Cross-Cultural Communication between Men and Women

Term Paper 2006 11 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


In the recent history of linguistics, there have been various approaches to analyse women’s and men’s speech. It was the goal of these studies to find out if men and women speak differently. Their speech behaviour was analysed in respect to phonology, lexical choice and usage as well as interactions between men and women in discourse. Traditionally, sociolinguists have looked at gender in discourse in connection with ethnic background, age, level of education and socio-economic status. Many theories claim that differences in language result from the male tendency to dominate women, and have seen female speech behaviour as a deviation from male speech norms. Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, has developed a different model. She claims that male-female communication is cross-cultural. Men and women may grow up in the same country, in the same society and culture, but they are members of different genders, different subcultures. Men and women talk differently: they apply different speech norms and have different expectations for their interlocutors. Misunderstandings between the sexes easily arise in discourse. In the following I will elaborate on the nature of the two different cultures, their origins, and give examples on how the gender-related cultural norms affect language. Although some of these speech-norms are apparent in western cultures, the main focus will be on Anglo-American culture.

Deborah Tannen regards men and women as belonging to two different cultures. The juxtaposition of power on the male side and solidarity on the female side is the key difference between their communities. Other differences in attitudes and values are results of this contrast. Gender is not just biological sex. In linguistics, genderlect refers to an acquired form of speech behaviour that individuals learn from early on. Children learn how to behave from parents and, more importantly, from their peers. Interaction in same-sex groups of children can explain or hint at the psychological behaviour that members of each sex develop. In the male community, power and status are important values that every man will endeavour to attain and maintain. Men perceive life in hierarchies, and continuously struggle to show or defend their status in society. In communication, too, one is always one-up or one-down. Furthermore, men value independence, their language creates distance.

The female world differs in attitudes and values. Women live in communities. Instead of regarding life as containing hierarchical order, they cooperate and form networks. They value intimacy and will often try to show similarity. They get involved into each others’ lives and form close relationships with one another. The attitudes shown above are reflected in men’s and women’s behaviour as well as in their language. In communication with members of their own sex, expectations of the interlocutor’s utterances and reactions are fulfilled. However, when men and women engage in discourse, many misunderstandings can arise and result in unhappiness, disappointment or even bad feelings towards each other.

Due to different cultural values and attitudes, the same words can be interpreted differently by men and women. For example, the words status and power carry different associations for men than they do for women, just as connotations for intimacy vary for each gender. To explain a speaker’s ways of thinking, I will use the natural semantic metalanguage, as it consists of words that are free of associations and connotations. Cultural scripts explain intentions, expectations, attitudes and values in a simple and universally comprehensible way.

As mentioned above, women seek to achieve solidarity and a feeling of community in relationships. This norm can be observed when two women talk about troubles, as they express similarity and intimacy. When a woman tells a female friend about a problem, the addressee will express understanding, that she knows what the situation is like and maybe even say that she has or has had the same problem. One example is the following exchange:

W1: Oh I’m so stressed, there is so much work I have to do. There is always an essay to write, and as soon as you get done with one of them, you have to start working on another one right away.

W2: Yeah, I know just how you feel. I’m totally stressed as well![1]

This exchange shows how women seek to establish connection. They will support the interlocutor and try to make them feel better by showing understanding. Furthermore, a woman’s reaction allows for the conversation to keep going without forcing a change of topic, as women tend to talk about their problems for a long time. A long discussion of this kind will make women feel better, nourish the relationship and make them feel closer and more intimate with each other. This prolonged discussion will show the women’s involvement and interest they have in each others’ lives.

Men respond differently to the expression of a problem. When addressing a man with this problem, the conversation can look something like this:

W: Oh I’m so stressed, there is so much work I have to do. There is always an essay to write, and as soon as you get done with one of them, you have to start working on another one right away.

M: Don’t worry, you’ll be alright. I’m sure you’ll get it done in time.

His answer will not satisfy a woman, it will make her feel like her problem is being belittled or not understood at all. She expects the man to support her in her feelings and show understanding. The man, however, gives the impression of being superior, as he does not show or admit that he has or had the problem himself. Instead of showing solidarity, the man stresses his difference and distances himself from the woman’s problem. As receiving a solution to her problem was never on the woman’s mind, this response will not allow for the conversation to go on about the same problem, and the topic will have to be changed. This will evoke the effect that he doesn’t show sufficient interest in her problems, as he does not invite her to talk about it more. No feeling of involvement and intimacy will be evoked.


[1] Exchanges rely on personal communications


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The Australian National University – English Department - Australian National University
Cross-Cultural Communication Women Cross Cultural




Title: Cross-Cultural Communication between Men and Women