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 children growing up, especially from peers.
Although both girls and boys find ways of creating rapport and negotiating status, girls focus on the rapport-dimension of relationships, whereas boys focus on the status-dimension.
The lessons learned in childhood carry over into the workplace. Research found that male and female workers exhibit different conversational patterns
in a range of areas including getting credit, confidence and boasting, asking questions, apologies, feedback, compliments, ritual opposition, managing up
and down, and indirectness.
As a manager, how should you deal with the difference in men's and women's communication style?
- Getting Credit. Whatever the motivation, women are less likely than men to have learned to blow their own horn. And they are more likely than men to believe that if they do so, they won't be liked.
- Confidence and Boasting. Studies show that women are more likely to downplay their certainty, and men are more likely to minimise their doubts. Downplaying may reflect not one's actual level of confidence, but the desire not to seem boastful.
- Asking Questions. Gender seems to play a role in whether and when people ask questions. Men are less likely than women to ask questions. This is because they are more attuned than women to the potential face-losing aspect of asking questions. And men who believe that asking questions might reflect negatively on them may, in turn, be likely 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 they intend it as a ritualised means of expressing concern. Whilst many men, who are more likely to focus on the status implications of exchange, avoid apologies because they see them as putting the speaker in a one-down position.
- Feedback. Styles of giving feedback contain 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 incidents labelled vaguely as "poor communication" may result from different linguistic styles among genders.
- Compliments. Exchanging compliments is a common ritual, especially among women. By taking the one-down position, women usually assume that the other person will recognise the ritual nature of the self-denigration and pull them back up. While men are more likely to 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 often take literally. A ritual common thing among men that women often take literally is ritual opposition. Men are much more used to testing their ideas by verbal opposition, which is a ritual fight, than women.
- Managing Up and Down. Study finds that women are more careful to save face for the other person when they are managing down than 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 in telling others what to do, which is not surprising, considering girl's readiness to brand other girls as bossy. Men are especially indirect in admitting fault or weakness, which is also not surprising, considering boys' readiness to push around boys who assume the one-down position.
There is no one best way. The results of a given way of speaking will vary depending 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 that people 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.