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The Art of Islamic Communication: Typical Gender Differences

Elizabeth Lymer explains the different ways that genders communicate and how this knowledge can help us to avoid accidentally upsetting each other! Let us try to follow the sunnah of attentive communication.

Narrated ‘A’isha: The Prophet (SAW) said, “The most hated person in the sight of Allah is the most quarrelsome person.” (Bukhari Hadith Volume 9, Book 89, Number 298)

 

Masha Allah we know that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) communicated with the best of manners and, Alhamdulillah, we are able to learn from his example through the details of his behaviour that have been passed down to us.

 

However, my attempts to practice the sunnah of good communication have not always succeeded. I have encountered particular difficulty when I’ve tried to communicate with males. With males, applying my rule of treating everyone in the manner I would wish to be treated just doesn’t seem to work. Alhamdulillah, knowledge of typical gender differences in communication styles can help me to facilitate understanding and to avert unnecessary quarrels insha Allah.

 

Have you noticed a difference in your communication patterns and styles according to the gender of your company? For example, do you talk through a problem linearly with your brother to find a solution, whereas, with your sister, you talk around the situation to understand its impact on people? If you can accept that different genders can call for differences in how you speak, have you also considered that genders – generally – can call for differences in how you listen?

 

Gender differences are, of course, generalisations and cannot be applied to all people or even to some people in all situations. However, knowledge of typical gender differences can be useful for understanding why some communications have resulted in contrary interpretations and have even incited anger. This knowledge can provide the awareness needed to communicate in complementary harmony.

 

Let us consider the following sunnah of attentive listening and relate it to typical observations of gender communication differences:

The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) gave people his full attention when he listened to people, turning his whole body towards the speaker, not only his head.

 

This non-verbal act of positioning our bodies attentively is easy to accomplish. But how do we typically try to achieve giving our full attention to a speaker? And does it work between genders?

 

It is feminine to encourage the speaker to continue by actively listening in the form of nodding and interjecting sounds like “mmm” (this is called back channelling). It is masculine to be competitive in conversations, meaning masculine speakers can be sensitive to people using interjecting as a means to assert dominance. They often look for communication from people that shows respect for their leadership. Here we can see how a masculine communicator who is talking about how somebody hurt him or was unjust to him may interpret a feminine listener’s back channelling as interruptions and feel undermined. He may even see her nodding as agreement with his oppressor and feel betrayed.

 

It is masculine to remain silent when listening – to respectfully give the speaker space to express themselves. It is feminine to seek consensus in conversation and therefore to be sensitive to people withholding their attention and their agreement. Here we can see how a feminine communicator talking about her oppression may feel undervalued and unsupported by a masculine listener’s disengaged silence.

 

As well as different communication approaches and speech patterns, observations have also been made regarding different brain activity in different genders completing the same communication tasks. Also, differences in the pitch range of people’s voices and their pitch variation have been observed to be different in genders and to change at different ages.

 

The question of why gender differences exist has, of course, invited more than one opinion and hypothesis. Are these communication differences due to different physiques, different innate gendering or to social conditioning? I do not wish to offer a conclusion to that question, but would like to suggest that we can use knowledge of typical gender differences to select the communication styles that are most appropriate to the situations we are in. Or, at least, we can have a better understanding and compassion for people when gender differences cause misunderstandings.

 

Over time, married couples often assimilate the characteristics of their spouse’s communication – they increasingly intermix different genders of communication and this serves to remove the barriers of difference and to facilitate effective communication in sustainable relationships. In Islamic tradition we think of spouses as garments for each other. I think we can all benefit from from selecting the “gender ear” to wear for listening in different circumstances.

 

Have you ever felt like your brother’s friends find him more humorous than you do and that your husband’s cousins find him more interesting? To you, your brother’s speech patterns are predictable; it’s frustrating the way he tells the end of a story to open a joke and then fleshes out the details to get more laughs, instead of starting at the beginning and building up to the punchline. To you, your husband’s speech is almost a monotone, making his voice painful to concentrate on – he only varies his pitch when he’s in varied company.

 

Could it be that you’ve switched off from hearing your brother and husband because you just don’t feel affinity with their masculine speech patterns and styles? Perhaps, by recognising that their communication is simply different to yours and will remain different, you can make the effort to stop (unconsciously) observing and predicting their speech patterns and just enjoy listening to them.

 

Similarly, brothers can find themselves bored by over-detailed descriptions of events from their sisters and irritated by their wives making references to matters not directly connected to the matter under discussion. Brothers can overcome (unconsciously) disregarding these styles as illogical by taking gender differences into consideration to achieve listening with fresh and full attention.

 

In my observation, those who most painfully feel the anguish of being misunderstood are teenagers, children and those who desperately need help. As children grow up they start using gendered communication patterns at different stages and sometimes with sudden intensity. As adults who are in positions to help others in need, we can achieve more from attuning our listening than from expecting others to change their manners of speaking.

 

Gender differences are simply differences – one approach to communication is not right while the other is wrong and one style is not better and the other worse. We can learn from different ways of speaking and adapt our own speech as we see fit. However, what I am most concerned with is how we listen and with adapting our listening to facilitate others to express themselves. We need to give others the space to be themselves, to be listened to and valued – just as we would want for ourselves.

 

Elizabeth Lymer admits that she finds it easier to observe others’ communications and see what could be done more harmoniously than to recognise and solve mis-communication in her own relationships.