Similar to conversational style, there are some differences in the actual content of females’ and males’ conversations. Women are more likely than men to talk about personal topics and social-emotional activities, whereas men are more likely to discuss impersonal topics and task-oriented activities (Newman et al., 2008). For example, Ruth Anne Clark (1998) asked college students to list all the topics discussed in a recent conversation with a same-gender close friend and to indicate the dominant topic. Not surprisingly, given the importance of romantic relationships to young adults, both females and males talked about the other gender. However, women’s conversations were more likely than men’s to be dominated by interpersonal issues whereas men were more likely to focus on sports and other leisure activities.
Nonverbal Communication Consistent with the communal stereotype, people believe that females are more likely than males to engage in nonverbal behaviors that demonstrate interpersonal interest and warmth. Are these beliefs accurate? Considerable evidence shows that they are. For one thing, girls and women are more likely than boys and men to engage in mutual eye contact with another individual for longer periods of time, particularly if that individual is female (Ambady & Weisbuch, 2010; Hall, 2006). This gender difference in gazing behavior is not present at birth but appears as early as 13 weeks of age and continues through adulthood (Leeb & Rejskind, 2004). Females also are more likely to smile, nod, lean forward, and approach others more closely (Basow, 2008; Hall, 2006; LaFrance et al., 2003). Girls and women across cultures are also more sensitive to the meanings of nonverbal messages portrayed by others and more accurately interpret their emotions (Ambady & Weisbuch, 2010; Brody & Hall, 2000). In addition, research on interpersonal sensitivity indicates that females are better than males at initially getting to know the personality traits, emotional states, and behavioral tendencies of other people. They are also more accurate at recalling the appearance and behaviors of social targets (Hall & Schmid Mast, 2010).
One explanation for these gender differences is the differential socialization of
females and males, with females receiving greater societal encouragement for being socially concerned (Basow, 2008; Leaper & Ayers, 2007). Smiling and gazing communicate interest and involvement in another person. In addition, women’s ability to accurately decipher other people’s emotional states might stem from their greater interest in others and their more extensive experience with emotional communication.
A different explanation of females’ superior sensitivity skills lies in their subordinate status within society. Less powerful individuals are good interpreters of the nonverbal cues of more powerful people (Keltner & Lerner, 2010; Kraus et al., 2010). This ability to decipher the nonverbal behavior of others allows lower- status individuals, including women, to anticipate the reactions of those in power and thus respond appropriately (Basow, 2008; Krause et al., 2010).
Touch is another form of nonverbal communication. Nancy Henley (1995) contended that there is an unwritten societal rule that high-status individuals can touch low-status individuals, but those of low status cannot touch those of high status. For example, it is more likely that the president of a corporation will pat a janitor on the back than the reverse. Henley concluded that because males have more power than females, there is more male-to-female touching than the reverse.
Studies show that males do show more touching associated with instrumental goals such as asserting power or showing sexual intent. On the other hand, women exhibit more touching in the form of hugs or other cues of social support (Hall, 2006). And in established heterosexual relationships, both women and men are found to initiate touch (DeFrancisco & Palczewski, 2007). Obviously, gender and status differences in touching are more complex than were originally believed.