Fundamentally, men and women have a tendency to perceive the same messages—verbal or nonverbal—to have different meanings. We often stereotype men as poor communicators and many fulfill that expectation. With the advent of modern communications, both men and women find it easy to hide their feelings behind email and text messages. This lack of face-to-face communication often perturbates miscommunication between the sexes. Clearly, both genders could benefit from trying to better understand the differences between each other’s communication styles. And yet, why does this happen so infrequently?
The disparity between communication styles derives partly from the way our brains are wired. In The Couple Checkup, Doctors Olson, Olson-Sigg, and Larson conclude, “The fact that a male’s brain hemispheres are not as well connected as a female’s means it is biologically more difficult for men to express emotion.” Further research suggests women, more so than men, are more interested in and willing to express love and engage in romantic commitment; however, several studies contradict our assumptions and conclude that men are actually more likely to hold certain romantic beliefs than women.
In the female brain, a stronger connection between the left and right side of the brain promotes a stronger connection between language and emotion with a higher capacity for verbal-emotive functioning. The male brain, on the other hand, remains primarily suited for executing visual-spatial tasks, building systems, and communicating more through actions than words—results some scientists attribute to lower levels of serotonin and oxytocin in the male brain.
Higher testosterone levels and more white brain matter in the male brain allows men to focus on one thought or process at a time without interference. Where the male brain exploits the ability to analyze complex systems, the female brain’s larger and deeper limbic system excels in promoting empathy and communication.
In understanding the differences between male and female brains, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen suggests that although men exhibit male brains and women have female brains, the distinction between the “types” of brains does not solely equate to gender. In his book, The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain, Baron-Cohen explains how there are men with female brains and women with male brains as well as both sexes with “balanced brains.” His point makes sense with women who pursue traditionally male-dominated professions like engineering, architecture, and computer programming—fields more predisposed to the logical, systematic, visual-spatial wiring of the male brain. The same logic holds for men who demonstrate a more female-oriented brain and excel in traditionally female-dominated professions like school-teaching, nursing, and social work—fields more in line with highly effective verbal communication, empathy, and a relationship-oriented mindset. In our romantic relationships, there are men who communicate well, and women who do not. Just as there are women who lack empathy and men who espouse compassion. To a certain extent, the biology of the male and female brains reveals only part of the story. Each of us is wired slightly differently with the propensity to unveil personality traits associated with one type of brain more than the other.
In Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Dr. John Gray elaborates on our gender differences. A few key points from his work:
- Men define their sense of self through their ability to achieve results; women define a sense of self through their feelings and the quality of their relationships.
- Men cope with stress by withdrawing; women cope with stress by reaching out and talking.
- Men want to feel needed; women want to feel cherished.
- Men want appreciation and admiration; women want respect and devotion.
- Men and women not only communicate differently, but they “think, feel, perceive, react, respond, love, need, and appreciate differently.”
According to Harvard Ph.D., Daniel Goleman, a behavioral sciences expert and bestselling author of Working with Emotional Intelligence, research on emotional intelligence in thousands of men and women indicates women, on average, are more aware of their emotions. Furthermore, women tend to be more pragmatic than men when entering a romantic relationship and express greater empathy as well as greater interpersonal skills. In contrast, men appear to be more adaptive, self-confident, and optimistic in stressful situations. Dr. Goleman also notes how men appear to be socially insensitive, driven less by a biological trait and more by men’s perception of sensitivity as a sign of weakness. Men also generally have higher levels of the chemicals that promote lust, whereas women have higher levels of chemicals that urge attachment. Men appeal more to women’s physical features, whereas women are more drawn to a man’s signs of power and wealth. In general, however, the gender similarities outweigh the differences. The merits and limitations of both sexes average out, implying their overall emotional intelligence remains on par with one another.
Other authors, including Dr. Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and former fellow at Stanford California’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, expand on gender differences. In her book, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, Tannen explains the way men and women miscommunicate. From her perspective, men view conversation as a method to transmit information and negotiate for power; women use conversation to maintain interaction and negotiate for closeness. Women aren’t looking for answers; they’re looking for compassion and understanding. Men communicate advice; women seek connection and understanding. Men live in a world of status; women live in a world of connections. Men seek control; women seek understanding. Men value differences; women value similarities.
