This article has been reprinted from Faith & Mission, Fall 1996, with permission from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Scripture teaches about the uniqueness of men and women. While created in the image of God with equality of worth and value, men and women are different by design and function. Gender differences are apparent physically and behaviorally. Men and women differ in the way they think, feel, act, and talk. In fact, one of the most striking differences between the sexes is the unique ways that men and women communicate.
In recent years, the communication styles of men and women have been studied scientifically. Linguists have documented these perceived differences. The primary purpose of these intensive investigations is not to determine which communicative style is best or to motivate others to change completely, but to identify differences for the purpose of understanding and adaptation. As men and women better recognize differences in communicative styles, they can work to improve their own communication with members of the opposite sex.
The general gender communication differences affect all men and women in every context. Whether Christian or non-Christian, churched or unchurched, men and women have unique ways of expressing their thoughts and feelings. At home and at the office, in marriage and in friendships, these differences are immediately apparent. The church, as a body of believers, male and female, is challenged by these differences in communicative style. The impact of these gender differences is experienced in informal conversations, Bible study classes, church committee meetings, counseling sessions, and pulpit preaching.
What is Genderlect?
In recent years, perhaps as women have entered the workplace in larger numbers, the obvious communicative style differences between men and women have been discussed publicly. Unique conversational styles have been observed and communicative conflicts have been encountered. As a result, linguists have begun to research gender communication.
The term genderlect has been coined to define the language of the sexes. Similar in form to the word "dialect" (the unique language of people in a specific geographical area), genderlect is "a variety of a language that is tied not to geography or to family background or to a role but to the speaker's sexual gender." Suzette Haden Elgin suggests communication techniques to combat gender style differences in her book entitled Genderspeak. Deborah Tannen, a well-respected linguistics professor and scholar, has conducted research and published books about gender communication including her national bestseller, You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation (Ballantine, 1990).
Genderflex, according to Judith C. Tingley in her book by the same title, is described as an active process: "to temporarily use communication behaviors typical of the other gender in order to increase potential for influence." Because of the natural differences in the way men and women communicate, temporary adaption to a different style of communication is necessary. The primary goal of this adjustment is effective communication with members of the opposite sex. Genderlect is heard in the context of the Christian community and genderflex is necessary for effective ministry together. These gender communication differences begin at very early ages.
When Does Gender Communication Develop?
Language and communication are considered learned behavior which develops through a combination of nature and nurture, genetic predisposition and environmental stimulation. As a result, gender communication differences emerge in early childhood. Children learn how to talk from their parents as well as their peers, often imitating their same-sex models.
In her book, You Just Don't Understand, Deborah Tanen asserts that "even if they grow up in the same neighborhood, on the same block, or in the same house, girls and boys grow up in different worlds or words." These gender differences in ways of talking have been observed in children as young as three years of age, about the time language is developed. While little girls talk to be liked; little boys often talk to boast. Little girls make requests; little boys make demands. Little girls speak to create harmony; little boys prolong conflict. Little girls talk more indirectly; little boys talk directly. Little girls talk more with words; little boys use more actions. While boys and girls both want to get their way, they use language differently to do so.
These communication differences are noted during same gender and opposite gender conversations, during one-on-one and small group interactions. Neither gender style is considered best, but obvious differences from childhood to adulthood should be understood and adapted. Parents, spouses, co-workers, and church members need to become aware of differences in gender communication.
Gender Communication Differences
Communication between men and women can be considered cross-cultural communication. People in different cultures speak different dialects. In fact, John Gray in his book, Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, suggests that men and women communicate in such different ways that they seem to be from different planets. There are numerous general differences that characterize gender communication.
Before clarifying some distinctives in gender communication, several basic assumptions must be accepted.
- Men and women do have different conversational styles.
- Both styles of communication are equally valid.
- The goal in gender communication is not change the style of communication but to adapt to the differences.
According to Tannen, men and women express themselves in different ways and for different reasons. Men use communication to maintain independence, while women talk to maintain intimacy. Whether conscious or unconscious, men often talk to establish status from others. Women use words to connect themselves emotionally, to express feelings, or build rapport. Men often share facts and figures as in a report. Tannen labels these communicative differences "rapport – talk and report – talk."
Research concludes that men talk more in public while women talk more in private. This conclusion is obvious when the purpose of male and female communication is understood. If men talk to establish status, most male conversation would inevitably occur in public, at the workplace. On the other hand, if women talk to establish intimacy, most female conversation would take place in private, at home.
