Few topics interest lay people and scholars more than how men and women might differ from each other. Sex differences refer to behavioral variations between men and women based on biological differences; gender differences refer to behavioral variations between people due to cultural, sociological, and/or psychological differences. This article focuses on the manner in which sex differences affect interpersonal communication behavior.
Opinions abound regarding sex differences. Some scholars assume that men and women differ until proven otherwise, whereas others assume that men and women are similar until proven otherwise. And reputable scholars represent each side of the coin.
One way of deciding which side of the debate is more accurate involves the use of statistical tests to determine whether or not differences between men and women for a given sample might be generalized to a larger population. In general, the likelihood of finding statistical differences is relatively low. However, scholars who are prone to think that there are substantial differences between men and women often use nonstatistical, anecdotal evidence and qualitative analyses (e.g., Tannen 1990). Scholars who are prone to view women and men as being similar often point to large sample statistical summaries that frequently report small and inconsistent sex differences (e.g., Dindia 2006).
One should not look for sex differences everywhere, nor should one be too skeptical about sex differences. The pivotal issue concerns which behaviors reflect sex differences and under what conditions they occur. As one can imagine, sex differences have been explored with respect to many behaviors. Five domains of behavior illustrate where sex differences have been profitably examined in interpersonal communication: self-disclosure, relational maintenance, conflict management, supportiveness, and nonverbal messages. We briefly review each and offer related theoretic explanations for the findings.
Sex Differences In Self-Disclosure
Generally speaking, self-disclosure refers to information about oneself that is shared with others. Since Jourard’s (1961) early work on self-disclosure, numerous scholars have shown interest in sex differences in self-disclosure. Much research suggests that women self-disclose more than do men to friends, parents, spouses, and strangers. For example, women self-disclose more intimately and discuss more topics than do men in their friendships, and men and women differ in their expectations for intimacy in romantic relationships.
Although sex differences in self-disclosure appear to be consistent, the significance of those differences is debatable since the effect sizes reported in studies are generally small. Dindia and Allen’s (1992) meta-analysis revealed that women generally disclose more than men to same-sex and opposite-sex partners; however, the average effect size across all studies accounted for less than five percent of the variance in disclosure behavior. Furthermore, sex differences appear to be moderated by the measure of disclosure. For example, larger sex differences were found for perceptions of a partner’s self-disclosure, as compared to self-reports and observational ratings of self-disclosure (Dindia 2000).
Sex Differences In Relational Maintenance
Relational maintenance behaviors refer to ongoing actions and activities undertaken to keep one’s personal relationships as one wants them to be. Various maintenance strategies have been examined, but five common strategies are positivity (being upbeat and spontaneous), openness (discussing one’s goals and relational agreements), assurances (stressing one’s love and commitment), social networks (involving friends and family), and sharing tasks (doing one’s fair share of the work). Several studies have found that women report using more openness and sharing tasks to maintain their close involvements than do men, and some research indicates that men are more likely to rely on positivity and assurances (Canary & Wahba 2006). Overall, however, a slight tendency exists for women to engage in maintenance actions more than do men. Moreover, women’s maintenance behaviors appear to affect both partners’ relational quality more powerfully than do men’s maintenance behaviors.
Equity theory concerns how fairly people treat each other and offers one explanation for the use of maintenance behaviors. People who are fairly treated tend to engage in behaviors to sustain their personal relationships to a greater extent than do people who are under-benefited or over-benefited. Importantly, women’s assessments of fairness are more salient than men’s when predicting whether either person will engage in maintenance behaviors; that is, women’s reports of how fair the relationship is tend to offer a more robust predictor of whether both partners use maintenance behaviors (Canary & Wahba 2006).
Sex Differences In Conflict Communication
Research involving conflict in personal relationships does not support the widely held stereotype of men as assertive animals and women as passive caregivers. Rather, in contexts where they have familiar footing, women appear to be equally or more assertive and confronting than are men. Assertive behaviors include such tactics as attempts to discuss the problem, identifying causes for the conflict, selfdisclosure, and so forth. Confronting, assertive behaviors include showing anger, blaming the partner, and putting down the partner. Men tend to engage in more avoidance tactics, including withdrawing from the situation and denying the problem.
