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Roles of Men and Women

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The Army Chaplaincy Summer-Fall 1997

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Overcoming Roadblocks in

Gender Communication

by Margaret Yeates Robertson

Roles of men and women

Of the many changes which have taken place in American society since World War II, one of the greatest has been in the roles of men and women. Members of both genders have lived multiple roles in the past, but these were generally established ones, such as men being the wage earners and women the caregivers.

Communication followed largely defined cultural and societal norms. Usually, nuances in speech and in body language could readily be interpreted. As Archie Bunker nostalgically sang in television's "All in the Family," "... and you knew who you were then; girls were girls and men were men."

Many of the roles have remained the same, but now they frequently are carried out by members of either gender. Women have careers in engineering or sports; a growing number of men have full-time care of home, children, and the disabled. Both men and women have a variety of jobs in the workplace and positions in the hierarchy of management.

Communication between the genders has become more prevalent and pervasive in society, as norms have changed. When one adds the mobility of the American population and the differences among the cultures they represent, both the importance and difficulty of effective communication increases. Now medical and sociological researchers are offering aid, even across cultural lines, in gender communication.

Communication differences

Few Americans communicate with as many different types of individuals of both genders as U.S. Army chaplains and chaplain assistants as they interact with each other, and provide religious support to soldiers, family members, and other civilians -- worldwide. Their roles and orientation to people often give them special insights in communication. The following observations, however, may also be helpful to both men and women.

Men are widely observed to come quickly to the point they wish to make, while women tend to use more detail in leading up to the point. In communicating with women, men may become impatient as they search for the point, or lose interest. If they interrupt, women can be frustrated or offended.

In talking with men, therefore, women can use two techniques to communicate more effectively. First, begin with the point, or "bottom line," if possible. Second, omit unnecessary detail.

On the other hand, men can refrain from interrupting, or take care not interrupt immediately. When leading a conversation, men cannot expect that women will interrupt when they have something to say.

From childhood, many women are taught to smile and be pleasant to others. Smiles of good will, interest, and encouragement by either men or women, however, can be interpreted as agreement with what is being said. In conversation, it is necessary to be direct and honest as well, especially when a smile does not signify agreement or approval.

Men often talk at women, not with them. One chaplain assistant NCOIC made a habit of periodically bringing all members of the staff who were interested into a general conversation at a convenient location in the office. Early in the morning, at random intervals, he introduced a question or comment on a current event or another objective topic on which anyone would be able to contribute information or an opinion. As the men and women of the staff shared the conversation, they grew to know and respect each other and their backgrounds. They were more ready to offer their information and insights on work-related topics, and close teamwork throughout the staff developed.

A senior chaplain encouraged teamwork in his staff through frequent roundtable discussions of assigned projects. This practice also ensured capturing the information and expertise possessed by staff members other than the one who had the responsibility for the action.

Different ways of relating to others

The sarcastic wit and ironic language often used by a man to show regard or comradeship to another man may impress a woman as caustic, sincere sarcasm. Women characteristically express regard or friendship by complimenting each other, or by sharing personal information. To ensure accurate communication, a man should use sarcasm very carefully when talking with or about a woman, or avoid it altogether.

A woman should not expect a man to share confidences, for

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