Communication: Status and Gender

The affects of Status and Gender on Communication.

9th May 2008

“When two people’s paths cross, there is bound to be conflict of interest: We can’t both stand on the same spot without one of us standing on the others foot. If no one steps aside someone will get stepped on.”
Deborah Tannen (1990)

Men and women will never be the same when it comes to physical and emotional aspects. So, thy is it then that people are surprised to learn that men and women are also different when it comes to communicating? The way we are brought up has a lot to do with the way that we conduct ourselves in almost every aspect of our daily lives, especially in communicating. From the time that they are born, and now days often before, children have already been assigned a gender. We all know blue blankets are for boys, and pink are for girls. Children learn from a very early age what it means to be a boy or a girl within the society that they live During their childhood children are exposed to various factors which influence their attitudes and behavior regarding their gender role. These attitudes are leared in the home, at school and even in the playground through interaction with their peers. Specific gender roles are not only learned at home and through school, but also from common media, magazines, books and computer games etc. the list goes on. Almost every part of our lives has some sort of influence, showing what is considered the ‘norm’ of behavior and thinking styles right through to the language that we use on a daily basis to communicate.

Communication itself is the backbone of human existence. Without it, you could argue that we would be nothing more than a sophisticated collection of organized matter. The fact that we as humans have managed to develop advanced methods of communication, such as language, is what has set us aside, in our opinion, from other animals. When we talk to another person we are not just talking, we are sending a message which is received, decoded, and responded to accordingly. The problem is, in cross gender communications what are we decoding and what is the perceived response to be made from this decoded information?

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Almost everyone, everywhere is communicating with someone almost all the time, as such communication is integral for any relationship, be it a family relationship, a friendship, a business association, a working relationship, or a romantic partnership. Communication across cultural and gender boundaries is something that occurs regardless of status and position in most peoples daily lives. Standards, Expectations and levels of communication are affected not only by a persons gender, but also by both the culturally defined status of the people involved and the social expectations imposed by the culture in which they live.

When beginning to look at the differences in communication, specifically between men and women, it is important that the distinctions that are made in the terminology used are correct. In the English language there are two words that are frequently used interchangeably in common speech. These words have decidedly different meanings when relating to the study of gender communication they are sex and gender. The difference between these two is quite simple: where gender refers to social and cultural meanings, sex refers to biological characteristics. People are affected by their particular gender in almost every communication effort made.

There are two differences in the way a man and woman communicate these differences are the languages styles that each gender uses during verbal communication and the non-verbal gestures and references that are communicated from their body, stance and facial expressions. In verbal communication within every individual culture there are certain perceptions or expectations that relate to the vocal styles of each, men and women. It is common to find that women place emphasis on the end of sentences or the topic points, while men simply take a more direct approach and comment on a single subject in order to cover it thoroughly.

In analyzing these ideas Tannen, in her book, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, explains that there are both male and female styles of communication and that men and women have been socialized to use language in different ways and for different purposes; Men it is said use language for information and in contest while women use language for intimacy and community building. These styles are reflections of cultural differences, and one is not necessarily any better than the other. These kinds of differences can result in misunderstandings and frustrations between men and women. For this reason women frequently use two methods which enable them to communicate more efficiently when talking with men. Firstly, women will begin with the bottom line or the point, if it is possible, since from a mans perspective this is the most important part of what is being said, the knowledge which is to be imparted. Secondly, they will frequently skip over any pointless detail. Although this is an important function in female speech for the building of rapport and mutual exchange men often find it tiresome and loose interest in the conversation or interrupt with something that he feels is more interesting.

