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University of Wyoming Extension

College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

LIFE - Individual Growth and Development

Talking Between Genders

Males and females may not be on two different planets…but they sometimes find it difficult to share common ground here on earth. In some ways the "opposite sex" often has very different growing up experiences and priorities which lead him or her to see, hear, and speak from a different point of view. Perhaps more important, males and females have much in common as human beings, partners, and friends. Appreciating typical differences in perspective--without overgeneralizing--and learning skills to communicate more effectively--especially when both partners learn--are keys to more satisfying relationships.

Typical Gender-Stereotyped Patterns

Males and females tend to have different patterns or values in communication which set up the relationship for misunderstanding. It's important to remember that the descriptions are not exclusive to each gender--you may find instances in which the typical "male" pattern fits the female or fits both partners (that has its own problems). Certain situations also lead to differences in perspective (i.e., career-oriented women with home-based spouses may reflect non-stereotypical patterns of status and affiliation). Again, differences do not spell disaster. It's how differences are handled that best predicts relationship satisfaction.

Pattern #1: Status vs. Affiliation

Men tend to be more

Status-oriented--concerned with place in the hierarchy, which provides a reward for achievements and access to future rewards (who's #1, what's my reputation)

  • Traditionally, much responsibility and achievement is expected of men 
  • Many men say that respect is their greatest need in relationships--connection with others is seen in terms of their regard first; affection or emotional disclosure follows respect

Women tend to be more

Affiliation-oriented--concerned with emotional connections and building relationships, which provides a basis for disclosure and support (talking, caring)

  • Typically, women create and maintain communication and support within the family 
  • Many women say that sharing of stories involving emotions or values is their greatest need in relationships--connection with others is seen in terms of talking and listening, which becomes the basis for respect

Pattern #2: Independence vs. Intimacy-seeking

Men tend to be

Independence-seeking--insisting on personal space for decisions and action, joining and relating as a personal choice ("I'm my own man")

  • Men are more likely to welcome relationships so long as they allow or foster individual freedom and fit with their sense of identity 
  • Many men see relationships as a base from which to engage the world (work, friends, recreation) rather than as a haven from the world

Women tend to be

Intimacy-seeking--requiring closeness and self-disclosure which establish and maintain close connections is a part of identity ("It’s our life together")

  • Sharing feelings is viewed as a sign of trust, not weakness 
  • Nurturing and caregiving traditions continue to be prominent in girls' play and more typical of females in competitive sports--this priority and process of connecting provides rehearsal of interpersonal themes and skills

Pattern #3: Reason-focused vs Feeling-focused

Men tend to be

Reason-focused--preference for cognitive problem-solving and sharing facts in analysis ("I'll figure it out…explain it to you")

  • Men tend to view events and relationships from a more abstract--"objective"--viewpoint. Analysis typically outweighs intuition. 
  • Men can be irrational and arbitrary in spite of their inclination to analyze. In fact, inability to empathize or process personal feelings such as fear and anger may be major barriers to "thinking straight." Accepting feedback and patience in working through these issues may free up problem solving skills in a broader, more dynamic framework.

Women tend to be

Feeling-focused--attending to affective concerns, sharing troubles or feelings requiring closeness and self-disclosure which establish and maintain close connections as a part of identity ("It’s our life together")

  • Women's involvement in nurturing tends to make them more aware of their own and others' experience. 
  • Women may feel so strongly or focus intuition to such an extent that feeling dominates, rather than informs problem-solving

Keys to Differences (where they occur):

Women and men…

  1. Learn to see and value events and emotions differently; Some things are just more important to one than to the other (which doesn't make them right or wrong)
  2. Different viewpoints are reflected in conversation: Men and women often mean different things when they say the same thing.
  3. Awareness of typical differences (balanced with not stereotyping) can aid understanding, conversation, relationship-building: "Tune in" to yourself and accept the other as she/he is.

Exercises

Think back upon events you have shared together. While it's not great to focus on the negative, memories of conflicts and misunderstandings often illustrate gender stereotypes in communication. Consider how and how well the descriptions above fit the partners and the situations which created tensions and conflict. How could each of you learn from the other's perspective and skills, thus finding common ground and greater satisfaction. Talk about a small segment of a conflict--how did thoughts, feelings, responses begin to snowball out of proportion and what could each of you have done--perhaps contrary to your training or nature--to slow and reverse the negative exchange?

Source: Deborah Tannen. (1990). You just don't understand. New York: Ballentine.

Developed by Ben Silliman, University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service, Family Life Specialist

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