With so many discrepancies between the way men and women communicate, it’s amazing we get along at all. One 2010 study conducted by authors Olson, Olson-Sigg, and Larson focused on communication as a crucial gauge of marital happiness. The study analyzed the marriages of over fifty thousand married couples who answered questions about their relationships. According to the study results, the majority of the fifty thousand couples in the study wished their partners would share their feelings more often. And more than two thirds of the couples in the study admitted to having difficulty asking their partner for what they want. Slightly less than two thirds declared their partner didn’t understand how they feel. Obviously, the study didn’t encompass every married couple in North America—estimated at sixty million according to recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates, but the study of fifty thousand married couples makes a statement nonetheless.
According to the latest figures from the Pew Research Center, the number of married couples in the United States hovers at a record low of 51 percent with a trend toward more single Americans than married within the next few years. No doubt, many cultural, economic, and sociological forces influence our beliefs and behavior, but as the previously mentioned study alludes, the lack of effective communication between married couples hinders their ability to sustain a meaningful and lasting romance.
In an effort to bridge the communication gap between the sexes, Dr. Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages for Singles, describes the following five love languages in detail:
- Words of Affirmation
- Quality Time
- Receiving Gifts
- Acts of Service
- Physical Touch
In general, most women cherish and appreciate verbal declarations of love, quality time, small gifts—especially flowers—acts of service without having to constantly prod their man for help, and affection through holding hands or giving warm hugs without the pretense of sex. As Dr. Chapman points out in his book, “We can receive love through all five (love languages), but if we don’t receive our primary love language, we will not feel loved even though the person is speaking the other four.” He goes on to state, “We tend to express love to others in a language that would make us feel loved, but if it is not his or her primary love language, it will not mean to them what it would mean to us.”
I encourage you to read The Five Love Languages for Singles and make an effort to identify your own love language. Then communicate your love language to your partner and invite them to share their love language with you. As Dr. Chapman explains, to gain a better understanding of your partner’s love language, observe how he or she expresses love towards others. Learning to identify how our partners give and receive love affords us the opportunity to gain a better understanding of our needs and desires in the most basic sense.
Although it’s important to understand why gender differences exist, we should focus on learning to adapt to our differences and accept them. We can’t change how people think and feel and communicate with one another, but we can learn to recognize their differences in communication styles. Keep the communication channels open. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but learn to ask them with tact. No one likes to feel they’re under interrogation with piercing inquiries. Ladies, I can tell you this is a major turn-off for men, especially in the early stages of a new relationship. Run a background check, Google his name, and explore his history with due diligence, but don’t grill your date like a tax auditor unless you intend for your first encounter to be your last.
Anyone who’s dated for several years or endured a rocky marriage has been burned before. No one likes to have their heart broken, and of course no one likes to be treated poorly. But don’t let a previous bad experience spoil the potential for new prosperity with someone else in your life. Gender differences remain a fact of life. Whether you’re on your first date or you’ve been married for twenty years, it’s never too early or too late to invest quality time with your partner on a deeper emotional level; to understand their needs and desires; to solicit feedback about their view of the world and your relationship; to understand their primary love language; to accept them for who they are; and to recognize that although the communication between men and women will never be perfect, there will always be opportunity for improvement and growth. As author Gregory Godek wrote in 1001 Ways to be Romantic, “Underneath all our differences in style, men and women all want the same things: to be loved, cared for, respected and appreciated; to have a place of safety and security where we can be ourselves, grow, experiment, and mature.”
The Help and Hindrance of Modern Technology
A lot has changed in the last decade or so, thanks in part to advances in modern technology. Almost everyone I know has long since tossed their landline phone and gone wireless for their primary point of contact. Hybrid-electric vehicles continue to proliferate. Computing power that once consumed a desktop tower can now be had in the palm of your hand. Video rental stores are nearly extinct. Cathode ray televisions have gone the way of the dinosaur. Ebooks are flourishing. And the concept of social networking has exploded to global proportions. The likes of MySpace and Facebook have transformed the way we connect with our friends and family. Fold Skype, FaceTime, Viber, VoxOx, and Google Voice into the mix, and you have a cyber super-highway with millions of virtual connections riding the Internet. Our “vehicles” of communication have evolved from cell phones to smartphones. With a BlackBerry, iPhone, Droid, Galaxy, Sidekick, or any number of other communication devices designed to handle voice, video, and text, we have the capability to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time with the press of a button. We can check our stocks, our sports scores, our home surveillance systems, and the temperature of our rump roast simmering in the kitchen crock pot—all from our jobs, our cars, or standing in line for groceries.
