Thursday, July 15, 2010

Communication between the Genders: Relational vs. Hierarchical Viewpoints


"However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband."

 Ephesians 5:33

In order to understand how common miscommunications occur between men and women, it is important to appreciate how each gender views the world. It is natural for each of us to believe that our perspective is universal, but one's gender tremendously impacts thinking style.

Researcher/author Deborah Tannen has done interesting work examining sociolinguistic differences between the sexes. In her book, You Just Don't Understand, she explains that the male worldview is hierarchical whereas the female's is relational. These perspectives are radically different from each other.

Men's communication tends to establish and manage their standing with those around them. In other words, they see the world in terms of who has greater prestige or respect than themselves and who does not. In this perspective there are winners and losers, and each man works to win. It is not surprising that most male establishments or businesses have a management style that reflect this worldview.  Many of these organizations have a hierarchical system that is comprised of a president, then, department heads, and finally, co-workers.

The male hierarchical social perspective tends to make men sensitive to feeling blame since protecting their standing with others is very important. They dislike apologizing, as this would be taking a "one-down" position, and their communication style usually is very literal and direct. Men generally don't tend to each other's feelings, but rather talk about numbers, tangible details, and day-to-day activities.

Women, on the other hand, see the world in terms of social connections. They are aware of who they have relationships with and who they don't. Because of this style, women are concerned with maintaining affiliation with others.  They are careful not to hurt another's feelings. Their communication habits reflect this value and, therefore, are often indirect, abstract, and qualitative. Women tend to talk about relationships, such as, who is dating whom, the latest neighborhood gossip, or working through social difficulties. They often monitor each other's reactions to stay in good graces with each other and apologize easily in order to maintain social connections.

Due to these stark differences, it is easy to see how communication mishaps occur. Women hint at issues and then wonder why their boyfriends or spouses don't catch on.  They long to have their male loved one understand their gentle indirect reminders and feel hurt when he isn't a mind-reader. Apologies are difficult for men leaving the women in their lives feeling that their emotional pain is devalued. God had it right when he gave instructions for a good marriage (Ephesians 5:33). In Paul's letter, wives are encouraged to respect their husbands (i.e. understand and support the husband's standing), and men are instructed to love their wives (or tend to the relationship). If both parties could become aware of the way that the opposite gender sees and communicates about life, then fewer misunderstandings are likely to occur.

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