Mars and Venus - are you for real?
April 17, 2013 9:35 PM   Subscribe

Do men and women really have distinctly different communication styles. For those of you who are in healthy relationships (romantic love or platonic), is there a wedge in communication that you constantly have to go against your natural instincts and fine-tune in a way that you don't have to with same-sex friends? Is the stereotype true, do women need to 'talk it out' and men need to 'go to their cave'? Can women really improve the relationship by NOT talking about it and can men really improve the relationship by practicing reflective listening? Is there really a pre-programmed way to communicate based on your gender? Something in this widely-spread viewpoint really rubs me the wrong way, and I'm not sure if the cultural/societal views(at least in my area) regarding men/women relationships are in fact, entirely valid and its just my own personal issues that need work. What are your experiences?
posted by tenaciousmoon to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
So, one of the BS classes I had to take in college was "interpersonal communication," and in America, there are some broad generalizations about gendered communication styles that are true — things like how men tend to bond socially through shared experience, versus women bonding more through verbal communication. But most things are socialized, not innate, and really, there are so many exceptions that the rules aren't very predictive — what matters for a friendship or romantic relationship is that the negotiated communication styles work for both parties.
posted by klangklangston at 9:52 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Men" and "women" aren't absolute things. Gender is pretty variable and personalities are even more variable. It's likely that there are statistical trends to how people who identify as men tend to act in relationships, and vice versa for women, but it's never going to be universal and it's almost certainly at least as much about culture as biology.

Can't really get much more specific than that without details.
posted by LukeLockhart at 9:53 PM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

Platitudes and truisms work because in many ways people are alike. However, people are also different in many ways and so simplified analogies and handy heuristics don't always apply. Also, there's a lot of overlap between similarities and differences in people. Another way of viewing it is that in the aggregate people tend to act or be a certain way but individually they act or be or think in a totally different way from the aggregate. This means that there are (at least) two equally true answers to a question like Is the stereotype true? which are "Yes, definitely!" and "Almost never."
posted by carsonb at 9:55 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have had multiple counselors reference things like this, and it severely rubbed me the wrong way as well. My understanding is that these stereotypes (and resultant relationship advice) are based on how the genders are most commonly socialized in our society, thus even if the qualities aren't "innate," they occur frequently enough in practice that many people still find the generalizations to be useful or accurate in their own relationships.

Personally, I think that since we live in the 21st century and gender socialization is far from completely homogeneous these days (if it ever totally was), this model is losing value faster than the culture at large is adapting the narrative. I also object to the fact that using such a stereotypically-gendered relationship model has the effect of reinforcing and legitimizing itself.

For example, the U.S. is full of people like my mother; who, when I complain of something my partner does which I find unacceptable, rolls her eyes and says "well, all men do that, it's just how they are." That, to me, is ridiculous; it's passive encouragement of something that is not innate but socially created - created by people like her, who, frustrated with their abilities to change their own (pre-socialized, adult, set-in-their-ways) partners, decide that acceptance and generalization is easier than critical thinking, and proceed to teach their own children that this type of dynamic is not only ok, it's actually inevitable.

In sum: the "Mars and Venus" stereotypes may help certain people work with and understand their own relationships or patterns, but an over-acceptance and faith in it leads to a sort of gender fatalism that allows unhealthy dynamics to self-perpetuate.
posted by celtalitha at 10:03 PM on April 17, 2013 [31 favorites]

Interestingly, I read Emotional Intelligence not too far back and in one story he talked about, when a group of girls was playing and one started crying, the others all comforted her until everything was all square, then resumed playing. When it was a group of boys, the one doing the crying was socially expected to go get his shit together, come back when he was done, and quit ruining everyone's fun. I'm not making a widely generalizable point, but it's something you may want to read if this sort of thing interests you.

In my personal experience, the "women want to talk about feelings" and "men want to go to their cave" is a stereotype that's true a lot of the time but there are almost as many exceptions. Personally speaking, I'm like Batman and I want to go in my cave and brood and the more someone starts pestering me about "what's wrong" and "you should talk about it", the more I pull away from them. I'm also not very good at comfort-type talk. You want to know what you should do? I'm great at that, be it telling you how to invest your retirement income or change your flat tire or whatever. You just want someone to comfort you or empathize? I'm terrible, please go talk to someone else.

With my wife, it works because I said upfront, "Hey, I need to go brood. I'll ask if I need help. Just leave me alone otherwise." But I had women break up with me because they thought there was some deep emotional life I wasn't sharing or they thought I didn't care about or understand their feelings because that's not the language I speak and if you say "I'm not upset!", I say "Okay, great" rather than trying to weasel it out.

