Gender and Communication

  • Communication is a dynamic process — it continuously changes, evolves, and moves on
  • Communication is systemic — it occurs in particular situations or systems that influence what and how we communicate and what meanings we attach to messages
  • Communication has two levels of meaning — the content or literal meaning and the relational level which defines each person’s relationship to one another
  • Meanings are created through human interaction with symbols — symbols are abstract, arbitrary, and ambiguous and require mediation and thought with interpretations

Martha tells George that she is worried about her friend. George gives a minimal response cue, saying only, “Oh.” To Martha, this suggests he isn’t interested, because women make and expect more of what Deborah Tannen (1986) calls “listening noises” to signal interest. Yet, if George operates according to norms of masculine speech communities, he is probably thinking that, if Martha wants to tell him something, she will. Masculine rules of speech assume people use talk to assert themselves (Bellinger & Gleason, 1982). Even without much encouragement, Martha continues by describing the tension in her friend’s marriage and her own desire to help. She says, “I feel so bad for Barbara, and I want to help her, but I don’t know what to do.” George then says, “It’s their problem, not yours. Just butt out.” At this, Martha explodes: “Who asked for your advice?” George is now completely confused. He thought Martha wanted advice, so he gave it. She is hurt that George didn’t tune into her feelings. Both are frusterated.

The problem is not so much what George and Martha say and don’t say. Rather, it’s how they interpret each other’s communication–actually, how they misinterpret it, because they fail to understand that each is operating by different rules of talk. George is respecting Martha’s independence by not pushing her to talk. When he thinks she wants advice, he offers it in an effort to help. Martha, on the other hand, wants comfort and a connection with George–that’s her purpose in talking with him. To her, George’s advice seems to dismiss her feelings. He doesn’t offer sympathy, because masculine rules for communication define this as condescending. Yet the feminine speech community in which Martha was socialize taught her that giving sympathy is a way to show support.

Talk about troubles or personal problems, is a kind of interaction in which hurt feelings may result from the contrast between most men’s and women’s rules of communication. Nancy might tell her partner, Craig, that she is feeling down becuase she did not get a job she wanted. In an effort to be supportive, Craig might respond by saying, “You shouldn’t feel bad. Lots of people don’t get jobs they want.” To Nancy this seems to dismiss her feelings–to belittle them by saying lots of people experience her situation. Yet within masculine speech communities, this is a way of showing respect for another by not assuming that she or he needs sympathy.

Now let’s turn the tables and see what happens when Craig feels troubled. When he meets Nancy, Craig is unusually quiet because he feels down about not getting a job offer. Sensing that something is wrong, Nancy tries to show interest by asking, “Are you okay? What’s bothering you?” Craig feels she is imposing and trying to get him to show a vulnerability he prefers to keep to himself. Nancy probes further to show she cares. As a result, he feels intruded on and withdraws further. Then Nancy feels shut out.

But perhaps Craig does decide to tell Nancy why he feels down. After hearing about his rejection letter, Nancy says, “I know how you feel. I felt so low when I didn’t get that position at Datanet.” She is matching experiences to show Crait that she understands his feelings and that he’s not alone. According to the communication rules that Craig learned in a masculine speech community, however, Nancy’s comment about her own experience is an effort to steal the center stage from him and focus on herself.

Julia Wood

Gendered Lives