The University Record, February 27, 1996

Understanding semantics is key to gender communication

By Mary Jo Frank
University Relations


Gender differences---including how men and women talk and view life---can generate misunderstanding and even hostility at work and in family relationships.

"That's why it is so important that we recognize the differences so we can move beyond, into new depths of understanding and cooperation," explains Deborah L. Orlowski, staff development associate in the Human Resources/Affirmative Action Office.

More than 50 faculty and staff learned about a few of those differences at a recent Commission for Women workshop led by Orlowski and Ann Arbor attorney Alex Cave.

Men and women often think they're talking about the same thing when they use a particular word but may have totally different notions of what that word means. Even such basic words as "play" and "game" have different meanings for men and women, Orlowski noted.

Most of the men who participated in the workshop had played team sports and learned the adage " 'team' doesn't have an 'I' in it" at an early age. In contrast, many women in the group had never heard the phrase.

Boys grow up learning to play their role, or position, and understand that if they step into another person's role, they'll be told to back off, Cave noted. If someone is sick or can't play his position, boys playing team sports will change the rules of the game so the team can compete. In contrast, girls will do the best they can without the missing player but probably won't change the rules.

When it comes to picking teams, boys usually select the best player because they want to win. Girls are more likely to choose their best friend to play on their team because social relationships are key.

"Many males view life as a game. They play their roles of husband, father and coach. They play the game of life to the best of their ability," Cave said. "Men tend to play to win, for keeps, with processes, rules and structures."

Many women, in contrast, don't look at life or love as a game. They've grown up more interested in building a sense of community and network of relationships, Orlowski noted.

One of the keys to improving communication between men and women and people with different personality or cultural styles is to check the semantics of the words being used when disagreements arise.

For example, to some people the word "draft" means a document is open to any and all changes. For others, "draft" can mean the document may need a little more tweaking but is basically in final form, Orlowski said. It is important for co-workers to be aware that they may be defining the same word differently.

Another key to improving communication is to not always expect the worst of others, Orlowski said.

She cited Miller's Law: "In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of."

Orlowski said, "Often we come into conversations with preconceived notions about other people. One of our goals is to break down some of those preconceived notions so when something happens, we can get past the irritability and realize that although we're different, we're after the same thing---effective communication."