Various explanations have been offered as to why women are more confronting than men (Canary & Emmers-Sommer 1997). One explanation focuses on how boys and girls tend to segregate into groups in the playground, with boys involved in team sports that rely on clearly defined rules of the game and girls engaged in less structured games that focus on relational interaction in lieu of scoring points. Because, on this view, girls develop their conflict negotiation skills whereas boys do not, women tend to want to discuss relational issues and details and men prefer to avoid them. An alternative explanation is that because women are less benefited in conjugal relationships with men, women have more to complain about (e.g., the division of household labor is often unfair to women). Unfairly treated women attempt to change the status quo that men defend through avoidance. A third explanation resides in how men tend to be very sensitive to their own physiological reactions to conflict and withdraw as the result of trying to retain self-control. Women, however, tend to ignore physiological reactions in their focus on attempts to solve relational problems.
Sex Differences In Supportive Communication
Supportive behaviors occur when people enact communication to provide or to seek help. Research has revealed sex differences in men’s and women’s supportive behavior, although men and women are more similar than different regarding supportive communication (Burleson & Kunkel 2006). Generally speaking, women are more likely than men to seek and provide emotional support (e.g., expressions of sympathy), attend to the other’s feelings, and engage in more highly person-centered (HPC) comforting messages (Burleson & Kunkel 2006). Person-centered messages reveal an awareness of the various forces that impact the other individual. HPC comforting messages legitimize the other’s feelings, whereas low person-centered (LPC) comforting messages criticize and deny the legitimacy of the other’s feelings. A message’s level of person-centeredness is a common criterion for evaluating the effectiveness of comforting messages. Both sexes report that HPC comforting messages are more feminine, sensitive, and effective than LPC comforting messages; however, studies have consistently reported that women view HPC messages somewhat more favorably and LPC comforting messages somewhat less favorably than do men.
Regarding partners’ communication skills, both sexes report that relational partners’ expressive skills are more important than their instrumental skills (e.g., advice-giving). Women tend to value expressive skills and men tend to value instrumental skills. Moreover, women rate the importance of pursuing emotion-focused goals in supportive situations slightly higher than men do, and evidence clearly indicates that both sexes prefer to discuss problems with, and seek and receive support from, women.
Scholars have examined sex differences in supportive communication using several theoretical frameworks (e.g., evolutionary, social role, skill specialization). Perhaps most central and controversial to the study of supportive communication is the different cultures thesis (DCT), which argues that men and women value relational features differently (e.g., instrumental or relational goals), and have distinctive speech communities that engage in cross-cultural communication (Tannen 1990). Opponents of the DCT indict its failure to account for sex similarities and argue that other theories, including social role theory and the skill specialization model, can account for sex differences in supportive behavior that are predicted by the DCT (e.g., Burleson & Kunkel 2006).
Sex Differences In Nonverbal Behavior
Performing a meta-analysis of nonverbal behavior, Hall (2006) found that women display more nonverbal sensitivity and smiling than do men. That is, women tend to be more capable than men at reading cognitive and affective meanings conveyed nonverbally. This effect is largely due to women’s superior reading of facial expressions but not vocal or postural variations. In a related manner, Andersen’s (2006) review of the literature also pointed to women’s ability to decode nonverbal meaning. In addition, Andersen found that men can decipher spatial nonverbal behaviors and mapping better than can women. For instance, men appear to be more capable at navigation and rotating three-dimensional objects mentally. And men appear to be more dominant when it comes to defining interpersonal distances used during interaction.
Explanations for nonverbal differences between men and women have relied on social as well as biological theories. Social role theory (Eagly 1987) proposes that the division of labor has led to differences in how men and women relate to other people. Being the primary caretakers of the home and family, women tend to adopt a less assertive role in society and become relationally adept. On the other hand, men focus more on instrumental gains and take a less communal approach to other people. An alternative theoretic explanation derives from evolutionary theory, which posits that men’s larger size required them to hunt and to battle competitors (Andersen 2006). Due to their ability to breast-feed and to their smaller size, women remained at home and took care of children as well as injured warriors, which involved learning how to ascertain the meaning of nonverbal messages. And a combination of social role theory and evolutionary theory has been offered (Wood & Eagly 2002).
Sex differences certainly exist, but where and when they occur needs to be theoretically explained and not simply presumed.
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