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He Said, She Heard

Adapting to gender

A friend of mine bought a puppy and named him Zebedee. As Zeb grew he became harder and harder to manage, so my friend went to dog obedience school. There he got a revelation.

He learned his words ("Zeb, you naughty dog, if you do that one more time I'm going to have to spank you") were simply noise to the canine mind. Dogs, he learned, communicate nonverbally. They signal dominance by being "top dog"—literally! The "alpha male" stands over the underlings of the pack, and all canines seem to understand this message.

So my friend was taught to play alpha male. He would roll Zeb on his back, hold the dog's head in both hands, and look him in the eye. Zeb got the message, and so did my friend. To communicate with Zeb you have to speak canine.

There's a principle here for all communicators: we must adjust to our audience if we hope for them to adjust to our message. We have to speak a language they understand. Missionaries call it "contextualization." And translators use "dynamic equivalence." With communication between men and women, the issue is called "genderlects."

Each of us has a dialect—a Southern drawl, a Midwestern twang—and a genderlect. According to communication scholar Deborah Tannen, genderlects account for much of the mystification between men and women. We try to communicate one thing, but when the message is filtered through the receiver's grid, it takes a new shape.

This article focuses on how to minimize communication breakdown when men speak to women.

Try a new direction

Since smooth interpersonal relations are a high value for women, they tend to be less direct than men. Women are more likely to avoid confrontation by leaving the other person as many options as possible. Thus, when a woman is hungry, a conversation might go like this:

Michelle: "Do you want to eat somewhere?"

Robyn: "Are you getting hungry?"

Michelle: "Yeah, a little."

Robyn: "Me too. Do you think we should eat?

Michelle: "Sounds good to me. Where do you want to go?"

A man might say, "I'm hungry, let's eat," but that method would feel confrontational or brusque to a woman. Indirection fosters communion.

This knowledge has saved my marriage (note the hyperbole, irony, and shock value used for effect—a male tactic). My wife uses indirection when deciding what to wear: "Should I wear the blue one or the red one?" These discussions used to frustrate me like a blackberry seed in the teeth. I thought she actually wanted my advice, and as we all know, advice is designed to solve problems. I didn't care which she wore—she looks great in both—so I would arbitrarily choose the red one. And then she would hem and haw and generate reasons against the red one!

The blackberry seed nestled deep.

I would say, "Well, OK, wear the blue one. It looks great too." Then she would object to the blue, and the seed wedged down near the gum line. Little did I realize that she was speaking "female" and I was speaking "male." I wanted to solve the problem, but she wanted me to join her in the trauma of decision making. When she argued against my choices, I thought she was belittling my advice, but actually she was inviting me into her world.

Knowing this phenomenon has revolutionized our talks. Now when she asks about the red one or the blue one, I put a look of consternation on my face and respond, "Well, I don't know. The red one has certain qualities. But the blue one has advantages, too. What do you think?" She catches on to my fumbling attempts to speak "female" and we laugh.

Other tools of indirection are qualifiers ("you've probably already thought of this"), non-specific vocabulary ("it's pretty far"), and an upward inflection of the voice so that the statement "Put it over there" sounds like a question. These tools encourage bilateral, not unilateral, decision making.

This isn't just a female phenomenon. Indirection is favored in many parts of the world. Just try starting business negotiation in Japan by saying, "OK, this is what you want, and this is what I'm prepared to give. Do you want to bargain or not?"

However, the male genderlect still dominates most public speaking in America, and women would do well to learn to communicate directly at times. With some audiences they need this arrow in their quivers. Conversely, men need to hear themselves through women's ears and realize that their directness may seem authoritarian or rude. To get the idea, compare these statements:

Male genderlect: "If you want joy, follow these three steps."

Female genderlect: "We all want joy, don't we? I know I do. How can we get it? Maybe the first thing we could do is… ."

Here's a direct statement for male readers: Preaching is more than a report of what you discovered in the study; it is also a means of establishing and nurturing relationships.

