We Seem to Have a Breakdown in Communication: Men, Women

I attended a professional function a little while ago that really irked me. I’m going to try to retell the events as objectively as I can, my remarks in bold are my subjective views that explain why I was so bothered.

The function was specifically for women.  The speaker was a “life coach” who was ostensibly there to talk to us about improving our ability to communicate with men.  The life coach opened her presentation by remarking that men and women have different styles of communication.  She also noted that communication is really only 10% the words we say; the remainder is body language and tonality.

So far, I’m with her.  I’m not sure I completely accept the premise that men and women communicate differently, but I’m willing to roll with that.  

The life coach then provides us a square divided into four smaller squares.  Each of the smaller squares describes a communication “style.”  Under each style is a description of the communication traits within the “style” and some data showing the percentage of people who identify with the particular style.  There is no breakdown of the data to show percentage by gender.  The data is also presented in a way that suggests that people must identify with one of the four choices – no shades of grey.

My radar is up.  I don’t deal well in absolutes.  As I’m reading the four styles, I immediately know that I fall somewhere between two of them but not entirely in any of them.  Also, to be fair, I’m irritated because the speaker has made an off-handed (and stereotypical) remark about autism. I’m already struggling to take her seriously.

We spend the next 50 or so minutes talking about the different communication styles in very, very general terms.  We talk about how certain styles have difficulty communicating with other styles.  Still, there is no discussion about how this impacts that woman-communicating-with-man thesis that opened this lecture. Then, the speaker says – and I’m not going to say this is a quote, but it’s a damn good paraphrase – that she doesn’t know a single woman who could spend a week talking about the Super Bowl, but men sure can.  She then asks the group of women assembled whether we know of such a woman.  When we sit there in silence, she takes that as affirmation of her generalization.

Now, I’m done.  I’m furiously texting a co-worker.  I’m watching the clock.  I am praying I don’t shoot my mouth off before …

The speaker opens the conversation up for questions.  She gets one or two obligatory softball questions, but then a couple of direct questions are asked, and the responses are less than direct.  The “sports” thing comes up again.

… too late.  

I raise my hand.  When I’m acknowledged, I say to the speaker that she started her presentation with the statement that men and women communicate differently, that up to this point, I hadn’t really heard anything in her presentation that specifically identified those differences.  In fact, I found myself troubled by the idea that we were sitting here talking about how all men can talk about is sports, and if the tables were turned, and I walked into a room full of men remarking how all women liked to talk about is shopping, I’d be pretty upset. So, I asked her whether she could provide information – either statistics or  facts – that would help us, as women, improve how we communicate with men in the context of her four boxes.

I don’t think she liked my question, because her face squeezed into what I know well as the fuck-off-and-die-smile.  I use it a lot in court. What the speaker did next, though, floored me.

The speaker responded to my question by saying a few things, but the one that stuck out for me was that women need to feel like they have the “right” to speak to communicate well.  So, I asked her how we, as women, develop that sense of entitlement.  She responded by smirking at me and saying, “It comes from experience.  And, I have that experience that, perhaps, a younger woman – in her 20s – doesn’t.”

Wow.  But, wait.  It gets better.

The speaker then starts talking about stress and how “neuroscientists” have determined that women live with a consistently higher degree of stress than men.  This causes, according to the speaker, women to balk at taking on additional responsibilities, because the woman doubts her ability to be successful.  Whereas, men jump at the chance to accept more responsibility, because the “challenge” brings their stress level up no higher than what’s tolerable.

A co-worker asks the speaker about the science behind this.  She explains that she had just recently spoken with her doctor about stress, and his feeling was that the level of stress a person experiences is not the product of extraneous forces but internal response, which varies from person to person regardless of gender.  My co-worker then said, “This isn’t me talking – I’m not smart enough to think this stuff up – this is a medical doctor.”  The speaker then says, “Ah.  You see what you just did there.  You said you weren’t smart.  I mean, I don’t want to single you out or embarrass you, but that’s the kind of self-deprication that women engage in that really hurts them.”

Oh. You mean like how women are catty bitches to one another in the workplace and often their own worst enemies?

Listen, I’m not a big fan of women-only events.  I feel like they serve only to highlight the gender differences that we (as women) assert are the cause of disparate treatment.  And, communication is inherently a two-way event.  How can you possibly hope to improve the way in which one group communicates with another unless you get both groups to the table?  But, even putting that aside, the speaker is a “life coach” who proceeded to give a talk based on gross generalizations, bald assumptions and even stereotypes when she KNEW she was speaking to a room full of women with nothing less than professional degrees.

