Women Communicate More Details than Men. So what?
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Over the last few years, I begin my leadership classes by asking my students “Who do you think provides more details in communication: men or women? Who do you think communicates more abstractly: men or women?” I generally find that my students believe that women give more details and that men speak more abstractly.
As my students guess, my research finds persistent gender differences in communication. Across a variety of contexts, women tend to use more concrete language, focusing on ways in which people can attain objectives, providing specifics, and using words that are easier to visualize. On the other hand, men tend to use more abstract language, focusing on the end goals or the larger purpose of actions, focusing on the gist of the message rather than the details, and using more abstract and difficult-to-visualize words. These gender differences in language exist across age groups, across status levels, and in both written and spoken language.
Why do these gender differences occur? My colleagues and I believe that gender differences in social interaction patterns may explain why women speak more concretely than men. Girls often interact in smaller and closer-knit groups than boys do. They are also more likely to build closeness and establish rapport with others. These gender differences persist across the lifespan. But we know that abstract speech is better suited for communication with large and heterogeneous groups. After all, abstract language is less idiosyncratic, and it is more relevant and relatable to those who are different from us. So, concrete speech may be better suited to meet women’s typical communication goals in small groups, and abstract speech may be better suited to meet men’s goals of interacting in larger groups.
Interestingly, our research shows that, when women are asked to imagine their audience being psychologically distant and dissimilar to them, women use abstract speech as much as men do. This finding shows that differences in how much men and women use abstract speech do not reflect differences in their ability to communicate abstractly. Instead, men and women seem to adapt their communication to their social goals.
Gender differences in abstract speech have important implications for women’s leadership. People use how abstractly other people talk as a cue about their status and power, and those who speak abstractly are more likely to be selected for leadership roles. As a result, women’s tendency to speak concretely may interfere with their ability to rise to high power positions. Although people may rely on speech abstraction to make decisions about someone’s leadership potential, it is unlikely that the use of abstract speech is actually related to a leader’s effectiveness.
When it comes to leadership effectiveness, leaders’ ability to adapt their speech to the context appears to be more important than their use of either abstract or concrete speech. In fact, women’s use of concrete speech may explain why many female leaders, such as Jasienda Arden (the Prime minister of New Zealand) and Tsai Ing-Wen (President of Taiwan), are outshining their male counterparts in leading their countries against the coronavirus pandemic. Their early stay-at-home orders and clear, concrete, and specific expectations may have effectively guided their citizens to take precautionary action.
In order to increase their likelihood of emerging as leaders, women would benefit from using more abstract communication. Yet, when people actually lead, both men and women must adapt their speech style to the context. To ensure that men and women are provided with equal access to leadership positions, it is important that decision makers, such as hiring managers, stop relying on speech abstraction to decide who has leadership potential. Selecting leaders based on their tendency to use abstract communication unduly impacts women’s emergence as leaders. And this is unfortunate because research shows that women’s leadership styles are equally, if not more effective, than men’s traditional leadership styles.
For Further Reading
Joshi, P. D., Wakslak, C. J., Appel, G., & Huang, L. (2020). Gender differences in communicative abstraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 118(3), 417-435.
Priyanka Joshi is a Professor of Management at San Francisco State University. She studies gender, communication style, and leadership.