When I was in college, one of my professors spoke at an academic conference that her husband – a professor in a related field – also attended.
“How did I do?” She asked him.
“Why did you smile so much?” He asked in return.
The ensuing conversation between them revealed that while to my professor, smiling often during her presentation demonstrated confidence and created rapport, to her husband, smiling “too much” communicated a lack of confidence and of professionalism.
Of the many potential communication minefields at work, communication between men and women is a common challenge. Of course, every individual has her/his own communication style, and not every woman, or every man, communicates in the ways I am going to describe here. In the area of communication as in other areas, gender lines are blurry, since people’s personalities and interpersonal skills are far more complex than any gender definition.
And yet, in my experience as an HR consultant and career coach I have seen some of the following gender related communication styles – and misunderstandings – often enough to prompt me to share them, with the caveat that these situations will not apply to all women, or all men, or all the time.
Women may have a hard time making direct demands or requests, especially from superiors or colleagues, but also from subordinates. The way some women handle this challenge is by “padding” their request, either by making it a question instead of a statement (Do you think you could finish this for me by Monday?); by making it sound like they will never ask for anything else after this (I just want you to finish this by Monday); or by opening up a way out of the task for the other person (Please finish this by Monday – if you have the time.)
Women colleagues may instinctively understand why she is padding her request, and will therefore usually “get it” (She is demanding that I finish this by Monday, and is framing her request in a respectful and considerate style.) Some men, however, will take the statement at face value (She is giving me freedom to decide whether to finish the task by Monday, and she does not intend to make additional requests.)
Of course, if the task is not completed by Monday, the requester is disappointed and angry, and proceeds to make additional requests. The male employee may conclude that she is behaving unreasonably and is not keeping her own commitments.
How to say No
When a woman is at the receiving end of a professional request or demand, she may have difficulty directly refusing to do what she is asked. If that is the case, she may respond to a direct request by explaining the reasons that she cannot/ will not fulfill the request – without actually saying no – and then follow it up with an alternative solution. For example:
Employer: Rachel, please complete this by Monday.
Rachel: I really have a lot on my plate right now, with the conference coming up. How about we ask Sarah if she can do it/ push off the deadline until Thursday/ reconsider the need for this task.
Rachel meant to communicate the message, I wish I could do this, but I don’t have the time, so I’d like to help you find a different solution; and a female employer would generally read her message as she intended. However, some male employers may be confused and annoyed by her response, since she did not say clearly that she could not do it, but simply that she was busy with many things; and then she second guessed his management by implying that the task he considered urgent could be passed on, pushed off or discarded.
Nonverbal cues: understanding or agreement?
We all use nonverbal communication at work, such as making or avoiding eye contact, leaning forward or backward, nodding and smiling. The problem is that sometimes the same cue can mean different things to different people, and especially to men and women.
For example, when women are listening to a colleague present their point of view, they often use smiling, nodding and eye contact to communicate that they are listening and understand what is being said; whereas men will often only nod if they actually agree with what is being said, and will therefore assume that when a colleague nods, she is agreeing with him. When after nodding throughout his presentation, she proceeds to take his position apart, he may feel confused or even betrayed.
Another area where many men and women sometimes differ is eye contact. When a woman is listening closely to someone, she will generally make regular eye contact to communicate that she is paying attention. Some men, on the other hand, will look down or away when listening hard, because they find it easier to listen carefully that way.
A woman who is speaking to a colleague or manager, and sees that he is not making eye contact, may mistakenly assume that he is not interested in what she is saying or even that he is trying to put her down by ignoring her. As a result, she may feel either insecure or angry, and the communication is further obstructed.
Sharing is caring – or not?
A striking difference between gender communications styles at the workplace comes into play in the area of personal sharing. How much do I communicate with my colleagues about my personal life, my interests, my family, and even how I feel about issues at work?
For some women, engaging in mutually supportive communication about issues both inside and outside the workplace is a valuable component in creating positive professional rapport, trust and warmth, and is directly conducive to more a productive and enjoyable work environment. For some men, however, speaking about emotional or personal issues at work seems unprofessional and not necessarily essential for a positive work atmosphere.
Of course, every individual has different boundaries regarding personal sharing at work, and a colleague who reveals too much personal information for our comfort can make all his or her colleagues uneasy; in the same way, a coworker who rarely displays emotion or personal responses is generally viewed as cold and indifferent by his or her colleagues.
Awareness: a big part of the solution
A diverse workplace is a blessing. All kinds of personalities and styles come together to create a human mosaic that is generally enriching for everyone. However missed cues, misunderstood verbal or nonverbal messages, and unclear motivations for sharing or withholding can cause tension and frustration.
The remedy for these kinds of miscommunication is sometimes just a heightened awareness of different communication styles, and taking the time and consideration to realize that you may be misunderstanding or misunderstood. In this context, an awareness of common communication differences between genders can help us all to ensure that we are giving – and receiving – the right messages.