The automobile transformed the way we travel, and the Industrial Revolution transformed the way we work. The Internet transformed the way we gather information, and now, a modern communications revolution has transformed the way we relate to one another from both business and personal perspectives. On the upside, we applaud technology for promoting more robust and more efficient person-to-person connectivity. On the downside, it comes with a price. I’m not necessarily referring to money here. I’m alluding to the negative impacts modern communications technology imposes on our relationships, including:
- Erosion of Personal Communications
- Wasted Time
- Health Hazards
Erosion of Personal Communications
Despite the ubiquitous nature of our smartphone devices and always-on Internet connectivity, our ability to engage in and sustain meaningful, intimate conversation has sharply declined in recent years. With more texting and less talking, people communicate more like machines than human beings. Cute acronyms and clever emoticons add a new dimension to our wireless dialogue exchange the way hypertext transformed the way we navigate through electronic text. The trouble is, we’re losing sight of the human desire to convey more than basic information. The old AT&T slogan, “Reach Out and Touch Someone,” implied there was more going on than simple information exchange. The delivery of fiber optic transmission lines meant we could hear someone from around the world as if they were in the room next door. Every breath, every pause, every sigh, and every nuance of our conversation could be transmitted at the speed of light. Why was this so important? Because conversation had meaning.
At that time, we drove technology to serve the purpose of creating more intimate communications. If you couldn’t be with your loved ones in person, a phone call was the next best thing. Yet today, with exception of Skype or FaceTime and a few video cell phone applications, technology serves less to bring us closer together and more to facilitate communication about as intimate as a walkie-talkie dialogue.
It’s become too easy to hide behind a façade of good intentions or shun our own accountability by conveying abbreviated messages instead of reaching for the telephone to communicate our intentions, clarify our positions, explain ourselves, apologize for our wrongdoings, or to simply say, “I love you.”
With emails, text messaging, and instant messaging, we’ve lowered the bar from intimate communications to superficial. Instead of actually laughing out loud at someone’s humorous comment, we send a quick LOL. Instead of calling to say, “I love you,” we send a smiley face. Computers send data back and forth as a function of command and response between machines in a sterile, austere environment more suited to inanimate objects than human beings. Folks, we aren’t meant to communicate like machines!
Clearly—email, texts, and instant messages serve a purpose in our world. These forms of one-dimensional communication accommodate established relationships by providing an alternative means of communication in various situations. But as a blanket statement, our romantic relationships will benefit if we focus less on texting and more on actually talking to one another.
In today’s fast-paced, on-the-go, cell-phone-driven society pushing constant email, instant messages, and limitless text messaging, we’ve become increasingly susceptible to leading what I call almost pseudo-anonymous lives. People operate in cyberspace behind a computer monitor and a cryptic screen name, a virtual avatar of their real selves. Now we text instead of calling, substituting the one-dimensional string of alphanumeric characters for a real live voice-to-voice conversation. Instead of evolving toward more articulate communication, we’ve devolved into something akin to a modem-to-modem or router-to-router communication. Machines communicate between one another without passion or prejudice; without context or emotional accountability. The more we as human beings continue to communicate this way—in lieu of an actual voice-to-voice, or better yet, live conversation—the more we align ourselves with machines instead of living, breathing, individuals.
No doubt, modern technology has a place in our lives and in our romantic relationships. And mobile communications can be a wonderful thing with the ability to facilitate voice, video, and text messaging between one another. But as Lewis, Amini, and Lannon succinctly state in A General Theory of Love, “Advances in communications technology foster a false fantasy of togetherness by transmitting the impression of contact—phone calls, faxes, e-mail—without its substance.”
I find romance without substance akin to driving a car without tires. In theory you can do it, but in reality, you won’t get very far. The bonding and emotional power we receive during face-to-face communication has no substitute. Granted, the reality of demanding jobs, long commutes, health issues, parenting responsibilities, or any number of other trials and tribulations life imposes on us makes face-to-face communication difficult if not impossible at times. In these instances, we must select the best alternative. But given the choice, our romantic relationships demand our attention in a multidimensional communication environment and not strictly text or email. Positive, meaningful, productive, and periodic communication has been, and always will be, essential to a meaningful and lasting romance. If used correctly, modern technologies can help in this regard; they can also hurt us. Life is about choices and how we decide to spend our time. Choose wisely, and modern communications technology can help us communicate with one another more efficiently as long as we don’t lose sight of our abilities to communicate in a meaningful manner. For as Dr. Vincent Peale wrote in The Power of Positive Thinking, “Learn to listen to behavior as well as to words that are spoken. People are often trying to communicate with you, for good or bad, through the way they act as well as by what they say.”