Other common Expectations have also been noted. Women, it is  commonly expected, will have higher pitched voices with less resonance, they will display more variation in intonation and a more strident tone. Many if not most  will speak with an upward inflection, at a faster rate and in a “powerless” style. Women apparently also use more tentative, unassertive, or differential speech and are more likely then men to express agreement or ask for another’s opinion. It is also generally believed that they will speak in a softer voice. It is also common to notice that in mixed groups, they will talk less and let themselves be interrupted (McManus 1999), men on the other hand interrupt more, command more, threaten more and boast more. Allan & Barbara Pease write that “Women use a range of high and low pitched listening sounds (five tones) including ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, repeating a speakers’ words or context, and multi-tracking the conversation. Men have a more restricted pitch range (three tones) and have difficulty decoding the meaning behind pitch changes, so speak in a more monotone voice”. Men, they say, use what is called ‘the grunt to show that they are listening. Men carry the expectation of having deeper pitch in their voice and carry more resonance. They speak will less varied intonations in a more relaxed tone this frequently leads to more monotone tendencies. They will speak with a downward inflection generating a powerful style and generally use a louder voice. In mixed groups, they will often talk more and interrupt speakers frequently, particularly female speakers. Men mostly do not expect that any women will interrupt or interfere when they are doing the talking. Men it has been noted are usually pragmatic and come hastily to they want to make, while women prefer to use more detail in leading to the upper point. Men similarly can be impatient when they search for something or lose interest in communicating with women. Alternatively, women are often easily offended and may become frustrated if they are interrupted by men. Furthermore, it is known that men regularly talk ‘at’ women but not ‘with’ them (Tannen 2001).

The Interaction between the genders is a complex combination of speech and body language. Human voices and language are only part of the message being conveyed. Physical or non-verbal applications such as touch and movement affect the reactions that we experience. Nonverbal communication therefore can be defined as a process that involves he use of non-verbal stimuli in a communication setting that is generated by both the speaker and his or her use of the environment in a manner that has potential message value for either the speaker or the listener. Basically it is sending and receiving messages in a variety of ways without the use of words, both intentional and unintentional. Most speakers and listeners are not conscious of this. Non-verbal communication includes, but is not limited to touch, glance, eye contact and gaze, volume, vocal nuance, proximity, gestures, facial expression, pauses in speech, intonation, dress, posture, smell, word choice and syntax, and sounds or paralanguage.

In a broader context non-verbal language can be classed into two basic categories. Non-verbal messages produced by the body and Non-verbal messages produced by the setting. Non-verbal communication is important. It is one of the key aspects of communication and is especially important in cross-cultural and cross-gender communication. It has multiple functions some of which may include being used to repeat the verbal message e.g. point in a direction while explaining directions. It is often used to accent a verbal message. e.g. verbal tone indicates the actual meaning of the specific words or highlights words for meaning. It can be used to complement the verbal message but also may be used to contradict, for example, In Australia a “nod” is normally used to reinforce a positive message; a “wink” however may contradict a message stated in the positive. Non-verbal language may be used to regulate interactions, non-verbal cues and actions can covey when the other person should speak or not speak. They may also be used as a substitute for the verbal message i.e. gestures, finger to lips is commonly used to indicate need for quiet. Nonverbal communication or body language as has already been set forth is an important part of how people communicate. Because of its importance there are a number of differences that are apparent from culture to culture. Hand and arm gestures, touch, and eye contact or the lack there of, are a few of the aspects of nonverbal communication that may vary significantly depending upon cultural background.

Since the expectations of gender are formulated by the culture in which people live, and non-verbal communication is heavily influenced by the culture in which people live, it is logical therefore that non-verbal communication will also be influenced by gender. Tannen, who studied ethnic groups, which speak the same language using different styles, found that the effect of gender on communication is small compared to the effect of culture and socialization. She also asserted the notion that the styles and motives for communication are a representation of different cultural upbringings. The issue of the effect of gender on communication from either a social or cultural aspect is not a topic that can be defined as simply black and white. There are both gender linked traits and assorted cultural expectations and perceptions of both men and women that mould the form of communication that is used, as well as situational conditions that may be linked to the communication form exhibited. Communication, in both its verbal and nonverbal forms, is indeed affected by gender and status. Its forms are influenced by the social and cultural perceptions and expectations on how and individual should speak or behave depending on their gender and by default their social status. Gender distinction, for better or for worse, is a category that will not simply go away. It is “one of the most deeply seated traits of man” (Pease 2001)

References

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Madden, S.J., Proxemics and Gender: Where’s the Spatial Gap? http://www2.edutech.nodak.edu/ndsta/madden.htm

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Waltz S. 1976, New School for Social Research Sex Roles, Vol 2, No 2,
http://keekaboo.wordpress.com/2006/11/21/sex-differences-in-nonverbal-communication/

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