The Impact of Gender on Communication Styles

Communication and Skills


Chloe Xu
Director, Australia

The Impact of Gender on Communication Styles

Research shows that communication styles are relatively different for men and women. This is because using language is a learned social behaviour: How we talk and listen are influenced by our experience. We learn ways of speaking as childrengrowing up, especially frompeers.

Although both girls and boys findways of creating rapport and negotiating status, girls focus on the rapport-dimension of relationships, whereas boysfocus onthe status-dimension.

The lessons learned in childhood carry over into the workplace. Research found that male and female workers exhibit different conversational patterns ina range ofareas including getting credit, confidence and boasting, asking questions, apologies, feedback, compliments, ritual opposition, managing up and down, andindirectness.
  • Getting Credit. Whatever the motivation, women are less likely than men to have learnedto blow theirown horn. And they are more likely than men to believe that ifthey do so, theywon't be liked.
  • Confidence and Boasting. Studies show thatwomen are more likelyto downplay their certainty, and menare more likely to minimise their doubts. Downplaying mayreflect not one's actual level of confidence, butthe desire not to seem boastful.
  • Asking Questions. Gender seemsto play a role in whetherand when people ask questions. Men arelesslikely than women to ask questions. This is because they are more attuned than women to the potential face-losing aspect ofasking questions. And men who believe that asking questions might reflectnegatively on them may, in turn, belikely to form a negative opinion of others who ask questions in situations where they would not.
  • Apologies. Women say I'm sorry more frequently than men, and often theyintend itas a ritualised means of expressing concern. Whilst many men, who are more likely to focus on the status implications of exchange,avoid apologies because theysee them as putting the speaker in a one-down position.
  • Feedback. Styles of giving feedbackcontain a ritual element that often is the cause for misunderstanding. It is natural for women to buffer the criticism by beginning with praise. They would regard a more blunt approach as unnecessarily callous. Often incidentslabelled vaguely as"poor communication" may result from differentlinguistic styles among genders.
  • Compliments. Exchanging compliments is a commonritual, especially among women. By takingthe one-down position, womenusually assume that the other person will recognise the ritual nature of the self-denigration and pull them back up. While men are more likelyto put others down and take the one-up position for themselves. This suggests how women's and men's characteristic styles may put women at a disadvantage in the workplace.
  • Ritual Opposition. Apologising, mitigating criticism with praise, and exchanging compliments are rituals common among women that men oftentake literally. A ritual common thing amongmen that women often take literally is ritualopposition. Men are muchmore used totestingtheir ideasbyverbal opposition, which is a ritualfight, than women.
  • Managing Up and Down. Study finds thatwomenare more careful to save face for the other personwhen they are managing downthan when they are managing up. While men go the other way around.
  • Indirectness. Everyone tends to be indirect in some situations and in different ways. Women are especially likely to be indirect intelling otherswhat to do, which is not surprising, considering girl's readiness to brand other girls as bossy. Men are especiallyindirectinadmitting fault or weakness, which is alsonot surprising, considering boys' readiness to push aroundboys who assumethe one-down position.
As a manager, how should you dealwith the differenceinmen's and women's communication style?

There is noone best way. The results of a givenway of speaking will varydepending on the situation, the corporate culture, the relative rank of speakers, their communication styles, and how those styles interact with one another. But it is a critical skill for managers to notice the workings and power of communication style, and the differences between women and men, to make sure thatpeople with something valuable to contribute actually get heard and empowered.
Source:Tannen, D., 1995. The Power of Talk - Who Gets Heard and Why.Harvard Business Review.


David Leaney
Director, Australia

Deborah Tannen Books

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