Men don't ask for directions and women do. For women asking for directions saves time and it's an opportunity to connect. Men don't ask because they think it's an opportunity to learn more by figuring it out for themselves. There's nothing wrong with either way except if it goes to extremes.

How free do we feel to give and receive complements? Generally women are better at giving complements, men are better at talking about their achievements. Many women do not do a good job of selling themselves. This shows up in job and promotional interviews. Women tend to undervalue their skills and time. Men don't have as much trouble with this, studies show that more women than men will work harder for less money. Shouldn't we both give complements more often and shouldn't we both brag a little? We could all be more tough and more tender when necessary. Neither is right nor wrong, we need a balance of both energies. This balance will create more harmony. We could all exercise gratitude, acknowledge one another and allow ourselves to care. Working toward understanding each other saves time and energy. I believe most of our differences are learned and we are more alike than we are different. Misunderstanding is normal, often not intentional, and can be rectified with an open mind, a willing heart and a healthy sense of humor.

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