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Gender Communication Styles in Tutoring

Linguist Deborah Tannen, in You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men In Conversation, discussed (without judgment) tendencies in men’s and women’s basic orientation toward communication, especially in the Western world, claiming that many differences result from being raised in essentially different cultures. According to Tannen, men’s “culture” tends to be based on status and competition while women’s “culture” tends to be based on symmetry and connection. Thus, when men and women communicate with each other, they tend to bring different assumptions and communicative behaviors to the conversation.

Here are some generalizations drawn from Tannen’s work:

Men’s Tendencies

  • Work toward independence
  • Compete for status in hierarchy
  • Act to solve problems
  • Avoid talking directly about personal problems
  • Talk at others
  • Challenge the expert
  • Show confidence to mask pain
  • View apology as low status
  • Act to solve problems
  • Speak briefly on many topics
  • Defy authority
  • Prefer parallel/side-by-side alignment
  • Share personal information indirectly
  • Interrupt by changing topic

Women's Tendencies

  • Work toward intimacy
  • Work to connect, avoid hierarchy
  • Empathize with problems
  • Talk directly about personal problems
  • Listen to, encourage, question others
  • Accept expertise
  • Express pain through insecurity
  • View apology as intimacy
  • Talk through problems
  • Speak at length on one topic
  • Cooperate with authority
  • Prefer face-to-face alignment
  • Share personal information directly
  • Interrupt by empathizing, encouraging, relating

How might these tendencies manifest in tutoring?

Men as Tutees

  • Men may seek help less, being more comfortable solving their own problems (or trying to) and perhaps avoiding the difficulty of disclosing their problems and talking them through.
  • Men may be impatient with or intolerant of diagnostic processes, especially those which are talk-oriented or whose relevance they don’t understand—both because such processes seem not to lead to immediate solutions and they threaten to reveal too much.
  • When seeking help, men may downplay the amount of help they need, seeking a very focused solution to their problem and preferring to act rather than talk.
  • Once they get help, men may appear more confident than their performance suggests they should be, downplay their problems, be reluctant to talk about their difficulties and do so in little detail, avoid eye contact, challenge their tutor on minor points, and work to control the relationship and/or keep tutor at an emotional/personal distance.
  • In groups, men may be impatient when the tutor’s focus is not on their problem and work to bring attention back to their problem, especially if they perceive others talking too much and they don’t see the talk as solving any problem, but they may be happy when their own expertise is sought by group members.
  • Men may leave a helping relationship quickly, especially if rules and policies are emphasized, if they constantly feel low status in the relationship, or if they don’t see how their problems are being solved.

Women as Tutees

  • Women may seek help willingly, being comfortable having others help them and even feeling relief at talking about and having someone empathize with their problems.
  • Women may be more receptive to and even embrace or seek out diagnostic processes.
  • When seeking help, women's appearance of insecurity may exaggerate or over emphasize their difficulties.
  • In a helping relationship, women may appear less confident than their performance suggests they should be, exaggerate or over emphasize their problems, relate their problems to a broad range of causes, willingly talk about their problems in depth, and feel comfortable with eye contact.
  • In groups, women may emphasize their problems and avoid sharing their successes to avoid appearing one-up on other group members, preferring instead to empathize with other’s problems, and they may shy away from sharing their expertise with others in the group.
  • Women may willingly remain in the relationship and be hesitant to leave it, even when their problems appear to be solved


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