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Avoiding Gender Fender Benders
By Patti Hathaway   Printer Friendly Version

Are men and women really that different from each other and how does that play itself out in customer service situations? Sociolinguistic Deborah Tannen, Ph.D. authored the book, You Just Don't Understand which outlines the differences between men and women. I have found that Tannen's research fits about 80% of the people.

Tannen finds that one of the basic differences between men and women are their reasons for conversing and what they actually talk about. Women converse to build connections and intimacy. They view conversations as negotiations for closeness. Life is viewed as a community and women desire to preserve intimacy and avoid isolation. Therefore, women tend to converse about their relationships with family, friends, people in the office, etc. Female customers value building a friendship as well as a business association. They enjoy learning about you as a person.

Men, on the other hand, view conversations as negotiations to obtain the upper hand. They view life as a contest and men struggle to preserve their independence. Men tend to see individuals within a hierarchy in which they are either one-up or one-down. Therefore, men converse and compare notes about things such as cars, stereo equipment, and work experiences. They love to discuss facts and opinions about sports teams or new events and readily exhibit their knowledge and skill by telling jokes or sharing facts and information because it puts them in center-stage.

The essential element in communication for men is to gain status and independence. I once saw a sweatshirt that said "The first rule of manhood: I know the way. Never ask for directions." This drives many women crazy, but it is just one of the ways men exhibit their independence and status. If men were to admit they were lost, it would be admitting that someone knows more than they do. When a male customer/co-worker asks for help, make sure you do not belittle him in any way. It may be difficult for him to ask in the first place.

Another basic difference underlying what we've already said is that men give facts and information when they talk. Compare that to women who's goal is to build rapport when they converse. This is why men in customer service give lots of information and facts while women tend to key in on building rapport and relationships with customers.

When it comes to conflict, men and women tend to have different reactions. Women are more astute to nonverbals and their intuition or sense that something is wrong. Men on the other hand can ignore those same nonverbals unless it escalates. When you have a conflict with a woman, you have broken that important connection and it may take time to heal the relationship. This can cause some real tension within a customer service department.

Men, on the other hand, amazingly enough, can have a loud argument at 10 a.m. and then go out for lunch with the same man. Once a man knows who "won" the conflict, they tend to move on. In customer service conflicts, women tend to take the complaint personally and let it bother them. Men don't like the confrontation but are able to move on to the next customer more readily.

In the end, when it comes to gender differences and customer service, we may all do best by heeding the Chinese proverb that says, "From listening comes wisdom and from speaking comes repentance." We would all do best if we would learn to listen to others more often (especially our customers), so we would end up repenting far less.

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