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Popular belief in gender -based communication differences and relationship success

Ann Michelle Johnson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines a body of popular arguments concerning gender and communication. In several important areas of popular cultural discourse, conflicts between men and women are regularly explained as misunderstandings caused by differences in communication style. This specific line of discourse is part of a larger picture where women and men are portrayed as fundamentally different groups, with different values systems, interpretive frameworks, and ways of using language. This miscommunication explanation for gender strife resonates with many men and women who find that it accurately reflects their experiences with the opposite sex. The overall purpose of this project is to identify the ways in which these discourses are used to make specific arguments about the meaning of perceived gender differences and to understand the consequences of those arguments. I examine popular representations of the miscommunication argument from a gender performance perspective. This perspective treats differences in communication behavior as the on-going performance of gender identity rather than as a simple product of gender identity. This perspective shifts attention away from identifying and verifying gender differences towards understanding the consequences persistent belief in gender differences. Women's communication style, as presented in popular literature, television, and participant comments, includes assisting others and deferring authority. At the same time, men's communication style is presented as a natural product of men's greater need for autonomy and independence. In self-help literature, these two different styles are used as a justification for men and women serving different roles in relationships and in the workplace. Women are portrayed as natural helpers at home and work while men are portrayed as better decision makers. Primetime television offered portrayals of men and women that closely parallel the different communication styles present in self-help literature. Finally, interviews with individuals about their response to a primetime television program revealed that many people believe that men and women have communication styles that match the styles presented in self-help literature. I conclude that the resonance of these differences is linked to the undeniable importance of communication in relationships coupled with the heterosexist bias of self-help literature and television representations of relationships.

Subject Area

Mass media|Communication|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Johnson, Ann Michelle, "Popular belief in gender -based communication differences and relationship success" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9988802.