Entire industries have been built upon pointing out the differences between men and women. Films have been made, plays written, pop psychology books penned, studies conducted, comedy routines performed, all revolving around the many ways the genders fail to understand the way each other thinks and behaves. It should come as no surprise that men and women tend to differ in the ways they interpret and use nonverbal communication.
Psychologists, Sociologists and Neuroscientists argue amongst themselves over how much of the difference in the way the genders communicate is due to biology and how much is due to learned behaviors. On the biology side, it’s clear that men’s and women’s brains are not structured in the same way. The areas devoted to spacial reasoning are larger in the male brain, for example, while, unlike men, women process language in both hemispheres of their brain, and possess a greater ability to coordinate brain activity between both hemispheres. On the ‘learned behavior side,’ though, we can point out that the brain is a highly ‘plastic’ organism, it changes its structure based on what is demanded of it. So if men and women have different brains, it may be partly because society pushes them into different roles that require very different types of thinking.
Whether nature or nurture or a combination of both, one thing is certain: men and women always have and always will ask themselves, “why can’t I figure out what he/she is thinking?” It turns out that the answer to that question, also the solution, can be found in body language.
Here are five things that men and women should know about each other’s body language:
1) On average, women are better at men at interpreting non-verbal signals. This is particularly true when it comes to recognizing the emotions expressed in facial expressions. When it comes to recognizing the emotions expressed by tone of voice or body movement the genders are much closer in skill, but women still possess a slight edge.
The flip side to this is that women tend to think they’re more accurate than they really are, and men tend to think they’re less accurate than they really are. In other words, women tend to be overconfident in their sensitivity to nonverbal cues while men tend to be under confident.
The takeaway is that women should guard against a rush to judgment about what a man might be really thinking, while men should be a bit more trusting of their gut impressions.
2) On average, women express themselves more accurately through their body language and nonverbal behavior. What this means is that the emotions they intend to convey through their body language are more frequently the emotions that other people perceive, while with men the emotions others ‘receive’ from their body language are less often what they really intend to convey.
The takeaway is that women are not as inscrutable as popular culture has often made them out to be, while men are not the simple, dumb brutes that they are often portrayed as.
3) Men, on average, have less control of their emotional responses to other people’s body language. In particular, the emotional part of their brains has a harder time distinguishing between threats to their physical well-being and threats to their ego. This means that men are acutely reactive to body language that conveys disapproval, scorn or ridicule. It’s not that women don’t perceive this kind of body language, and when they do perceive it they certainly don’t like it. But the parts of the brain that allow them to moderate their emotional reactions and plan a strategic response are larger than for men, which makes men comparatively more likely to fly off the handle.
The takeaway is that men should become more aware of the swiftness of their emotional responses to nonverbal cues and plan strategies to get some control over them, while women should be aware that men will tend to be more hesitant to venture into situations that might gain them negative attention. In dating situations, many men will be hesitant to make an approach unless they’re fairly certain from a woman’s body language that she won’t be rejecting him.
4)These differences apply only to averages, they don’t apply to individuals. Within each gender is a huge range of nonverbal abilities and emotional responses. Many men are innately sensitive to nonverbal cues just as many women are clueless.
The takeaway is that while we should be aware of how the differences in communication styles between men and women can trip us up, we shouldn’t assume that they will. Each person we meet is a unique individual and we should take the time and effort to get to know them as they really are, not as a stereotype tells us they should be.
5)The differences in sensitivity to nonverbal cues can be overcome through practice. As I mentioned earlier, the brain will rewire itself based upon what we demand of it. So if we take the time to learn about each other’s body language and work at it over and over, we’ll get better at understanding each other.
In spite of what you may have read, men are not really from Mars and women are not really from Venus. While it’s true that ‘on average’ our brain structures differ and our communication styles differ, across the broad spectrum of each gender is the complete range of possible behaviors. In reality the differences between the way we think are fairly trivial when compared to the similarities. It’s foolish to allow a stereotype of gender behavior dictate how we relate to one another.
As always, the main reason people fail to understand one another is because they never paid attention in the first place.