What are your thoughts, readers?  Where do you come out on women-only events?  Are they useful?  Have any of you ever used a “life coach” with any success?  Is this a “real” profession?  Why do you think women tend to be so competitive with each other?  Or, do you think that?  The whole experience left me with way more questions than answers and a very uneasy feeling in my gut …

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28 comments on “We Seem to Have a Breakdown in Communication: Men, Women

  1. Bec Oakley says:

    I can’t answer any of your serious questions because I’m too busy laughing at ‘fuck-off-and-die-smile’. Clearly I’m too overwhelmed by stress to communicate properly.

  2. I hope she wasn’t getting paid actual money to sprout this bullshit! I’d be asking for a refund, but I’m not really a ‘life coach’ kind of person.

    • ProfMomEsq says:

      I’m afraid she was. I conspicuously left all her marketing materials on the table when I left the room.

      I’m not really a “life coach” person either, but I can imagine how someone really trying to improve her life might rely on one. How terrifying to me that it might be THAT one. *sigh*

  3. Oh, what the hell. If anything, you gave her MORE benefit than she deserved. Anecdotal evidence DOES NOT EQUAL SCIENTIFIC FACT – isn’t she perpetuating the “I’m just a girl who this science & math are HAAAARD” stereotype?

    Aside: I can talk about football/baseball/basketball endlessly. ENDLESSLY. And last time I checked, I had functioning lady-parts.

    And let’s not START on how this marginalized the gender queer or trans folk.

    Screw her.

    • ProfMomEsq says:

      RIGHT. And, I didn’t even THINK about that angle, but – yep – there’s another stereotype she managed to slip in there. If you’re going to start with the premise that men and women have innately different styles of communication, ought you have SOMETHING in the way of evidence to support that? For the love of Pete, she was talking to a roomful of LAWYERS.

      Oh, and go Giants! 😉

  4. Heather says:

    I’m fine with woman-only events–some of them can be really great. This one sounds like a big bunch of BS. I would have been all over that woman. It’s a good thing I wasn’t there. Hahaha!

    • ProfMomEsq says:

      GAH! I just wrote you a whole reply and — GONE. Grrrr.

      I’m sorry you weren’t there – I would’ve liked to see that! And, I agree that there are certain topics that are enhanced by a women-only presence. I just don’t think that many of them exist in a professional context. I could be convinced otherwise. ;0)

  5. jillsmo says:

    I know women who can spend a week talking about the Super Bowl. But this bitch doesn’t get to hear about it.

  6. I’m sorry, I can’t even talk for 12 seconds about the Super Bowl, and neither can any of my male friends.
    Sounds as though she didn’t actually offer any meaningful way to bridge differences in communication styles! Though if there’s anything that is useful to start with, it’s to listen first, talk later.
    In dealing with all kinds of people, and trying to get to the bottom of what they are trying to say, it’s so much about context. I once knew a guy who had few social skills and came across as stuck-up and dismissive. It took me about a week to grasp that he could only relate to people by talking about history. When I realized that, I saw he WAS actually paying attention to what people said, and was just responding in his own idiom (which he knew so completely most others couldn’t relate to him through it). And he was trying to fit in, too.
    I used to think women mostly used conversation as a way of sharing an experience and men used it to establish a proposition — partly because I liked to argue and got on great with other guys because the argument was nothing personal, while I offended a number of female friends because I just didn’t know when to shut up about something. But I also got to know many women who argued the same way I did about stuff, and men who would get offended when I would just let something drop.
    I don’t know if I would have gotten anything out of this life-coach’s presentation, but good for you for speaking out. I don’t think I’d have appreciated hearing a bunch of vague declarations either. Give me the neuroscience too! AND what it means for changing how you communicate with someone! That’s what would be valuable.

    • ProfMomEsq says:

      Sadly, David, I am certain you put more thought into your comment than went into the presentation. I would really like – love, actually – to know (scientifically speaking) how much communication and language reception is affected by gender. My guess is gender plays a much less prominent role than other factors, such as socioeconomic status, cultural influences, education level … maybe others.

