West Lafayette, Ind. -- It turns out men and women aren't from different planets after all, according to research from a Purdue University interpersonal communication expert.
For more than a decade, Americans have bought books and games based on the multimillion dollar industry built around the "Men are From Mars and Women are From Venus" theory, which explains communication differences between men and women as resulting from different gender cultures.
Now, research by Erina MacGeorge, an assistant professor of communication, shows there are small differences between men's and women's comforting skills, but not enough to claim the sexes are their own cultures or come from different planets.
"When it comes to comforting, the Mars-Venus concept is not only wrong, but harmful," MacGeorge says. "For the most part, men and women use, and strongly prefer, the same ways of comforting others - listening, sympathizing and giving thoughtful advice. Yet books like John Gray's 'Men are From Mars and Women are From Venus' and Deborah Tannen's 'You Just Don't Understand' tell men that being masculine means dismissing feelings and downplaying problems. That isn't what most men do, and it isn't good for either men or women."
MacGeorge's study, "The Myth of Gender Cultures: Similarities Outweigh Differences in Men's and Women's Provision of and Responses to Supportive Communication," is the lead article in this month's Sex Roles: A Journal of Research. MacGeorge's article includes three studies. Unlike the anecdotes used to support the gender myth of extreme cultural differences between men and women, MacGeorge's research is based on questionnaires and interviews. Her research sample was 738 people - 417 women and 321 men.
For example, in the first study, which examined how men and women naturally support their friends, men and women communicated in very similar ways.
"Overall, men and women were both likely to express sympathy, share similar problems with distressed friends or discourage their friends from worrying," MacGeorge says. "Men did give a bit more advice more often than women, and women were slightly more likely to provide support by affirming their friend or offering help. However, men and women were only 2 percent different."
In the second study, which investigated how men and women respond to advice, both men and women appreciated advice that was relevant to their problems, wouldn't cause more harm than good and was delivered in a kind, respectful manner.
"The different cultures myth says that men reject advice because it threatens their independence, but this study shows that both men and women are equally receptive to friendly and useful advice," MacGeorge says.
In the third study, men and women evaluated comforting comments, such as "Don't worry about it, it's not that big of a deal," or "Wow, that is awful. I can understand why you would be upset." There was a 3 percent difference between the sexes regarding what kind of comforting comments they prefer to hear.
"Overall, both men and women disliked stereotypical masculine comforting that dismissed or made light of their problems and preferred stereotypically feminine comforting that validated their feelings and perspectives," MacGeorge says. "According to the Mars-Venus myth, men should have preferred the tough love but, in fact, they also value empathy and warmth."
Despite finding few differences in these three studies, MacGeorge noted that some gender differences in comforting support can be important, even if they are small.
"In earlier studies, my colleagues and I found that men tend to be somewhat more dismissive of others' feelings and problems, even though both men and women dislike this approach," she says. "This is one way in which the Mars-Venus myth can be harmful. If we tell men that rejecting the feelings of others is just as good, only culturally different, then we excuse them from becoming good support providers."
So, where do gender differences come from? MacGeorge attributes women's stronger comforting skills to their upbringing and social roles. For example, research focusing on children as young as toddlers, shows that girls are more likely to be encouraged to recognize and think about other people's feelings. However, boys are taught to be tough and strong, which often reinforces that they should not care about a person's feelings, she says.
Still, MacGeorge emphasizes that men and women are more alike than different.
"From the day a person is born, gender is an easy way to categorize people," she says. "And when you are the member of one group, it's easy to notice differences rather than similarities in people from the other group.
"Yet, saying 'He's a man' or 'She's a woman' may not be the best explanation for someone's actions. And hiding behind your gender to excuse poor communication is no help to anyone."
MacGeorge also notes the importance of supportive communication. "We all need people in our lives who are supportive. Research shows that people who feel comforted and have a strong emotional support system benefit tremendously. Among other things, they live longer, are more healthy, are happier and have better relationships."
People who want to improve their skills as communicators need to listen carefully and ask questions without being judgmental, she says. For example, ask questions that encourage other people to talk about what they are thinking and feeling.
"Validate what they are feeling, even if you don't agree," she says. "Their feelings are real to them. Say, 'I understand your anger.' Then, offer advice, but first make sure they want to hear advice."