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Gender Differences in Communication: An Intercultural Experience

Argues that cross-gender communication qualifies as a form of intercultural communication and offers advice on how to develop effective intercultural communication skills when speaking across genders.

by Becky Michele Mulvaney
Department of Communication
Florida Atlantic University


A catalog which recently arrived at my house advertises T- shirts and bumperstickers popularizing the words of feminist scholars Cheris Kramarae & Paula Treichler: "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people."(1) Indeed, sometimes I think we've spent the last two millennia making that notion acceptable. Now, as the 20th century ends, we may be at the point of completing a first step for women--that first step has been a difficult, long-term struggle toward acceptance of women as people.

Yet history demonstrates that legal personhood does not necessarily result in comparable/equal treatment. That is, women, like so many other groups, have gained legal rights only to face less institutional, perhaps more subtle but insidious forms of discrimination. In this time when political, educational, and social discussions center on issues of diversity and of creating a constructive, multi-cultural society, it may be helpful to examine problems in communication between the genders as a cultural issue. This is not the only, the right, or the best way of examining gender and communication, but it does offer an alternative framework for analysis, one that perhaps defuses the potential for offensive and/or defensive posturing when discussing gender.

Hence, in this presentation I argue that it is both useful and appropriate to view gender communication as a form of intercultural communication. First, I offer a brief primer on gender differences in communication with primary emphasis on examples that illustrate how gender is both an influence on and a product of communication. In short, this discussion highlights the primary role played by communication in gender issues. Second, I offer descriptions of some salient elements of intercultural communication and I illustrate how gender communication is a form of intercultural communication. Finally, I will apply advice on how to develop effective intercultural communication skills to the situation of gender communication. During our discussion period, I hope that you, the audience (the true experts on gender communication issues and the librarian) will provide examples of problems and/or possible solutions related directly to the practicing librarian. Overview on Gender and Communication

Two assumptions from communication theory (both classical and contemporary theories) help situate my overview on gender and communication. First, communication is epistemic. That is, communication is the medium by which we come to know things (Protagoras argued that absolute truth was inaccessible to humans; hence, truth had to be established by human standards [doxa]. Similarly, contemporary rhetorical theorists argue that truth is socially constructed through language and other symbol systems).(2) For example, it was through scientific discourse (rhetoric) that people came to view the universe as earth- centered. Human acceptance of this narrative was so strong that Galileo, in positing that the universe is sun-centered, was placed under house arrest.

My second assumption about communication is that it is axiological. That is, communication is value-laden. Virtually all communication theorists agree that language is subjective. All communication makes claims and takes stances. And some theorists, such as Weaver, Eubanks, and Winterowd would argue that no language is neutral.(3) Indeed, any use of communication exhibits an attitude, and an attitude implies an act, and all human actions have moral consequences. Hence, communication entails moral repsonsibility.

The significance of communication practices in shaping our lives is no less important in the arena of gender and communication. In fact, Laurie Arliss argues that "communication is thought to be, at once, the process by which we learn to be male or female, and the product of our attempts to behave sex appropriately."(4) In describing feminist criticism, rhetorical critic Sonja Foss posits that "Its focus is on a fundamental element of human life--gender--and it is dramatically changing the form and content of knowledge about rhetoric."(5) That is, gender is both an influence on and a product of communication. Let me provide a few illustrations.

From a very early age, males and females are taught different linguistic practices. Communicative behaviors that are acceptable for boys, for example, may be considered completely inappropriate for girls. Hence, the body of research on women and language reveals that women experience linguistic discrimination in two ways: in the way they are taught to use language, and in the way general language usage treats them.(6) So, for example, women reflect their role in the social order by adopting linguistic practices such as using tag questions, qualifiers, and fillers to soften their messages. Likewise, traditionally women were identified by their association with men, and we know that occupational titles indicated which jobs were "for men" and which were "for women." While much of this has changed today, our society retains a tendency to imply that maleness, after all, is the standard for normalcy (a female physician may still be referred to as a "woman doctor," and while a female committee chair may be called the "chair" or the "chairperson," a male in that role will more likely be called "chairman").(7) What we are taught about gender, then, is reflected in our language usage.

