Breakthrough Patient Recruitment

: Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus: Differences in Conversational Styles Between the Sexes and What it Means for Health Communications

Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus: Differences in Conversational Styles Between the Sexes and What it Means for Health Communications

Project Manager

Sometimes, it just seems impossible to communicate with someone of the opposite gender. Maybe it just feels like they are being bossier than is necessary or maybe you just can't seem to get them to do what you are asking. Sometimes, it's just hard to jive with the way someone else talks. At least some of this difficulty was explained by Deborah Tannen's insightful presentation at the Plain Talk in Complex Times conference last month. Although her presentation was titled "Can we talk? Women and men at work," the lessons learned can extend far beyond workplace conversations and into health communications. Communicating effectively doesn't just require using language that is easily understood by our audience-we must also keep in mind who our audience is and the style in which they tend to communicate.


Women and men have some serious differences when it comes to their typical conversational styles, and this begins in childhood. Tannen observed that girls and boys and their friends (who tend to be of the same gender) communicate quite differently. Girls tend to sit close to each other, look each other in the eyes, and face each other with their bodies, while boys rarely look at each other and usually face their bodies in the same direction. When it comes to conversation, girls try to relate to each other and are reluctant to tell each other what to do for fear of being labeled bossy. Boys, on the other hand, typically try to one-up each other's stories and have no problem with telling each other what to do. Although some of this is clearly culturally ingrained, the most basic of conversational style differences are demonstrated in all cultures. And this barely changes as we grow up. Women still aim to connect, while men take on a more hierarchical conversational style, so to be most effective in our health communications, we should take into account not only who we are talking to, but also who is delivering the message.

The Key to Message Delivery


The National Cancer Institute's Smokefree Women (SFW) Facebook page is a perfect example of a communications platform that talks to the audience in a way that resonates with them. Smokefree Women's Facebook page serves as a support community for women who are thinking about quitting smoking, are in the process of quitting, or are already smokefree. The page always provided resources that directed women to the website, but in early 2012, the strategy was changed, and the results have been inspiring.


Previously, the tone was fairly prescriptive, with SFW simply pushing out resources and ideas to help people quit. But now, we have embraced the conversational style that women gravitate to as a way to better connect and engage with them. Since that time, the page has grown by almost 18,000 followers (with "likes" and comments greatly increasing as well-about 2,500 more each month)! As moderators, we have taken a supportive and encouraging role. We use language like "let's do xyz," and always use the inclusive "we" when talking about SFW. We found that to ensure we were considering the health literacy levels of our audience, it was critically important to both use the language that our audience uses and is comfortable with and to communicate with them in a way that they want to be communicated with. With this new approach of pulling in the audience rather than just pushing out message, the engagement we see comes from photos and stories that the women share with the page. We ask open questions (e.g., "how long have you been smokefree?" or "what's your best tip for getting through a craving?"). And we frequently feature testimonial quotes from our "fabulous smokefree gals." As a result, the SFW Facebook community has truly become that-a community in which women at all stages of their quit support each other on their journeys. It has become a dynamic conversation where parties are on the same level, because that is what works.


Although this has proven to be an effective way to communicate tobacco cessation messages to women, we have not even attempted to create social media pages that specifically target men. I wonder now if we can gain direction from Dr. Tannen and her expertise in conversational style to better deliver our messages of smoking cessation to a male audience.


This is part 3 of the Healthyist's series on Health Literacy. For more on our thoughts on health literacy, read part 1, Let's Be Health Literacy Heroes, This Month and Always, part 2,  Are We Thinking Clearly About Health Literacy?, and part 4, The Heart of Health Literacy: Motivating People to Act, and part 5, Communicating in a Changing Health Care Landscape.

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