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Body Language

The Nonverbal Communication Gender Gap

What is the male dilemma?

What is the male dilemma? Although men know how to present themselves in an authoritative way, they are challenged in the face-to-face interpersonal arena. Here, they are definitely not winners. “They just don’t get it,” is a phrase women use when referring to men’s inability to pick up important interpersonal (especially nonverbal) cues. I hear this constantly in my work; it’s women’s daily mantra. Here is how Ben, a male participant conveyed the problem:

“My wife came home after being gone all day Saturday and asked me that loaded question: ‘Do you notice anything different about me, honey?’ I immediately went into a cold sweat! I scanned her from head to toe. What was it? A new dress? Did she color her hair? New jewelry? I looked at her shoes, but I remembered them from last week.”

To protect himself, Ben answered with a blanket compliment, “You look great, honey.” But Sarah began to press him. “What looks different?” she insisted. He just didn’t see it, and when he couldn’t tell her, she became deflated and resentful. Sarah had had a makeover at the Lancome counter at Bloomingdale’s, but Ben was unable to discern her new look. It is little wonder that when women congregate among themselves, they complain, “Men just don’t get it.” Such statements imply that the sexes are the antithesis of one another.

Male social inattentiveness is borne out in research. Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal documented that paying attention is just not men’s forte. His investigations showed that most men are inferior to women at both reading (decoding) and sending (encoding) nonverbal cues. This, of course, comes as no surprise to many women. Indeed, one female seminar attendee blurted out, “Men are emotionally challenged,” as she tried to come to grips with her frustration in dealing with the males in her life. And, as we have seen, women taking my survey have characterized men as unable to “listen or read between the lines,” easily distracted, and downright insensitive.

Why do men misinterpret (or miss altogether) nonverbal behaviors more than women do? Perhaps their skill pattern derives from the fact that their attention is not directed preferentially to any one channel but instead is spread diffusely. They may perform an overall scan of a situation, but may not focus on any one thing—especially not the face. They may not recognize that something is to be gained or lost by attending more to some cues than to others, and they have no particular need or motive to read leaky cues. The latter are the real avenues into people’s internal states—they seep out despite our attempts to hide them.

Men pay attention differently. It’s as if they’re distracted by extraneous cues. They don’t know how to make sense of them or integrate them so they don’t serve them well. Men can wind up at a relative disadvantage only because women are attending actively to leaky cues and other micro-behaviors. Women focus where they should—on the face. They take the whole message in context. Because they can show empathy, they get people to open up more. In short, women walk away from an interaction with more information. Information is power, and this is one area where women have power and men don’t.

Men have a twofold problem. Not only do they have more trouble decoding messages they receive from women, but because of their use of masking, they also have a stonier demeanor and are less adept at sending out what they feel.

While women struggle to accommodate interpersonal needs, men don’t place the same emphasis or value on the skills required to do so. Many don’t admire interpersonal effectiveness as much as they covet power and control. For instance, they may feel no need to read nonverbal cues or lubricate relationships. They may even say, “Let the gals handle that,” when referring to social maintenance activities. Women keep the social calendars (some men even jokingly refer to their wives as their "Social Directors") and are assigned to arrange all the parties, gift purchasing, baby showers, greeting cards for birthdays, deaths, births, and so on. Feminine skills in the interpersonal arena still “don’t get no respect” among some men.

Although men are the champions of nonverbal credibility and power, they are poor readers and senders of nonverbal cues. Men are taken seriously—their nonverbals demand it; women, although superior in the nonverbal realm, complain that they are “not taken seriously.” I call this the credibility gap!

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