For pre-programmed, I wouldn't say it's genetic or in-born. I would say that culturally speaking, men are encouraged to more or less repress their feelings and it's rigorously enforced through social stigma and fun-making, so we don't develop the wider vocabulary or empathetic skills that are more encouraged in women. "The guy who cries when he gets drunk" is a stereotype that we're encouraged to laugh at. There are jokes that men are only allowed to cry during Field of Dreams, Old Yeller, and The Iron Giant, only it's not really a joke.

But as celtalitha says, a lot of that is just a generational or cultural thing. To pick something kind of innocuous, when my mom found out baking was one of my hobbies, she thought it was hilarious like OH MY GOD ARE YOU GOING TO BE LUCY AND YOUR WIFE IS RICKY COMING HOME HAHAHAHAHA. My male friends didn't give me any shit for it because literally all of them do cooking or baking or really enjoy food in a serious way or something along those lines as a hobby or semi-serious thing. My friends are pretty progressive as a rule, so I'm not saying that's widely generalizable, but it definitely shows the gap in cultural pressures and expectations.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:13 PM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

This sort of talk rubs me the wrong way because it implies that culture, upbringing, and personality play no role in determining how a man or woman will respond to emotionally stressful situations. This simply isn't true. You might find certain patterns reoccurring within a culture, but it's unlikely to apply across all cultures.

For those of you who are in healthy relationships (romantic love or platonic), is there a wedge in communication that you constantly have to go against your natural instincts and fine-tune in a way that you don't have to with same-sex friends?

No. If anything, I have the opposite experience. I am a woman and I have a very hard time opening up to women. I don't relate to a lot of their experiences, possibly because I work in a very male-dominated field, possibly because my main hobbies are male-dominated, possibly because my mother was not particularly receptive whenever I chose to open up to her. I love my female friends and listening to them, but I have a really hard time telling them about my own internal life.

Is the stereotype true, do women need to 'talk it out' and men need to 'go to their cave'?

Not in my experience. Men have talked it out with me, and women have talked it out with me. Men have gone to their cave on me, and women have gone to their cave on me. It's really one of those things that have to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Can women really improve the relationship by NOT talking about it and can men really improve the relationship by practicing reflective listening?

Yes, but men can also improve the relationship by NOT talking about it and women can improve the relationship by practicing reflective listening. One of the biggest lessons I learned in one of my relationships was that even though I was the woman, I wasn't necessarily a good, reflective listener. Things got better after I choked down my pride and admitted that to myself. Similarly, I've dated men who had a specific axe to grind that they wouldn't let go of and kept bringing up. The relationship improved after that topic went away.

Is there really a pre-programmed way to communicate based on your gender?

There aren't many pre-programmed ways to communicate with anyone, regardless of gender. Communication is messy because human relations are messy.
posted by rhythm and booze at 10:51 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

These sort of platitudes take some common ways in which gender is socialized and decorate them with some cherry picking, confirmation bias, and peer pressure.
posted by desuetude at 10:56 PM on April 17, 2013 [13 favorites]

I think a lot of this Mars/Venus shit comes from the fact that relationships are hard, full stop.

If you're a straight person who always dates members of the opposite sex, it's easy to look at all the communication problems you've had in your relationships — your arguments and misunderstandings and differences of opinion and so on — and say "Oh god, men are so hard to talk to" (if you're a woman) or "Women are so hard to talk to" (if you're a man).

But if gender was really the problem, then you'd expect same-sex relationships to be completely straightforward, right? No arguments, no misunderstandings, no need to adapt to each other's communication style, no need to learn how to support each other, everything just flowing along naturally. Right?

Well, lemme tell you, it's not like that. I've dated men, and I've dated women, and either way there's just as much need for fine-tuning and adaptation and compromise and all that good stuff.

Here's the real situation, as far as I can tell: Communicating with your friends is easy, because there's actually very little at stake. Communicating with a romantic partner feels a lot harder, because there's so much more at stake — deeper feelings, higher expectations, stronger demands, more opportunities to fuck things up. And that's true no matter what gender your friends and romantic partners are.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 10:59 PM on April 17, 2013 [29 favorites]

Deborah Tannen (professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C) has several good books re communication, including You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation and
That's Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships

John Gray ("relationship counselor, lecturer, and author" with a dubious "PhD") is the source of the offensive, simplistic Mars/Venus books. For inexplicable reasons, 20 years ago Oprah thought he was special. Chances are, had she not been so enamored with the guy, the first book—Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus—would have been the last.
posted by she's not there at 11:07 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sorry for the double post, I was just reading this thread and the thought occurred to me.

