The Feminine (and Masculine) Mystique
An expert on male-female communication explains it all. You’re welcome.
A recent set of meta-analyses combining the results of decades-long research examining the differences in verbal communication between the sexes has been released, revealing a small but statistically significant finding that, despite the common perception that women are the ceaseless chatterboxes of the sexes, it is indeed men who talk more than women.
The most revealing findings of the meta-analyses state that men tend to talk more than women overall, but that the situations in which women and men talk more than one another differ. For instance, men tend to talk more in an effort to influence the listener, and women talk more when attempting to establish a connection to another person. Women are also more likely to talk in order to signal that they are listening to the speaker. Previous research has established that women are more likely to interject listening cues when speaking, by either restating what the speaker has said, or by adding affirmations to encourage the speaker to continue (e.g. “Go on,” “Uh-huh,” “So he told you that he would call?”). Women, according to prior studies, are also more likely to add tag questions to encourage the listener to speak and affirm their attention (“isn’t it?,” “right?,” “don’t you think?,” “you know?”). These interjections may contribute to the stereotype of the talky female, yet they are expressed to indicate attention to the speaker. Confusing!
Several studies have confirmed that it is not necessarily sex, but rather other factors which affect verbosity. These factors include social confidence, knowledge of the given subject, context and purpose of the conversation, and traditional versus non-traditional gender roles in a male-female relationship. For instance, studies by American, British and New Zealander researchers have found that when in a task-oriented setting, such as a meeting or seminar, men outtalk women by a significant margin.
However, in relaxed social settings, women tend to talk more than men. And, it is has been well-publicized that in the classroom, girls have been more reticent than boys, most likely from fear of social ridicule or derision, while boys tend to be more confident and outspoken at school. These findings have been discussed in the U.S. as well as in countries as far off as Australia. Studies have also indicated that in more traditional opposite sex couples, women tend to talk less than men, while couples which include a “feminist” female partner demonstrate more talkative women than men, according to another Australian study (Language Myths, Penguin Press).
Despite such diversified research defying the image of the chatterbox female, the antiquated stereotype of the long-suffering silent husband and blabbermouth wife persists. One Scottish proverb states that “Nothing is so unnatural as a talkative man or a quiet woman.” History’s greatest bestseller, the Bible, says “As the climbing of a sandy way is to the feet of the aged, so is a wife full of tongue to a quiet man,” (Ecclesiasticus 25:27). But what would a modern thinker have to say about the sexes today?
Scott Haltzman, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, focuses on marriage counseling in his private practice. He is the author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men: Eight Ways to Win Your Wife's Heart Forever, and The Secrets of Happily Married Women: How to Get More Out of Your Relationship by Doing Less. Haltzman, who is also Medical Director of Northern Rhode Island Community Services, graciously wrote demo dirt with his feedback on male-female communication.
The recent set of meta-analyses states that men communicate to influence others, while women communicate to establish connections to others. What do these results say about men and women, and what they value most?
The results of this study reflect our understanding of some of the anthropologic and biological differences between men and women. In more primitive cultures, and more primitive times, there was a division of labor wherein men [were assigned to the] role of hunters, and women to the position of gatherers. In this framework, it was more important for women to connect with each other through verbalization, and establish close relationships. In this culture, the use of words by man was very pragmatic, and task focused.
It's clear that, with the exception of some paleontologists, there are very few men out hunting Mastodons these days, and yet man's inborn tendency to be a hunter [continues to thrive] as a process. When men use language to communicate a direct task, it's in an effort to affect some sort of change. Implied in that, obviously, is the idea that he believes that the way he wants it, is the way it should be. Hence the joke, "I always wanted to marry Mr. Right, I just didn't know his first name was “Always."
In the work place, men also employ the use of language as a tool, much like they would a weapon.
Because of men's biologic and hormonal makeup (including the hormone vasopressin, which affects territoriality) it is important for men to maintain status. This of course comes from the biological need to procreate. As you see in many species, dominant males tend to have access to more women. Therefore, men have evolved the use of language as a tool to establish dominance, up into become more attractive to the opposite sex.
Have you found the results of the study surprising, or are they consistent with observations in your own experiences in private practice?
The dynamics of communication that I see in my office very much [mirror] the findings of the study. One of the causes for miscommunication is that when a woman offers support to a man, by offering suggestions or ways that he may do things better, he views it through his eyes—and believes that she is trying to "one up" him. Likewise, when women may seek to establish connections with their husbands by wanting their husbands who talk about their feelings, husbands often feel stymied. Women feel unsatisfied with the quality of the conversation because it does not establish or build the kind of connection she is looking for. In my experience, women are more comfortable using words to describe emotions, and men tend to use words to describe situations or experiences.
Why do you think that the stereotype of the chatterbox female is still so pervasive, despite contradictory findings?
The stereotype of the chatterbox female is based on imagery of the domestic life, in which, in my experience, men and women do communicate differently. In the work place, there's no doubt that men use language quite freely. Moreover, even when women out on their first dates, they often hear men talk incessantly about their achievements or their beliefs. But I don't believe this study answers the question of what happens at home in a heterosexual married couple, nor, for that matter, or the lunch tables at work--where men may be more inclined to talk about sports--and women about relationships--particularly when the subject matter is not task oriented, but related more to feelings or emotions. Because men have difficulty knowing how to process this type of communication, it feels to them more like "chatter," and they began to tune out. To the flip side of the chatterbox wife, of course, is the husband "who never listens."
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