He Speaks, She Speaks

A gender communication specialist unravels the mystery of how men and women communicate.

From the Crib to the Cubicle: Boys will be boys and girls will be girls!

From the Crib to the Cubicle: Boys will be boys and girls will be girls!

What are little boys made of?
Frogs and snails,
And puppy-dogs' tails;
That's what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice,
and all that's nice;
That's what little girls are made of.

Boys will be boys and girls will be girls! So the saying goes. Just like the characters in Dr. Seuss, thing one and thing two, any parent could imagine boys racing from room to room-creating havoc by tearing everything in sight apart! Let's contrast that with sugar and spice and everything nice. Are girls as rambunctious and defiant as boys? That is the question. We try to make sense of sex differences: what are they, how they came to be, and what implications they have as the underpinnings of what drives women's and men's communication. we will look at To uncover the mystery it is essential to examine some of the complex psychosocial, biological, hormonal and genetic factors that underlie every child's behavior.

BARBIE VERSUS G.I. JOE

Research and our own observations reveal certain behaviors develop in children without distinguishing between the ways that boys and girls differ in their expression. That's because some behaviors are universal. However, over time-and sometimes quite early on-we make distinctions between what we consider to be appropriate male and female behavior.

Take, for instance, tactile communication or touch. A parent's touch during infancy may establish the foundation for all other forms of communication the child later develops. Touch is vital to the recognition of symbols and speech. Infants receive more touch than they ever will in their later lives. Research indicates that the frequency and duration of touch among mothers and infants is at its peak when the child is between the ages of fourteen months and two years. Interestingly, however, female infants receive more touch and are encouraged to engage in touch more frequently than males. This suggests that as early as the first year, parents are socializing their children's tactile behavior to conform to the expectation of their eventual adult sex roles.

What is socialization? Children grow up with multiple systems: parent and child, child and siblings, child and peer group, child and school. A child's family system includes what people say and do in relation to her, what she says and does and how people around her respond. Every family system and society has rules or limits for how we should behave. In our society, for instance, we stop at red lights; wait (more or less) patiently in the checkout line for our turn without ramming the shoppers in front of us with our carts, and refrain from touching people we don't know. We abide by certain socially acceptable rules that we have imposed on ourselves, for our own good and that of others. That's how we create social order.

Children learn how boys and girls "should" act from the way their parents, siblings, caregivers, and teachers treat them; from their observations of adult behavior; through peer pressure; and from media exposure. And we care very much whether youngsters behave in the prescribed fashion. Every society forms certain expectations for each gender-men go off to fight in wars, women keep the home fires burning; men bring home the bacon, women fry it up. Of course, these expectations have evolved over the millennia and reflect our particular cultural biases, though some of them certainly have been changing. Marlo Thomas' beloved anthology and tape, Free to Be You and Me, originally published in the 1970s, directly challenges the childhood acquisition of restricted sex roles with stories and songs like, "Parents are People" ("Some Mommies are Doctors, Some Daddies are Chefs...") and "Ladies First."

Such forces for change notwithstanding, in our society, traditional masculine attributes include assertiveness, ambition, and independence. Sensitivity to others' feelings, the ability to express emotions, warmth, and passivity are considered traditionally feminine attributes. The way that coy behavior evolves among boys and girls is an excellent case in point. Girls continue to enact this kind of social peek-a-boo even at the age of four and five. They'll turn around and hug their mother's leg and either make eye contact and smile or for safety's sake, ask Mom to pick them up and hold them when encountering an unfamiliar adult.

Boys stop playing coy after about the age of two. They are beginning to learn that they should be strong, tough, and bold; that they should not acquiesce, not even to a stranger. Boys have been socialized out of this behavior because coyness is a traditional feminine attribute, not a masculine one. A five-year-old boy who persists in acting coy might be thought of as "painfully shy," "overly sensitive" or borderline "sissy."

These long-established expectations for behavior still remain, especially in the ways the genders behave toward each other nonverbally. In fact, these so-called sex roles-behavior that's specific to each gender-are so important, they are inculcated consciously and unconsciously even before birth.

I have my own gender laboratory at home. Alexandra is a 25 year graduate student and Armand is a 23 year old college senior. Her experience is that a week does not go by where some anecdote from school, a comment by a professor, coach, parents or friend reminds her and her children that sex role socialization is alive and well. As an example Alexandra joined a coed college crew team. They worked out on the Seattle waterways in the early mornings. At the onset of the first meeting the male coach remarked that they had girls on the team "to make the boat look pretty." When Armand was four presents another example of internalized or learned sex "appropriate" behaviors. Armand and I were at the store and when she reached for dark purple (not lavender!) socks to coordinate with a plaid jumpsuit, he shook his head and defiantly said, "No that is a girl's color! I won't wear those socks!" Where did he already learn that purple was a "girl's color"? Certainly I had been hyper vigilant not to incorporate sex type language with regards to clothing, toys, etc. Susan Gilbert, a reporter for the New York Times, claims "no child leaves childhood without being told that some toy or activity is for boys or for girls. Even if parents are careful not to use such labels, other adults in a child's life probably aren't."

Children are bombarded with subtle and not so subtle messages on a daily basis of what "maleness" and "femaleness" is and they begin to act out these messages verbally and nonverbally. We know that boys are more rigid than girls in their sex roles and in exhibiting the appropriate behavior. This strict adherence and lack of flexibility does not serve us well in the adult world. It is a challenge to change something that has become so ritualized, routine, and unconscious. If we can better understand the underpinnings and how these roots are established, we can start to change the ones that work against us.

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Audrey Nelson is an international corporate communication consultant, trainer, author, and keynote speaker.

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