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Genderlects And Preaching

By Jeff Arthurs
I have a friend who bought a puppy and named him Zebedee. As time went along "Zeb" became harder and harder to manage, so my friend went to class to learn how to handle him. A revelation awaited him. He found out that his normal methods of communicating with Zeb were falling on deaf ears ("Zebedee, you naughty dog, if you do that one more time I'm going to have to spank you...").

My friend's words were simply noise to the canine mind. The class taught him that dogs communicate nonverbally. They signal dominance by being "top dog" -- literally! The "alpha male" physically stands over the underlings of the pack, and all canines seem to understand this message. So my friend was taught to roll Zeb on his back, hold his head in both hands and look him in the eye. Zeb got the message, and so did my friend. To communicate with a dog you have to "speak" canine.

There's a principle here for all communicators: we must adjust to our audience if we hope to adjust them to our message. Public speakers call the principle audience adaptation. Missionaries call it contextualization. And translators deal with dynamic equivalence.

When it comes to communication between men and women, the issue is called genderlects. Each of us has a dialect -- a southern drawl, a Midwest twang (my own dialect comes from western Pennsylvania) -- but did you know that you also speak with a genderlect? According to communication scholar Deborah Tannen, genderlects account for much of the mystification between men and women. We may try to communicate one thing, but when the message is filtered through the receiver's "grid," it takes a new shape.

Much of the discussion of genderlects is written for husbands and wives, but the issue is also significant for preachers. The purpose of this article is to describe how men and women communicate differently and suggest ways preachers can use this information.

The following chart summarizes male and female genderlects. To be sure, the summary paints with broad brush strokes, but it is a helpful entrance into the idea of genderlects:

Male Genderlect: Female Genderlect:

Communication is... Communication is...

Thought of as a tool. Thought of as an end

Men hope to "get something in itself. When communication

done" by speaking, occurs, it signals

writing and listening that relationship

(e.g. writing an article, has formed or is forming

explaining how to (e.g. talking on the

make a sale). phone for enjoyment,

listening as a means of


Used to report (e.g. explaining Used to rapport (e.g.

how to fix the telling a colleague

copy machine). about a recent problem

at church).

Associated with competition Associated with communion

(e.g. telling the (e.g. telling

funniest story, controlling stories of everyday life

the floor). that all can identify


Genderlects show up in the following ways when men and women communicate.


Since smooth interpersonal relations are a high value with women, they tend to be less direct than men. They often avoid confrontation by leaving the other person as many options as possible. Thus a woman might say, "Do you want to eat somewhere?" By indirection, she reaches conclusions. By consensus she forms policy. A man might say, "I'm hungry, let's eat," but that method feels confrontational or rude to her. Other tools of indirection are qualifiers ("you've probably already thought of this"; "this is probably a stupid idea"), non-specific vocabulary ("that's really cute"; "it's pretty far"), and an upward inflection of the voice. These encourage bilateral, not unilateral, decision making. Women often feel silly in the presence of men due to this aspect of their genderlect, but they shouldn't. Indirection is favored in many parts of the world. (Just try starting a business negotiation in Japan by saying, "OK, this is what you want, and this is what I'm prepared to give. Do you want to bargain or not?")

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