Bridging the office divide

Why do men and women seem to be on such different planets when it comes to how they communicate at work?

As the title of the 1992 book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus implies, men and women often seem to be on different planets when it comes to how they understand messages and approach problems.

This also applies especially to men and women working side-by-side in an office setting, relationship experts say. However, there is hope: men and women can learn each others' language, according to people who specialise in communication.

"The printer ink has to be changed" is a simple sentence likely to be heard in a typical office. When women hear this, many would get up almost immediately and go to the copier, while men stay at their desks. Perhaps a few of them think that the sentence is correct, but nothing else.

It's an example of how men and women react differently to a message and provides a clue to why, in an office setting, communication between the genders often hits a snag. Men simply aren't prompted by a message such as "The printer ink has to be changed every so often", said Cornelia Topf, a communications trainer in Germany. It's not ill will on the part of the men. "Men need clear instructions," she explained.

A similar office communication is when a woman asks "Shouldn't we call a meeting?" Male colleagues have no reaction to the sentence. "A woman actually just wants to be polite," said Topf. She doesn't want to dictate an appointment to anyone, but when dealing with men, that is exactly her mistake. She should make concrete statements to her male colleagues. In this case, the statement should be: "There will be a meeting next week on Wednesday at 2pm."

The root of the problem is that women express themselves indirectly, often using the conjunctive. Their aim is to create closeness and a good work environment. But men interpret this as a sign of insecurity and submissiveness. Additionally, women think and speak communally, while men are more issue-driven and goal-oriented.

"A man will quickly become impatient when a woman goes into an explanation of something because he is searching for the problem," said leadership trainer Roland Kopp-Wichmann. Often there is no problem. The woman just wants to report on something or give an account of her feelings. "That doesn't make sense to a man."

Women are mostly socialised according to the rules of non-hierarchical communication, while men are socialised according to hierarchical rules of communication, said career coach Marion Knaths. An example from a typical meeting: women make their suggestions openly, speaking to everyone present.

"But in hierarchical communication that's a big mistake," said Knaths. When a low-ranking person speaks, it's little more than a rustling noise in the ear of the boss. One thing that can happen, to the detriment of the women, is that a male colleague will hear the suggestion at the meeting and then repeat it as if it were his own, but directly to the highest ranking person present. And he will be heard.


Different communication behaviours also occur when men and women receive praise. Men confidently accept this praise, Topf said. When they are praised for their work, they stick their chests out and think of themselves as completely worthy. Women on the other hand decline praise more readily than men. "Most women devalue praise," said communications expert Claudia Enkelmann.

The communication and career experts agree that the most common misunderstandings between men and women in the office are unnecessary. First the two genders must recognise that men and women have a different language. Then they must acknowledge that they can learn the techniques and rules of the two types of communication, Knaths said.

This also helps in a woman's career. If she hopes to move up the corporate ladder, she must first learn to lead, said Enkelmann. This includes learning from men and learning to formulate their instructions as direct orders as opposed to requests.

Have you seen examples of miscommunication between men and women in the office?


twitter Follow ExecutiveStyle on Twitter