How Gender Differences Affect Emotional Support

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For decades, communication theorists have sought to examine how gender differences affect the way that men and women value emotional support. Many theorists posited that stereotypes and communication styles led men to undervalue emotional support in interpersonal relationships. However, new research on this topic has proven that men and women equally value emotional support in interpersonal relationships, as it is essential for forming and maintaining close relationships in their lives. Nevertheless, although research suggests otherwise, is it popular to believe that men and women differ in the value they have for emotional support due to gender roles in society and differences in cultural values and communication styles.

Interpersonal communication involves sending and receiving messages with others. In interpersonal relationships, high levels of emotional support are needed in order to understand the feelings of others. Ryan et al. (2005) explained that “emotional support is one specific type of social support, representing the expression of concern, compassion, and comfort for an individual during emotional experiences” (p. 146). Not only is emotional support necessary for reciprocating concern and comfort in a relationship, but it is an essential element to maintaining interpersonal relationships. Burleson (2008) found that “people value the emotional support skills of their relationship partners, and perceptions of emotional supportiveness have been found to play a critical role in the development and maintenance of friendships, romances, families, and work relationships” (p. 207). While individuals do value the emotional support skills of partners in relationships, most people believe that differences in gender roles have made women value emotional support in relationships more than men.

In society, gender roles commonly dictated how a man and woman should act. Gender roles are taught to people during childhood by learning and watching the behavior patterns of our parents. Furthermore, culture can shape how men and women communicate and behave, as certain cultures have specific tasks and characteristics that each man and woman are taught to follow. For example, Nolan (2008) explained that “social expectations for Latino men are reflected in the cultural belief of machismo, which prescribes specific, culturally acceptable male behaviors” (p. 19). Finally, the media can influence the development of gender roles in society, as characters in movies and television shows align with specific looks, personality traits, and behaviors that are modeled after those of the standard male and female in today's society.

Parents, culture, and the media have contributed to males taking on a specific role in society. Ryan et al. (2005) explained that boys are “socialized to be agentic and independent” (p. 147). As males age, they are shaped to be masculine and domineering sexual creatures that run away from intimacy, emotions, and feelings. Furthermore, gender roles have also shaped the communication patterns of males in relationships. Noland (2008) found that most men are involved in macho talk and stay clear from conversations that involve addressing a partner’s needs, concerns, and emotions. As a result, gender roles have lead men to be perceived as emotionless individuals who are not capable of understanding the emotional needs of others.

In contrast, environmental influences have influenced women in society to act differently than men. Ryan et al. (2005) explained that “girls are socialized to be communal and interdependent” (p. 147). As they age, women are molded into nurturing and sensitive individuals who like to openly share and express their feelings (Torrpa, 2010). The difference in gender roles between men and women can be due to females watching their mothers nurture children in the household, cultural norms that mandate for a woman to be emotionally supportive to their husbands, or the portrayal of women in the media to act overly emotional at the drop of a hat. As a result, the differences in the socialization of men and women have led women to frequently express their emotions in interpersonal relationships (Ryan et al., 2005). Therefore, the difference in the gender roles of men and women has influenced many people in society to believe that women place greater value on emotional support than men since their role in society is to express their feelings to those who are close in their lives.

Unfortunately, gender roles in society have led to the creation of stereotypes for both men and women. For example, since men are molded to not express their feelings in interpersonal relationships, they are stereotyped to be cold individuals who do not care about giving or receiving emotional support to others in interpersonal relationships. In contrast, women have been stereotyped to be the emotional rock in a relationship since all they care about is talking about and showing their feelings. Consequently, these are the stereotypes that are constantly shown in the media today, thus influencing our thoughts and beliefs about the emotional values and capabilities of both sexes.

Although gender roles and stereotypes in society have created the popular belief that men and women differ in the value they have for emotional support, cultural norms have also affected the way that individuals are perceived to value emotional support in interpersonal relationships. Throughout the world, cultural groups are categorized into either individualistic or collectivist societies. The values in these societies will dictate the degree of emotions and closeness individuals can give and receive in interpersonal relationships. Burleson (2003) explained that in individualistic societies, such as the United States, “emotional states are expressed through interest, empathy, and care in relationships whereas in collectivist societies, such as China, individuals are less comfortable dealing with ones emotional state and emotional support is not necessary for close relationships” (p. 8). Therefore, if a male from China and a female from the United States were in a relationship with one another, then people would think that the male values emotional support less than the female since the male would not be sending empathetic messages to the female.

However, cultural norms have proven that individuals from collectivist societies are taught not to express their emotions. As a result, a male from a collectivist society may value emotional support as much as a female from an individualist society but the male would be trained to not express their feelings in a relationship. Research by Burleson (2003) found that emotional support is valued equally in both individualistic and collectivist societies, but individuals in these two societies may have different ways of showing it. This disparity in showing emotional support is due to differences in communication styles since patterns of nonverbal and verbal communication can vary among genders and cultures.

