Did You Just Say That? Understanding Gender-Specific Communication Styles

Pauline Müller | March 19, 2019

Gender-Specific Communication Styles
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Not sure why members of your multigender team appear to misunderstand each other despite speaking the same language? Here is the single most important point to remember about genderlect. It’s real.

The era of gender equality has long since dawned, and while everyone should be working towards a happier, more inclusive society, a quick Google search shows that American women are still very poorly represented in top leadership positions. While many factors are no doubt at play here, different communication styles between men and women can play a significant role in who gets promoted and who doesn’t. In addition, misinterpretation of messages can cause much tension between the genders. To make the situation even more frustrating, what can appear to be gender discrimination is often nothing of the sort.

As a linguistics student, I was fascinated to discover the work of Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and a top-selling author. As a sociolinguist, Dr. Tannen has spent years studying the differences between male and female language rituals, or the way in which each communicates. She also coined the term genderlect. While her work clearly states that there are never any hard and fast rules due to a host of cultural and personality differences, the two groups have universal differences that, if navigated with awareness, can help us to understand each other better and could go a long way towards correcting inequality.

Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

While male and female communication styles are equal in status, their effects often are not. That’s because most communication has two messages: the actual message, which carries the significance of the words, and the meta-message, which is the intended meaning.

We all do it, and we have all experienced it.

Imagine, for instance, that a group has to decide on a new color for their office. Everyone says green, except the one person who says, “Green?” That statement can easily be taken as criticism, but the speaker could simply have meant: “I have no problem with green, but I thought we agreed on yellow last week.” This is just one simple example of how messages can be misinterpreted.

What’s the Difference?

According to Dr. Tannen and many other scholars, our gender cultures develop differently as children.

Young girls generally play in smaller, more exclusive groups where talking—and especially sharing secrets—is the main currency. Their friendships revolve more around forming exclusive groups and inclusion. Domineering girls tend to be less desirable as friends and are more likely to be avoided by other girls. In contrast, young boys play in larger groups where the focus is more on hierarchy and the most domineering boy becomes the leader. For them, the focus is on the activity and their spot in the food chain.

Dr. Tannen’s research also suggests that women tend to be less direct, making suggestions and negotiating outcomes so as not to seem domineering. Men tend to prefer very direct responses because uncertainty—or not knowing—is generally considered to be a weakness. In contrast, women tend to check in with everyone affected by their decisions before they take action. This promotes inclusivity and a woman avoids coming across as domineering. In male pecking orders, this can again count as a weakness as men are used to physically challenging each other on the playground. According to Dr. Tannen, men usually make decisions with the understanding that if anyone disagrees, they’ll say so or challenge the decision afterward.

While I’m sure that the majority of people want equality in the workplace, and females did make up nearly 50 percent of the American labor force in 2010, the lion’s share of top leadership positions is still dominated by men. In fact, only 4.8 percent of the world’s Fortune 5000 companies’ CEOs were women in 2018, a total of 24 to be precise. By becoming aware of the differences between our genderlects and by growing an understanding of and empathy for each other’s meta-messages, this landscape can potentially be changed quite drastically.

Imagine sitting in a meeting and instead of feeling hurt because she was interrupted by a male colleague, a woman can gather herself and challenge him on the point openly instead of fearing conflict. Even better, imagine the shift in office dynamics when an apparently distant CEO starts negotiating decisions with female counterparts and checking that he understands what they are saying instead of dismissing them as being too weak to flourish in top positions.

While it may be tough establishing an idea that at first appears to take power from one to give to another, great communication is nothing of the sort. Instead, it empowers people, strengthens teams, and holds phenomenal growth potential.

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