You might not know the term “gender speak,” but you experience it every time you converse with the opposite sex. It’s the difference in communication patterns for men and women. That means not only what we say, but the way we say it.
Gender speak is about our tone of voice, our inflection, and our body language. It includes eye movement, how close we stand, whether we interrupt, how we listen, even whether we ask many questions. Gender differences in communications cover a broad spectrum of habits and behaviors.
Unfortunately, these differences are the cause of much confusion. Each sex tends to interpret the communication of the other sex through their own gender filter. That changes the meaning and intent of the message. It shifts nuances.
In our personal relationships, most of us are accustomed to some of these communication differences. Over years together in a romantic relationship, we learn to navigate our different gender styles of talking. We KNOW there is a difference in our approaches.
In an office setting, however, we just aren’t as tuned in to each other. We’re in business mode, not let’s-all-try-to-understand-each-other mode. Often we react to what we think we heard, processing communications through our perceptions and patterns. We may see the body language and hear the words, but the meaning we give it is from OUR gender’s perspective. We think little about what the speaker intended, what they meant. That’s when things go sideways and communications suffer.
When a businessman notices his female business colleague asking many questions, he knows what it means—-to him. To him, she is uncertain and exhibits a lack of confidence. He loses respect for her and doubts her credibility. What he doesn’t know is asking lots of questions has a different meaning for her. It is a natural pattern of female conversation. To her and to other women, it has nothing to do with certainty. Yes, some questions are to clarify, but in general women ask questions to create connection. Women are socialized to connect, to pull others in and include them in conversation. Most women remain unaware their questions are costing them personal power and respect in the workplace.
Another female tendency is taking in a lot more peripheral information during conversation. Women notice manner of dress, body language, facial expressions, and even what’s going on in the background. Men focus more on a speaker’s content and don’t tend to notice or care about these same details. More often than not, men don’t make it a practice to read between the lines and try to read other’s non-verbal clues. For women, this is a sure sign of men’s indifference and lack of interest. For men, it’s the opposite meaning.
In each case, two interpretations of the same actions create two different perceptions, leading to potential misunderstandings and differing opinions on someone’s power, competence, and leadership skills. The challenges are especially apparent in a business setting because so much is unsaid and, unfortunately, politics play an important role in career success.
Here are just a few of the many communication differences among men and women:
Women tend to:
- End sentences with a raised inflection
- Rely heavily on non-verbal cues
- Nod their heads and smile to confirm their interest
- Use conversation to establish connection and intimacy
Men tend to:
- Speak in directives
- Focus more on content than non-verbal cues
- Consider it more polite to just listen and not confirm interest
- Use language to negotiate status and power
The important thing to remember is neither behavioral pattern is right or wrong, better or worse. They are just different, and unless we learn to “translate” gender communication styles, misunderstandings are bound to keep affecting our bottom line in business.
We will continue thinking we know what is being said, when in fact we are assigning a different meaning than our speaker intends. We will continue to make inaccurate judgments about each other’s personal skills, intentions, and needs.
If instead, we learn and understand gender speak and what it entails, we will be aware and informed of our gender communication differences. We’ll be able to check in and confirm with each other what meaning was intended. We’ll be aware there are differences and will be better prepared to deal with them, both at work and at home. We might even be able to laugh at them.
By learning what meaning both sexes give to the same habits, by learning what each sex needs from the other to feel heard and understood, we can bridge the gender gap and work better together with more understanding.
Think of your recent communications at work. Got any great stories to share about costly misunderstandings created by gender speak?