He Speaks, She Speaks

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

The Strong Silent Type: The male advantage

Using silence to exhibit control

Consider the late actors John Wayne and Gary Cooper. They were the epitome of what we call "the strong silent type" - men who convey their resolve and power through a sturdy, deliberate silence. Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter, Wall Street Journal columnist, and Fox News political analyst made this point when she said there is much that women can learn from studying men, from watching how they proceed through the world. "I admire and have often been instructed by the strong silence of men," she said. "They're silent not because they have nothing to say, but because they don't have to fill up the air with words. They don't need to be looked at to dominate. They already dominate, just by looking at themselves, but they're serene about it. Other people wonder what silent people are thinking and respect their silence."

Men often use silence to be in charge and collect their thoughts. They rely on it like they do the masked face. Silence exhibits control. You know the image: "You can stand on your head, but I will say nothing. I will not let you in and better yet, I will throw you off balance by my silence. I am in control. I have the power!" Employed in this way, silence can be as earsplitting as shrieking.

Of course, as with all nonverbal communication, in the proper context silence can be most effective. But it may also be detrimental, making men appear distant even when they don't want to be.  In The Right Words at the Right Time, the famous architect Frank Gehry explained how his silence got him into trouble in his group therapy. For two years, Gehry attended these twice-weekly meetings with other talented business people, writers, and artists, but shy by nature, he never uttered a word! Finally the group turned on him. "They said things that stunned me," he wrote in his autobiography. "They attacked me....saying who did I think I was, sitting there, never talking, judging them, withholding."

Men risk being misinterpreted by their silence. As I have observed in corporate America, its source could be the desire to maintain power and control. Or, as in the great architect's case, it could simply be that they are shy or uncomfortable in a situation that requires the emotional sharing of feelings.  Unfortunately, Frank Gehry realized that he was also giving the same aloof impression to his clients: "Projects were falling through not because people did not like my work but because they were uncomfortable with me." Simply put, Gehry's quietness hurt his ability to engage with his clients successfully.

This is not to say that men don't talk - of course they do. And their paralinguistic cues can convey credibility-they have the edge in the authority department! Deep voices and loudness - male attributes - have been associated with a lack of nervousness or anxiety-even confidence and boldness. Such strong, certain voices are respected. In fact, a woman at one of my seminars remarked, "How is it that men sound like they always know what they're talking about even when you know they don't?"  However, just like women, men must walk the vocal cue tightrope in certain contexts. If a man seems so sure of himself, is there room for anyone else's opinion? "Sounds like Jim has already made up his mind.  What's the point of adding my two cents?" 

Besides, men can speak volumes when they need to, using vocal variations (some feminine) when they contribute to persuasion.  President Bill Clinton was quite skilled in the use of paralinguistics. According to communication expert Maureen C. Minielli, "He is an eloquent public speaker who appreciates the power of language and is not afraid to use it. He often speaks with passion and is comfortable expressing emotion. Clinton is not only well versed in the use of language but he is also a master of rhythm and cadence as well." 

Men also use volume in their speech to command attention and authority. They may talk over others by growing louder to keep the floor and squelch other speakers. Whoever can get the floor and keep it usually has the power and control in a conversation.

I witnessed this phenomenon when I was a consultant to a committee that was in charge of constructing a major addition to our local university. The female architect spoke very softly, but the contractors, building inspectors, plumbers, and electricians on the job were primarily used to a male-dominated culture in which whoever spoke the loudest was king. On a walk-through of a building with the men, I noticed that whenever Jodie attempted to get the floor, half the guys never even knew she was speaking! I suggested to her that she not only speak louder, but also manipulate other nonverbals to get the men's attention. "Why don't you stop in your tracks and say, 'Hey wait a minute! I am concerned this won't pass structurally...'" I offered.  It took a lot of work, but that's what Jodie had to do to command the floor. This was her project!

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

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