From the very beginning, men and women have been different.1 God designed Eve to match Adam in most respects, but also to be different from him in others. Though differences existed, there was still the prospect of Adam and Eve complementing one another in a close relationship. Thus, their differences actually could be used to strengthen one another.2 Communication was a key tool for this to happen.3
Unfortunately, in the fall, God’s design for men and women has been distorted. Now, the differences between men and women can be exaggerated, resulting in unnecessary division between the genders.4 Or, the differences between men and women can be ignored, yielding confusion about the whole concept of “gender.”5 In both cases, communication is a key tool contributing to the division and the confusion.
In this article, you will hear from Tim Muehlhoff and Zack Carter, two communication experts, and from Lilly Park, a Christian counselor, as they reflect on the question: How do men and women communicate differently? As you read, ask yourself, How do my observations compare to theirs?
Tim Muehlhoff: The differences are largely cultural
I think many of the gender differences that we see today are probably socialized.6 So I think we should be leery about saying God made men this way or He made women that way when it comes to their communication tendencies. That would be brutal to prove scripturally. But, in a way, it doesn’t matter. Even if you’re socialized to be different, then you will approach conversations differently.
Some of the significant ways that men and women differ are: (1) Research studies show clearly that men talk more than women do, yet the gender stereotype is that women are the ones who just talk a ton. However, it’s men who dominate conversations with women, rather than women dominating conversations with men. (2) Research studies show that it’s men who get flooded more easily in difficult conversations. That is to say, they are more easily overwhelmed with information than women are. When they get overwhelmed, they typically spout off defensive reactions. (3) Research studies show that women tend to be more interactive speakers, so they want immediate feedback—listening cues—from conversation partners. Men, however, tend to be socialized to “own” the talk stage when they are on it. They don’t want to get interrupted with someone jumping in with: “oh, okay,” “um-hmm,” “no, that’s good,” “yeah,” “okay,” “good,” etc. If they are interrupted, they might respond with: “Hey, hey, let me get it out there and then you guys can comment.”
Zack Carter: There may be differences in communication goals
Women often connect best through conversations about their emotions and feelings. Men, however, connect best through actions or the sharing of ideas, suggestions, and facts—and they often avoid discussing emotions and feelings.7 Of course, that doesn’t apply to all men. I call myself a touchy, feely person, but I know other guys may feel uncomfortable sharing feelings.
Nonverbal messages are 93 percent of total communication, so we need to be paying close attention to them.8 Women often prefer talking while sitting, or standing, face-to-face, while men prefer talking shoulder-to-shoulder, especially in a group. Women are more inclined to gesture and speak with varied tones and volume to help articulate their points, while men prefer a more relaxed tone of voice and body language.
Lilly Park: There can be differences in conversational styles
This is an interesting topic, because I’ve worked mostly with men in my twenties and thirties, both in the secular world and in ministry. I’ve learned how to talk with men in a respectful way, which I think looks different from interacting with women.
For example, generally speaking, I think men are more concise than women. For them, it’s more of “let’s get to the point and then move on to the next topic.” So when I’m communicating with a man, I try to keep things short and to the point. However, when I’m communicating with women, there’s definitely more of a desire to talk about the details of a situation.9 But also I think we have to consider each person’s personality traits, because some men are more reserved, and others are more outgoing and talkative.
Conclusion: Wise speech requires being attuned to others
In this roundtable discussion, our experts have been able to point to different tendencies in men and women as communicators. But they also could point to individuals who are not characterized by those gender-typical tendencies. Therefore, we should be careful about pigeonholing people simply because of gender. Perhaps we could conclude that being aware of such general tendencies is a reasonable starting point for conversations between men and women who aren’t very familiar with one another. We should be conscientious about how we usually listen and talk, knowing that our conversation patterns may be different from other people’s patterns. Being attuned to others in this way is an application of two biblical principles:
- Honoring others: “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Rom. 12:10). “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:3–4).
- Listening attentively: “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13). “Those who speak rashly will come to ruin” (Prov. 13:3).
When honoring others pervades our conversations, communication becomes a tool for countering the effects of the fall and furthering God’s kingdom agenda for both men and women.
Zack Carter, PhD, is assistant professor of communication at Taylor University in Upland, IN.
Tim Muehlhoff, PhD, is professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, CA.
Lilly Park, PhD, is a biblical counselor, college instructor, and Council Board member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition.
- Gen. 1:27 makes it clear that (1) differences between men and women are a necessary part of God’s original design for humanity, and yet (2) those differences do not overshadow the fundamental role they share equally in God’s created order. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” This description starts off with their shared and unique role to represent God, and within that commonality is their differentiated identities as male and female.
- Gen. 2:18–23 describes Eve as Adam’s “suitable helper” (a helper “like opposite” him; her uniqueness complementing his uniqueness). But in order for her to complement him, she still needed to be “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”
- This is evident from Adam’s first recorded speech: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23 ESV). Adam affirms: (a) His great delight in seeing Eve: “at last” responds to his realization, “But for Adam no suitable helper was found” (v. 20). (b) Their kinship (“bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”), which separated Eve and himself as a pair made for one another to accomplish God’s purposes. Adam acknowledged that Eve completed him—and he was excited about it!
- This divide appears in the biblical record as early as Gen. 3:12.
- Although sexual differences are defined by anatomy, gender differences are largely shaped by cultural expectations. Understanding how men and women are similar and different takes both factors into consideration.
- “Gender differences are changing drastically and quickly; it’s best to take generalizations about gender as starting points for investigation and not as airtight conclusions. Furthermore, as you no doubt have observed from your own experiences, the gender differences—although significant—are far outnumbered by the similarities.” (Joseph A. DeVito, Human Communication, 12th ed. [Boston: Pearson Education, 2012], 94.)
- Some have labeled the tendency for women to share their feelings and to use conversations particularly to deepen friendships as “rapport talk.” Men’s tendency to focus on simply exchanging information in conversations has been labeled “report talk.” (Steven A. Beebe, Susan J. Beebe, and Diana K. Ivy, Communication: Principles for a Lifetime, 5th ed. [Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2013], 140.)
- Such percentages, of course, depend on how different variables are accounted for in research studies. Dr. Carter’s figure seems to reflect Albert Mehrabian’s earlier conclusions: “the most significant source of emotional information is the face, which can channel as much as 55 percent of our meaning. Vocal cues such as volume, pitch, and intensity convey another 38 percent of our emotional meaning. In all, we communicate approximately 93 percent of the emotional meaning of our messages nonverbally. …” (Cited in Beebe et al., Communication, 85.)
- Dr. Park’s observation has been reported in the research literature. Men “tend to listen for the ‘big picture’ and seek the major points being communicated.” Women are more likely to “identify individual facts and other isolated pieces of information.” (Beebe, et al., Communication, 121.)