Thinking Out Loud

We’re All From Mercury (the planet of communication)

Each day, I receive news updates on issues relating to communication. Without fail there is at least one article that refers to the differences between females and males. The articles and blogs are written by people from all walks of life, lay people and professionals of many disciplines. Although I’ve found value in what has become common, accepted knowledge about how men and women operate, I’m also getting increasingly irritated.

Like many I’ve tended to accept the stereotypes. Yes, men seem to go into problem solving mode immediately and women seem to first listen and connect to the emotional content of the communication. Those who experience these patterns consistently in their lives end up being the enthusiastic spokespersons. The others remain uncertain and quiet. But how true is all this?

Recently, I gave a talk on communication to a local college class of sixteen students: ten females, six males. Halfway through the talk I passed out my Communication Component Inventory, which they filled out. I asked how many identified more with the interpersonal or intrapersonal component—the interpersonal being more allied with the “female” style, and the intrapersonal with the “male.” Oops, there I go stereotyping.

Of the ten women, six identified with the interpersonal, four with the intrapersonal. Of the six men, four identified with the intrapersonal and two with the interpersonal. This is hardly science but it is typical of the breakdown when I take this survey in workshops and training sessions. Enough men and women fit in each category that it behooves us not to generalize.

Back to my irritability . . . I’m troubled by the stereotypes promoted by the men-are-like-this and women-are-like-that movement. There is some comfort in it but it leaves no room for individual differences. Remember, we are more alike as human beings than we are different. Recognizing the ways in which men and women are different is important but pigeonholing is dangerous.

My wife and I are different from the stereotypes—perhaps another reason for my irritability—and there are a lot of people who just don’t fit the way men and women are supposed to be. From the communication styles perspective we all have a mixture of the interpersonal and intrapersonal elements. We all think out loud and think on the inside; the proportion of each is dictated less by gender and more by other constitutional and cultural factors.

The range of human communication behavior extends beyond gender differences and includes the same elements for both women and men. How those elements arrange depends on so many factors it is impossible to account for them all. What is important, though, is that we develop communication skills that allow us to be effective with one another in listening and understanding.

When we take care not to stereotype male and female communication, it automatically puts more responsibility on us as individuals. In our human relationships we must be accountable to ourselves and each other and recognize what we can do to foster better communication. It is the path forward to changing the world one conversation at a time.

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