UB Linguist Explores Gender Differences In Communication

By Mara McGinnis

Release Date: December 10, 1998

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A University at Buffalo linguist urges both women and men to make an effort to recognize their communication differences in order to make progress in bridging the gender language gap.

These differences are based not only on the content of language, but also on the construction of personal space, the situations in which men and women talk and societal expectations, maintains Jeannette Ludwig, Ph.D., UB associate professor of modern languages and literatures.

Ludwig points out that despite the common myth, men actually talk more than women but ask fewer questions than women because they feel that asking questions may threaten their power and authority. She adds that men and women also differ in the situations in which they talk.

"Men talk in formal situations where there is a concrete, instrumental task to be accomplished. Women tend to talk more in informal, unstructured, non-task-oriented situations," she explains. "There are societal expectations about when or where women should talk. Women are assumed to talk about small things, which is often perceived as too much talk or gossip."

Ludwig also notes that research has shown that women often are perceived as less interesting and less intellectual speakers and writers, as compared to men. "For example, how many solo female news anchors do we see on television?. . . The environment in which women work is corrosive because they are not taken seriously."

Ludwig, who refers to the act of interruption by males as a "dominance device," says a study done in the 1970s of naturally occurring conversations in public places revealed that 96 percent of the interruptions in the interactions studied were initiated by males.

Another related piece of research, she adds, studied the interactions of three couples and found the males to be successful in raising new topics in 28 of 29 attempts. Women were successful in 17 of 47 attempts.

"Women try to interrupt, but what do we wind up taking about?...Whatever 'the guy' wants to talk about," she says.

Ludwig notes that studies done since 1922 show that men in same-sex groups talk about business, sports, other men and technology, while women talk with other women about men, clothing and relationships. "What is interesting," she says, "is that when women talk about these topics on the job, it's viewed as gossip."

Another difference between the sexes, she says, is that women work harder to keep conversations going by backchanneling, a term used to describe indications people give to show that they really are paying attention, such as "um hmm," "oh" and "really?" According to Ludwig, men do not engage in backchanneling nearly as much as women, which, she says, may indicate that men do not listen as actively.

She says that the difference between men and women's construction of "personal space" also affects communication. While men in America claim much more personal space than women do, Americans claim much more personal space than other cultures, she says.

Placing her hands behind her head, Ludwig demonstrates an example of men's construction of personal space. "This (act) says, 'I'm in charge. There's nothing you can tell me that I don't already know'," she explains.

Ludwig's tips for women: Be more direct. Speak up. Be ready with evidence and arguments. Look for ways to make controlled contributions.

For men, she advises: "Listen more actively. Acknowledge contents thoughtfully. Practice "Yes, and," rather than "Yes, but," when replying. You gain a great deal of mileage by listening and responding before you make a decision. . . Try giving up a little power and you will gain a great deal of power."

Ludwig points out that communication is not solely controlled by words.

"We have to keep in mind that no one in the world interacts without a kind of veil, or film of culture, which acts as a lens through which we view the world," she says. "Over the past 30 years, we have learned that words do not reflect reality, but rather act as structures through which we view the world."

More importantly, she notes, "we create meaning in our interaction, whether we like it or not" and that it is crucial for people to understand that speakers do not control the entire meaning of an interaction. "How something is received, constructed, understood, is every bit as important as what the speaker intended."