I think the bigger problem is that we, individually, assume what we are experiencing is The Norm (as in that thread I linked) and we don't have a lot of tools for getting to know that other people are wired differently and how they work. Like I said in my post, some of the women I dated assumed I was concealing some rich emotional life or deep feelings within me because they had such rich emotional lives and feelings. They never understood that I just didn't. (At the time, I was working with dysthymia which severely blunted my emotions so I literally didn't have very strong feelings about anything unless it was how terrible everything was and how everyone hated me).

Part of the reason I was reading Emotional Intelligence was I had little understanding of really emotional people and reading books like that and various other things dealing with emotions was like reading about aliens. I just do not think in the way they do and couldn't have imagined that's how they were reacting because my point of reference was, well, me. But I like to think I'm a little more understanding now that I understand the thought processes a bit more.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:18 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am a man who is married to a woman. My wife often does the typical guy thing of trying to solve the problem when I am just looking for sympathy, and I often piss her off by offering nothing but sympathy when what she wants are concrete solutions to whatever problem it is she's discussing. Do men and women have distinct communication styles? On average, they probably do, but like anything having to do with human nature, nothing is universal.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:28 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

The reason I have to fine tune my communication in my relationship with my husband is because he's my husband, not because he's male. A serious romantic relationship is not the same as a friendship (mostly) (I mean, if I lived with my best friend and were raising a child with her, I'm sure I'd have issues communicating with her too). I brood, need my cave and so on, he problem solves and stifles emotions.
posted by geek anachronism at 11:36 PM on April 17, 2013

Well, yes...and no.

The first comment is correct - men and women are socialized to communicate differently, and when you break down interactions, you can see key differences: men are more likely to interrupt in order to "take control" of a conversation; women are more likely to avoid eye contact, or otherwise covertly ignore turntaking cues, if they want to keep control of a conversation. Conversely, women are more likely to communicate in a way that encourages consensus, and will also actively use cues to "prompt" the other speaker, or otherwise encourage turntaking in a conversation. Men are less likely to do this. Also, men are generally louder than women when in mixed groups; women generally are louder and more vocal when in a group of only women. Men and women use and interpret eye contact differently, bla bla bla. Such things can be useful to know sometimes when you are in a group setting, notice that some participants keep get railroaded, and wonder why.

But listen: a lot of this involves descriptions on a population level, not necessarily individual level. Ad this all starts to break down, and get way complicated, when you start looking at individuals, subcultures, international differences, women in male-dominated fields, men in female-dominated fields, etcetera.

And the truth is that communication styles between the sexes are actually far closer than we think - the differences are usually not that large, but culturally, we speak of them as though they were a chasm. This continues to maintain the perception that "men are x" and "women are y."

Generally, communication platitudes that get promoted in best-selling books are reductionistic and basically promote a bunch of sexist crap by misusing small bits of research.

There are communication and psych scholars who study this very thing, in massive quantities, so if you wanted to actually get into this, it would require reading academic journals.

Gottman is super hot now, and his findings are grounded in decent research though there are critiques that can be made of his interpretations if you wanted to get all meta and nerdy, and there are some other decent books by actual researchers out there.

But, yes, most popular stuff you read out there perpetuates a lot of binary ideologies.

i am a comm grad student, but not your comm grad student

posted by vivid postcard at 11:42 PM on April 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

Oh, also, remember: communication is ever-changing. Even concrete differences, backed up by legit research, can disappear in a generation. Or a decade! So some of what is presented as good research was good, but is now outdated. Or will be outdated soon.

So you should interact with individuals as individuals, because it helps control some of those concerns.
posted by vivid postcard at 11:50 PM on April 17, 2013

There are so many factors influencing communication style. Some people have a completely different communication style at work and in their personal relationships. Some may be greatly influenced by being an extrovert or introvert. Some may be influenced by the role models around them in their childhood. So the Mars/Venus thing is, as others have commented, a generalisation. This means that for all the examples you can find in favour of it, there's also examples against it. It fits in with a popular(ised) conception, and there are probably elements of truth in it. But it is reductionist and overly general and not terribly useful, especially as it emphasises division between people rather than stressing a variety of communication styles that might be helpful in different situations.

Something else you could delve into if you're interested in communication styles is the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense books by Suzette Haden Elgin. While they are focused on disagreements, there's plenty of other useful ideas about communication styles in there. (I don't think she's got it completely right either, but has many useful insights.)
posted by Athanassiel at 12:13 AM on April 18, 2013

Is the stereotype true, do women need to 'talk it out' and men need to 'go to their cave'?

I'm female and my instinct is to do the cave thing and my boyfriend's instinct is to talk it out immediately.

