Human Life Education

Chapter Two: Communications - Male and Female

By Beverly Mead, MD, Professor Emeritus,
Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska
Beverley Mead MD tells us that men and women speak and listen in gender specific manners, and that women have compelling advantages over men. At the time of the address given below in 1977 he was a practicing clinical psychiatrist and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Creighton University in Omaha Nebraska, where he continues to practice today. His insights have helped many young couples to sort out their disagreements with less pain, and to make rules for solving problems. He gave the address which follows at a Human Life International Convention, and is used with permission.

The women are better, of course, not only at the non-verbal, but also at the verbal communications. Women talk more than men on the average. Women also talk faster and they talk better than men do.

It is not only that women have more speech, faster speech, and better speech; they also enjoy it more. For them it is often a source of pleasure and comfort and amusement. How many men do you know who would call up another man on the telephone just to chat? That's not typical of male behavior...

Communications also have a lot to do with romantic communication. Men are really not such good talkers; and they are not good listeners. I think this is probably because they have been conditioned to be the "strong silent type." But what silence really has to do with strength, I cannot say.

Whatever the reason, a man is likely to be a poor listener, and even to take some kind of unconscious pride in it. They believe in things like "Seek your own counsel" and so forth. The men see themselves as independent, silent, strong, self sustaining, determined, resolute; but it's the sort of determination that often makes them keep right on driving in the direction which they think is EAST, when all the signs indicate that they are really going WEST, even while the wife is trying to communicate subtly to him that the sun does not set in the east. It's the "resoluteness" of a man that keeps him from asking directions, when he really should be asking.

It is amazing, but if you ask many wives how often their husbands say to them, "I love you," you learn that very many men don't say this at all. They may say it in the dark, but never when the lights are on. But the expression of feelings is necessary many, many times. And it is most unfortunate that men do not learn to express their feelings. I would advise men to say often, "I love you." It may be difficult at first; your jaws may rattle, your vocal cords may squeak, but if you can manage to say, "I love you," and keep practicing it until you can say it with a sincere ring, it pays off.

This sort of communication is very, very important in marriage, and it is so often neglected. What really pays off is that bit of affection expressed at the right time.

During the counseling I have done - I have much experience in this - it has been my observation that almost every wife that I spoke with, sooner or later complained that her husband was taking her for granted. That is a very common phrase coming from wives. And you know, in all the years of my marriage counseling, I have never heard a husband say this. Maybe some do, but I don't think this is common.

The man does not see this as an insult. The man doesn't mind being taken for granted. For in fact, he sees that this is the way it should be. Being taken for granted - a good and reliable provider - is for him rather a compliment.

But because we project into others what we find in ourselves, many men do not realize that compliments are more important for their wives than they might realize. To a man it is not an insult to be taken for granted; to the woman it is not a compliment to be taken for granted. It is a little bit of an insult, or at least a cause for peevishness.

What mistakes do women make? I know at least one thing that is fairly common in communication. It is a kind of woman's neurosis - the kind of over-accentuated need in many cases, for a little extra attention.Men's neuroses involve more their inner insecurity, questions about how manly they are, how capable they are. Men need EGO support. Most men do. The younger they are, the more likely they are in need of it. Wives, being more subtly inclined, I believe, realize this and are more appreciative of this need, so they say, "I know, Charlie, that you can do it; you are capable of it; get in there and do it." Charlie will smile and say, "Oh, you're putting me on." But he grins from ear to ear...

[From another lecture]: Let us start at the beginning. Men and women develop differently and that is where these differences in communication begin. First, there are real biological differences. Boys do usually have more physical strength, so they may express themselves in more physical ways. Girls, in contrast, tend to be gentler and are more likely to seek less physical, less aggressive ways, of expressing themselves and of satisfying emotional needs. Added to the biological differences are social and cultural pressures, which tend to accentuate the biological differences. Boys are often encouraged, either subtly or openly, to be more aggressive, more competitive, or more "macho." Girls are taught to be more restrained, more artistic, more gentle. These well- meaning efforts by caring adults may create some common communicative values. Consider for a moment how one usually relates to a little boy, specifically how a man may relate to him, by saying such things as, "You sure are a good runner, and such a husky little fellow. I'll bet you're gonna be a football player when you grow up." Small wonder then, that little boys tend to over-evaluate the importance of physical prowess, aggressiveness, and "Succeeding," and maintaining pride in any and all circumstances. They also learn how painful an embarrassment can be if they do "lose face."