      It’s sad, really. 51% of law school students are now women, and it’s been that way for a significant time now. Yet, women leave the profession or fail to advance in highly disproportionate numbers than men. Is a failure in communication causing that? I think not. That’s not to say that gender differences (social or biological) aren’t an influence – they decidedly are. But, sheesh, if we’re going to kick the men out of the room, let’s talk about something that actually makes a difference so the exercise is worth the risk of isolating ourselves – yet again

      • This is partly why I am (unscientifically) suspicious of segregating boys and girls in school. I understand there is evidence that supports girls learning certain things better (math? science? debating?) without boys in the classroom; but I do not see how, if our society doesn’t want to segregate women and men as adults, why learning to coexist/communicate/interact/challenge each other, meaningful interaction shouldn’t start young. I was challenged by girls in some ways and by boys in others — it’s all part of your development as a person, quite apart from your picking up academic skills and knowledge.

  7. emmawolf says:

    Apparently I’m a minority because I actually like women only things. I worked at Girl Scout camp (all women, obviously) and loved it. And for a while I worked in a mostly women small law firm. Attorneys are probably more competitive than non-attorneys on average (but I’m probably the exception), but I didn’t find that they were overly competitive or cut-throat or catty or anything. Later, there was a male partner and two male associates. The dynamic didn’t change. I don’t think women are catty or whatever adjective people want to apply to them. I think that it’s a matter of observational bias/this other bias that people have that I learned about when taking a social psychology course but can’t remember the name for now. Basically, when there is a minority (eg, a woman) it’s more likely that she will be blamed for the failures that aren’t hers solely and more likely to have her accomplishments ignored. Similarly, people would be more likely to look at/notice a negative trait in a minority.

    • ProfMomEsq says:

      Yay! I’m so glad you commented, because I really wanted a contrary viewpoint. What did you like about Girl Scouts that you think you can attribute to the women-only membership? Is that an experience you had as an adult or when you were younger?

      I agree with you that cattiness and competition is not reserved to women. I’ve known my fair share of men who will use gossip and prey on weaknesses to get ahead. But, I think it’s fair to say that that kind of behavior is perceived differently whether the actor is male or female. THIS is what I thought we’d explore about male/female communication, and I could understand why starting that
      discussion without men in the room might encourage more sharing or honesty.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

      • emmawolf says:

        “But, I think it’s fair to say that that kind of behavior is perceived differently whether the actor is male or female. ”

        I think that is exactly right. That was what I was *trying* to get at with my original comment, but I was tired and rambling.

        I was in Girl Scouts from first grade all through high school, and then for about 3 summers in college up until I started law school I was a counselor at a Girl Scout camp. So both as a kid and a young adult. It’s hard to say what exactly could be attributed to a female-only experience and what was just camp (since I never worked at a mixed gender camp. I did attend a mixed gender camp and not like it but that could be for other reasons). I’ll have to think about this more and come back to you.

      • emmawolf says:

        After reading a few other comments, I just want to be clear: just because I tend to like female only environments doesn’t mean that I think anything *should* be segregated by sex (except maybe gym locker rooms). Especially not professionally or in terms of education. If you want to go to an all _____s’ school, be my guest. But if you’re going to a mixed school, everything better be mixed. Including the football team (if a girl wants to play).

        For me, after thinking about it a little, why I like all female environments, I think, has to do with the differences between how men and women communicate. (Wow! I can’t believe I tied it back to your original topic!) From what I’ve learned, women are more likely to communicate with “I think,” or “maybe,” or “why don’t you.” And men are more likely to communicate without these equivocal words that make people seem less sure of themselves. (Aside: during law school, when I was studying about the right to counsel and how you have to unequivocally ask for an attorney, I wondered if many women have been denied their right to an attorney because they said “I think I want a lawyer” rather than “I want a lawyer.” If I had the time and resources, I would look into this issue.) Men are more likely to be direct, whereas women are more likely to be indirect. This is not to say that I prefer an environment with wishy washy indirect people. Just that these are the only concrete terms I can use to describe these differences.

        I’ll also note that growing up, I was pretty petrified of my father. That probably has something to do with it too.

        • Cassie Zupke says:

          I’m with you. As a female engineer, I had to learn to hold up my design in a review meeting and say “This is what we need to do and here’s the data.” Instead of “I think we ought to think about looking at maybe doing it this way.” Also, I had to not get upset with the way the male engineers expressed their opinion. “That’s stupid,” means “Prove it to me,” not war. Conversely, when I later started working with elementary school teachers (who were mostly women) I had to really tone back my communication style. I really see the communication differences when I go to IEP meetings with engineer dads and female elementary school teachers. Whoa — almost guaranteed flames unless the teacher has a thick skin.