Communicative practices not only reflect notions about gender, but they also create cultural concepts of gender. Message sources privileged by society as legitimate knowledge generators create a web of socially compelling discourses. Thus, religious, mythic, philosophic, and scientific discourses teach us, among other things, about society's values and rules related to gender. It is no accident, then, that American myths focus on the active male and the supporting female, or that Plato defined women as "lesser men," or that Aristotle described women as "a deformity, a misbegotten male," or that St. Thomas Aquinas argued that god should not have created women, or that craniologists of the nineteenth century argued that women's smaller heads justified their subordinate position in society (thus initiating all the "pretty little head" rhetoric about women), or that Freud believed women had "little sense of justice," and so on.(8)

The rhetorical force of myths in constructing powerful worldviews is, frankly, awesome. As Eward Said explained: There are no innocent, no unideological myths, just as there are no "natural" myths. Every myth is a manufactured object, and it is the inherent bad faith of a myth to seem, or rather to pretend, to be a fact.(9)

Similarly, religious myths seem to be especially potent narrative forms of rhetoric. Religion "legitimates so effectively because it relates the precarious reality constructions of empirical societies with ultimate reality."(10) All these privileged discourses, I would argue, create a web of meaning, a socially constructed worldview that historically has excluded or made secondary the experience of certain groups of people.

In addition, mass mediated messages offer the most contemporary, powerful, technologically and rhetorically sophisticated strategies for shaping cultural reality. The beauty, diet, and advertising industries are the most obvious, best researched examples of contemporary, self-conscious myth-makers who control cultural concepts (and acceptable images) of gender (of what it takes and means to be male or female, masculine or feminine).(11) Consider the myriad of mass mediated communication forms available now, as we enter the twenty-first century--from the now simplistic printing press to the information superhighway and beyond. The opportunities for generating (and receiving) mass mediated messages is staggering. So too is the opportunity for abuse.

Communication, then, is of central concern when addressing gender issues. Rhetorical messages in large part determine what we consider knowledge, what knowledge we privilege, and what values we espouse. Furthermore, the role of culture in communication practices directs us to an intercultural perspective on gender and communication.

Intercultural Communication

Intercultural communication, defined by Richard Porter and Larry Samovar as occurring "whenever a message producer is a member of one culture and a message receiver is a member of another," has been of interest to communication scholars since the 1960s.(12) Literature on intercultural communication often includes discussion of subcultures ("a racial, ethnic, regional, economic, or social community exhibiting characteristic patterns of behavior sufficient to distinguish it from others within an embracing culture or society") or cocultures (an alternative term for subcultures adopted by Judy Pearson so as not to imply inferiority in relation to the dominant society).(13) Pearson defines co-cultures as "groups of persons united by a common element who live in a culture operating within a dominant culture."(14) Communication practices by and about women clearly fit definitions of both subcultures and co- cultures. Furthermore, communication between the sub or co- culture and the dominant culture represents a form of intercultural communication. Scholars in this area often begin their discussions by identifying the main characteristics of intercultural communication. For example, Samovar and Porter identify what they call the "constituent parts of intercultural communication." (15) Dorothy Penington calls such elements "significant cultural components."(16) For the purposes of illustration, I will describe three elements of intercultural communication common to most discussions. Then, I will provide examples from gender communication to demonstrate how the intercultural communication framework is useful to us.

Worldview, language, and nonverbal communication (particularly the use of space and/or time) are often identified as important elements of intercultural communication. Worldview refers to a "culture's orientation toward such things as God, humanity, nature, the universe, and the other philosophical issues that are concerned with the concept of being."(17) An example often used is a comparison between Euro-American and Native American relationships to nature. While the Native American views the human relationship to nature as one of unity (being at one with nature), the Euro-American views the world as human-centered. Rhetorical forms such as religious, philosophical, and scientific discourses work to create a coherent world view for a culture.

Language is another significant element of intercultural communication.

Language is the medium through which a culture expresses its world view. . . . Like culture in general, language is learned and it serves to convey thoughts; in additionit transmits values, beliefs, perceptions, norms, and so on.(18)

The importance of language to intercultural communication is most obvious when cultures speak different languages. Yet, differences in meaning across culture can be just as significant when each culture uses the same language. If a British native tells her American friend to put the bags in the boot, the American may not know to place them in the trunk of the car. While this is an obvious example, Porter and Samovar point out that

Objects, events, experiences, and feelings have a particular label or name solely because a community of people have arbitrarily decided to so name them.

Language serves both as a mechanism for communication and as a guide to social reality.(19)

Finally, nonverbal communicative behavior, such as concepts of time or the use of space, differ widely from culture to culture. For example, proxemics, the study of "the way in which people use space as a part of interpersonal communication," recognizes that "people of different cultures do have different ways in which they relate to one another spatially."(20) Furthermore, the use of space helps define social relationships and social hierarchies.(21) A father traditionally sits at the head of the table in Western cultures, thus signifying his primary role in patriarchal societies. Similarly, we all know that a supervisor will exhibit a more relaxed posture than a subordinate, or that Arabs stand very close when conversing. Worldview, language usage, and proxemics are three constituents of intercultural communication which we can easily apply to communication between the genders (I believe other constituents could easily be applied as well, but I will focus on three typical elements due to time constraints). Gender Communication as Intercultural Communication

The constituents of intercultural communication as identified by scholars such as Porter, Samovar, and Penington are points at which significant differences may occur in communication patterns, habits, and traditions across cultures. Occurrences of differences at these points suggest we are dealing with intercultural communication. Differences in worldview, language usage, and proxemics between the genders are three points of difference which suggest that gender communication is a form of intercultural communication.

