3.9 The Role of Culture & Gender in Listening

Jan 12, 2020 | ch3 How Language Impacts the Brain, Cognitive Psychology, Courses

Are women better listeners than men? Does culture affect how you listen? In this lesson, we’ll look at the listening styles of men and women, as well as those found in the East and the West.

Listening & Stereotypes

As a mom, I’ve said the words, ‘Listen to me!’ As a wife, I’ve asked the words, ‘Why won’t you listen to me?’ And as a friend, I’ve heard the words, ‘I feel like you’re not listening to me.’ With all these phrases centering on listening, it’s not hard to believe it when researchers say adults spend the most amount of their communicative time – about 45% – on listening. In light of this, a lesson on listening seems more than appropriate. Let’s turn our attention to the topic of the roles that gender and culture play in life’s game of listening.

Let’s start with gender. When it comes to listening and gender, things are not nearly as cut and dry as most would assume. Yes, the stereotypes say that women are better listeners than men. But are women biologically wired to be better listeners?

According to research on the topic, the answer just might be no. Yes, hands down women are perceived as better listeners. However, the reason might be because of nurture rather than nature. In other words, perhaps women aren’t biologically hard wired to be better listeners. Perhaps society has simply claimed it as so.

Nature vs. Nurture

For example, according to the paper, Listening and Gender: Stereotypes and Explanations, effective listening traits, such as empathy and attentiveness, are considered feminine. Therefore, these traits are naturally ascribed, from the cradle on, to women.

In a ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’ sort of way, many scientists argue that women are only seen as more effective listeners because listening is considered feminine. As put forth by the sociology team of Borisoff & Hahn, could it be that women are only considered better listeners because females have historically been relegated to the role of receiver and listener, while men have been assigned the role of the speaker?

Like many questions posed by science, the jury is still out. However, it looks like the verdict is leaning toward women being nurtured as better listeners rather than being better listeners by nature.

Listening Styles

Realizing that stereotypes may be at the bottom of all of this, there are definitely some perceived differences in the way men and women listen. One study found that men tend to employ a time-oriented listening style, in which facts, completing interactions, and achieving goals are paramount. Due to this, men, more so than women, may tend to stop listening when they have all the information they deem necessary.

The same study reported that women are more inclined to use a people-oriented listening style. In other words, they listen for the emotions of the speaker, more so than facts. For women, time and tasks are not first and foremost – feelings are. Due to this, women tend to give more verbal listening cues than men. They say things like, ‘Oh,’, ‘Hmmm,’ or ‘Ahh,’ to indicate they’re following along. Women also tend to give more eye contact during a conversation than men. This people-oriented listening style often makes women look more adept at lending a listening ear.

Low Context vs. High Context

Moving away from stereotypes, there are some studies that seem to give some solid information about listening styles and skills. In them, whether speaking of males or females, the American culture doesn’t always come out at the top of the class.

For example, Malaysians and Indians, regardless of gender, are more likely to be attentive listeners than their American counterparts. One reason for this is that cultures like America, which tend to focus on the individual, place less emphasis on listening than cultures that are more group oriented.

Western cultures also tend to employ low-context communication. This means that people from places like the U.S. and Europe gather meaning through verbal cues and words, rather than contextual clues. In other words, we tune in to words and details, and we take what people say at face value. Contextual clues and body language are secondary.

For instance, if the average American sees someone struggling with a heavy package, odds are they offer help. Now, if the person declines help, it’s socially appropriate to ask again. However, if a second no is given, even though every ounce of the person looks like they need help, the average American will heed the words, ‘No, I don’t need help,’ rather than obey the body language that’s saying, ‘yes, I do need help.’

Opposite of this, Asian and Latin American cultures tend to utilize high-context communication, in which non-verbal, contextual clues take precedence. Using our heavy package scenario, someone working under the high context paradigm would ignore the ‘no’, and listen more to the angst in the responder’s voice or the body language being offered.

Monochronic vs. Polychronic

Those of us in the West also function within the monochronic paradigm of listening. This means that we listen to one thing at a time and dislike interruptions. Compared to the rest of the world, we expect dialogue to be very linear and orderly. Hence, we use phrases like, ‘wait your turn,’ ‘don’t interrupt,’ or ‘raise your hand!’

In sharp contrast, people from places like Asia and Latin America tend to lean on the polychronic style of listening. Rather than expecting just one person to talk and others to listen, these cultures see time and conversation as cyclical. To them, jumping in, changing the subject, or interrupting is par for the course.

Lesson Summary

Whether due to nature or nurture, gender plays a role in listening. Women are often perceived as better listeners because society has ascribed a feminine connotation to listening. This may be due to history’s assignment of women to the role of receiver and of men to the role of speaker.

Working in this paradigm, it is reported that men often employ a time-oriented listening style, in which facts, completing interactions, and achieving goals are paramount. Women often lean toward a people-oriented listening style, in which they listen for the emotions of the speaker, more so than facts. Women also tend to offer more eye contact and verbal listening cues.

Individualistic cultures, like America, place less emphasis on listening than do group-oriented cultures. Western cultures are also more prone to low-context communication, in which they gather meaning through verbal cues and words, not contextual cues. They also are monochronic in listening, which means they listen to one thing at a time and dislike interruptions.

Asian and Latin American cultures tend to utilize high-context communication, in which non-verbal, contextual cues take precedence. Their listening is usually a polychronic paradigm of listening. They see time and conversation as cyclical and are accustomed to things like interruption.

Information At A Glance

Low Context-Gather meaning through verbal cues and words, rather than contextual clues.

High Context-Non-verbal, contextual clues take precedence.

Monochronic-Listening to one thing at a time and disliking disruptions.

Polychronic-Time and conversation are cyclical and interruption is normal.

Learning Outcomes

After viewing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe the different types of communication across various cultures
  • Explain the difference between low and high contexts
  • Give examples of monochronic and polychronic listening
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