Gender differences in communication styles.

Notes for discussion by Walter vom Saal

Below are summaries of two books that claim there are significant and consistent differences in communication styles between men and women. One is a popular book for the general public; the second is more professionally oriented and based on research. It is interesting how much overlap there is in the views of these two authors.

Gray, John (1992). Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus: a practical guide for improving communication and getting what you want in relationships. New York: HarperCollins.

This book was a best seller in 1995; it is entertaining and easy to read. The author argues that men and women are “from different planets”: they have different needs, goals, values, and communication styles. He claims that understanding these differences is the key to successful relationships. Differences include:

- when talking about a problem, women want empathy and understanding but men offer solutions.

- a woman’s sense of self is defined through her feelings and the quality of her relationships; a man’s sense of self is defined through his ability to achieve results.

- women are relationship oriented; men are goal oriented.

- mistakes women and men make in conversations: a woman follows her natural tendency to offer unsolicited advice, but the man sees it as questioning his competence and ability; a man follows his natural tendency to offer solutions, but the woman sees it as invalidating her feelings.

- women cope with stress by reaching out and talking; men cope with stress by withdrawing (Chapter 3: “men go to their caves and women talk").

- women want to feel cherished; men want to feel needed.

- women want respect and devotion; men want appreciation and admiration.

Tannen, Deborah (1990). You just don’t understand: women and men in conversation. New York: Ballantine Books (paperback).

This book is an easy-to-read description of the ways women and men miscommunicate because of their “different words and different worlds.” Summary:

live in a world of status live in a world of connections
conversations are negotiations for power conversations are negotiations for closeness
want to preserve independence
want to preserve intimacy
seek to win, avoid failure
seek closeness, avoid isolation
avoid taking orders (since that means low status and loss of independence)
ok with taking orders (if it is perceived as forming a connection)
seek control
seek understanding
prefer inequality and asymmetry
prefer equality and symmetry
are adversarial (with conflicting goals)
are synergistic (with common goals)
value differences
value similarities
goal of conversation: transmit information
goal of conversation: maintain interaction
offer advice
seek connection and understanding


Although these two authors suggest a general agreement on ways in which men and women differ, not everyone agrees with them. In particular, it is critical to understand that even if there may be average tendencies in the directions they suggest, these generalizations certainly do not apply to all men and all women. There are certainly some men who would fit the communication characteristics described here as common to women, and there are certainly some women who would fit the characteristics described here as common to men. As in other characteristics we have discussed in this course, it may be more useful to understand that different people may have different ways of communicating, than to assume that all women communicate one way and all men communicate another way.