Body language is also used differently by men and women. While women typically use nonverbal communication directly, men use it indirectly. Women stand in close proximity to each other, maintain eye contact, and gesture more frequently. Men hold their distance, rarely establish eye contact, and gestures less dramatically. Men and women also handle conflict differently. While women avoid conflict in order to insure closeness, men use conflict to gain status. These are just a few of the common differences in gender communication.
Men and women express gender communication differences in content, style, and structure. What do men and women talk about? Men often talk about sports, money, and business; women most often discuss people, feelings, and relationships. Why do men and women talk? Men often express themselves to fix a problem, converse for competition, and talk to resolve problems. Women most often express themselves to understand, converse to support, and talk to connect. How do men and women talk? Men typically use precise words, to the point, without descriptive details. Women are more detailed, apologetic, and vague.
Gender Communication and the Church
Differences in the way men and women communicate affect all relationships: husband-wife, father-daughter, mother-son, employer-employee, and pastor-member. In fact, gender communication differences are also obvious in the church. In hallway conversation, committee discussion, Bible study teaching, pulpit preaching, or pastoral counseling, men and women encounter gender style differences. Scripture challenges believers to communicate more effectively with each other. Men and women are to control their tongues (James 3:1-12) and speak only words of kindness (Eph. 4:29, 32). The Book of Proverbs discusses the importance of listening with understanding to others who speak (Prov. 11:12; 18:2, 13; 29:20). Jesus admonished His disciples to discuss conflict with a sinning brother (Matt. 1:15) and "love our neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39). Mature Christians realize that clear, loving, encouraging communication among His children is the desire of Christ's heart. Since gender will never change, Christian men and women must understand the conversational styles of the opposite sex.
Improving Communication Between Christian Men and Women
Once differences in gender communication have been identified, adjustments can be made to improve communication. While genderflex or genderspeak is not easy or automatic, Christian men and women can improve their communication as they consciously work on it. Here are several strategies for improving gender communication.
Become aware of your own communication style. Each person has a unique style of communication. Listen to your own speech. Evaluate your words, your tone of voice, and your body language. Compare your own communication style with that of individuals whom you judge to be effective communicators. Self-evaluation is an important first step in improving gender communication.
Pastor John Brown began to notice that he was much more comfortable greeting men of his church than the women. He realized that he could naturally talk about sports, work, or church business with the men though he could rarely think of something to say to the women. He began to work on his interaction with the ladies of his church. He tried to remember the names of their children and details of their lives so he could comfortably talk with the ladies about their families and important events. Pastor Brown improved his communication with the female members of his church by simply evaluating his own communicative style.
Understand the communication style of the opposite sex. You may be unfamiliar with the unique communication style of the other gender. Listen carefully to the opposite sex around you – your spouse, your child, your parent, and your friends. Make observations in their conversation. What do they say? How do they say it? When do they speak? Why do they speak? Discuss these conversational differences at an appropriate time, not when conflict arises. Try to determine if your perceptions are accurate. Then you are ready to make some changes in order to communicate more effectively with the opposite sex.
Bill Smith, the minister of education at a growing church, began to notice that the only lady on the finance committee never made a comment during the meetings. However, before and after the meetings, she talked freely with members about the committee's work. In fact, she had some unique perspectives and some good ideas. Bro. Smith decided to discuss his observations with her. She agreed that she was much more comfortable talking in private than in public. After some discussion, Bro. Smith encouraged her to share her thoughts with the committee. His understanding of her hesitancy to speak in front of the group led to improved communication among all members of the committee.
Adjust to those conversational styles. You may think it is impossible to change the way you communicate since you have been talking that way for years. Remember that communication is a learned behavior and behavior can be modified! If you tend to lecture or "report – talk", maybe you should work on better listening and discussing feelings not just facts. If you tend to speak in vague generalities, maybe you should work on more detail and specific information in your conversation. If your indirect body language is confusing your verbal message, maybe you should consciously work on gestures that clarify and confirm your words. Both men and women should work on improving their communication.
A successful pastor was struggling to stay in touch with his teenage daughter. During one rather heated conversation, in desperation he asked, "Why didn't you tell me?" His daughter's response was quite revealing. She said, "I did tell you. But you were to busy lecturing me to listen." After he apologized, he made the decision to listen first and to discuss the subject rather than immediately trying to solve her problem.
Alter your conversational style to fit the context. Effective communication is adapted appropriately to fit the setting. Some comments are best made in private while others can be shared in public. Some statements are appropriate for a group at church while others should be made to your best friend.
Mary Jones always had something to say in her couples Sunday School class. Whatever the topic, she always had a comment. She rarely answered a question, but typically expressed her opinion. One Sunday morning she noticed her classmates rolled their eyes as she raised her hand. Several members looked at each other and smiled. She realized that she was talking too much in Sunday School. The next Sunday Mary decided that she could only make one comment during class. She carefully evaluated her thoughts before talking and adapted her style of communication.
