From head to toe, men and women in our Western culture have entirely different repertoires of nonverbal cues. In fact, many nonverbals are absolutely taboo from one gender to the other. Someone near and dear must die before a man will cry and hug another man. Besides funerals and sports triumphs, there are few other occasions when males will touch each other in our culture, though in Europe you’re more apt to observe men kissing or hugging openly on the street. You’ll also never see men giggling or rushing at you with an excited, “Guess what I just did!” Few women, on the other hand, would ever dare undertake the aggressive, in-your-face stare-down. They’d also rarely point a finger in an accusatory fashion or shake a fist at another person, male or female. It’s just not done.
The differences between genders mean that each sex has its own private, tacit code. And unless we understand the code of the opposite sex, it makes it difficult to communicate fully with our family, friends, and colleagues. This can be all the more important at work, given that more women are in the workplace now than ever and many are still struggling to push past rigid stereotypes into senior positions. The kinds of miscommunication gaffes that Karen so unwittingly committed can easily impede career progress. And in families, the misreading of nonverbal cues can lead to conflict and even divorce. Once we become aware of the differences in nonverbal communication between men and women, we can take steps to properly decode the messages this unspoken information conveys.
Often people assume that with four decades of the Women’s Movement behind us, we’ve arrived. Haven’t we given enough attention to this gender problem at home and at work? Aren’t we beating a dead horse?
I’m here to tell you that with years of consciousness-raising, coupled with my work as a consultant and trainer in gender issues in corporate America, I can attest to the fact that old attitudes are pretty firmly entrenched. In fact, my audiences, large and small, still ask me the same few questions:
- How did men and women acquire their communication styles? Aren’t we just born that way; did we learn it? Is it nature or nurture?
- Which communication style is better, male or female?
- Is gender really that important in defining the way people interact with each other?
- Can men and women learn to change and adapt their styles? Haven’t we been this way forever? How do you expect us to change?
- Are there individual differences as well as gender differences?
- Who acts as though they’re responsible for effective gender communication, women or men?
- Haven’t things changed in gender relationships?
This last question is most telling.