sealPurdue News

September 1997

'He says--she says' sells books, but doesn't stand up to research

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- If there is life on Mars, it won't include those insensitive men popularized in best-selling books and on talk shows, a Purdue University communication expert says

"The popular notion that men and women are from different planets so to speak -- and thus they have trouble communicating with each other -- is a fallacy," says Brant Burleson, professor of communication.

Best-selling books, such as John Gray's "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," are based on a scholarly theory advocated by academics such as Julia T. Wood, the Nelson Hairston Professor of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Wood supports the idea that men and women are so different that they should be regarded as members of different cultures. Burleson has taken issue with the theory and says his research -- and that of others -- doesn't support it.

"Research shows that men and women are much more alike than they are different," Burleson says. "Men and women exhibit substantial similarities in their meanings, perceptions, values preferences, and on occasion, behaviors."

Wood and Burleson debated the topic in side-by-side articles in the most recent edition of the journal Personal Relationships. Wood maintains that the "different-cultures" theory is neither proven nor disproven. Burleson says it has been tested, and it doesn't stand up.

In studies by Burleson and others, both men and women prefer a communication style mostly associated with women, particularly in situations of comfort or support. These "person-centered communicators" are sensitive to others, acknowledge others' feelings, show support and listen well.

In one test, Burleson examined same-sex friendships, cross-sex friendships and opposite-sex romances. Participants evaluated the importance of different communication skills in the context of the relationships. The results showed that both men and women consider abilities such as comforting and ego support to be much more important than skills such as persuasion and giving information.

Burleson and others also obtained assessments of communication skills from first- and third-grade children. That study tested how each child was accepted or rejected by same-sex classmates.

If the different-cultures view were correct, Burleson says, boys should have preferred other boys who utilized "masculine" styles of comforting or communication. He says those include denying or ignoring other's feelings and drawing attention away from negative emotions. However, the most accepted boys were those with more "feminine" skills.

Burleson says labeling skills as feminine doesn't mean they are specific to one gender. He says if men in general are not as gifted at some styles of communication as are women, it's not that they are different -- it's that they simply haven't been taught the skills.

For example, little girls often participate in spontaneous forms of play -- they may play house with no fixed rules about how to do it. As a result, Burleson says, their activities often are focused on talk. They must listen to each other and accommodate each other to be successful in their play.

On the other hand, boys often play games with rules and standards -- dodge ball, baseball and the like. Listening is not as important to these activities: Communication skills such as negotiating and persuading may be more valuable.

"We acknowledge that there are differences in the behaviors of men and women. However, both sexes seek similar things from their intimate relationships and value the same sorts of communicative skills and abilities in their partners," Burleson says.

He says the idea that men and women are different can be detrimental. "It's ironic that after years of promoting equality of the sexes, we now grasp on to this idea that they are not," he says.

Burleson says that when men are the primary care-giver to their children or their elderly parents, they display the same "emotional sophistication" as women. "Their word choices and style of interaction do approximate those of women in the same roles," he says.

"We can be equally good at things -- but that doesn't mean we are. Most of us are involved in relationships with the opposite sex -- and that is tough to do. But we can't blame the difficulties on some notion that men and women come from different arenas."

Burleson says improving the communication skills of our children may be all it takes to bring men and women to a better understanding of each other.

"Talk to your children about their feelings. Make invisible aspects of social life concrete by discussing how emotions work and the appropriate ways to respond to them. And let boys know how dynamic emotions are and the influence they have on other people," he says.

Burleson's findings make up a chapter in the upcoming book "Sex, Gender and Communication: Similarities and Differences," to be published in November by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Burleson and Wood also will take part in a panel discussion at the National Communication Association's annual conference in November.

Source: Brant Burleson, (765) 494-3321; e-mail,
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A copy of Brant Burleson's article in the journal Personal Relationships is available from the Purdue News Service, (765) 494-9723.

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