Stop speechifying

Even in interpersonal communication, men tend to make speeches. They "hold forth," displaying their expertise or calling attention to self. Communication establishes the alpha male of the pack. Men interrupt to get in their two cents worth, but women interrupt to show support for the one speaking. They finish sentences, add their own insights, and use non-verbal sounds ("oh," "hmm," "uh huh") to commune with the one speaking. What to men sounds like interrupting, to women is each person in the conversation contributing.

This approach to communication leads a woman to "match" or reflect her partner's statement:

Man: "I didn't sleep well last night."

Woman: "Oh! Me neither. That happens to me all the time."

A man may hear this as one-upsmanship. He may escalate his complaint: "My back ached all night." And the woman, attempting to create rapport may say: "I know what you mean. Mine hurts too." The conversation may cycle downward with the man taking offense where none is meant and the woman not understanding why an argument is forming.

Listening and feedback are usually associated with interpersonal communication, but they have implications for preaching, too. For example, I recommend that preachers incorporate dialogue into their sermons. (See the article in this volume on that topic.) Sprinkling dialogue into sermons fosters relationship. It avoids an authoritarian tone by showing respect for listeners. I include at least one section of dialogue in nearly every sermon I preach.

Plotless but not pointless

Men tend to tell stories that are funny, dramatic, and full of remarkable action ("I remember the time I fell off the cliff"). Women tend to tell stories that deal with the everyday and typical ("Last week at the doctor's office, the receptionist was rude to me").

Men's stories emphasize chronology, but women's don't. To men, women's stories seem to meander. A man's story has clear conflict and builds to a clear climax, often concluding with a moral or a punch line, or at least clear resolution. Women's stories (to men) may seem to end with a whimper, not a bang.

These differences are clearly seen in movies—"chick flicks" and "guy movies." I realize I'm in danger of stereotyping (this whole article is guilty of that!), but Hollywood producers don't care if they stereotype. They care about making money, and they seem to know what appeals to men and women. They target audiences.

Anecdotal evidence

Some researchers have found that men often use expert testimony when they want to prove a point. Women often use anecdotes.

This was illustrated for me when I watched two of my students, Ben and Jessica, teach a large lecture class. Ben came to my office the day before the lecture seeking quotations, statistics, and any help I could offer to make his presentation "meaty" (his word). I showed him a quotation from the classical rhetorician Isocrates. Even though he had never heard of Isocrates, he was impressed, and Isocrates showed up in the lecture the next day. None of the students in the class had heard of him either, but that didn't stop Ben. Anybody with a name like Isocrates must know what he was talking about!

In contrast, Jessica quoted no authorities and cited no statistics. She sat on a stool before the class and engaged her peers in dialogue, using her listeners' own experiences to illustrate principles.

Arguing from experience is inductive. It starts from particulars and moves toward a point. Induction is an effective way to argue today since pluralism and relativism have undermined our allegiance to authority. If you want to prove that "it is more blessed to give than to receive," try backing up the authoritative scriptural statement with lots of examples and stories.

Some pastors incorporate testimony into their sermons or in the church service where the sermon is preached. For example, I heard a Valentine's Day sermon on how to better love your spouse. In the middle of the sermon, the preacher played a video of an interview with a woman who had been married more than 50 years. She was now a widow and physically unable to speak to all four services, but the taped interview was quite effective. We laughed, sighed, and yearned for the same kind of marriage this woman had known. My hunch is that the women in the audience were moved even more than I was.

Perhaps the best way to present arguments for mixed audiences is by combining genderlects. Quote an authority (male genderlect), but place the quote in a human context (female genderlect) by giving some details about the person. When quoting Horatio Spafford's hymn ("When peace like a river attendeth my way"), tell the story behind the words. When quoting Augustine ("Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee"), give some details of his life and conversion. Perhaps the most effective experiences to use are your own.

Genderlects are a fact of life. We need to deal with them just like my friend learned to communicate with Zebedee. We need to hear our words the way others receive them.

Jeffrey Arthurs, Ph.D., is the Professor of Preaching and Communication & Chair, Division of Practical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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