By contrast, what is one likely to say to a little girl? Perhaps, in recent days, she may be encouraged to assert herself as well, even as little boys may also sometimes be encouraged in their more passive, artistic interests. But it is still more usual for the little girl to hear: "My, what a pretty little girl! Isn't your dress cute! Did your mother make that for you?" Such attentions toward her are more likely to create in her mind a higher evaluation of attractiveness and more concern and attention to people's feelings. She tends to overrate the reaction or response of others to her appearance and actions, just as aggressive, competitive behavior became over-evaluated in the minds of the little boys.

These general differences in personality development are reflected in the differences in communication style. Girls, early on, tend to be more concerned with other people's feelings and noticing how these feelings are expressed. They pay more attention to how things are said, rather than just to what is said, and they certainly learn to be better at non-verbal communication. Perhaps, without even being aware of it, the little girl, and later the young lady, notices such things as a slight smile, a turning away, a sidewise look or a hesitation. However, these have to be pretty obvious for most boys to notice them. Of course, later in life, many men develop skills at reading people's feelings because it is important in business or for various professional skills, but then it has to be learned. For most women, it seems to come more naturally. It is not unusual for a disappointed wife, perhaps feeling neglected or ignored, to protest to her husband, "You should have known how I felt!" But, in truth, he probably did not know how she felt. This is not because he didn't care about her feelings, but because he just did not notice or, more likely, he did not correctly interpret what he did see or hear.

It has commonly been stated that women are more intuitive than men, but perhaps intuitive is not the right word for it. The truth is that women, in general, tend to be more observant, which, from a practical point of view, amounts to the same thing. Observing many little facts and actions and picking up on the subtleties and implications, allows many wives to arrive at certain opinions or conclusions which mystify their husbands, particularly when these conclusions may later prove to be accurate. After a party or similar social event, the typical husband usually has a general idea of who was there. But the wife not only knows who was there, but also what they were wearing, whom they were talking to, what was said, and sometimes what they wanted to say, but didn't dare. Being more observant, women catch more of the implications in conversation. Such little things may mean a lot to them. Not many men are so observant, or they don't listen so carefully.

Men converse directly and on one level of thought. They change only gradually from topic to topic. Women may also converse directly, but are more likely to talk around a topic by picking up on the inflections, looks, posture, or choice of words. These differing styles in conversation work fine when men are talking with men or women with women. It is when men converse with women that the problems start. For instance, a woman may say, "Do you think it would be a good movie to go see?" She is telling him that she would like to go to that movie with him. However, the man just says, "Yes," or "No" and misses the real message. When it is important for the man to get the message, women need to say what they mean directly.

All of these factors have an influence on communication style, manner, and content. The usual differences between the sexes, in regard to communication, should be understood, accepted, or allowed for, to avoid unnecessary contention. Certainly we know that women tend to be better talkers than men are. That is not an assumption, it has been measured. The average woman, compared to the average man, tends to talk faster, tends to talk more, and tends to talk with less difficulty. Serious speech problems are more common in adult men than in adult women.

With their better understanding of subtleties, implications, and more frequent communications, women seem to talk more with pronouns. One wife may talk to another about "what he said to her about it" and have a better chance of being understood. But a listening husband would probably be puzzled. The husband will be left out of that conversation until "he," "her," and "it" are identified.

