Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Gender Communication: It’s Complicated

Most of us don’t try to make life difficult for the opposite sex

Although men and women often misunderstand each other, most of us don’t try to make life difficult for the opposite sex. However, we often mistake and misinterpret each other’s actions, words, and feelings. In her book, In a Different Voice (1982), Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan described the problem by claiming that “men and women may speak different languages that they assume are the same . . . creating misunderstandings which impede communication and limit the potential for cooperation” But suggesting that gender communication is problematic is not to imply that all gender communication centers around problems; rather, simply put, it is complicated. Just the act of communication is a multifaceted process. Add gender to the equation and it becomes more complex. Research in psychology, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology demonstrates that sex differences in communication are real. We experience them every day at work and home.

123RF purchase
Source: 123RF purchase

Women and men can be perceived as members of two distinct and separate subcultures within a larger, more general culture. Each subculture has a set of rules, beliefs, behavioral expectations, and verbal and nonverbal symbols. For both men and women, language and nonverbal cues receive reinforcements for employing expected communication styles and sanctions if they should venture into the other’s territory. For example, most can fill in the blank: Big boys don’t (cry), take it like a (man), and boys will be (boys).

In addition, this is not about sexuality. Sex is your biological determination and an unchangeable fact at birth (although in adulthood, some people decide to change their sex). Gender refers to and is created through communication; gender is learned communication behaviors. Many people think biological sex and constructed gender is the same thing. They are not. Bate (1992) distinguishes sex as referring to biologically determined, innate features and treated as permanent fact. She describes gender as socially learned behaviors, treated as behavioral ideals to achieve and prescribe.

Gender issues in communication begin at birth and are part of your life until you die. They never go away. For example, we know that before you draw your first breath, discussions have taken place indicating a preference for one sex or the other. The color and design of the nursery is gender specific and now the stage is set. As early as two to three years old, children learn their sex and the attending gender expectations. Only for a brief time do children engage in mixed-gender play and dress before they relinquish the gender behavior of the other sex. A boy insists on wearing barrettes in his hair and a girl refuses to wear a dress or her black patent shoes. It’s Barbie and play makeup for her and trucks and Transformers for him.

A girl can be a “tomboy” or assume more boy behaviors, and it is still within the acceptable range among adults and her peer group. However, a boy will be admonished as a “sissy” for displaying any female behaviors; he is a wimp. Boys may be dissuaded from developing an understanding of the feminine experience by the off-putting messages about femininity. He cannot explore femininity because it is highly taboo. One could argue that because there seems to be a broader range of acceptance for girls to be able to explore and assume boy behaviors, they have an advantage. She can cross over and he cannot. The entrenchment and rigidity of masculinity begins and stays with him for life. Femininity is not so inflexible.

More from Audrey Nelson Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today