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What Did She Say?!

Navigating the Differences in How Men & Women Communicate

During a seminar with marriage expert Mark Gungor (author of Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage), he leads a discussion about how men and women like to use the same words or expressions to communicate totally different things.

For example:

  • When a man says he’ll be ready in five minutes, he means he’ll be ready in five minutes. When a woman says she’ll be ready in five minutes, it means she’ll be ready in an indefinite amount of time.
  • When you ask a man what’s wrong and he says nothing, he means nothing. When you ask a woman what’s wrong and she says nothing, she means something.
  • When a guy sighs, it means everything is good with the world. But when a woman sighs, it means the man has just done something she didn’t like.
  • When a man says “go ahead,” he is being polite. When a woman says “go ahead,” she means for the guy to explain why he did what he just did.

There is usually lots of chuckling as Gungor goes through this, because most everybody in the room can relate to the fact that men and women really do communicate differently.

graphic illustration of couple struggling to communicate

But all jokes aside, the inability to communicate is a major cause of concern for a lot of couples who truly love each other, but just don’t understand how to effectively exchange their thoughts and ideas.

Hundreds of books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and Cracking the Communication Code, have been written to try and help couples bridge the communication divide. It’s true: men and women are simply hardwired to process information in different ways. It then stands to reason that part of understanding the sexes can be ascertained by examining the way men and women talk.

For years, we have been told that one of the biggest differences in communication between men and women is that women talk more than men. However, Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, doesn’t necessarily believe the difference has to do with the number of words spoken as much as with the style of communication. In her book, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, Tannen talks about a number of concepts including how women believe that if a man isn’t looking her in the eyes when she speaks, it means he is not listening, or how a man and woman can walk away from the same conversation having heard two different things. One of the reasons for these differences, Tannen suggests, could be the way in which boys and girls are raised.

“For males, conversation is the way you negotiate your status in the group and keep people from pushing you around; you use talk to preserve your independence. Females, on the other hand, use conversation to negotiate closeness and intimacy; talk is the essence of intimacy, so being best friends means sitting and talking. For boys, involvement in activities and doing things together are central. Just sitting and talking is not an essential part of friendship. They’re friends with the boys they do things with.”
In spite of the fact that men and women use conversation for different reasons, believe it or not, there are simple ways to bridge the communication divide. So men, here are some tips to help you in your efforts to communicate with the opposite sex:

  • Acknowledge the difference in how women communicate and don’t try to change them. Men tend to communicate with purpose to solve a problem or elevate their status. Women spend a lot of time communicating to bond and build relationships. Neither way is wrong, just different. Recognizing and accepting this fact can help make the journey toward effective communication easier.
  • It might be worth your while to explain to her that you’re not wired to communicate with her in the same manner in which she communicates with her girlfriends. This is why it’s really important for women to have other close relationships with women.
  • Before you get into the conversation with your wife, ask her to explain to you what she wants from you. Does she want you to just listen or does she want to enlist your help in solving a problem? Doing this could spare both of you a lot of agony, and may actually be more productive in getting the desired result.
  • Tell her you aren’t ready to talk yet. In general, men tend to think things through in their head before they talk about it. Guys, women tend to be pretty astute at noticing when you are not really present or when something seems to be bothering or distracting you. Instead of saying nothing is wrong because you aren’t ready to talk about it, tell her you aren’t ready to talk yet and give her a time when you think you will be ready to give her the download.
  • Explain to her that if she wants to keep your attention during a discussion, a great way to do that is to cut to the chase and be direct. Tell her that sometimes, you don’t always care about all the extra information about what she learned from the person who came to repair the cable service. You just want to know if the cable service is fixed.
  • Learn how to listen. Most people believe that listening comes naturally. It does not. It takes effort to really focus on what someone is saying.
  • Avoid mind reading. Assuming you know what she is thinking can create a lot of unnecessary drama. Ask questions and pay attention to her verbal clues and body language.

The differences in the way men and women communicate do not have to be a roadblock to great relationships at work or at home. Instead of getting irritated because someone of the opposite sex doesn’t communicate just like you, take it as a challenge to develop the skills necessary to communicate effectively.

Julie Baumgardner

Julie Baumgardner

Julie Baumgardner is the executive director of First Things First, a research and advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at

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