Many people believe that men and women differ in the value they have for emotional support since both genders have different communication styles in interpersonal relationships. Communication styles are patterns that people use to send and receive messages between one another (Burleson, 2003). These patterns involve both verbal and nonverbal messages, including hand gestures, facial expressions, and body positions. When analyzing the communication styles in both men and women, research has proven that both genders communicate and express their feelings and emotions in completely different ways in interpersonal relationships.

In interpersonal relationships, men tend to limit the number of messages that they send to others. This is due to the fact that men favor report talk, which focuses on analyzing issues and solving problems (Torrpa, 2010). Since men like to have conversations that get straight to solving a problem, their messages tend to be seldom, brief, and lack the emotional support that may be needed by the recipient of the messages. According to Burleson (2008), these messages are considered low person-centered messages since they “deny the other’s feelings and perspectives” (p. 208). Low-person centered messages affect relationships since empathy and support is needed in the communication process to maintain a bond between two people.

In addition, while men tend to limit the number of messages that are being sent, they also are known to withdraw from conversations. Research has proven that men have been raised to be independent; therefore, they are more likely to withdraw from deep conversations that involve demands and emotions (Angulo et al., 2011). When a male withdraws from a conversation, it will impact the communication process since the other person may feel that what they are saying does not have any effect on the other individual. Further, the other person involved in the communication process may feel that the male does not care about them. As a result, the communication styles of men have made them known for being cold-hearted individuals who avoid communication that involves the expression of emotions and feelings.

Conversely, women are notorious for being talkers who send a lot of messages in conversations. Angulo et al. (2011) found that women are loquacious and they tend to be the initiators of conversations. Although some people may think that women just like to hear themselves talking and that the messages being sent have no purpose, research has proven otherwise. When communicating, women focus on rapport talk, which involves “expressing empathy and support to build, maintain, and strengthen relationships in their lives” (Torrpa, 2010, p. 1). Therefore, the high number of messages being sent is intended to build and strengthen interpersonal relationships in their lives.

Moreover, while the communication styles of men tend to deny the feelings of the recipient of the messages, the messages of women focus on supporting and comforting those involved in the communication process. Burleson (2008) explained that women tend to send highly person-centered messages, which “recognize and legitimize the other’s feelings, help the other to articulate those feelings, elaborate reasons why those feelings might be felt, and assist the other to see how those feelings fit in a broader context” (p. 208). These messages focus on providing emotional support to show the recipient that the woman cares about them and their problems. In all, since the communication styles of women focus on providing empathy and comfort, many people believe that women value emotional support more than men in society.

Interestingly, while gender differences are known to influence the level of emotional support that is provided in interpersonal communication, culture also affects the amount of emotional support that is sent and received in messages. Burleson (2003) found that “members of collectivist cultures expect communicators to understand and interpret unarticulated feelings, subtle nonverbal gestures, and environmental cues” (p. 8). As a result, the recipient of these messages would need to analyze the context in which the verbal and nonverbal messages are being relayed in order to assess the emotional depth behind the messages. In contrast, Burleson (2003) explained that “the communicative forms used in individualist cultures are more reliant on explicit and elaborated verbal utterances than are the communicative strategies employed by members of collectivist cultures” (p. 8). Therefore, men from individualistic cultures should display more deliberate emotional support in their messages than men from collectivist cultures. Unfortunately, since men are known for sending low person-centered messages, it may be difficult to detect emotions and feelings in the messages from men in both cultures.

To conclude, although research suggests otherwise, is it popular to believe that men and women differ in the value they have for emotional support due to gender roles in society and differences in cultural values and communication styles. Men have been socialized to withhold their emotions and feelings, and this behavior is also reflected in the messages sent by males in interpersonal relationships. In contrast, women have been taught to express their feelings, and they offer high levels of emotional support in their messages. Overall, since the media and society have stereotyped men to be emotionless while women are portrayed to be overly emotional, it popular to believe that men and women differ in the value they have for emotional support despite the fact that research suggests this is not true.

References

Angulo, S., Brooks, M.L., & Swann, W.B. (2011). Swimming serenely in a sea of words: Sexism, communication, and precarious couples. Personal Relationships, 18, 604-616.

Burleson, B.R. (2003). The experience and effects of emotional support: What the study of cultural and gender differences can tell us about close relationships, emotion, and interpersonal communication. Personal Relationships, 10, 1-23.

Burleson, B. R. (2008). Chapter 10: What counts as effective emotional support? Retrieved from http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/21141_Chapter_10.pdf

Noland, C. (2008). “Macho men don’t communicate”: The role of communication in HIV prevention. Journal of Men’s Studies, 16(1), 18-31.

Ryan, R.M., LaGuardia, J.G., Solky-Butzel, J., Chirkov, V., & Kim, Y. (2005). On the interpersonal regulation of emotions: Emotional reliance across gender, relationships, and culture. Personal Relationships, 12, 145-163.

Torrpa, C.B. (2010). Gender issues: Communication differences in interpersonal relationships. Retrieved from http://ohioline.osu.edu/flm02/pdf/fs04.pdf