Cooperation vs. Competition: Gender Differences in Communication

tough boy, smiling girlIn my fiction, I like to explore the conflicts that occur when well-meaning people communicate at cross-purposes. People with different personality preferences have different goals in mind when they speak. Gender differences increase the opportunity for misunderstanding.

This potential source of conflict may be problematic for society as a whole, but it’s great for fiction writers. How can you use differences in communication styles to increase tension in your fiction?

How Men Communicate

According to marriage counselor Lesli Doares, male communication focuses on problem-solving, jockeying for position, and creating boundaries to establish independence. Testosterone makes men sensitive to angry faces. Anger gives men energy: it increases competition and calls them to action. But this sensitivity to anger also teaches men to resist showing emotion. They tend to avoid eye contact, because it can be seen as threatening. As a result, they may misinterpret signs of distress—such as frustration, confusion, or worry—as anger. Moreover, men’s ability to empathize with others is diminished when they’re agitated. Under stress, they often pull away.

How Women Communicate

Women, by contrast, communicate to make connections, build consensus, and minimize differences. Oxytocin leads them to focus on bonding activities. They chat to look for common ground and to establish a sense of community. Women are good at reading subtle emotions. They find competition and conflict to be threatening. They tend to soften directive statements by phrasing them in the form of a question—”Can you take out the trash?”—even though they expect compliance. Under stress, their ability to empathize deepens.

Inherent Conflict

It’s easy to see how, in early human society, these differences in communication styles served the species well. While the women were at the campsite gathering food and caring for the children, men were out hunting game and protecting the tribe against threats. Yet in romantic relationships—or any other relationships between men and women—these diametrically opposed communication styles can create endless frustration, misunderstanding, and even distrust. When a woman chats to create camaraderie, the man goes into problem solving mode. She takes this to mean that the man thinks she’s incapable of solving her own problems. Instead of feeling supported, she feels belittled. The man misinterprets her hurt feelings as anger. He doesn’t understand why she’s angry when he was just offering the helpful advice that he thought she wanted.

Note that the male communication style contains similarities to that of Thinking types, while the female communication style contains similarities to that of Feeling types. But personality preferences are just that—preferences. They don’t necessarily reflect ability. Under stress, women who prefer Thinking may be better able to empathize with others than men who prefer Feeling.

In your own fiction, use these gender differences in conjunction with personality preferences to enrich the character development and deepen the conflict.

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4 thoughts on “Cooperation vs. Competition: Gender Differences in Communication

  1. It makes me smile reading this post 🙂 I’m plotting a new novel, and it’s giving me tons of gripe on an issue that’s never been a problem for me before: what is the gender of my characters? In past stories, gender has been the reliable thing, obvious and unchangeable. Not with this story. Two days ago, I was pretty sure the protagonist was a girl. Then I considered for a brief moment how being a boy might fit or better the story. I was a bit relieved when I found out it wouldn’t work. After doing a few scene trial runs in my mind, I found that a boy just handled the situations way differently than what the story called for. My antagonist was just as flustered with the boy protagonist. He was way too direct and not nearly enough contemplative.

    I decided that the issue was that I needed a character who received more than my male character would. When put under pressure, I needed for the character to think instead of act. And that’s exactly what testosterone was doing to my protagonist.

    Now I just need to decide what gender the younger sibling is. Any interesting tidbits of advice on familial relationship between an older sister and a younger sister/brother?

    • Fascinating dilemma! I love how you were able to resolve it.

      Regarding the gender of the younger sibling, my thought is that the protagonist might feel more protective toward a younger sister than toward a younger brother. Girls tend to have a softer exterior, while boys tend to have a tougher exterior. This may not reflect how vulnerable they are internally, however. Perhaps a younger sister might have more inner strength than the older sibling gives her credit for, or a younger brother might be more easily hurt than the older sibling realizes. Boys are expected to play tough even if they don’t feel tough. Girls don’t face the same expectation — instead, they’re expected to be “ladylike,” which often means passive. Girls and women tend to play down their own accomplishments in order to fit in with the group.

      Hope that helps!

      • I love it when people talk psychology X3 Truly, I’ve taken two psychology classes and toyed with the idea of minoring in it. It’s so fun to just listen to, all the ramifications and science and things-unable-to-be-proven-scientifically that people try to prove scientifically. On the other hand, its amazing the amount of things that people know intuitively that psychology puts into words.

        I had a strange feeling you were going to say what you said. I think right now I’m afraid of the younger sister phenomenon because of the Hunger Games. There is a point where certain ideas are less digestible after a book becomes famous for it, but having younger sisters happens! A lot! I have one XD But thanks. If anything, you tickled my ears with psychology 🙂

  2. Pingback: Women’s Fiction: Genre, Not Gender | Women Unplugged

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