He Speaks, She Speaks

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

The Fight for Face Time: Is it a Gender Thing?

E-mail and voice mail are efficient, but face-to-face contact is still essential

Remember the days before email? How about voice mail? And how did you ever coordinate plans and find your way around without a cell phone? It’s hard to imagine life before we were tethered to technology. But there’s no getting around it: face-to-face communication is being replaced by technical forms of communication to a great extent, and this impacts how men and women communicate.

Similar to sex differences in linguistic patterns, women and men use email, the Internet, texting (a recent article in the New York Times claimed women text more than men), and other technology to communicate in different ways. For example, there is a lot of confusion in the style and interpretation of e-mail between men and women. If women want men to look at their e-mail and respond favorably, a closer look at these differences is crucial. The length, format, and style of the email can be a make-it-or-break-it with men. And whatever you do, don’t use emoticons when sending email to a man. We are hard pressed to think of an email we’ve received from a male colleague, co-worker, or vendor that had emoticons. And both of us receive emails daily from women clients and co-workers that employ emoticons.

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Another major concern is women’s familiarity with various technologies and their presence in the technical world. The Society of Women Engineers is a group I have been involved with for three decades. We know from their resources and research that women comprise a minority, approximately 20 percent, of computer science graduates and engineers. The major players of technology were founded and are led by men like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Who is the female equivalent?

A perfect illustration of this point is Ellen Spertus, who was described in a 2008 New York Times article called “What Has Driven Women out of Computer Science?” A graduate student at M.I.T., Spertus “wondered why the computer camp she had attended as a girl had a boy-girl ratio of six to one. And why were only 20 percent of computer science undergraduates at M.I.T. female?” In 1991 she authored a 124-page paper, “Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?”, that identified several cultural biases that inhibited young girls and women from selecting computer careers. According to the National Science Foundation, computer science has changed since then. Unfortunately, we have fewer women entering the field now. Also, many men prefer and rely more on email and technology. Men will often admit in my seminars that email has become a godsend. If you want to get through and talk to men so they will listen, you have to know what works.

From a gender communication standpoint, we have many factors to consider in our wired world. But first, consider a brief comparison between face-to-face and technological communication.

E-mail and voice mail are efficient, but face-to-face contact is still essential to true communication. According to Albert Mehrabian, a University of California Psychology professor, approximately 55 percent of communication occurs through body movement, such as facial expressions, posture, position, gestures, and eye contact. About 38 percent comes from vocal cues (pitch, tone, quality of voice, pauses, rate of speech, and sarcasm). Only 7 percent is words alone.

Now imagine what that means for email and voice mail. Potential communication problems between the sexes expound. They can be the evil twins that undermine our best attempts at communication.

At least voice mail provides vocal cues that add meaning to the words. Still, the hazard of misinterpretation compounds because of the lack of visual cues, not to mention the inability to ask follow-up questions, as in a phone conversation.

Audrey had an assistant who would save voice mails for her to hear instead of simply transcribing them so she could “get the full flavor of the message.” That is, she wanted Audrey to “hear” the frustration, disappointment, or satisfaction a client was relaying. Simply writing the message did not capture the essence of the message; there was more to the message than a summary of words.

Then along came email. With email, we lack the 55 percent body movements and 38 percent vocal cues to help us interpret the communication successfully. In many ways, email is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s efficient, it’s great for record-keeping, and it can save you time but we lose that critical face time that provides so much more information and helps us avoid miscommunication.

This was taken from Audrey's recently  co-authored book, Code Switching: How to Talk so Men will Listen (Alpha Books, 2009).

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

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