Although explanations vary widely, many feminist scholars have described the female worldview as significantly different from the male worldview. Carol Gilligan, arguing from a psychological perspective, states that "female identity revolves around interconnectedness and relationship." Conversely, she argues that male identity "stresses separation and independence."(22) And many feminist scholars, in examining the current and historical roles of women in religion, have resurrected religious practices which predate Judeo-Christian traditions and which better speak to notions of spirituality that reflect female experiences. Hence, in describing ancient goddess religions as well as contemporary practices of them, scholars note that in goddess mythology the goddess is the world (instead of a mythology which places god above or apart from the world).(23) Goddess metaphysics, if you will, creates a worldview in which the earth and nature are respected, not dominated. So, differences between female and male worldviews, like differences between Asian and American worldviews or European and Native American worldviews, may significantly affect communication.

In fact, it is difficult to discuss differences in worldviews without talking about language, since our view of the world is expressed through language and other symbol systems. Deborah Tannen, in her book You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Communication, argues that "communication between men and women can be like cross cultural communication, prey to a clash of conversational styles."(24) This is due, at least in part, to differences in the way men and women generally look at the world. Therefore, it is no coincidence that women see talk as the essence of a relationship while men use talk to exert control, preserve independence, and enhance status.(25) The ways in which concepts of social relationships (and their accompanying communication patterns) differ between genders are parallel to gender differences in worldview.

Language also reflects differences in social status between genders. Research on gender and language reveals that female language strategies invariably emulate the subordinate, nonaggressive role of women in Western society. And, language about women does no better, as suggested earlier in this paper.

Differences in language usage and worldview are woven together and difficult to separate. And, nonverbal behavior is another form of "language" which demonstrates differences between men and women. Our earlier example of proxemics offers considerable evidence that gender communication is a form of intercultural communication.

"Space is a primary means by which a culture designates who is important, who has privilege."(26) Differences in the amount of space given to and taken by women and men reflect societal gender roles. So, women are less likely than men to have their own private space within the family home. And, in the workplace, employees in the traditionally female role, secretary, generally have a smaller space than the employee in the traditionally male role, executive.(27) Responses to invasion of space also differ between men and women. While men may respond aggressively, women tend to yield space rather than challenge the intruder.(28) These are but a few examples of the ways in which differences in communication between the genders fit categories of primary elements in intercultural communication. The point is that these differences can create problems in communication. Julia Wood devotes a whole chapter of her book Gendered Lives to the ways in which these problems are manifest in the educational system. We might assume too that the same problems are likely to visit the university library as well. An abridged list of the concerns Woods discusses includes issues familiar to us all: lack of female role models, curricular content which misrepresents white men as standard and renders women invisible, biased communication in the classroom (in both student-faculty and student-counselor communication women are not taken seriously).(29)

Woods, at the end of her chapter on gender and communication in the school setting, calls for programs which would increase sensitivity to gender.(30) But she fails to provide specific advice. By looking at these problems via the intercultural communication perspective, we can outline specific behaviors which may improve communication between genders. Guidelines for Improving Communication Between the Genders

In intercultural communication, identifying problem areas can also help us learn to avoid them. These problem areas can be applied to gender communication as well. Laray Barna identifies six stumbling blocks in intercultural communication: (1) assumed similarity, (2) language, (3) nonverbal misinterpretations, (4) preconceptions and stereotypes, (5) tendency to evaluate, and (6) high anxiety.(31)

This last stumbling block, high anxiety, occurs when people are completely separated from their own culture, and usually does not apply to gender communication (except, perhaps, in overtly abusive situations or highly sex-segregated societies). Awareness of the other five stumbling blocks, however, can be useful in improving our gender communication.

By learning not to assume that men and women are the same, we can become more sensitive to the fact that men and women's values and goals may differ, and generally their verbal and nonverbal language will vary as well. Conversely, awareness of societal preconceptions and stereotypes which portray the other sex as "different," or "opposite," can help us avoid such stereotypes. That is, although there may be cultural differences between the sexes, it is not productive to assume that all men love sports anymore than it is contructive to assume that all Irish consume extraordinary amounts of alcohol.

The tendency to evaluate another's culture as inferior to our own is perhaps the most difficult stumbling block to avoid, especially when applying it to gender communication. So, instead of becoming annoyed by a male's aggressive communication style, we should recognize that it is a style which is as much a part of his identity as an ethnic cuisine or a religious tradition is part of a culture. The task in improving intercultural communication is awareness and respect rather than evaluation. Conclusion

In this presentation, I hope to have offered an overview of the signicant role communication plays in contemporary gender issues. Furthermore, the communication perspective allows us to examine gender communication as a form of intercultural communication. Guidelines from the discipline of intercultural communication, I believe, may be useful in improving gender communication in the library setting. I hope that in our discussion period we may explore some of the ways in which the librarian may apply these guidelines.


