Understanding the purpose and value of gender-specific styles can help us appreciate ourselves and our partner more fully.
I had an “aha” experience when I recognized that I talk very differently when I interact with my wife than when I’m talking to close male friends. When Carlin and I talk there’s a certain tension. Although we’ve learned to communicate better and better through the years, I feel like our interaction is more like speaking a second language, rather than what is natural to me. I sense the same is true for her as well.
When I overhear her talking with female friends on the phone, they seem to easily go back and forth talking, talking, talking. It seems to go on forever and doesn’t seem to have a point. When I talk to my friend Lanny and plan our next racquetball game it sounds like this:
Me: Hey, Lanny, we on for Tuesday.
Lanny: Yeah. Got it.
Me: See you then.
Lanny: Gonna kick your butt, my friend.
Me: Not a chance.
That’s it. Clean clear, quick and easy.
When I’m talking with a group of my buddies, we often joke, compete, and put each other down in playful ways. We can talk seriously, but there’s also a lot of playful competition as we let each other know…“I’m top dog. No, I’m top dog!”
I never really understood the difference until I read a book called Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently by John L. Locke, a linguistics professor at City University of New York. Although we often focus on difficulties in communicating between men and women, much less focus has been placed on same sex communication. Locke has found that the way we talk is not just driven by various cultural norms, but by deep seated, evolutionary-based, sex differences. “In birds and mammals, including the other primates,” says Locke, “sexually mature males are prone to contend with each other in highly public vocal displays that are aggressive or ‘agonistic’ in nature.”
He describes these male type communications as “duels.”
“In many primate species, sexually mature females have an equally strong disposition to affiliate with other females in more private and intimate circumstances,” says Locke.
He describes these female type communications as “duets.”
When men and women come together they often employ communication styles that are appropriate to their own sex and difficulties often arise. See if you recognize some of these male-type communication traits:
- They interrupt each other.
- They issue commands, threats, or boasts.
- They resist each other’s demands.
- They give information.
- They heckle.
- They tell jokes.
- They try to top another’s story.
- They insult or denigrate each other.
Likewise, consider these female-type communication traits:
- They agree with other speakers.
- They yield to other speakers.
- They acknowledge points made by other speakers.
- They try and be polite.
- They cooperate.
- They collaborate.
- They empathize.
- They listen.
Of course, as with all male/female differences, these aren’t totally separate categories. Many men communicate more towards the female style and many women more toward the male style. We don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that “all men communicate this way” and “all women communicate that way.”
However, these differences can help us accept our own gender-specific style and help us better understand the other sex. When my wife and I are having difficulties communicating, she often accuses me of interrupting her and not letting her finish her thought. I accuse her of taking too long to get to the point. Communication that is comfortable to me is either short and to the point, or rapid-fire back and forth that is familiar with my male friends.
Why Is This Important? Men are not aware of “women only talk” and women are not aware of “men only talk.” I’m never there when my wife is talking to her women friends alone and she’s never in my men’s group. As a result we each believe that real communication is the type we are familiar with and believe that communication would improve if only our partner would learn to listen and speak the way we do. Further, since women are generally more comfortable with verbal communication the female style has come to be viewed as “the right way to communicate.”
When men and women communicate, this discomfort may cause men to talk less and less and women assume men are not interested in “communicating.” Over the years this can cause serious problems in our health and well-being. Chronic communication problems can lead to stresses that are at the root of problems as diverse as attention deficit disorder and increased colds and flu.
Understanding the purpose and value of sex-specific styles can help us appreciate ourselves and our partner more fully. I’ll be talking about these and other critical issues in my Enlightened Marriage Master’s Class on May 14, 2016. Check it out here. If you have questions about communication and how to have real, lasting love in your relationship, I’ll be happy to answer them.
Photo: Getty Images