Communication: The Male Perspective
In attempting to understand the differences in communication styles used by western women and men, it is useful to think of the two genders as having been raised in different cultures. The culture metaphor is helpful primarily because it provides a neutral stance from which to observe what is all too often a very emotion-laden topic. We care about communication between the sexes so much because so often it is very dysfunctional - in intimate relationships, but also in the workplace and community settings, too. Misunderstanding leads to hurt feelings and conflict and when emotions are high we tend to blame and judge, abandoning constructiveness in favor of self protection. A guiding metaphor such as the 'culture' metaphor offered here can preclude or diminish this tendency to throw up a wall and give up on trying to understand others of the opposite sex. Tremendous advances have been made in the last few decades in our acceptance of multiculturalism as a societal ideal: religious, ethnic, gender, and ideological differences have come to be seen as providing the vital raw material needed for the debates that make for a healthy democracy. And, more broadly, the coexistence of multiple cultures without oppression means a reduction in alienation - a universal good. Most Americans are much less likely now than even a few decades ago to accept the attitude that there is a superior culture against which all others are judged and into which non-members should be co-opted through homogenization. This broad shift toward unthreatened acceptance of cultural difference is what makes the 'different cultures' metaphor in the area of communication so useful: it can help men and women stay curious about the contrasts between them rather than judgmental.
When sociologists and psychologists observe social interactions between boys, they see that the predominant concern boys have is with autonomy. Autonomy is directly tied to the amount of power one has to resist being controlled by another boy, so the struggle for autonomy is played out in the arena of social status: who is up, who is down, and where does each boy stand in relation to each of the others in the social hierarchy. For boys, conversation is primarily a means for negotiating that status. Boys at the high end of the hierarchy will issue orders to those below them, often for the sole purpose of establishing their dominance; those boys will also use joking and put-downs for the same purpose. A more dominant boy will speak more in interactions and take direct control of the topic and tone of interactions with boys lower in the pecking order. Expression of emotion is seen as antithetical to personal power and is avoided in conversation and most other contexts by boys. In a nutshell, the culture of boys is driven by the desire to avoid, or at least mitigate, experiences of being humiliated by being pushed around by another. As boys grow into men, they bring this vital concern with them. In friendly conversation, men physically position themselves in parallel or at an angle to the other (not directly looking at each other), because direct eye contact and physical closeness are signals of attempts to physically intimidate/dominate another. Conversation is seen as a negotiation, at least at first: who will control the topic/agenda of this interaction or will control be shared? Men have a deeply embedded view that conversation is a 'purpose-driven' endeavor. When they were boys the purpose of conversation was to dominate or be dominated. As adults, men approach conversation warily, not wanting to feel dominated and preferring to minimize that danger by establishing the purpose of the conversation, accomplishing that purpose, and then ending the interaction. Thus, talking for the sake of talking is avoided in favor of conversations that have a purpose - usually information exchange - and when that purpose is accomplished the conversation simply terminates.
Coming soon: communication from the female perspective, and thoughts on establishing harmony between the fairly different gender communication cultures.