One of our projects is highlighting the differences between the styles of communication that are used by men and women.  Usually it all goes well until we start with the academic words used to describe the differences between the genders.

Words like ‘Factual’, ‘Logical’ and then ‘Active’; which are mainly used to describe what is generally known as the ‘masculine’ style or as Deborah Tannen* described it; the Report style. Around about here, we sometimes get a few murmurs like “I am rational and active as well” from some of the female participants. 

But they really go to town when we introduce the words associated with the feminine style of communication; the Rapport style:  words like ‘Empathy’, ‘Harmony’ and ‘Passive’!

It’s the ‘Passive’ that does it!  Often we have some really feisty women taking umbrage at being called ‘passive’.

Let’s ignore the fact for the moment that we are actually discussing the styles of communication which have been traditionally associated with the genders, and not the specific genders themselves; and let’s have a good look at what those words ‘Active’ and ‘Passive’ really mean.

No! Don’t bother grabbing your dictionary – you’d be better off picking up your book on English Grammar.  Are you beginning to see the light?  Haven’t you heard of the ‘Active Voice’ balanced by the ‘Passive Voice’?

Because when we are talking about the gender communication we are looking first at a style which is direct, factually based and uses the Active voice. And to balance that style is one which is indirect, empathic and uses the Passive voice.

In this instance it has nothing to do with the gender of the person using the style, women are very good at using the Report Style, and many men are great at using the Rapport style.  We have been sidetracked by the insistence that men and women use different styles of communication – all the time.  It is a wrong assumption.

The natural style is often associated with how we have been socialised and there does appear to be a different approach to what the communication needs to do.  If you want to pursue a strong communication, then regardless of gender you will use the Report (masculine) style and that will mean using the ACTIVE voice:

The active voice is a simple, direct construct that tells it like it is. 

Cats eat Fish” uses the active voice – so does “I created that layout”

To describe it in grammatical terms it the usual spoken voice where the sentence construction is merely subject + verb + object; normally it is a simple recital of facts, but if taken to excess it can become aggressive.  “I won that contract!”  Place the emphasis on the word ‘I’ and hear the difference.

If, however, you want to avoid being seen as too aggressive, or boasting; if your aim is to create a more inclusive communication style, then regardless of gender, you will choose the Rapport (feminine) style; which often means adopting the PASSIVE voice.

The passive voice is used to take the focus off the subject and place it on the object. So instead of “Everybody drinks water”, put into a passive voice it becomes “Water is drunk by everybody”
Now if you repeat those two sentences aloud, which one sounds stronger?  Most people will say the ‘active’ voice.

Which is probably why when someone uses the passive voice to extol their virtues and their achievements; “The contract was won by me” it is not given the same degree of respect as when it is announced in the active voice – “I won the contract”.  If your intention was to have your input recognised and appreciated you chose the wrong style.

When we are communicating, especially in business, we need to understand exactly what we want to achieve.  Then we can decide which style will work best for us to achieve it,  and regardless of gender use that style, whether that be active or passive.
Michele @ Trischel

*Deborah Tannen, Ph.D.(1990) You Just Don’t Understand.  William Morrow and Company, USA

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