In very much the same manner, a woman may be more likely to introduce a subject which seems to be out of context, but another woman is more likely to see a relationship than a man would be. One of the oldest marriage jokes describes a scene in which a husband and wife have been sitting quietly for some time when the wife remarks, "I don't think he really meant to do that!" The husband pauses only a moment and replies, "I think you're right!" This "joke" may not bring a smile to everyone, but it is worth repeating because the exchange also carries a moral. It is wise to avoid an argument over small misunderstandings, and a sense of humor always helps. Besides, in the exchange just described, it is more practical, and perhaps more fun, to just agree and then the husband can try to make a connection with what she's talking about. Giving himself a little time, he may be able to figure it out.

Women often try to communicate subtly, and often it just doesn't work. The wife may heave a little sigh (perhaps significant) and say, "It's been a long, hard day." What does she mean: We can't be sure, at least without knowing more about the circumstances, but what she really means might be, "Let's go out for a dinner." The husband, perhaps thinking on only one plane, as men so often do, may simply reply, "Yes, it's been a long, hard day for me too," and that's the end of that conversation. If she's feeling a bit desperate, she may drop a broader hint and the husband may eventually catch on.

In considering this situation, some men may think that if she wants to go out for dinner, why doesn't she just say so: To answer that, we should remember, again, some of those basic needs little girls seem to develop. She wants to be appreciated. She wants her feelings to be recognized. She needs to feel wanted and would enjoy being fussed over just a little.

To be blunt and just ask for a dinner invitation takes much of the fun out of the asking. The best of experienced husbands may learn to recognize the subtleties and respond appropriately. This is part of the technique which psychiatrists have long described as "listening with the third ear." Or, in other words, it is the simple technique of considering if there might be a second message or a deeper meaning behind what has actually been said. Nevertheless, as stated before, the wife should remember that if there is something really important to communicate with the man, she shouldn't hint, she should get his attention first and then tell him simply and clearly...

Whatever the reason, a man is likely to be a poor listener, and even to take some kind of unconscious pride in it. They believe in things like "Seek your own counsel" and so forth. The men see themselves as independent, silent, strong, self-sustaining, determined, resolute. As part of that male image, the man may see himself as resolute or determined, although, in some cases, it might more accurately be identified as stubbornness.


As for more recommended tactics, here are a few general suggestions to build up better communications and a happier relationship. Husbands and boyfriends should realize that the "flowers" approach, or a little gift approach, helps a lot because it does carry messages. If the budget is limited, one can often accomplish as much with a little extra attention. An appropriate compliment or a kind, loving word, means a lot. Married couples frequently follow certain routines and patterns. A kiss goodbye and a kiss hello are good examples, and there is nothing wrong with such routines. But a little extra compliment or unexpected kiss may be especially treasured. The extra kiss, the affectionate pat, are messages that reassure the partner of her femininity and desirability.

The man, even when he's secure, always likes a little boost to his ego and it is a wise and thoughtful wife who picks thoughtful moments to do that without overdoing it.

In a marriage, it pays to be a good forgetter, because even in the best of long term relationships, some impulsive, unhappy things may occur. The general rule is forgive and forget, but if they cannot forget, at least they should not talk about it. Marriage counselors have learned to shudder a little when either partner comes up with the comment, "I will never forget the time that he (or she) did so and so." On hearing that, the counselor's usual advice is: "I'm sure you have rehashed that subject enough. It is not likely to happen again, and continuing to talk about it only brings back bad feelings."

Marriage counselors also frequently advise not to worry about occasional arguments. These often serve the useful safety valve function of letting off a little built up tension. The trick to arguing is to learn to do it constructively. Couples can do that by observing certain obvious ground rules. Some couples make up some of their own rules, but usually they will include the following. All arguments must be kept strictly verbal, nothing physical. Keep it short. Let each partner have his or her say and get it over with. Don't let it turn into a grudge match. Don't stop arguing and start outing - that's not fair. Put the cards (feelings) on the table. Keep it private, not public, but it is probably all right to argue in front of the children. They should understand that one can be angry at someone who is loved, as long as respect is maintained and, when the argument or ill feeling is over, they can return to loving and happier feelings again.

A final word. Communication takes effort. Love and understanding go together and both require good communication.

Next Page: Chapter 3: Sex Education Is Largely Non-Verbal
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