Gender Differences and Nonverbal Communication
Communication is a critical component of everyday human interactions in the workplaces, schools, or within the households. Researchers have become increasingly interested in understanding gender differences in communication over the years due to the growing percentage of women who have joined the workforce and their involvement in occupations originally reserved for men (McQuiston & Morris, 2009). Interestingly, gender differences in how information is shared are greatly manifested through non-verbal communications, which cues are important components of the communication process in particular fields such as sales and customer relations since they give signals about the level of agreement, confusion, hostility, or disagreement (McQuiston & Morris, 2009).
The differences in non-verbal communication according to gender have been attributed to the different statuses of men and women in various cultures around the world (Carli, Loeber & LaFleur, 1995). Due to men’s higher status and displays of dominance, they are more effectively induced to influence and strive to hide their emotions. In many cases, communication cues that show dominance are tolerated in men, while those that indicate submissiveness and loyalty are attributed to the female sex (Carli, Loeber & LaFleur, 1995). In these instances, the male dominance is demonstrated by complex behaviors that may include intrusive hand gestures (such as finger-pointing), maintained stern eye contact during a conversation, tense posture, tense expressions on the face with lowered eyebrows, and a backward body lean. On the other hand, in conformity with their submission, women may show signs of nervousness with tense hand gestures, reduced eye contact, hesitations, and a slumped body posture (Carli, Loeber & LaFleur, 1995).
People use facial expressions to pass different kinds of messages. For instance, smiling may be used to show a certain level of happiness, admiration, or satisfaction. It is generally considered part of the feminine role and often seen as the act that women are supposed to do rather than the show of friendliness or joy. While men are expected only to smile as a sign of amusement or happiness, women will use this form of expression even when they do not even feel any excitement or positive emotions (McQuiston & Morris, 2009). Furthermore, smiling has numerously been associated with one’s status. More senior people usually smile less, while their subordinates smile more. Therefore, smiling has been associated with women as a reflection of their perceived subordinate status. At the same time, findings by Hall, LeBeau, Gordon, and Thayer (2001) reached contrary conclusions. Hall et al. (2001) maintained that although women generally smile more than their male counterparts, those in low level positions in workplaces do not smile more than women in senior positions.
Researchers have also found that when in agreement, women nod more than men do. Men usually use more gestures as they speak but tend to restrain from showing too much facial expressions or head movements. They will normally display only the limited level of emotions on their faces in effort to respect ‘social rules’ that expect them to be less emotional. As they strive to maintain neutrality, men will usually less likely show facial expressions.
Studies have also shown that the ability to establish and maintain eye contact signifies the level of trust among the communicators. In sales communication, a certain area of oculesics is concerned with how eye contact is used to reflect the different patterns of social status of the involved parties. People considered to occupy high social classes generally look at those from lower classes in the eyes, while those from lower classes stare at the faces of people from social classes when listening. Stereotypically, male dominance in the sales industry should mean that women are subordinate and, therefore, they avoid establishing eye contact. However, researchers have found that this is not usually the case. Studies shows that when women are positioned in senior roles, they maintain eye contact for longer when speaking, while men look the other person in the eye more when listening (McQuiston & Morris, 2009).
In the consideration of personal space as an expression of how people feel towards those near them, men are found to react more negatively when people get too close. Generally, they prefer maintaining a bigger distance between themselves and others, while women are more comfortable with people getting close to them. Females use the reduced interpersonal distance between themselves and other people around them to express friendliness or warmth. As a sales person, conventional wisdom maintains that most convincing interactions take place within the personal zone, giving women greater advantage compared to men, who may not prefer the presence of others within their personal spaces (McQuiston & Morris, 2009).
When people get so close that their bodies touch, they enter into another level of non-verbal communication; one with different results depending on the gender. With regard to touch as a kind of human communication, it has been found that males easily initiate this form more compared to females (Herteinstein & Keltner, 2011). The interpretation and reactions towards a touch also differs according to gender. In many cases, women more often than men interpret such contact from a member of the opposite sex that is not familiar to them as a violation of their privacy (Herteinstein & Keltner, 2011). Furthermore, when women perceive a touch from a stranger as sexual, they feel more strongly against the act. On the other hand, the more men see a touch from a stranger of the opposite sex as a sexual act, the more the touch will be considered warm, friendly, and pleasant (Herteinstein & Keltner, 2011). Therefore, for the same act, men and women express different kind of reactions due to the difference in their perception of what the contact meant. Being aware of the dangers that may arise from a stranger touching them, women tend to react negatively to a stranger’s touch. On other hand, given the level of confidence men have and the fact that they are physically stronger, they may not perceive the touch from a stranger as a threat.
Studies on gender differences in non-verbal communication further revealed that sex also determines the accuracy rather than the speed with which individuals notice and understand body language (Sokolov et al., 2011). The effect of gender in this respect, however, is modulated by the emotional content of actions. Women have been found to excel in the accurate recognition of angry knocking, for instance, while men succeed in recognizing happy actions. The study by Sokolov, Kruger, Enck, Krageloh-mann, and Pavlova (2011) also found out that women were better at recognizing emotionally neutral door knocking. Stereotypically, it is expected that while members of the female gender possess soft skills in social perception and have greater sensitivity to positive emotional cues, those of the male gender may be better at recognizing negative menacing expressions. This belief may be based upon the different social-cultural and evolutionary responsibilities assumed by either gender. The higher female gender sensitivity has been linked to their responsibilities as the primary caregivers of their children. On the other hand, social cognition attributed to the male gender is linked to the active interactions and instant reactions so that their emotional perception relates to their motor programs.
Consequently, the gender differences in reading body language may be the result of the fact that they are neurobiological sources, and the mental mechanisms that underpin body language reading are sex-dependent (Jazin & Cahill, 2010). Brain stimulation in women has been found to be more bilaterally distributed, seemingly resulting in more involvement of both brain hemispheres than in men in the identification of facial expressions. Furthermore, reports indicate that females exhibit stronger event-related potential response to emotional faces (Sokolov et al., 2011). However, these findings remain controversial as researchers continue to investigate the causes of differences in gender non-verbal communications. What remains clear is that the differences truly exist and are manifested in many different ways. The distinction in reactions to some of the non-verbal cues between males and females indicate possible differences in perception, understanding, and interpretation of some of the non-verbal forms of communication. A number of the differences have been attributed to social and cultural expectations, while others linked to physical characteristics. The role of the brain remains a subject for discussions and studies as researchers seek to understand these characteristics in greater details.
Carli, L.L., Loeber, C., & LaFleur, S.J. (1995). Nonverbal behavior, gender, and influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(6), 1030-1041.
Hall, J. A., L.B. LeBeau, J. Gordon, J., and F. Thayer, (2001). Status, gender, and nonverbal behavior in candid and posed photographs: A study of conversations between university employees. Sex Roles, 44, 677-692.
Hertenstein, M.J. & Keltner, D. (2011). Gender and the communication of emotion via touch. Sex Roles, 64, 70–80.
Jazin E., Cahill L. (2010). Sex differences in molecular neuroscience: from fruit flies to humans. Nat. Rev. Neurosci., 11, 9–17.
McQuiston, D.H., Morris, K.A. (2009). Gender differences in communication: Impact for salespeople. Journal of Selling & Major Account Management, 9(1), 54 – 64.
Sokolov, A.A., Kruger, S., Enck, P., Krageloh-mann, I., & Pavlova, M.A. (2011). Gender Affects Body Language Reading. Front Psychol., 2, 16.