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?”)
However, the male genderlect still dominates most public speaking in America, and women would do well to learn to communicate directly. Please note, I am not arguing that women should always communicate bluntly; only that they will need to do so some times with some audiences. They need this arrow in their quivers. Conversely, men need to hear themselves through women’s ears and realize that their directness may seem authoritarian or rude. Men should learn to organize sermons inductively, especially when preaching to mixed audiences. Men need to remember that preaching is more than a report of what was discovered in the study; it is also a means of establishing and nurturing relationships.
Listening and Feedback
Since a woman values connection, she feels that the kindest thing to do in conversation is agreement or “matching.” For instance,
Man: “I didn’t sleep well last night.”
Woman: “Oh! Me neither. That happens to me all the time.”
The man, who associates communication with competition, may hear this as “one-upsmanship.” He may escalate his complaint: “My back ached all night.” And the woman, attempting to create rapport may say: “I know what you mean. Mine hurts too.” Thus the conversation may cycle downward with the man taking offense where none is meant and the woman not understanding why an argument is forming.
Since the male genderlect uses communication as a tool, listening is thought of as preparation for speaking. Men listen in order to know how to advise. Listening helps men “fix” problems. Men feel they are being kind by offering advice. They are helping their friends deal with problems. But women, speaking a different genderlect, simply want the listener to respond with empathy. She may hear his advice as cold and clinical.
Here’s one way you can use this information about listening: Men, when you discuss your sermon with your wife, don’t take offense if she matches your mood. She’s being kind, offering you what (she thinks) you really need — connection. Women, when you discuss your sermon with your husband, don’t take offense if he offers advice. He too is trying to be kind.
Here’s another application: For men who use dialogue in your sermons, remember that all comments do not demand a further comment from yourself.
Use of Evidence
Men often use expert testimony when they argue. Women often use anecdotes. The first method of argumentation is deductive, and the second is inductive, starting from particulars and moving toward a broader point. Induction is the better way to argue today since pluralism and relativism have undermined our allegiance to authority. Men, argue like a woman! If you want to prove that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” back up the Scriptural statement with lots of examples, stories and testimonies.
Men tend to tell stories that are funny, dramatic and full of remarkable action (“I remember the time I fell off the cliff…”). Women tend to tell stories that deal with the everyday and typical. Men emphasize chronology and are more likely to conclude with a moral or point. Women, realize that your stories may seem meandering or uninteresting to a man. When you tell a story, give it some action and let it work toward a clear climax. Men, as you scout for illustrations, don’t overlook your everyday worlds such as shopping, childcare and interpersonal relations.
Genderlects are a fact of life. We need to deal with them like my friend did as he learned to communicate with Zebedee. Perhaps the best way to overcome communication breakdown caused by genderlects is to discuss your message with your spouse before and after you preach it. Let’s learn to hear our words the way others receive them.

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