Volume 18, Number 2
March 2001

Practice Management

When Actions Speak Louder Than Words Between the Sexes

By Mary Stewart Mitchell

Whether it’s the purchase of a new car, contracting for legal services, or networking, men and women are hardwired in different ways. Each responds to—and offers—different verbal and nonverbal signals when it comes to business relationships. They can be poles apart when they make decisions or interpret and process information—be it verbal or nonverbal.Nonverbal signals. Scientific evidence gives credence to the old adage, "It’s not what you say that counts, but how you say it." Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a pioneer in the study of nonverbal communication, found that words account for only 7 percent of the total communication. Tone of voice provides 38 percent. An overwhelming 55 percent of the actual perceived message comes from nonverbal behaviors. Our observable nonverbal gestures number in the thousands, and though we read and interpret them constantly, the exact meanings we attach to them will be influenced by our gender, age, geographic location, and educational and professional characteristics.

When a person’s body language is congruent with verbal presentation, we read this, relax, begin to trust the other person, and continue to engage in the conversation. However, if the body language is not in harmony with the words being spoken, we read this and sense discord. Although both men and women learned to read and understand the language of the body when they were young, social researchers have found that women seem to place greater emphasis and reliance on these messages than do most men. To a large extent, these factors make up some of the primary components of what has often been referred to as "women’s intuition." They have learned that body language seldom lies, and that people can manipulate words convincingly.One-up personship. When powerful men meet for the first time they may consciously—or subconsciously—jockey for the leadership position. One of them may assume the role of the dominant male. A man may utilize nonverbal behaviors accompanied by verbal boasting to establish dominance. If one male knows that the other male has considerably more prestige and power, he may behave differently or present himself to the more powerful male from a "one down" or secondary position. He might stand with his hands in his pockets (second position), head slightly lowered, shoulders relaxed or slightly hunched forward. The dominant male might stand in a full "power spread," shoulders back, chest thrust out, looking eye to eye, moving with determination, speaking loudly and distinctly, and commanding respect from others while he acoustically fills the space around him. The male accepting the secondary or "one down" position in the interchange will accord substantial deference and space to the more powerful man. The way the president of the United States or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company are respected in terms of personal space are good examples of this. They are often allowed a distance of four to six feet, even though normal conversations usually take place at an arm’s length.

When a man meets a woman, he expects her to acknowledge his status and assume the secondary role. Women increasingly refuse to accept anything but equal status in these interchanges, especially considering that a woman may have significantly more prestige and real power than the man she is meeting. This position is usually communicated in a nonverbal manner, and it may cause confusion and discomfort for the male. He may go to great lengths to persuade her back into his desired conformance with body language of his own. If that fails, he may attempt to quasi-court her into accepting the secondary or one-down position. Or he may have cultural or other reservations about interacting with a woman whose rank and position require equal or superior status to his.What do businesswoman really want? Women generally implement a relationship-oriented approach to conducting business, especially when they are negotiating or making purchasing decisions. Businesswomen tend to conduct business much like Japanese or oriental cultures in that they prefer to establish positive one-on-one interactions with their partners, mindful of physical boundaries and taking sufficient time to build trust before shifting to the transaction state.

Here are a few guidelines, gathered from research, interviews, and anecdotes, that highlight ways to work with the nuances of male-female communication:

Show some interest and ask questions. When a woman asks, "How was your trip?" or "Has business been good?" or "What type of work do you do?" she is looking for an answer, and assumes that ultimately she will be asked a question in a similar vein. Asking a question indicates that one considers her to be on an equal playing field: that who she is and what she does is important. However, it is critical to keep such questions on a professional level, and not ask personal questions. Women view this as off-limits for introductory conversation and appropriate only for someone who is considered to be a friend or someone that they have intentionally invited into that more intimate conversational space. The best rule of thumb is to simply ask the same type of questions that would be asked of a man under similar circumstances. Women enjoy talking about their careers, politics, sports, and general business issues as much as men do.

Listen to the answers. That old line that says, "The reason women love the strong silent man is because she thinks he is listening!" is off base. It is easy to tell when the person you are talking to is not listening. You can sense that he or she is thinking of what to say as soon as you finish. When working with a woman, actively listening to what she is saying cannot be overemphasized. A man who truly and genuinely listens and responds with interest when women talk gains an immediate and lasting advantage.

Resist the urge to interrupt. There are few things that will make a woman angry faster than being interrupted. Communica-tion research has shown that men interrupt women three times more in conversations than they interrupt other men. They grab control of the conversation and elevate their voices, sometimes while the woman continues to speak. Women consider such interruptions to be a breach of social etiquette. Even though she may yield the conversational floor to what she considers to be a flagrant interruption, she regards the behavior display to be one that carries the unspoken intent of putting her down.

Do not apologize for an offensive metaphor, joke, or remark when a woman is present. Most women consider these apologies archaic and highly demeaning. It’s probably best to avoid offensive language altogether, but if an obscenity slips out, then use it and move on without apology. Women are familiar with this language, and often use it effectively themselves.

Offer equal status in the interchange. Adjust your communication style and presentation mode to accommodate the needs of the person you wish to influence. National surveys show that female lawyers respond positively to attitudes of genuine partnership and consideration as equal team members in the workplace.

Women lawyers and corporate executives are in a position to reward lawyers with business if communication between them is clear and comfortable. Make yourself aware of the communication styles of men and women. Learn to read and respond to the nonverbal language: Let your actions speak louder than words.

Mary Stewart Mitchell is president of Mitchell Legal Marketing, Inc., in Scottsdale, Arizona. She can be reached via e-mail at MitchellLegalMkt@aol.com.

- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 57 of Law Practice Management, April 2000 (26:5).

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