Don't assume that the opposite sex understands your message. Just because the message is clear to you does not mean that it is clear to the listener. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes in communication is assumption. It is always best to explain the message thoroughly than run the risk of being misunderstood.
One of the most common mistakes made by preachers today is filling a sermon with masculine illustrations. While it is easy for a preacher to relate stories about sports or work, care must be given to include some examples in a sermon that will be under- stood by women in the congregation. Effective preachers balance their sermons with supportive material that speaks clearly to the cross-section of people in the audience. Never assume that your message is completely understood by all.
Don't criticize others who communicate in a different way. It is a human tendency to think "my way is the best way." In the area of communication, remember that different conversational styles are not bad. Different is simply different. Accept the differences and adjust when needed.
In marriage, the husband and wife must understand each other's style of communication. While the husband may have no need to discuss his feelings about a specific situation, the wife may want to talk it out. A husband may want to confront conflict, while the wife may try to avoid it. When a husband comes home, he may sit in his recliner chair to relax, but his wife may want to talk about the day. Steps must be taken to improve communication between husband and wife without assigning blame. Be careful not to criticize the communicative style of your spouse or fail to meet your spouse's communicative needs.
Why is Gender Communication Important?
If the primary purpose of the church is to spread the gospel and the responsibiliy of each believer is to share a witness, then Christians must learn to effectively communicate His word with men and women. Gender communication is important in interpersonal interaction and public speaking. The gospel will not be spread, needs will not be met, and new believers will not grow spiritually unless Christian men and women improve their communication skills. The manner of communication can hinder an understanding of the content of the message. One's style of communication should never add a barrier to faith. Therefore, effort should be made to adapt to gender communication differences so the gospel will be clearly understood. It would be tragic for the Word of God to be muffled by the words of men.
Men and women can learn so much from each other if only the gender communication barriers can be broken. These barriers disappear with time, understanding, and effort. An investment of time is necessary to evaluate personal communicative style. Understanding is needed as different conversational styles are observed. Effort is expended when adjustments are made to improve interaction between men and women. However, these investments are worth it to the work of the Lord and relationships with others. Though life is busy and personal styles are comfortable, adaptation to gender communication promotes individual growth and corporate harmony in the Christian context.
For Further Study: Annotated Bibliography
Elign, Suzette Haden. Genderspeak: Men, Women and the Gentle Are of Verbal Self-Defense. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993.
An expert in applied psychology, Suzette Haden Elgin addresses the conflicts which plague the conversations of men and women. She suggests specific strategies for verbal confrontation and focuses especially on effective use of body language. This easy-to-read book includes techniques for personal and professional communication between the sexes.
Gray, John. Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.
Pop psychologist John Gray, has written and taught about the differences between men and women. He specifically addresses the different languages spoken by men and women, as if they were two foreign languages. He offers advice on how to promote better understanding and communication between the sexes.
Tannen, Deborah. Talking from 9 to 5: How Women's and Men's Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit and What Gets Done at Work. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1994.
Conversational style differences greatly impact the workplace. In her most recent popular release, Deborah Tannen focuses her research in gender communication on the working world context. Thrust, often without choice, into a particular office, people must learn to communicate effectively with members of the opposite sex in order to succeed in expressing ideas and survive in a competitive market. This book provides specific communication strategies for individuals and companies who face challenging interaction in competitive markets.
Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Ballantine Books, 1990.
This number one national bestseller book was written by a recognized scholar and professor of linguistics at Georgetown University to explore the equally valid but different conversational styles of men and women. Dr. Tannen reports her extensive studies in dialogue and cites numerous examples of gender communication differences. Her research is revealing and readable.
Tingley, Judith C. Genderflex: Men and Women Speaking Each Other's Language at Work. New York: AMACOM, 1993.
As a psychologist and corporate communications consultant, Judith Tingley has developed a process called "genderflex" which teaches temporary adaptation to a different style of communication. Initially, Tingley discusses the main communication differences between men and women. Later she proposes strategies for communicating more adaptively with others, especially in specific workplace situations.
1. Elign, Suzette Haden. Genderspeak: Men, Women, and the Gentle Art of Verbal Self- Defense. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993, p.22.
2. Tingley, Judith C. Genderflex: Men and Women Speaking Each Other's Language at Work. New York: AMACOM, 1993, p.16.
3. Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990, p.43.
4. Tannen, Deborah., p.76
5. Tingley, Judith. Genderflex: Men and Women Speaking Each Other's Language at Work. New York: AMACOM, 1993, p.22-28.