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Right Words, Wrong Vocal Cues: Why Women Misunderstand Men

Men often feel misunderstood in these situations. Why?

Many men are not terribly adept at managing their vocal cues to communicate feelings. In fact, they may feel challenged and handicapped in this arena. It reminds me of when you admonish a child to apologize for a wrong behavior when he doesn’t want to do it. When you force it, the request for forgiveness comes out all wrong. He’ll shout, “I’m sorry!” in an angry voice and then run away. The words are there, but the tone conveys the opposite feeling. Similarly, women may not believe what men are saying when they express emotion or they may think their words lack commitment or authenticity.

Men often feel misunderstood in these situations. Why? Because they’re sending two messages. On the one hand, they’re conveying their feelings, but on the other, they feel uncomfortable doing so. As a consequence, they may be gruff when expressing an endearment, they may mutter a compliment or yell an apology. Although the right words may be there, the unfriendly vocal cues indicate the degree of discomfort they may feel in articulating sentiment.

Socialization may also be a factor here. Maybe boys did not receive enough reinforcement and practice in vocalizing as well as not being rewarded for expressing their feelings. Consequently, it can be awkward for boys and men to add the feeling dimension to their words. Research indicates that girls and boys grow up in what appears to be identical environments; however, they are nurtured in totally different social-emotional climates. In one study of three-month-old infants and their mothers, for instance, mothers talked more to their female babies and, consequently, the girls vocalized more in response to their mothers than mother-son pairs. These female infants actually got more practice talking than their male counterparts.

As they grow older, toddler boys may see that parents (particularly fathers) frown upon verbal play for them—it is not manly to talk to dolls or mimic mother’s speech, even though she is most frequently the adult speech model at home. Boys’ play centers around action rather than talk. What boy talks to his action figures? His toys (trucks, planes, cars, soldiers, Transformers) are for feats of bravery. Not surprisingly, some research shows that preschool boys use more sound effects like engine and motor noises in their speech than girls do. Vroom, Vroom.

On the other hand, girls’ playthings encourage interaction and verbalization rather than heroic action. Tea sets, stuffed animals, dress up clothes, dolls (especially those that talk such as “Chatty Cathy”), and play schools, all promote verbal interaction with playmates and the toys themselves.

Finally, women often feel intimidated by a man’s loud voice. It slams them. They back down, feel downright fearful, and shut up in response! Unfortunately, that may be just the result the booming man is looking for. This is a common tool bullies use! When faced with a loud blast, it’s important for women not to respond in kind. They need not be loud back. Rather, it’s best to remain assertive, calm, and steady in their vocal style with enough volume to be heard but not overpowering.

More from Audrey Nelson Ph.D.
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