What are the differences between how men and women communicate?

No matter how similar you are to your partner, there are some fundamental differences in the way the sexes communicate through body language that you need to know.

First, the verbal:

Men and women use roughly the same amount of words per day.

Researchers at University of Texas, Austin found that the sexes speak about the same amount of words every day: women at 16,215 words and men at 15,669. BUT:

  • Women tend to talk more about other people.
  • Men tend to talk more about objects in their surroundings.

…no wonder my husband wants to talk about what kind of phone a new friend has and I want to talk about the new friend.

Next, let’s talk about nonverbal preferences. What are some of the body language differences between the sexes?

1. The Approach

Typically, women like to be approached from the front and don’t like having someone come up behind them and tap them on the shoulder. Researchers think this is about protection. When a woman can see who is approaching her, she is able to suss them out before a conversation and get a grasp on her safety. Personally, I know being approached from behind can feel a little threatening, even when you are in a friendly place. Men prefer to be approached from the side or at angle because it is less aggressive. The front approach is more like charging at someone.

  • If you want to approach a man, sidle up to him.
  • If you want to approach a woman, come up to her from the front so she can see you coming.

2. Nodding

Nodding is an interesting nonverbal behavior and men and women typically do so for very different reasons. When a man nods, he is trying to show agreement. When a woman nods, she is trying to show she is listening and wants the speaker to continue. Read this again:

When a man nods, he is trying to show agreement. When a woman nods, she is trying to show she is listening and wants the speaker to continue

When I first read that study, I was flabbergasted. I had no idea that a man would think I was agreeing with him if I was nodding. I nod to show encouragement not agreement. Don’t get confused:

  • If you are listening to a man, don’t nod if you don’t agree.
  • If you are listening to a woman and you want to show her you are listening, nod.

Are you surprised too? Tweet me:

Whoa…male and female body language blows my mind! click to tweet

3. Touch

Touch can be a tricky nonverbal area. Some people love to be touched and to show affection, while others have strict personal zones. There is a major difference between the sexes:

Women use touch for camaraderie. Men use touch for signals of power.

Touch can do both–insert power and build connection, it all depends on how you use it. After the initial handshake or greeting is where men and women really use touch differently. Women tend to reach out and touch someone’s arm or forearm or give a hug to build connection and show support. Men (even subconsciously) will pat someone on the back to show dominance or place a hand on a shoulder to show superiority or control.

  • Be aware that pats, back slaps and shoulder touches can be a way to show dominance. Use them carefully.
  • If you are touched lightly on the forearm by a woman, she wants to build connection–this could be professionally, socially or romantically.

Special Note: In his book, The Moral Molecule, researcher Paul Zak has found that touch can release oxytocin which helps us feel bonded and connected to someone. This is true for both men and women. So, while we might touch for different reasons, our relationships both benefit from touch.

4. Nonverbal Encouragement

When listening to someone do you show nonverbal encouragement? Nonverbal encouragement signs:

  • Leaning forward
  • Nodding
  • Tilting Your Head
  • Saying “Uh huh” or “Hmm” or “Interesting”
  • Eye Contact

Women are trained from a young age to give a lot of nonverbal encouragement–whether they agree with what is being said or not. However, men don’t think it’s as necessary. This can come across to women as cold or unemotional.

  • Men: To show a woman you are listening, try doing some of the nonverbal encouragement signs above–especially if you have ever been told you are stand-offish or imposing.
  • Women: Don’t take it personally if a man doesn’t give you nonverbal encouragement. It might not come as naturally to them.

5. Vocal Range

If you talk on the phone a lot you might have noticed how differently the sexes sound. Women typically use 5 different vocal tones when speaking. This gives them more range and makes them more of a pleasure to speak to BUT it also makes them sound more emotional. This is not always a benefit in the business world. Women’s voices also rise under stress. When women get tense they can sound squeaky or high pitched. Men have a much deeper vocal range and typically use only 3 tones while speaking.

  • Women: In professional environments keep your vocal chords relaxed to sound more professional.
  • Men: If you want to sound more emotional and warm, try varying your vocal range during stories.

6. Facial Expressions

Our faces can demonstrate over 10,000 facial expressions. However, women and men use these differently. Overall, men demonstrate less facial expressiveness than women. Men also smile less than women. This is because women have been taught more appeasement body language as children and are encouraged to always get along with others and cooperate. The smile is the body language sign of appeasement. The problem is that smiling is a subordinate behavior. In professional settings women need to be sure to use the smile purposefully.

  • Women: Don’t smile on default. Smile purposefully.
  • Men: If you want to be seen as more warm and engaging try to show more facial expressiveness–especially to women.
About Vanessa Van Edwards

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and behavioral investigator.

I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes.

More about Vanessa.

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