I am a typical female; I like to talk about my feelings, my relationships, and the people I love. It is easy for me to verbalize my feelings directly. I use polite requests to get what I want, I am good with words, and use them to my advantage when seeking to share or inform. I use expressive facial expressions and use adverbs for emphasis. The list goes on. Still, when I was asked to do a nonverbal gender switch for a day for a college class I was positive; I could easily pull this off. How hard could nonverbal be?
At the time I worked with behaviorally challenged middle school students. I started off my work day fully intending to practice my male nonverbal communication skills at every turn. When I walked into the building, I nodded my head at a female coworker, but when her eyes lingered on me, I felt obliged to say hello. It felt strange, or foreign, to nod my head as males are known to do. Further, I decided that only nodding was a half ditch effort at a greeting, anyway. Later, I practiced my nonverbal hello in the form of a nod with a less familiar coworker and because we were almost strangers, I didn’t feel like I was slighting him too much.
Before a team meeting, I had an opportunity to stand side by side with two other male workers while conversing about weekend events. One male was standing, looking out the window and talking. Males tend to use less eye contact and because the conversation didn’t delve into topics I deeply wanted to share, I felt content looking anywhere but into their eyes. Actually, I believe the only eye contact I received was when I came up to them, not after that. Later, while students went to lunch, I crossed my arms, stood with legs spread, and leaned against the counter in the multipurpose room. Another male watched the students. Interesting, I had not really noticed males taking this stance before this assignment and found it interesting. Not because I was mimicking them, but because I’d never realized the difference between the body language of how women communicate face to face and men side by side during some of their interactions. It would be hard to carry on a serious conversation this way (side-by-side). I felt just as laid back as they appeared to be.
During the team meeting, I noticed that another male had his ankle propped on his knee. I looked around the room and considered if it was appropriate for me to sit like this. I didn’t think so, and I couldn’t do it. I wondered how males can get away with being or looking this comfortable at a morning meeting. I can imagine sitting like this after school in an informal meeting, when everyone would know you were just too tired to sit up straight.
In the staff room, at lunchtime, I picked up the newspaper and looked to see how the Mariners were faring. I looked down at my lunch as I talked to a fellow staff member about the score. The conversation was very brief, and I felt awkward not looking at him when I was speaking. Yet this is the type of conversation that does not require eye contact. And men like to talk about sports, need I say more?
In the classroom, I experimented with sitting with my legs sprawled and got a funny look from one of the students. I felt like I was doing something horribly wrong and I sat up immediately. When the student turned away, I tried it again, but felt it was not the time or place to sit like this.
However, when I sat down at a table of students during lunch, I crossed my legs and then moved my leg over my knee until my ankle was almost sitting on my knee. No one appeared to notice my body language as the students were playing a game and I’m sure I looked like I was just trying to relax.
There are gender differences in the language of touch and I do understand that men show their appreciation differently. I fully intended not to touch anyone while communicating, but caught myself patting a student on the shoulder in appreciation. After one pat, I stopped, but felt disappointed that I could not continue to praise this student with my usual three pats on the shoulder, or arm, with verbal praise. I also caught myself giving my usual three quick claps to show that I am thrilled with something they have done (way to go). I couldn’t stop myself and frankly, I never would – even for this assignment. It would be like someone who uses their hands to talk, if their hands are tied they cannot talk. I don’t know if I can talk without some kind of nonverbal way to express myself. It is so much a part of me, especially when giving praise to the students or conversing in a positive way. Further, I tried not smiling or showing facial expression as I gave students directions throughout the day, but a couple of times they appeared to notice – eye contact held, furrowed brow – until I smiled at them.
At home, I was less smiley, less animated, gave less eye contact, and spread my legs when I sat down. My husband asked if I slept okay last night. When I said I did, he asked if I had a hard day.
I think that both women and men need to extend their communication strategies by adding aspects of the other style to their own. Perhaps one of the major benefits I learned through the gender switch was to relax and perhaps not take life so seriously. Both genders need to cooperate with the differences (they make us who we are) instead of resisting or trying to change them.
And finally, what would I like the other sex to learn and understand about the way I communicate effectively? That perhaps female nonverbal behavior enhances your life. Frankly, if by using facial expressions, and gestures, and eye contact, I can make my husband stand before me face to face, give me eye contact, become more animated, and touchy as well, I’ve enhanced both our lives.
What does this have to do with writing? I personally think a lot. I want to add more expressions and body language to both my hero and heroine. In my mind’s eye I want to see them come alive because that is when I learn to know them through and through and be consistent through the book. I challenge you to look around at your place of business or neighborhood or out in the community and watch the body language around you. It just may help your current work in progress.