But the thing is that there are always exceptions to rules. Now is there any truth to the stereotype? (Is it a rule?)
I don't know how a theory could be formulated to test the stereotype and how it could be either verified or falsified (or anyway, looked at a bit less anecododally). Perhaps there's a wealth of literature on this and I just don't know any of it.
Anyway, people will continue saying stuff like "all men" and "all women" [add whatever stereotype you want] and it's hard to either confirm or dismiss such statements because there are always examples confirming whichever thing you want to say. People are biased in favour of data confirming their beliefs. Like so.
posted by mkdirusername at 12:37 AM on April 18, 2013

The communication problems I have with my opposite-sex partner are fundamentally the same ones I've had with both same- and opposite-sex friends. They're more in-depth and serious, of course, because after 13 years we've got a whole lot of things to communicate (or fail to communicate) about.

But essentially, my instinct is to do the 'cave' thing and minimize/avoid conflict forever in the hopes maybe it will just, I don't know, go away somehow. And I'm a woman. So no, I don't think there's some innate thing about my gender. There's some innate stuff about my gender socialization, some of which I got hit with, and some of which I for whatever reason did not.

There's certainly a thing about how culture interacts with gender. Other cultures, and other times, have had different ideas about how men vs. women communicate. Those ideas were probably just as generally-applicable, yet wrong in any individual case you want to mention, as the Mars v. Venus thing.
posted by Stacey at 6:10 AM on April 18, 2013

It's true that different kinds of people communicate differently.

But if you start assigning the specific people you know the role of That Kind of Person or This Kind of Person without letting them tell you what kind of person they are, you'll have problems.
posted by rtha at 6:28 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

The preferred way to solve problems varies from person to person and also from problem to problem.

Maybe women, on balance, in our culture, prefer to "talk it out," but you shouldn't assume that's true of any particular woman you meet. Maybe some particular woman wants to retreat into her cave. But then maybe a particular problem will come up where that particular woman, who prefers to withdraw and get over things on her own, generally, will be dealing with a particular problem that she wants and needs to talk out.

All that being said, it's useful to have an arsenal of many different ways to handle interpersonal problems, along with the ability to observe people with attention and compassion, and use empathy and/or direct communication to determine what they need in a particular situation.

So, knowing that sometimes, some people need time to work through an issue on their own before they are able to discuss it, and that it would be good to give that person some time and space, is a good thing to know. Knowing that sometimes, some people need to air everything out and feel heard, and "giving them space" will make them feel unloved and snubbed is also a good thing to know. The real trick, of course, is having the wisdom to know the difference, and the grace to give the other person what they need.

My husband and I got Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus as a gift on audiotape and listened to it mainly to mock it. But from time to time, we've actually found it helpful when we detect that there is some frustration in the communication between us to say, "Oh, wait, I'm being from Mars, do you want me to be from Venus right now?" or vice versa. And it's an nice shorthand that really means, "I love you and I want to give you what you need, without judging that what you need is good or bad."

In summary, human relationships are a land of many contrasts.
posted by BrashTech at 7:06 AM on April 18, 2013

Statistics are meaningless at the individual level. There could be scientific proof that 99 of 100 women communicate "this way", and you'd have no way of knowing if one particular woman was that one exception.

I think one would have better luck every time directly talking with their partner about their individual communication style. FWIW, I am a woman who definitely likes to walk away and cool down after a fight before talking about it.
posted by nakedmolerats at 7:24 AM on April 18, 2013

To follow on the nakedmolerats comment about statistics: it's also true that if 51% of women behave "this way", they can say "most women behave this way" and completely ignore the other huge 49% who don't behave that way.

I've seen studies where it was only 25 or 33%, and they still say "the tendency is to behave this way", especially if there are enough other choices such that no single one is higher, even though the aggregate is extremely higher.

For me, I rail against any system that defines behavior/personality by a group: gender, zodiac, birth order, the Chinese Year of the X, etc., because most often I find myself in the minority side. I do that right up until the point when I encounter a case where those stereotypes actually agree with the point I am making that time, so of course, yes all men are like that.
posted by CathyG at 8:54 AM on April 18, 2013

The communication styles bit in Men are from Mars... is the best part of the book and has helped me both in my relationships and in understanding myself better. The part on stereotypical and presupposed gender expectations, not so much.
posted by Orchestra at 9:16 AM on April 18, 2013

If you try to learn about others through stereotypes, you set yourself up for fail after fail.

In my experience, every human being is unique. That helps to explain why the communication style in each relationship I've been in has been unique to that relationship. If your experience differs, keep in mind that your relationships all have one thing in common, and that one thing is You.

So, maybe the issue isn't how men and women differ in how they communicate, but rather, it's a question of how you communicate in a relationship. I'm actually quite certain that's the case, but it's not entirely a bad thing since it gives you a place to begin to figure out what's going on and where things go wrong.
posted by 2oh1 at 1:34 PM on April 18, 2013

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