          • ProfMomEsq says:

            I like your examples, Cassie. I wonder, though, how much of the communication was impacted by gender and how much was impacted by education and professional habit. Serious question – NOT meant to be facetious: Would you have been just as angry if a female engineer said, “That’s stupid” – at least until you learned “that’s stupid” really meant “prove it”? Do we perceive these issues as male/female communication gaps because women are outnumbered in the profession or because the profession simply calls for a different style of communicating? I’m inclined to think that figuring this out is important, because I think the answers hold the key to equality …

            On a lighter note, can you imagine how my daughter’s IEP meetings go with two lawyers as parents? At I don’t worry whether they’re well documented. 🙂

            Also, welcome to the party!

          • Cassie Zupke says:

            Thanks for the welcome.

            You know, I think I just got used to “engineers” as a class rather than gender specific. But I did learn that if I talked like a girl, male engineers didn’t listen to me. It didn’t help that I was 22 years old and they were mostly around 50 years old. But when I started talking like a guy, they listened. My mom found the same thing in the 1970s when she was working construction. She had to use “the venacular of the trade” as it were if she was going to be taken seriously. (It was never a shovel, it was a f***en shovel.)

            Personally, I think if anyone (either gender) wants to fit into a work environment, they need to use the style of communication the majority uses. I think women tend to talk one way and if they work in a male dominated environment, they’d better change or they’ll get run over. Men tend to talk more in definites. If they’re working in a female dominated environment, it depends on the group of women. Some women will find the men too “domineering” and others just figure that’s the way men talk.

            Do you find that even if you put your “nicey-nice” voice on during IEPs, since school folks know you’re a lawyer, they still are really on their toes? Do you have to work harder to get them to relax than other parents do? (The districts where I my kids attend are great and treat our kids well. I get more done once the teachers and administrators relax.)

            Great discussion, btw. It’s a topic that fascinates me. Future Horizons is publishing a book I wrote about communication between parents and teachers. (Sorry, not meant to be a plug.) It’s just something I’m really interested in.

  8. stephenii says:

    Great blog post. I hate when a speaker does not use data to back up their ideas, simply making generalizations and anecdotal statements. She obviously didn’t know her audience very well, but was hoping to get some business out of her spiel.

    Good for you for speaking up and challenging her on her data. I often want to do that when I hear a poorly presented topic, but my wife tells me to keep quiet because they don’t like when the parishioners challenge the preacher at church. 🙂

    I currently am working overseas for a large construction/engineering company in a middle eastern country where only men can work. I have only been here a few weeks but it certainly is quite different working only with guys compared to a co-ed workforce in the states. I have already experienced different communication styles, but I am still trying to figure out if it’s culture or gender based. Could be combination of both.

    I can’t believe she would make an off the cuff comment about autism. That’s just rude.

    • ProfMomEsq says:

      Thanks for the comment. It must be quite a culture shift – professionally and otherwise -to work in the Middle East. I’d have to guess that the communication styles are impacted by both culture and gender, but culture predominates. A year or so ago, I represented a group of Indian gentlemen in a dispute with an Egyptian woman. It was a very good lesson for me in communication styles – both from a cultural perspective and a gender perspective. I made some assumptions about how these gentlemen would approach me and the opposing party, because we are women. At the end of the day, though, the greatest issues in communication revolved around cultural issues. We ended up settling the case through a female mediator. I wish I could explain more about it, but those pesky confidentiality rules keep me from doing so. Suffice to say that it convinced me that communication problems often have less to do with Xs and Ys and a lot more to do with our learned perceptions and assumptions about people. Now, if only our esteemed presenter could have talked about THAT.

      Thank you for stopping by. Hope to see you here again. I’d be interested to hear more about your experiences.

  9. Cafe says:

    WTF. First of all, I could totally talk about the Super Bowl for a week. Shyit. Secondly, if you are going to have a profession as a life coach, you do need to realize that are several, SEVERAL shades of grey amongst all of us unique individuals if you want to do your job effectively. What a disaster.

  10. Piper George says:

    I have not attended an all girl event (that sounds kinky) but I have seen a few life coaches in action and I usually only agree with about a quarter of what they say. Generally the parts that are common sense

    • ProfMomEsq says:

      I giggled at “all girl event,” so … yeah. I can’t quite get the concept of “life coaches,” because I cannot imagine paying someone to “help” me live my life. But, then, I have a therapist, so what the hell do I know? I might just be bitter about my career choice. 😉

It's boring when I do all the talking around here. Speak now, while you can get a word in edgewise.

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