(1) Northern Sun Merchandising: Products For The Progressive (Minneapolis, Minn., Spring/Summer, 1994). Kramarae and Treichler are communication scholars best known for writing A Feminist Dictionary (London: Pandora Press, 1985).

(2) See Ann Gill, Rhetoric and Human Understanding (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland, 1994), pp. 45, 95-99; 109-201.

(3) Gill, pp. 51-52; Ross W. Winterowd, Rhetoric: A Synthesis (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1968), p. 1; Richard Weaver, "Language is Sermonic," in The Rhetoric of Western Thought, eds. James Golden, et al (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1976), pp. 147-154.

(4) Laurie P. Arliss, Gender Communication (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991), p. 10.

(5) Sonja K. Foss, Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland, 1989), p. 151.

(6) See Robin Lakoff's groundbreaking book Language and Women's Place (New York: Harper & Row, 1975). See also a review of more recent research in Arliss, pp. 12-26.

(7) Arliss, pp. 32-33.

(8) Plato, Republic, Book V, quoted in Martha Lee Osborne, ed., Women in Western Thought (New York: Random House, 1979), pp. 15-16. Aristotle, Metaphysics, quoted in Rosalind Miles, The Women's History of the World (Topsfield, MA: Salem House, 1989), p. 57. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, quoted in Osborne, p. 68. Carol Tavris and Carol Wade, The Longest War: Sex Differences in Perspective (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), p. 14. Excerpt from Freud's letter to Martha Bernays, quoted in Miles, p. 222.

(9) Edward Said, "Orientalism and The October War: The Shattered Myths," in Arabs in America, Myths and Realities, eds. Baha abu-Laban & Faith T. Zeadey (Illinois: The Medina University Press, 1986), p. 83.

(10) Peter Berger and Hansfried Kellner, Sociology Reinterpreted: An Essay on Method and Vocation (New York: Anchor Books, 1981), pp. 84-90.

(11) See, for example, Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (New York: William Morrow, 1991), and Jean Kilbourne, Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women (Cambridge Documentary Films, Inc., 1979).

(12) Richard Porter and Larry Samovar, "Approaching Intercultural Communication," in Intercultural Communication: A Reader, 4th ed., eds. Samovar and Porter (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1985), p. 15.

(13) Porter and Samovar, p. 20.

(14) Judy Cornelia Pearson and Paul Edward Nelson Understanding and Sharing: An Introduction to Speech Communication, 6th ed. (WCB Brown & Benchmark, 1994), p. 192.

(15) Porter and Samovar (p. 24) identify the following "constituent parts": perception (including beliefs, values, attitudes, worldview, and social organization), verbal processes (including verbal language and patterns of thought), and nonverbal processes (including nonverbal behavior in general as well as concepts of time and use of space).

(16) Dorothy L. Penington, "Intercultural Communication," in Larry A. Samovar and Richard E. Porter, eds., Intercultural Communication: A Reader, 4th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1985), pp. 31-36. Penington includes in her list of components the following: existential worldview, cosmology, ontology, language, symbol systems, schemas, beliefs, attitudes, values, temporality, space (proxemics), religion, myths, expressive forms, social relationships, communication networks, and interpolative patterns.

(17) Porter and Samovar, p. 26.

(18) Penington, p. 33.

(19) Porter and Samovar, p. 27.

(20) Porter and Samovar, p. 29.

(21) Porter and Samovar, p. 29.

(22) Diana K. Ivy and Phil Backlund, Exploring GenderSpeak: Personal Effectiveness in Gender Communication (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), p. 57.

(23) Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: The Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), pp. 1-16. See also, Carol P. Christ, "Why Women Need the Goddess: Phenomenological, Psychological, and Political Reflections," in Women and Values: Readings in Recent Feminist Philosophy, ed. Marilyn Pearsall (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1986), pp. 211-219.

(24) Deborah Tannen, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Communication (New York: William Morrow, 1990), p. 42.

(25) Julia T. Wood, Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1994), pp. 141-143.

(26) Wood, p. 160.

(27) Wood, p. 161.

(28) Wood, p. 162.

(29) Wood, pp. 206-229.

(30) Wood, pp. 227-228.

(31) Laray M. Barna, "Stumbling Blocks in Intercultural Communication," in Intercultural Communication: A Reader, 4th ed., eds. Larry A. Samovar & Richard E. Porter (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1985), pp. 330-338.

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Copyright 1994 by Becky Mulvaney

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Contributors : Becky Michele Mulvaney
Last modified 2005-02-11 11:26 PM

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